Monday, August 16, 2010

Meh and you too.

The request was to expand on the 5 big W questions + 1: what, who, where, when, why and how.

So I'll start with a secret: this is the seed of all writing. So I could write something for this topic over and over and write something different each time.

1. What

"What do I do now?" I've been struggling a lot with this question about what do I want to do. I've been through this once before, and that's how I ended up doing science.

So I think I've covered heart and head. What's next? Gut feeling?

I feel like doing science for so long has had two contrasting effects on me:

1) It made me braver, and made me realize courage is not really an area where I'm lacking
2) It put me relatively out of touch with my own gut feelings.

The thing about science is that you're taught not to be superstitious, that hunches don't count unless you can explain them with data, and that you should often ignore your gut feeling, especially if your gut is telling you to run away from public speaking or doing animal work.


Truthfully, I think my best weapons in science were my gut feelings. But I was told to ignore them, that I was being paranoid about the people I worked with (who were every bit as crazy and back-stabbing as I feared), and that I was making logical leaps (all of which turned out to be right once I had the evidence to demonstrate my hunches were good).

And I wouldn't have done science at all if I had listened to my gut feelings way back when I interviewed for graduate schools.

Regardless, my goal now is to spend a lot of quality time focusing on my gut feelings.

2. Who

"Who is going to help me?"

At this point I'm not sure if anyone can help me figure out what I want to do, but once I figure that out, I will probably need help to do it.

One thing I fucked up royally in my science "career" (according to the blamers) was not getting the right help from the right people. I realized too late that I needed help from different people, but I couldn't figure out

a) who were the people with both the interest and the power to help me, and
b) how to get them to be interested in helping me

Also, "Who are the people I want to work with?"

This is something I'm focused on right now. I really hated most of my coworkers for a long time in science, maybe because we weren't really coworkers at all, just competitors pretending to be polite. The whole system was set up so that there was never enough to go around, and we were basically trying to climb over each other to get to the good stuff: the money, the attention from our advisor, the jobs.

So I'm wondering who are the kinds of people I can work with? Would I be better off with more creative types? Should I just steer clear of male-dominated careers? Am I better off doing the kinds of things where everyone works independently but in parallel? Are there any careers anymore where there's plenty to go around? Or does this economy pretty much preclude that from happening at all?

3. Where

Also known as, "Will I have to relocate?"

I like where I am now. I am learning new things, slowly, and the pace is more or less up to me. But what if I decide the thing I most want to do in life is something I can only learn in a city far away? Am I going to make MrPhD go with me? Is there anything I want to do so badly that I'd make him quit a job he loves to follow me on a hunch about my next big thing?

4. When

Yes, when. When will I figure this out. When will I feel better. When will the bolt of lightning strike me down, or give me that aha! moment I could use right about now?

One thing I'm certain I'll miss about science are the aha! moments. I loved that. I loved problem solving, I loved getting new data, I loved finding something unexpected in the middle of an experiment designed to look at something else, I loved reading a paper and having so many ideas I had to scribble them all down excitedly.

The good news is there are other kinds of aha! moments, and I wish I had the perspective to realize that years ago. They are there when I cook, and when I shop for gifts, and when I read good books. When I listen to really good music. And when I write.

But mostly I want to know when I will stop having dreams about the bastards who fucked me over in science. I am so tired of the nightmares where I have to go back and work with them again, or I find out one of them is taking credit for everything I did in his lab, even though it was my idea, etc.

5. Why

The one I'm doing the most lately is "Why is this happening to me? Why do people say I chose this? Did I choose this, really? Why would I do that to me?"

Also known as,

6. How

"How did I end up here?"

I keep retracing my steps and saying "No, I couldn't possibly have known any better at the time, I actually got a lot of bad advice, or people seemed to think I could figure it out from obscure hints, and I didn't. I didn't figure it out until it was too late."

I made a lot of mis-steps. One foot in front of the other, right?

But it's pretty much impossible for me to see how I could have known to do any differently, given where I came from, my family, and a general lack of good advice.

Does that make me feel any better? Only slightly.

Also, "How do I move forward and get on with my life?"

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At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Female post-doc said...

Your experiences make me feel anxious. I did not get along with or respect my PhD advisor much, but overall have escaped mostly unscathed. I hope the bad feelings and dreams start dissipating so you can focus on all of the great things that are in front of you...unless you are 80 years old, because then you may not have as many wonderful years left, but I think you are younger than that. :-)

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous yolio said...

Wow, you are speaking my mind. Pretty much word for word, right down to the fucking nightmares about working with my ex-"colleagues."

