Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Response to another postdoc having a hard time

This conversation began as a comment two posts ago, so I am including that here.

At 10:27 PM, Anonymous said...

Dear YFS,

I am in bench withdrawl even though I have yet to leave. What is wrong with me? I felt everything you did, and am choosing to take an opportunity that is away from bench research. I am getting emotional (not to the point of tears), but certainly to the point at which it is obvious to my boss that maybe I should not be leaving. I was doing this mostly for my personal side of things, but with everything we've talked about here, I thought was also for my benefit of getting paid well and starting a life. WHY AM I FEELING SO CRAPPY?

And I totally misunderstood, so this is what I wrote:

Anon 10:27, Oh, this is so sad to me. I actually do sometimes get to the point of tears when I think about this. I think part of why you feel crappy is because it's a huge change, very stressful, and you drank the kool-aid for so long that on some level deep down, even though you know it's not true, you kind of feel like a failure. Also, for me anyway, it's harder to make choices when I feel like people are second-guessing me (and it sounds like your boss really doubts your choice is the right one). Maybe you should have another talk with your boss if this person is genuinely supportive of you (and not just trying to get you to stay and be a slave)? But then, again, that could make you feel worse. My advisors tend to be pseudo-supportive, which I find most upsetting.

Personally, I'm not sure that getting paid well or "starting a life" (not 100% [sure] if you mean all the connotations of that phrase) would make me happy. But at some point it just seems hopeless to continue, and if you're so miserable day after day, something has to change. That doesn't mean the changing process will be easy- it's always a time of mourning, like a breakup. But the idea is that when that period is over, you will feel better. Or so they tell me.

Fortunately for all of us, Anon wrote back and patiently told me I had it all wrong:

HI Ms PhD,

It's anon 10:27 again. I am not sure if I was clear enough in my prior message. My boss has been supportive of me up to this point and has said that I was one of his top postdocs (and he has had 20+) and always talked about "when you have your own lab... ." At the time, I just wasn't listening to it and wasn't even thinking that I was going to stay in research. But, I think that I somehow fell in love with research after the PhD.

I definitely have had the best boss I could imagine; this was after a not-so-good beginning to my _early_ graduate student life. Somehow, things turned around for me: I got fellowships, travel awards, international travel awards, papers, everything that I was supposed to be getting. But then I had a friend who suggested that this alternative opportunity could get me to be nearby my SO. After not landing anything in biotech-- you know there are tons of layoffs going on right now--I decided to do a little bit of interviewing. I got lucky, or so others think, but it is hard to hear any congrats. The good thing is that I am doing a bit of testing the waters and my boss said that he supports me, no matter what I choose. We have spoken a few times; he is incredibly understanding. The problem is that I know I should go and and check out this opportunity. OK, I don't have Science, PNAS, Nature, etc., yet, but I do have some good journals and collaborators that I have been able to network with; this is the problem--things had their ups and downs, but overall, I settled in and become a productive lab member who is trustworthy and committed.

I did everything right that I was supposed to do, but had tight geographic constraints because of my SO. We have been long distance for almost 4 years, so that is what had to change, or so I was trying to convince myself of. It becomes hard to sleep, but somehow, my thoughts are much more organized and I am finding a new sense of driven motivation. I want to think about this as a sabbatical; wish that geographic constraints were not as they are.
The kool-aid never tasted so good as it seems to now....

Anon 10:27,

Well, thanks for clarifying, and sorry I misunderstood. I think(?) I understand a little better now.

Now I think this sounds more like a personal question than a career question.

I have to wonder if your SO understands how hard it is to get a "permanent" job in this business, and whether you do?

You really have to be willing to give up everything else and drag your SO with you if necessary. Would you? Are you?

If you really thought you wanted to have your own lab, did you not discuss that this was your top priority, and how everything else would have to come second? Do you think that now? Can you have that talk now?

Because truthfully that is what has to happen if you want to do that.

