Monday, April 26, 2010

May Scientiae: Humps and Bumps

For better or worse, this topic makes me think of a book called The Dip.

I was talking to a friend about this book recently, because she said she favors listening to motivational tapes to keep herself going. She said she especially likes advice for getting past failure, that tell you "yeah, things suck now but you'll get through it". Or something to that effect.

The Dip isn't like that. The Dip is about knowing when to quit.

The main point I got from this book is that if you quit when you're down, you'll always have some regrets. He suggests you should only quit when you're at the top of your game, because then you know you're quitting for the right reasons: because you want to do something else, not because you're just discouraged. Because everyone knows it's hard to make the right choices for the right reasons when you're upset.

What's interesting to me about dealing with setbacks is how much I've learned and yet, I still don't know anything. Sometimes I think that, the more I think about it, the worse my decisions get.

Sure, I've surprised myself over and over. The first time I had a major setback, I was fatalistic and depressed. Then I rationalized, found other things I loved to do, and rationalized some more.

I was surprised to find I could love to do so many different kinds of things.

Looking back now, I never really gave up, but I didn't really keep going, either. I just kind of held onto the dream and put it in my jewelry box. Sometimes I take it out and look at it, but mostly it's just nostalgia for something old and tarnished.

That was before I started doing science.


My first major setback in science wasn't about science so much as it was about politics. I went with my gut reaction; I put my nose to the grindstone; I got mad and used my anger.

And that more or less worked out just fine.

Not exactly ideal or a fun time, but I had a clear goal in mind, I set my sights on it, ate my power bars and worked around the clock to show that no matter what anybody said about me, they couldn't sneeze at my science.

I was surprised at how angry I could get, and how I could use that as fuel.


The next setback was harder because I felt that my life as a scientist was being shortchanged; I was being treated badly. I said Oh no, Not Again, and I left. I rationalized it as being equal parts about me and the science I was doing. I was very invested in it. I've always found it's easier to stand up for something or someone other than myself. So that helped get me out of an abusive situation, but really I was able to do it because I rationalized that I was shepherding what I thought was an important finding. I rationalized it as not really being just about me, but in reality, I was watching myself get beaten down, and I needed an excuse to get out.

Then I had really serious scientific setbacks in the sense that I had gone out on a limb with a telescope and I was trying to point and wave and say Hey, you've gotta come look at this! but everyone was too busy looking at the tree and they didn't want to see where I was pointing. They weren't mean about it, they just ignored me or said I seemed a little bit crazy.

But still, I kept on fighting. I started blogging and I was very philosophical about all of it. I focused on people I admired, both scientists and non-scientists, and how they had all gotten through setbacks and succeeded anyway.

The idea being to view every hump, no matter how tall, as just a bump in a very long road.

So I got past that bump and then there was another bump and it looked exactly the same and I felt like I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. I thought whoa, am I trapped in some kind of loop here? Didn't I just do this bump?

And then I started to realize that you can keep powering through, up and over, and you can get people to help you, etc. but it does make you tired. And it's actually kind of boring.

Persevering seems glamourous at first (Cue the Montage!). But then, it's really not. It's actually just really tedious. And unlike a montage getting ready for the big fight or the dance recital or the romantic speech in the rain, persevering is infinite. Nobody can tell you when it will be over.

Then I learned that some people will think you're lazy or pessimistic if you say "Hey, I need a rest".

But if you don't take a break when you need one, it's basically impossible to climb up anything for a while. You start looking for a way to go around the hump, and maybe it takes longer but it will eventually get you to the other side.

So now I'm on the other side of the latest big hump, but I don't really feel any better because there's no celebration ticker-tape parade. And I know there's more where humps where that came from.


What's sad to me is how our culture views setbacks: it's all about the end.

We seem to see everything through a movie lens: if it has a happy ending, then you made the right choice. But, if the ending is just "okay", then, my friend, you can expect to be second-guessed. It couldn't have been that big of a deal, they say, because you're still here! You must be exaggerating.