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Female post-doc,

Somehow grad school anxiety didn't stick around that long, maybe because my papers were published and I had some closure from getting my degree and leaving. Other friends had more "return to grad school" nightmares than I did. I never had a lot of nightmares growing up, either. I wasn't really that kind of kid.

Postdoc, on the other hand, was full of anxiety for me. What's frustrating is that even if I feel okay during the day, my brain is apparently still processing the pain while I'm asleep. Which would be FINE if I didn't remember it when I wake up in the morning!

Nothing worse than waking up and having to tell yourself that it was neither a memory nor a psychic prediction, just your brain trying to purge the toxic stress waste from similar things that actually did happen...

yolio, dear, I am so sorry to hear that. But glad you said so, since it makes me feel a lot less alone in my suffering.

At 9:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was crying in the toilet alone
trying to hide my frustration to other colleagues.

I was keeping asking "how did I ended up here?"

Than, I read your post,
and now I feel much better.
It's not only because I'm feeling a lot less alone in my suffering
but also because your analysis of the cause of all the pains..

when everying run over me altogether, I panic, and its more paintful to be helpless.
Your analysis made me to think over my situation in a more calm way.

I feel sorry for your bitterness
and very thankful for your writing
you saved my day

- yours anonymous,from Korea

At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hugs, a bazillion hugs, always.

I feel the same way. My PhD didn't give me nightmares, I enjoyed my project, PI, and friends. But the postdocs were nightmares on top of shit stew. I woke up from a nightmare last week where I was yanking results out of someone's hand, grabbing at the papers with one hand and pulling myself through a doorway with the other hand, in slow motion. As I stood in the shower remembering the nightmare, I wanted to yell WHO THE FUCK HAS NIGHTMARES ABOUT DATA RESULTS?!?!? *headbangheadbangheadbang*

I heard a story recently about a very famous woman scientist. A friend of hers (*waves to friend*) told me that VFWS would choose cancer over being a scientist. VFWS is a cancer survivor. Without hesitation, she'd take cancer over the ongoing abuse because she knows she can beat it. I said I would not be a scientist either, and that I lost my wonder and excitement somewhere in the shit stew.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Anon 9:15 pm from Korea,

Wow, comments like these make me really glad I still have a blog. Thanks for commiserating. I hope things improve for you. Wish I could do more to help.

jc, the phrase "nightmares on top of shit stew" has me LMFAO. I want to sing it to the tune of "on top of old smokey"!

The story about cancer is very apropos. The thing that really gets me is that for most obstacles in life, you're supposed to have a team supporting you. Your family, your doctors, your friends, or your (ahem) mentors.

I went to a writing class recently where the teacher just said point-blank "Look, this is art, and NOBODY'S GOING TO HELP YOU."

I found it rather refreshing. It was quite a difference from the bullshit I hear in academia all the time about "you have to find a mentor!"

Sigh. At least nowadays most people (though not everyone) is pretty willing to admit they have cancer, and most people believe it is a real thing. Not so with being a victim of -isms.

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

MsPhD I can relate to a lot of what you are writing. I'm a staff scientist in a research institute (decided not to join the academic TT rat race and couldn't have been happier) so I didn't have to face many of the craziness concerning chasing TT jobs. However, I'm probably going to be going through a divorce pretty soon (married 12 years). Some of the feelings you expressed in this post and in the archives, feel similar to what I"m gonig through - except the part about the crazy and backstabbing co-workers. I've had those but they have nothing to do with my marriage ending! well unless they made me so crazy that it affected my marriage...

The part about how being a scientist trains you to often ignore your gut feelings unless and until you can substantiate it with hard data, and asking "why is this happening to me?" and "how did I end up like this?" and "when is it going to happen?"...all ring true to my personal life situation right now. I tried to approach the disintegration of my marriage like I do my projects - 'collecting data', analyzing it, drawing conclusions, questioning the assumptions, trying a different approach, and so on. The problem is that there is never enough 'hard evidence' to make a conclusion black and white. And thus, being a scientist, without enough overwhelming evidence I fail to draw a firm conclusion and remain, well, inconclusive. And thus now I have to go with my gut feelings, which is foreign to me and scary.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon, Yeah, it does feel like a divorce or a death in the family or waking up with a severe amputation or paralysis or something. MAJOR life change, not my choice, but now that I'm here, I just don't want to get into situations where I'm likely to experience more of this kind of extended abuse ultimately followed by massive upheaval and heartbreak.