Personally, MrPhD and I talk about this all the time. We came to some decisions that make sense to us now, but it's fluid and we may change our minds as we go along. But we're always talking about it. Talking about it helps us be honest, not just with each other, but with ourselves, about what we want, how badly we want it, and to share our observations about it as a choice. For example, MrPhD knows that while I might be okay not having a lab, I would never be happy if I didn't take every chance to try to have one. In fact, sometimes when I am not sure if I can do it, he is the one who says I can and should. (He is also the one who told me to start a blog, so you can see he is very smart and I tend to follow his advice!)

If you're really heartbroken and missing the lab, maybe you should start thinking of not just how to get through the current period as a "sabbatical", but also how to plan your return and eventual takeover over the world? Because seriously, applying for faculty positions is kind of like a military RPG. You have to be at least somewhat confident that you can win, or be willing to die trying.

So I don't know if your SO is totally un-moveable forever and ever, but I have to wonder how much you two have talked about it - maybe not enough, if you're only realizing now that you really don't want to give up on the career you have been working towards for years already.

I also recommend reading The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I think the idea that women will automatically be happier as wives and/or starting a family (e.g. rather than a lab) is an old myth that keeps coming back like the bad guy in a B movie. We just need to keep killing it and beating back the Larry Summers thinkers of the world. While the gender roles of the 70s are not as obvious today, I think the problem is still there - we have all grown up with these pressures and influences as the silent killers of our aspirations - as part of the air we breathe.

You might not even realize that you were drinking two competing kinds of kool-aid, but that's essentially the problem.

Science tells you to be a certain kind of person- independent and emotionless to the point of being monastic.

Society tells you to be a different kind of person- feminine to the point of having only the desire to please your SO, nurture your aging parents, raise children, and look pretty.

Science is changing, slowly, but it hasn't changed enough yet and it's going to take a while.

Society has changed on the surface, but many of the same expectations and pressures remain, even if they're not in our faces quite so much as they were when we were kids, we still internalized them back then and they haven't completely gone away.

Even if we consciously buck the trend, deep down I think we still feel torn. I know I do, because my family still asks why I'm not settling down into a regular job, buying a house and having kids. I have no intention of doing anything just because my family tells me to, but that doesn't mean I'm impervious to their constantly questioning my life choices. It's just like with work- no matter how certain I am about my results, I have to ask myself why everyone gives me such a hard time, and what else I can do to test my hypothesis. Because the more certain I am, the easier it is to feel like I don't care if I win so much, because as long as I'm sure that I'm right, I am willing to for my career to die trying.

I don't know if that helps at all, but I hope you can come to some honest decisions about what you really want, and soon. Science waits for no woman, and being out of the game only makes it harder to jump back in and not get tangled up in the ropes. But having a supportive advisor (or two) is huge, so if anyone can do it, having that kind of help and a supportive SO are definitely the way to do it.

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At 1:29 PM, Blogger FrauTech said...

Great response MsPhD. Brilliant. That painful dychotomy between career and societal expectations for a woman in or not in a relationship is so the clincher here. And it's important not to sacrifice one for the other, as tempting as it is to believe "I will finally be happy if..." and thinking an SO is always the answer.

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

10:27 (again)...

By the way, SO moved to biotech hub X for "us" within the past year. SO is not a PhD, but the skills he needs for his job and his commitment speak no lesser than a person with those credentials. (His job is not that readily transferable.)

Thanks again for your thoughts.

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

"Even if we consciously buck the trend, deep down I think we still feel torn. I know I do, because my family still asks why I'm not settling down into a regular job, buying a house and having kids."

I get that too, all the frickin time and it annoys me. I resent their assumptions that their way is the only or the best way. It really is not any of their business. Just because most people follow this path in life like blind sheep, why should I?

At 3:54 AM, Blogger DrDudeChick said...

WOW... why is postdoc life so complicated?

MsPhD thanks for describing your take on this situation in such a thoughtful and reflective way!

anon 10:27 my heart goes out to you! I hope that you find out what it is that makes you happy by trying a few different things in life! and do not close any doors behind you, or burn any bridges... maybe you just need a rest? could you take an unpaid leave to have some time to rest and live with SO for a while, and to have time to figure out what it is that you want?