So here you are, panting on other side of the biggest hump in your life, and the important thing is that you're still in one piece.

But nobody cares about that. Or maybe they just can't identify? Your friends will pat you on the back and then get on with their lives.

What our culture really cares about is the photo-finish: you're supposed to die trying, or at least be wiling to die. But mostly you're supposed to grasp that trophy and hold it high! Smile pretty!

Except there's no trophy besides being able to say you survived.

What I still don't understand is that while science is all about the journey, getting a job is not about the journey. Getting a job is about the end. The end of being a postdoc. The long-awaited, much-coveted, highly unlikely victory. And if your work isn't published, if you don't get the tenure-track faculty position, it's like you never did anything. You might as well be dead.

I don't know of a way to point and wave and say, Hey! Look at what I did! See how I came, that route there? See all the cool things I learned? ... And shouldn't the journey itself count for something? Wouldn't you rather have ideas and experience than the perfect pedigree?

But everyone is too busy looking at the trees.

So am I on top of the hump, quitting for the right reasons? A month ago, I would have said yes, definitely.

But some days I wonder if I'm still in a Dip.

Then again, I read a statistic the other day that the odds of becoming tenure-track faculty in the biosciences now are pretty much on par with the odds of becoming a successful rock star. Seriously, if someone had told me it was that much of a long shot, I would never have made it this far.

There was an episode of Grey's Anatomy recently that has been haunting me. It's a cancer patient who explains how, past a certain point, hope is scary. It's so true. And ironic, because I've been accused of everything: being too pessimistic, being too naive, being too stubborn, quitting too easily.

Hope is the scariest thing, because it's very hard to learn how to let it go.

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At 1:23 PM, Blogger Kea said...

It's a cancer patient who explains how, past a certain point, hope is scary.

Yeah, and if one of those stupid anons says they know what you mean, I'll beat the living crap out of them.

At 6:26 PM, Blogger yolio said...

This is a very nice post.

At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL Kea. I'll suit up too.

At 10:32 PM, Blogger SamanthaScientist said...

Wow. That post made me tear up at the end. Fucking hope.

I alternate between thinking I've really learned some good life lessons during my Ph.D., and thinking I'll need a lifetime to recover from the damage that's been done to me. Letting go of hope, moving on from failure, knowing when to quit - those are the lessons I can never decide about. Were they for the best or for the worst?

At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I read a statistic the other day that the odds of becoming tenure-track faculty in the biosciences now are pretty much on par with the odds of becoming a successful rock star."

If you or another reader can find this statistic again, I'd like a link. Thanks.

At 1:21 AM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...

Dear YFS,

This was very eloquent and moving. Thank you.

Kea's very correct to state that only those who have been through it know what it is like; but with any luck blogs like this will give new PhDs and postdocs some food for thought before they commit to the life.

Kea- I'm sorry it's not going well on the job market - I hope you can find something. I'm a former postdoc looking at night shifts on a newspaper loading dock, if it's any consolation.

One thing that helps is to make a new dream and shoot for that, and grieve for the old one. I'm only doing what I'm doing while I retrain for a new job. Give yourself time to find a new goal, though; first things first.

As a scientist, you've got the best mental toolkit for getting wherever you go and you'll be curious about the world for the rest of your life.

It won't pay your bills, but curiosity, *especially* in the absence of hope, is no small thing.

Indeed, curiosity is the very thing that opens new doors and inspires new avenues of hope, drives an optimism that a new way of thinking is possible, provides an impetus for change, inspires a promise of renewal. It can take generations to achieve and you may see it work in your children or grandchildren.

It's a powerful gift to take away from science and give to your community. Indeed this is why we put science in the heart of industrial socitety- the fundamental net good that comes of curiosity driving us forward.

On the other hand it is somewhat fatal for cats.

