Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's always personal.

I'm thinking about firing my therapist.

Having said that, I want to talk about one of the things my therapist mentioned recently while talking about deciding when/how to give up on one's career.

She told me to watch You've Got Mail. Because it's about a woman bookstore-owner who loses her store thanks to competition from a giant, male-dominated superstore.

Now, I saw this movie years ago when it came out, and I was disgusted at the time that the main message seemed to be that for women, it's more important to have a charming, rich man love you than to have a fulfilling career.

But it's funny, I really didn't remember that it's not just a love story, it's about a woman who has to close up shop. I guess at the time I couldn't really relate to it. In fact, I've always wondered whether it wouldn't be better to inherit a family business than to have to go look for a job. If it's just going to be a job to pay the bills, does it really matter what it is? At least you'd get to be your own boss, without having to work your way up.

So this movie has been on tv again lately, which I guess is why my therapist thought to mention it. I watched part of it one day, and the rest today when it happened to be on again. It's funny to hear the modem sound when they log on, and see how big their laptops are. I mean, does anyone even use AOL anymore?

Some of the writing is superb. I think my favorite sentence in the whole movie is the line about how she sees a butterfly on the subway, and she thinks it must be going to Bloomingdale's to buy a hat, which will surely be a mistake, as almost all hats are.

But as far as advice goes, this movie is a terrible analogy, because while Meg Ryan's character says she's heartbroken, she doesn't really seem to be very upset.

Somehow, her character never cries in the movie, despite losing her shop. She fights a little, she mopes a little, and when she finally closes the shop there is one scene where she sees the ghost of her mother and says the shop will be something depressing in a week, like a Baby Gap. But it's flippant the way she says it, and apparently she doesn't have to walk by the shop every day or run into people who constantly ask her about it?

Instead, the next time we see her, she is at home with a cold. Sure, getting sick around the time of a major loss is just a way of your body expressing what your mind can't handle, but probably since it's supposed to be a romantic comedy, not once do they show her sobbing with grief.

Okay, she is a little wistful, and it's a little bittersweet, but she's almost relieved. She doesn't seem to need medication or therapy! Maybe because the whole thing seems to take place in the space of a few weeks?

And it certainly doesn't hurt that someone offers her a job she wants, and almost immediately. Someone who sees her talent, and like all things movie-esque, it's a job she doesn't even have to apply for. The movie ends before we find out how things turn out with that.

The motivations are a bit understated, and as a main character she's a little bit spacey. You kind of have to assume that she's a bit sheltered and overly optimistic, otherwise as a character she doesn't really make any sense. They try to develop this theme by this one particular line about how things in life remind her of things she's read in books, but shouldn't it be the other way around? But apparently, she was completely happy with her job and, we have to assume, always had been.

I think one of the things that I'll never really understand about psychology is how sometimes, the harder we work for something, the more we think we want it. And this is definitely the way science works. Sometimes it's that much sweeter when you make an experiment work perfectly after a hundred tries. And knowing that elbow grease can win the day can be infinitely comforting as you're slogging it out, sometimes only inching along, but we always say it's better if things are at least moving at all. There's something gratifying in that, having a sort of noble goal and making progress toward it.

But in the same sense, the more the bad parts of science make us miserable, the more we want to justify that misery by trying to make our own happy endings. We think that if we just persevere long enough, as with our experiments, we can win at the political game, too. But what if we can't? What if we're just making ourselves miserable for longer, and like Meg Ryan's character in this movie, we're ultimately doomed to lose?

Being aware of the possibility that we're locked in this game of misery-begets-more-misery doesn't really help you overcome it. Because it's not so clear-cut as it is in the shop-keeping world, or in the movies.

And that is where I think I am a little fed up with the idea of therapy. Yes, I have learned a few things, but I think as a guide to helping me figuring things out, it hasn't been any better (and less cost-effective) than anything else. And perhaps most importantly, it hasn't made me feel any better about what is happening to me. It hasn't given me the critical tools to improve my situation, as I had hoped I could do if I just knew how.