Probably impossible, that's just life I guess, can't hide in my house all the time avoiding conflict.

Some days are better than others. Today was a really crappy day, at least so far. I doubt it's going to get better, either.

At 4:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any comments:

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

1. Sounds like The Baltimore Case

2. Are we seriously arguing about the head-turnings of monkeys?

3. This is why primary data should be required with publications

4. Maybe this kind of research shouldn't be funded at all?

5. I bet this guy never saw this blowing up in his face this way

6. I wonder what would have happened if the two people accusing him of doing it wrong were both women?

At 10:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the succinct but useful thoughts. One more question: I followed the Baltimore case obliquely, and I know both Baltimore and his colleague were acquitted of all charges by various government panels. But there have been consistent critics, who seem to say some amount of "cover-up" was involved (e.g., Serge Lang). What were your thoughts about the entire affair?

At 1:06 AM, Blogger Gauri said...

Forgive me if this is a repeat post as the one I wrote earlier was probably lost.

I have been lurking on your blog for a while. This post resonated so strongly that I had to come out of lurkerville. I am a female PhD who was basically irresponsible after finishing the degree (can't find another explanation). My advisor and I were an ocean apart during my PhD and I was completely burnt out after the defense. I didn't want to do postdoc but couldn't go into industry as I felt I had no training whatsoever. I ended up taking a break that eventually lasted for 2.5 years nearly. I was a postdoc for 10 months last year but was in unhelpful environment. It has been an uphill struggle to try and get back into career especially due to break, though, I am trying a lot for last 2 years (more actually). However much I take responsibility for my break, it doesn't help me one bit to be around people who don't want to help me. The question "who's going to help me" has been rotting into "is anybody ever going to help me". I get anxious about actually starting a postdoc at some point after all these struggles.

I had come to view you as a tough, won't-stop-doing-science-no-matter-what kind of person. You writing about your thoughts and doubts makes me feel less alone in the struggle. Thanks for this post. Wishing you serenity and wisdom :)

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:12,

I don't know that much about the Baltimore case, really. I just think the fact that these things even occur and go to trial betrays how messy science really is. That suspicions can't always be tested or verified or excluded. That emotions run high and often influence the course of careers. That we can never really be sure what was deliberate, what was a mistake, and when we're lying to ourselves about everyone always wanting to do the right thing. Did you see this latest case with the guy from Harvard and the monkeys?


I don't know what to tell you, but I'm glad you found this somewhat comforting. I agree, the correct wording really is "is anybody ever going to help me". Sadly, I think the answer is no.

I think the way things are now, you have to help yourself, and if you're lucky, that persistence and determination will put you in the path of the right people who will appreciate all your hard work.

But I'm not a lucky person, and I can't say my persistence or determination ever amounted to much. I ended up working with selfish people who exploit everyone around them and wouldn't know how to help someone even if they wanted to. It is too easy to get burned out doing everything yourself, but I don't see how else you're supposed to proceed. No one will help you unless you seem worth helping, and even then, I don't know how you're supposed to get help from "the right people".

Eventually I got the impression that I would never be deemed Worthy Enough by "the right people". I was too far behind on the named fellowships and high-impact publications to ever catch up, and I just kept having the same bad luck.

I hope you have better luck than I did, or at least the serenity and wisdom to find something that makes you happy.

At 11:36 PM, Anonymous GM said...

Gauri and YFS,
If your goal is to get into industry, you may want to try an industrial post doc. I know its getting harder to find an indusrtrial position these days, but I dont think its not possible. Too many people give up after only a few try. I know atleast a few of my post doc friends did. I had graduated early this year, had attended 8 onsite interviews since oct 09 before I got an offer from a big pharma in april. I think there are too many experienced people in the market and the industries are also taking time to make a decision. We just have to keep trying. In addition to sending resumes online and talking to recruiters, I had used Linkedin to get intouch with managers in almost every company. The one advantage I had was few years of pharma experience from outside US, but I dont think it helped much in the current condition.

I have been a regular visitor of your blog for the past few years and wanted to offer some hope/help. Let me know if you need more info!

At 6:14 AM, Anonymous Revathi said...

Hi everyone,
I have had the same experience and now I have learned to keep a distance between me and my experiences which made me feel somewhat more zen. The question about "who is going to support me and how can I make this person interested in my career" is the most important question you have raised. In my opinion, if you didnt know it by the time you finished your PhD, or atleast by the first year into your post doc, there is a good possibility that no one is out there to support you. Once you know this, things get a little better since you know that you are on your own and have only yourself to fall back on.


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