Regardless, the best of luck to you both.

At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yeah, and if one of those stupid anons says they know what you mean, I'll beat the living crap out of them."

Wait a second. YFS has cancer? Or is she saying she knows how cancer patients must feel? I'm confused.

Not really. But I am wondering if the sarcasm allowed here is only a one-way street. Because, the odds thing is the whole point of the article written by the "a-hole." And, there's a girl who I tried to convince to go be a rock star after graduation, and I don't think it's because I'm sexist.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger medchemgirl said...

So...I am kind of in the same boat. I persevered, dealt with a lot to finish my degree, and got some publications. Not as many as I should have but they were written up, and left to fester on my fmr. advisor's desk.

I'm now in a postdoc (mediocre level (which I had to secure myself)) and the employment statistics are beyond scary for my field. I'm wondering when to say enough is enough and try something else, and the thought of returning to school for another attempt at a good paying job to be very disheartening.

At 12:27 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Ah, what a timely post! I recently decided to leave my postdoc of 4 years and venture out into the big, scary unknown. I don't have another job lined up yet, but I have an interview for an entry-level position in another field. I am starting over. From scratch. Like the past 8 years of my life never happened.

I have moments all the time where I cringe because I sort of automatically start wondering about experiments I want to do, and then I remember that I won't be able to do them anymore. I get sad about that, but it's too early to say whether I regret leaving academia.

I feel a sense of relief, although I am also scared. Ultimately, it came down to feeling like there was no more hope. I really just ran out of energy. I had been making a grad student stipend as a postdoc, and had a teaching load. I was unhappy with not being more autonomous with my research, and after 4 years, it was clear that the money situation and the autonomy situation were not about to change. (Complicating things, I am geographically-bound b/c of my husband, so getting the coveted TT job in my area is out of the question). I worried about and ruminated over my job situation for so long, and towards the end, the fact that I wasn't even being paid as a postdoc began to erode my confidence as a researcher. So, I made the decision to leave for the sake of my sanity.

I feel like a failure on many levels. I am impatient to feel like a real adult with real skills. I look around at my friends in their early 30s who are making good money, who are respected in their fields, and are considered professionals. I have never experienced any of this. I really want to take pride in what I do, and feel like I am making important contributions. I am hoping that I have made the right decision by leaving. I am keeping my options open, and trying to apply my skills to novel situations. I desperately want evidence that all of my hard work has not been in vain.

I will keep you posted.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Dip Shit reminds me of hazing shit. If men stick with the hazing activities and do everything they are told by other men to do (swallow a fish, streak campus, 30 shots in 30 mins) then they are initiated into the club. Congrats for *manning up*, good boy. If women stick with the hazing, well, we are never initiated into their club, and we go round and round being evaluated for patriarchy compliance and submissiveness. The men who "pass" the shit go on to pass more shit and pass more shit onto other men and women. When does the Dip Shit ACTUALLY LEAD TO THE PROMISED LAND FOR WOMEN? *knock knock* It doesn't. The Dip Shit book is more spew by a man, to the men, for the men. There are no playbooks written for those relegated to the sidelines. Rah! Go Go Bananas.

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After my two year postdoc in Europe I came home, applied for "normal" jobs, and moved into statistics/healthcare. My salary more than tripled, my colleagues actually appreciate my work, and I get to learn cool nerdy stuff. I can even set my own schedule so that I can help with taking care of our toddler.

At this point in my life I couldn't imagine taking on another low-paid short term contract.

At 1:08 PM, Blogger Alyssa said...

I can really identify with this post, and thank you for writing it. I have basically chosen to take a non-academic path, but sometimes I question my decision. Not because of the way I feel about research/academia, but the way others view me. Why would I bother doing a PhD if I wasn't going on in academia? How can I take a post-doc position if I don't want to continue? It makes my head spin sometimes.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger justapie said...

Thank you for writing this, lots to think about.


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