Saturday, November 01, 2008

Not just science.

Lots of random marbles rolling around in my head that I haven't had time to write about. This might be another grab-bag post.

One of the highlights of my week was talking with my very best friend, which I don't get to do nearly often enough.

We were surprised to find we both feel the same way about our very different careers: like we're in free-fall.

We both feel our bosses don't really know what they're doing, and we're very nervous having our fate in their hands.

We're trying to figure out where else to get the information we need, but when we follow the standard procedures for advice-getting, we keep getting the same empty suggestions like "You need to find a mentor."

We had a long chat about how hollow this advice is. We decided we think it's a myth. A total cop-out. A pass-the-buck from whomever you're talking to.

I've spent the last several years trying to find the Mr. Miyagi of my career, with no real success. I've sought out people and introduced myself, and I've found the same thing over and over.

The people with whom I hear an audible click, aren't very familiar with the eccentricities of my field. And they're wise, so they decline to give a biased opinion along the lines of what they would do if they were me.

The faculty in my field are

a) almost all men (mostly clueless about what it's like to be female in science, if not outright sexist)

b) mostly jerks (or insane, or both)

c) my age, and consider me competition


d) very old, and can't relate to me at all ("What are YOU doing here, little girl? Can't you find a husband?")

So I can't find mentors among these, and believe me I've tried.

Instead I've tried the approach of getting different kinds of advice from different kinds of people in other fields, to try to cobble some mentoring together like a patchwork quilt.

The problem is that nobody really wants to voice an opinion, but when forced to say something honestly, nobody really agrees on what I should do, so when I get conflicting advice it makes me feel even more conflicted than when I get no advice at all.

So I've kind of stopped asking for advice from scientists and career counselors... I'm still trying to figure out what I want, given that I'm pretty sure what I really want does not exist, at least not for someone like me.

I also learned that it can be very psychologically draining to feel undecided for a long period of time.

This was a major lightbulb for me, since I have felt a lot of doubt about my career choice lately, and I think it has been contributing to my feeling burned out.

And that is somewhat unintuitive. I always equated feeling burned out with working too hard for too long.

It turns out that it's more important how you feel about working hard, than how much working hard you actually do.

Oddly, when I heard this, it made a lot of sense. So it gave me about a week and a half of psychic freedom. I decided, okay, if that's part of my problem, I will decide to just go with this, at least for now. That is the healthiest thing to do.

But couple of weeks later, that wore off. My experiments haven't been working, and my advisor is doing the passive-aggressive dance again, and I'm back to feeling overwhelmed with doubt about whether I'm wasting my life and making myself miserable for no good reason.

According to one of the books I'm reading, you have to let go of your desire (check), anger (check), and fear.

Maybe it's about having a balance of these, because while I've learned to get some distance from my desire for something that I can't have, and anger about not having it, my fear seems to be rising in some kind of weird psychological compensation.

It's as much about fear for the future as fear that I've been wasting my time. Fear that I've already missed the one good chance I had, and if I knew that, I would stop torturing myself.

It sounds really stupid to write it that way, because basically what I'm saying is that I'm afraid of future regret. Which would imply, in a sane world, that there's still time to affect the future and avoid the regret, right?

I guess the problem is I still feel like I can't get control over the things that matter most to me. So despite all this struggling, I still feel like I'm bound and gagged and watching the train come to run me over, and I can't expect anyone to swoop in and save me.

Somebody hand me a blindfold. I can't watch this part.

Next stop: cultivating denial. I can't think of anything else to do.


In job search news: I found out that a co-worker had a faculty interview, only to learn that the school lost the funding for the position, so regardless of how the interview went, they won't be doing any hiring.

I suspect, from reading the Chronicle this week, that this scenario will repeat itself a lot this year.

I do think it's pretty ironic that, of all years for me to decide to go back on the job market, it had to be this year. I mean, that's pretty fucking funny when you think about it. And in a way it does justify my hysteria a few years ago. I felt like it was my best chance on the market, because it probably was! By that calculation, I've wasted the last 3 years as a postdoc being a miserable wreck and I should have quit then.

