Friday, March 27, 2009

So much to do, so little ability to focus.

It's funny how the things we most love about research can also be the things we most hate.

I'm having the problem right now that the variety, the endless possibilities, the irregularity that I love most about working in a lab.

There are too many things I could do, and I am really hating it.

No one thing stands out as having much more potential to be fun or insightful than the others, and I am particularly bothered that none of it seems potentially fun at all.

Usually data cheers me up, but I don't have any right now. None of the things I need to do is likely to lead to exciting data anytime soon.

And so I am debating what to do. That is another thing I can do- take stock, plan, collect supplies.

This week, I am wishing all I had to do was collect pieces of flair and go through the motions.

Sometimes I want that assembly-line job where I could just tune out and go on auto-pilot.

When I feel like this, I usually try to line up something reasonably mechanical or repetitive to do, but right now I don't have anything like that going. Getting to that point in any of my current activities will require more thought and creativity and supply-getting.

This is when I guess if I were a PI, I would be sitting on committees and troubleshooting for my students. I'd like to think I would be enjoying it, because focusing on other people's problems usually helps me with my own (sort of like reading blogs).

Meanwhile, because I don't want to be a postdoc forever (or at all), I have been doing these interesting career exercises where you are supposed to write out what your perfect job would be like. You're supposed to visualize.

My perfect job would be like FSP's, and I would like to be every bit as serene as she seems.

But since I am a postdoc, my best options for taking a step back (while still showing up to work) are things like going to seminars and reading. I tried reading first, but I can't focus, and it's just adding to my feeling that everything I do is just a drop in a giant ocean of scientists, so why would anyone care.

Usually, going to seminars can be really good for breaking the monotony or giving me ideas, but lately it can also be a bit heartbreaking when it seems like all the talks are for graduating students (getting on with their lives) or "peers" interviewing for jobs (the job I want, also being forced to watch other people getting on with their lives).

More or less heartbreaking, too, are the seminars from senior profs who are presenting the work of a lifetime, and I am still debating just how badly I ever want to get to that point.

When it's this much sacrifice and daily misery, you have to ask yourself, how much is this really worth to me? Haven't I already paid enough?

Speaking of, did you see Southpark this week? I feel like that, where Stan gives his money to the banker and the banker takes it and says:

"And... it's gone. Thank you, please move along."

I was reading Dr. J & H's idea about a karma bank, re: the idea of making your own luck.

I really do believe that's true, in terms of data. Of course, nobody will know about it if you can't figure out how to make it into a story. But still, basically true that the more experiments you do, the more data you will get.

It's just not true in terms of jobs. Politics, against all logic, are not really tit-for-tat.

Especially when you're dealing with soul-sucking parasitic PIs.

So I'm not sure what I've been making all this time, karma-wise, but I would really like to cash it in for some kind of consolation prize if I can't get the stuffed bunny I really wanted.

I would like that consolation karma bunny now, preferably stuffed with cotton candy.

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At 12:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Au contraire, it is very logical that politics is not tit-for-tat. If it were, it would fall under economics. All politics is essentially about getting something for nothing. Now you gotta ask yourself one question: In your interaction with your PI: Who is better at politics, you or him? Feel free to generalize the question and draw sweeping conclusions ;-)

At 2:14 PM, Blogger Helen Huntingdon said...

*stuffs chocolate strawberry through screen*

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Yikes; hang in there. Although cotton candy truly can make life better, I would propose an addition to your list:

1. take stock
2. plan
3. collect supplies
4. eat chocolate

Alternatively, #4 could be replaced with "do tequila shot". You know, depending on what the situation calls for.

At 7:13 AM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Hey. I can sympathise with the career indecision. And with the general suckiness of science careers and your lab.

Apparently visualising does work. It always sounded hippie and well, unscientific to me, but hey. It can't do any harm.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry things suck right now. I'm in a similar place so I can understand how you feel.

"No one thing stands out as having much more potential"

That's is what has been keeping me up at night for the past many months now. How do you know which project to continue on and which darlings to kill? I think you can never be sure - unless it's really obvious. But what if erverything is going so-so - like you describe and like my projects. It's driving me up the wall to keep doing everything in parallel. Am I a sissy for not being able to just make a decision?

At 11:02 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 12:39-

You're right. Good point.

And yes, my PI is an expert at political manipulation and getting lots of things from people using threats or playing on their weaknesses (and equally good at weaseling out of reciprocating).

Helen- thanks!

UR- I might try tequila. Chocolate is not doing it for me this week.


I'm trying to visualize, I am.

Maybe I need to change into some hippie clothes?

Anon 9:18-

No, you're not a sissy!

Personally, I can handle 3, maybe 4 things in parallel, max.

What I really hate is when I do pilot experiments hoping to narrow it down, and they all work only somewhat. Not badly enough to drop, but not well enough to be sure they're worth pursuing, either.

Sometimes it helps to get input from other people (presenting the work in public, for example). Other times, that just confuses me further.