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous chall said...

oh yee....

this was a very well written post YFS.

" but that doesn't mean I'm impervious to their constantly questioning my life choices."
yes, constantly. Always thinking "maybe it would be better being a 'proper' woman with children and a husband since at least family would stop complaining about keeping gandkids etc away from them". it's clearly not about me, it's about pleasing others.

Anyway, good advice there. hopefully we can all feel better with our lives and choices.

At 4:03 PM, Blogger Cloud said...

I love the line about the two competing types of kool aid. That is awesome.

I'm an occasional lurker, and read this post when it first went up. I have been thinking about this post and how to write what I want to say without sounding like an asswipe pollyanna. I don't know if I'll succeed, but here goes;

For those who really want what is promised by the purveyors of both types of kool aid, I just want to say: it CAN work out. I know that it doesn't always work out, but please don't let that keep you from trying. With the right SO and a little bit of luck (OK, maybe a lot of luck), you can have both a fulfilling career in science and a family.

I think part of the trick is ignoring what the science kool aid purveyors tell you about how you have to live your life to be good at science. That is BS. Deep down, you know whether or not you can do good work without living a monastic existence. Personally, I'd do bad work if I tried to live a monastic existence. My productivity drops precipitously when I work ridiculous hours for more than a couple of weeks.

As for the specific question- I gather from the follow on comment that you are looking at going into biotech. I have to say, the decision to ditch academia and go into biotech was the best one I've ever made, from a career standpoint. I've worked on some really cool things, and I love the energy and team atmosphere in small biotech companies. Of course, my particular area of interest is not at the bench- I'm in scientific informatics. But if you want to ask specific questions about life in biotech, feel free to email me at wandsci at gmail dot com. Maybe drop a comment on my blog, though, telling me to go check that email. I forget sometimes.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I think the point is that while you can consciously say "I'm going to buck the kool-aid" one, or the other, or both- in practice this takes a LOT of confidence that you're doing the right thing, because now you're telling EVERYONE that their expectations for you are totally wrong.

It's exhausting, because although you know you're on the right course for you, almost everyone is second-guessing every step you take. And that makes you second-guess yourself.

My point is not that I want a family and a career, but rather that I feel pressure because I DON'T I want a family, I never really did. Instead I feel judged and put-down for bucking that trend.

On the other hand, like my friends who DO have or want kids, I don't want the monastic life- although I have done it, and enjoyed it, and could do it again, it's not my first choice.

So I still feel judged, as if any career shortcomings I have encountered might have been helped by being more monastic - or at least maintaining the habits of a single workaholic marathon-running rodent in the rat race? - rather than a rebel who values a balanced lifestyle and thinks that is actually healthier and more productive in the long run.

But hey, that's just me. Maybe I would be happy with the biotech thing because I agree that most people working in industry have a better grasp of work-life balance. But I also wonder if I would feel morepressure to conform to having kids? I don't know if it's actually true that there are more senior women scientists with children in industry than there are in academia. I'd frankly rather stay in academia if it means I'd have a better chance of working with people who wouldn't judge me for not wanting kids.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

msPHD: "My point is not that I want a family and a career, but rather that I feel pressure because I DON'T I want a family, I never really did. Instead I feel judged and put-down for bucking that trend."

Same here. I really hate how everyone around takes it upon themselves to judge a woman based on whether or not she has or wants to get married and have kids. what business is it of theirs?

Then there is the corollary: once people know that you are not the standard female whose life revolves around husband/kids/domestic-bliss, then now you are expected to be an insane workaholic and if you are not you are judged to be lazy even if you are in fact working and producing more than your married-with-kids counterparts (especially those who are male). Because if you are not going to be a normal woman who devotes a huge chunk of her life to serving a husband and children, well then, what else could you possible have to do that's in any way important? You're just living your life frivolously so shouldn't you be at work even more?

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