I have that thought a lot, actually. I think about all the chances I had to quit, and didn't. And I wonder why not, because lately the desire to just give up is overwhelming. What did my past self know that my current self forgot?


Political updates: Less than a week until the election, and I have to wonder if it's going to be the amazing panacea as some of my friends are assuming. It is definitely time for a few changes around here. I just doubt that many of them are going to affect my life directly.


Random movie recommendation of the week: Sister Kenny

About the nurse who developed what became western physical therapy while treating patients with polio. The doctors didn't believe her methods helped at all, preferring instead the opposite (immobilization). They even went so far as to say the patients she was able to make walk again had never been sick in the first place. One of my favorite parts: in the movie they use the terms "doctors" and "men" interchangeably.


Major blogging disappointment of the week: FSP listed different categories of university folks in a poll on her website, and wrote it like this:

•grad students
•undergraduate students
•staff (incl postdocs)

Please, go over there and tell her how wrong this is. And here I hadn't even noticed the way she lists us BELOW undergraduate students and in parentheses. That's another nice touch. Probably unintentional? But still, somewhat revealing how we rank on people's radar. As an afterthought.

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At 2:39 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hi there YFS,

Aren't you expecting a lot? Your average academic doesn't seem very good at predicting their tomorrow, let alone someone else's. I'm not that sure Professor Miyagi exists. It would be cool if s/he did!

The way it seems to go is that you postdoc until you can't stand it anymore then you start applying like crazy for jobs. In academia and/or industry. I think it helps to have a few published articles on your CV at this stage. The best way to get those is 1. work like a crazy woman 2. diversify. 3. minimize working on everything that wont result in an article. Give anyone hell that asks you to teach that course/lab for a semester. You may be lucky and get a job offer from these favours or you may just be being used. 4. Try not to work with people that piss you off, are stupid, are unfocussed, etc. They will just slow you down.

Regarding 2. Your boss usually has a few pet projects which you probably should work on. Or at least make an appearance of working on. I guess funding for these projects are paying your postdoc? But you should also have a few other pet stealth projects that you're fairly certain will result in papers.

Does this help? I hope so. I guess you already knew all this anyway.

Good Luck!

At 3:49 PM, Blogger sara said...

You've probably already thought of this, but could you approach your scientific questions from a different angle? I think you've mentioned that your topic is interdisciplinary in nature. I'm also interested in a topic that is very interdisciplinary. I found that I have trouble interacting with biologists, but I get on splendidly with physicists and mathematicians, so I'm switching approaches so that I can interact more with the more quantitative people and less with the biologists, while still working on the same question. Is something like that possible for you?

At 4:30 PM, Blogger Steph said...

Why do you complain about being below undergraduate student but not graduate students? I often feel that undergraduate students get such a raw deal. I have been the student representative at departmental meetings and have had to sit and watch lecturers bitch about teaching us and try to push "writing research grant proposals" into their "teaching time" because it's "not really research". Teaching is part of their job, they get paid to do it! Undergraduates pay to be at university- why should they be treated like crap because of an elitist system?

At 7:27 PM, Blogger Diaphoresis said...

Thank God I left the hapless life of the Lifelong PostDoc...let's see, one spends years making very less money, with little chance of a stable faaculty position, & even then the dept reminds you all the time if you can't get a grant with overhead you're out, & finally, you hardly get credit for your work AND half the time it is forgettable anyway.

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Lamar said...

sorry, I read a couple of paragraphs and figured you just needed a new mentor/environment. seriously, that's the best advice you're going to get career-wise. you're at the point where you're blaming everyone around you for your lack of progress-if this is indeed the case, why not move on? the only other answer I can think of is that you have a Ph.D. and you should be able to take more control of your professional life by this point.

what's more troubling, you're almost sounding like the high school kid who is in danger of getting their first "B" and is telling everyone how their world is ending. think about the advice you'd give this person. I assume that you have a full and wonderful life outside of your "career", otherwise you're making your world very tiny and it's natural to be claustrophobic.

personally, I stopped taking it so seriously towards the end of grad school. but then I moved on to a great institution and a great mentor (who takes his postdocs' career advancement very seriously). the best thing is that usually you can "let go" and still have a very productive and wonderful career (and life).