Sometimes I do the fastest thing first, sometimes I do the cheapest. When in doubt, I do whatever seems easiest.

Lately everything seems equally daunting, though, so even that approach sometimes fails.

My feeling right now is that if I can't decide among mediocre options for experiments, I should think some more until I come up with something that makes the lightbulb go off. The lightbulb decides all.

At 11:45 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Hi, a couple of suggestions, based on what has worked for me in the past:

1) Use the spare time to think about how you might be able to apply your expertise, techniques etc in other areas outside the one you work in. Try to identify an area or topic which is (i) close enough to your own area that the stuff you know could be relevant in it, (ii) less "high-powered" than your area -- typically that means a more applied area where the practitioners have less theoretical knowledge and are therefore more likely to be awed by yours, and (iii) an area in which jobs are easier to get than in yours. (Generally it seems that jobs are easier to get in more applied areas.)

For those of us who aren't blessed with wonderfully supportive relationships with influential PI's, applying ideas and techniques from our own area in some new area can be a really good way to get noticed. The novelty of the ideas and/or techniques in the new area will get you an audience, and, with luck, some new mentors as well.

2) A related thing: One striking thing I've noticed is that there can be a huge difference in the level of difficulty to find a faculty job between areas which are not that far apart research-wise. With some creative marketing it is sometimes possible for a researcher in area X, where the job market is brutal, to pass him/herself off as a researcher in area Y where jobs are relatively plentiful.

To illustrate with my own case: After 10+ years of postdocing in field X I finally got a faculty offer at a small uni in a part of the world where most westerners wouldn't want to live and with a salary most wouldn't accept. Nevertheless, I was supposed to feel lucky to get that since postdocs in field X without pedigree and connections usually don't get anything. Around the same time I applied to another, much better uni (with good salary etc) for a faculty position in field Y. To my surprise they took the bait, but at the interview they accused me of having *deliberately* remained a postdoc for those 10+ years! They thought I had kept on doing postdocs on purpose so that I could spend all my time on research. It was quite surreal.
So be aware of the potential benefits of developing expertise in other areas related to your own, and of selling yourself as a researcher in another area when it is advantageous.
(Well I'm sure you're aware of that already, but I just wanted to emphasize how big the benefits can be.)

2) I understand very well what you write about the depressing effect of attending seminars by peers interviewing for jobs, senior scientists presenting their lives work, etc. For what it's worth, the way of dealing that works best for me is to try to avoid anything that I know is going to make me depressed about (lack of) career, and try to stay 100% focused on the science. E.g., instead of visualizing my perfect career I daydream about making great breakthroughs in research. It never happens of course, but thinking about it sometimes gives new ideas and it helps with keeping up the motivation level.

P.S. I'm green with envy that you get to watch South Park every week! Wish we had it here.

At 2:55 AM, Blogger Dan said...

Look on the bright side at least you have a job!!!

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Interesting point. Was this for me or for our other commenter?

There are risks with this too, like that it takes time to build up political capital in the new field, and you might blunder into something that "seems" better than your current field but is actually worse (among other risks). Like your case in point: where long postdoc experience is valued and appreciated in some sub-fields as a sign of persistence and dedication, in others you can be viewed as "stale" or "unmotivated". It's really kind of funny in a black humor sort of way.

But yes, awed would be nice...

You're right though, there can be HUGE differences in difficulty of finding a job with relatively minor differences in specific topic or skills. This depends a lot on the market in a given year.

The thing is, in the day-to-day, you're absolutely right, focusing on the science is the way to go.

HOWEVER. Eventually one has to bite the bullet and apply, and at that point I think some thought about what kind of job you want or can get is warranted (if not absolutely required).

Periodically I find it's necessary to take stock of the market and my competitiveness, and since everything is always changing this is sometimes encouraging... but lately, the market is increasingly discouraging (I think FSP blogged about this too, even as a senior tenured professor she said this is a necessary exercise).

re: South Park- can't you get it off iTunes or hulu or one of those things? Or do you only use the internet for blogging and porn? ;-)

At 8:16 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...


You mean there is more to the internet than blogging and porn?! I'll have to look into that. :)

About the risks of trying to do something in a new field: it's like having another throw of the dice. No guarantee that it will lead to something good, and no reason to do it if everything is going well with current research in the sense that you already have an attentive audience and good mentors. Also, I'm not suggesting to simply drop current research and switch to something else. Instead, one can develop a side interest in another related area, working on it as a hobby at first, and then see how it goes. And if all goes well, the time required to build up political capital in the new area can be quite short. This is because you are bringing something novel to the field, not just doing the same kind of stuff as the others, so it gets attention and a higher profile.

I agree about the need to take stock, but no more than twice a year! Certainly not every other week...

At 4:00 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Ha ha, no, wear what you like!
Wasn't making fun of visualising, in case it came across like that. I think it can work.
Good luck, anyway :-)


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