Sunday, September 21, 2008

Trying to remember how to be a person.

It's Sunday morning.

I'm caught up on sleep, and resolved to try not to be miserable for the next month or two, until some of my current uncertainty is sorted out.

I will know in the next month or two whether I will be applying for faculty positions.


The alternative is to let my current postdoctoral position run out, be unemployed for a while, and hopefully have some kind of new career in mind by this time next year.

And in the meantime, I need to figure out how to be more of a person.

I have had these times, they come and go. Times when I know that, regardless of how I fare in terms of 'success' or science or career, I am a person:

I have hobbies, and character, and family and friends. I live in the world.

Sort of.

One of the things that appeals to me about academia is that it serves as a built-in, more or less permanent excuse to avoid the real world.

I've been thinking about this because one of the things I do when I'm really stressed out is read novels. Yes, it's yet another form of escapism. But somehow "I'm reading a book" just doesn't fly as an excuse the way it did when I was a kid!

When I'm working my ass off, as I have been lately, I have every right to have no idea what's going on in current events, to pay my bills late, to avoid chores and irritating family obligations.

"I have to work" is almost always an acceptable excuse, for almost everything.

(I'm busy fixing the world! I'm being a superhero! Leave me alone!)

One of the weirdest things to me about deciding whether or not to (try to) stay in academia is having to give up this complete devotion to my career. I just can't see myself being anywhere near as invested in working ridiculous hours if I just take a "job" somewhere doing something that will probably bore me.

And I can't quite see how I would fill up my time without working ridiculous hours. At the beginning, sure. But in the long run? What am I going to do, join the Peace Corps?

Right now, everything is up in the air. And in the grand scheme of things, current global financial crises are not helping.

So, as is often the case, I am not just waiting on my advisor, but also on a variety of other things out of my control.

I know from experience that the best thing to do when waiting is to try to spend some time in the real world. Not just emergency chores, but maybe even some other activities that help remind me who I am when I'm not trying to be a Scientist.

Switching gears back and forth is sometimes harder, sometimes easier.

Right now it feels really hard. I don't want to lose sleep over things I can't control.

I don't want to waste my life in waiting mode, when I could be doing other, more enjoyable things (while I wait).

On the flip side, I'm always afraid to relax even just a little bit, because before I know it, I'll be thrown back into the maelstrom. My advisor will email me, or some other crisis will appear out of nowhere and ruin my calm.

This is one of the things I hate about life in academia. No one ever wants to make a schedule and stick to it, and if by some miracle they actually do, they forget to tell me.

All of this means, in practical terms, that I can never seem to plan a vacation.

Oh, for a little control over my life. I have a few hours here and there where I get to decide, but that's all. I rarely even have a full day off with no emails that need immediate attention.

Nothing is really up to me.

I have two things I can control: what I do each day (the minutia). But I can only plan a day or two at a time. Everything else is at the mercy of scheduling.

And then there's the big, looming question that I still can't answer with confidence:

should I stay, or should I go?

I'm looking ahead at nothing but more of this kind of uncertainty and stress, and I'm thinking, what the hell am I doing this for.

Sure, I remember what got me into science. But why I stay will have to be more than that.

And what I'm going to do if I don't stay is another question entirely. Watching the Second Great Depression is not making me feel optimistic about options.

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At 12:40 PM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

I keep reading your blog and thinking I know how that feels. I handle the need to feel like a person in short, irresponsible bursts... I'll go and go and go, I've been doing work on my Thesis and at the same time been employed by another university in another field entirely at a lab an hour train ride away(that is a long story, but suffice it to say my life is ALL about the brain and labs). Then these certain days hit, and I wake up on that day and know I've driven myself too hard and too long and I hide out on my couch with a bottle of wine and streaming TV, order in, and pretend that I don't know what science is and pretend that my WiFi is broken if an email comes (because I rationalize that could happen). I fantasize about getting an industry job and then having a house and building furniture and baking and reading books....then the day after comes and I try not to feel guilty and put away my secret identity and go back to the bench.

At 3:33 PM, Blogger chall said...

I'm there (kind of) with you. The same questions and the same uncertainty.

I think though that I have made my descision, I just have to find that position outside of academia. When I did compare the highs with the lows, I realised that the lows and the "non grasable" things were a larger portion... and that I might be happier in a more "regular" job?!

I wish you good luck in deciding what you want to do!

At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. PhD, do yourself a favor and do apply for jobs in industry (both large and start-ups, whatever works out first). After being a postdoc for too long, I recently started my first real job in a start-up company: the work I do now is really interesting, but now, in comparison to academia, my time has a value and my suggestions are taken seriously by my boss and are significant for the future of the company. I am glad to be finally in industry. :)

At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My 2 cents are, go ahead and apply for jobs this round. You can't believe how much BETTER things are once you get over to the faculty side of the fence, and get to be in charge of a lab. It's really night and day from post-doc/grad student land. Just try to get over the fence before you give up! Really, the grass is greener!

At 4:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi MsPhD,
I've been reading and enjoying your posts for a while. I am a postdoc and have also been thinking, will I stay or will I go? for (at least) the last year of my postdoc. Apart from the awful uncertainty of this stage, on my minus list for staying in science: (1) being overworked (2) being overworked and unappreciated (a few "well done"'s every now and again would have gone a long way)and 3) the bullshit I have had to endure from coworkers with no social skills and no idea of life outside their own corner of the bullring. On the plus list (1) the thrill of discovery (2) loving the work, the writing, and especially the thinking that I get to do (3) occasionally getting to work with some very cool people I like alot. I took 3 months 'holiday' between my previous postdoc and current work (still in research) to have a break- and ended up working almost every day on my unfinished projects to get them done (as well as a few other things). I am really glad I did - I didn't want to go to a new job feeling burned out, with the pressure of writing up so much stuff from my previous research. And it was very satisfying to finish some projects, without constantly being asked to fit another task into my schedule.

My biggest concern though, is that I don't want to spend my life doing even 60 hour weeks - I love spending time with my family (especially kids) and having a life. So what to do? Its hard to imagine how I can do this and work in science. I think if at this level of career, we get good postdoc mentors, the negatives decrease alot while the positives stay high. With mentors that don't match well, we all feel ready to leave. Perhaps taking the time to network around and try and find a good postdoc-mentor match is critical for many of us to stay in science. I think that's what it will take for me.

At 5:22 AM, Anonymous C said...

"should I stay, or should I go? "

You could let it decide for you. Try getting a faculty job that sounds as if you'd like it; if you get one, great, if you don't, you don't.

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i take a vacation whenever i see fit. i don't ask for permission and i make sure my work can be stopped for that one or two weeks. usually one in the summer or during the christmas-to-new year's week. there is never a "good time" to take a break, so if you really want it, you gotta make it happen.

true, deadlines don't really seem to mean much to academics. even the grants have this "supplemental data" submission date that is way after the regular submission date.


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