At 1:07 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

The problem is that nobody really wants to voice an opinion, but when forced to say something honestly, nobody really agrees on what I should do, so when I get conflicting advice it makes me feel even more conflicted than when I get no advice at all.

Here is some advice, go for your dream, do not hold back because you doubt it doesn't exist. That's only an excuse not to face change.

Your an intelligent gal who shouldn't be counting how many men in your field, but rather what can you to make a difference in the world!

Always remember, one person can make a difference!

At 4:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the cop-outs to mentoring. I wish I had a penny for every "you need a mentor" comment I get... where do I find such gems? Certainly not in my dumbfucks-r-us group. And if I kept looking for a place with A mentor, I'd still be looking AND living in a place I didn't want to be.

Everyone has 2 hands covering their own asses and no hands to help anyone else. It doesn't matter what 'stage' anyone is at... people helping people is a rarity.

I do think the education system is the next big crash. For women in particular, we are exiting en masse due to any number of issues, mentoring at all levels being just one. I talked to an asst prof last week about her experiences..... her words "there's no mentoring"... "I put Dr. BigDude on my grant to get it funded and he doesn't help ONE BIT before or after it gets funded AND he gets a chunk of money for nothing or to train a foreigner who will take the knowledge overseas"... "this academia shit isn't what I thought it is".

I walked away thinking here's a female asst prof who kicks major ass in pubs and grants, she's got a 1 year old, her husband has a movable career, and like she says, she is seriously ready to leave it behind to go work in the grape fields with her family...if she can't make it happen, I don't think most females have any better chance than luck. And I think that's why mentoring is a lost form... I think it would mean that most 'fairly-smart' people would have to chalk their 'success' up to luck or to easier times. Academics who got in when the gettin-in was easy and good really do a "who, me?... don't look at me for help!" because the majority know they wouldn't get hired these days (or that the chances are much slimmer). It's certainly not a thought most egocentric morons want to entertain or acknowledge. Plus, I think they've seen enough backroom circus tricks to know that sexism and racism are major forces in hiring and firing in academia. The people who skated under any radar don't want any attention brought to them, whether that be in the form of being a mentor or being a voice for change.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


This is what I've done, actually... the problem is that there are some trapdoors nobody seems to know about.

I'll probably write a post about this next so it isn't buried in the comments section. But yes, everything you said is good advice, except that it's not quite that simple, at least not in most cases I know about.


yes and no. The problem for me is that it's hard to figure out how to market myself when my main advisor is primarily known for doing biology, and the politics in my related fields are even more sexist than where I am now.


I'll write more about undergraduates in my next post, I think, but I'm really sorry if that's how it is where you're in school. It shouldn't be like that. I was very lucky that where I went to school, undergraduates were treated BETTER because we were paying students, and this is also true where I am now. Grad students are dirt, and postdocs are the untouchables. We're the slave class.


I got plenty of Bs in school. But yeah, I do hate that I feel and sound this way. But I can't stop taking it seriously. I think if that's what I'm going to do, I'll just be like these professors, dead inside and totally uninterested in fixing anything. Resigned to staying in a fucked up system the way it is. I'll rather quit science than be like that.


Thanks, that's very optimistic!


I have only one thing to say to this. Your asst prof friend is pretty clueless. She might not have gotten that grant without Dr.BigDude's name, so even if he does nothing else, she is playing the game. Whether she realizes it or not.

Otherwise, yeah, gotta agree with everything you said. I just think that some of us find out the hard way BEFORE we're faculty, and then we're left with a tough decision about whether or not to, as Paul said above, apply for jobs like mad. It's a whole lot easier to just keep on in a position once you have one, even if you're having reasonable doubts about whether you respect your "colleagues" or think anything you're doing will make any difference whatsoever.


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