Anyway the title of this post comes from a line in the movie, where Joe Fox tries to apologize and say it's just business, it's not personal. And the main character responds by saying It's always personal, everything is personal, and what's so wrong with that anyway?

I think one of the weirdest things to me about asking for advice is that nobody knows whether to tell me to fight or to quit. I don't know if I'm giving something up just a moment (or a year) too soon, with the finish line just around the corner? Or if the bottom line is that I just can't win, so I'd be better off getting out as fast as I can?

And my therapist doesn't know, either. She's trying to give me advice on the personal, as if it can be separated from the rest. She's also trying to convince me not to worry about what I'm going to do to make money, which I find not very credible coming from someone who is clearly not hurting financially and apparently never has been.

When things are crappy, I just want to quit. When I'm making even a little progress, I wonder if maybe it will all turn out to be worth it. I think a lot about the tortoise and the hare, and wonder if I'm just being impatient or getting distracted when, if I just keep plodding along, eventually I will get there?

I just don't feel much closer to knowing than I did when I started therapy. And being in therapy has not made me feel better about that.

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At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog as I know many of us in academia have gone through similar battles.

It sounds like you are doing some important thinking about therapy, which is good. But I have two questions for you.

1) You said: "I just don't feel much closer to knowing than I did when I started therapy. And being in therapy has not made me feel better about that." Why did you think therapy was going to tell you whether or not you should leave academia? What did you think your therapist would do--make the decision for you? It's your decision. The job of a therapist is NOT to tell you what to do.

If you're looking for developing skills, perhaps you should look into a different kind of therapist (e.g., one who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy). And even within therapy frameworks, therapists vary.

2) You said: "She's also trying to convince me not to worry about what I'm going to do to make money, which I find not very credible coming from someone who is clearly not hurting financially and apparently never has been."

How do you have enough information from your therapy sessions to know what your therapist's background is like?

I am biased here, as my father is a psychologist. He grew up in poverty, was the first of his family to even go to college and then went on to get his Ph.D. Even now, he struggles to make ends meet, although you couldn't tell that by looking at him.

If he were your therapist, he would likely try to support you moving forward, but he probably wouldn't obsess over helping you find a lucrative job. That's not his job, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't understand being poor.

3) You said: "I think one of the weirdest things to me about asking for advice is that nobody knows whether to tell me to fight or to quit." Would you prefer people to just tell you one way or the other? Why should they have more information than you do to make that conclusion?

At 3:06 PM, Blogger GruntledPostdoc said...

Being aware of the possibility that we're locked in this game of misery-begets-more-misery doesn't really help you overcome it.Reminds me of another movie, About Schmidt, where Jack Nicholson's character tells his therapist, "I'm drowning here, and you're describing the water!"

I've done the therapy thing, and had the same problem with it...

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Lou said...

I think you should - you're obviously not happy with the one you have now.
Therapists are human too, and so it comes down to personal interaction between you and her. From what you have written, it doesn't seem like she is really listening to you, and that you do not trust her so you withold your thoughts.
If it doesn't work, and you're frustrated, choose another one.

At 5:26 PM, Blogger Alicia M Prater, PhD said...

It takes a certain demeanor to survive in a science career. Not everyone is cut out for it, for whatever reasons. You can be the best scientist in the world, but if it makes you miserable it's no good as a career choice. I miss the lab sometimes, I want to take part in the positive things, but I'm just not cut out for the politics and minutiae (like grant deadlines and the financial struggle) - I don't have the demeanor to handle it in a positive manner. So I went a different route that still keeps me in science. I don't think I could ever go back to bench research - it'd be like becoming a race car driver. Sure, I've driven fast, but I don't have the demeanor to actually race others. Not everyone does.

BTW, I can't believe your therapist suggested that a movie could help you. For the most part, what one takes away from a film (which is giving You've Got Mail too much credit) is subjective. You should tell her it made you more depressed because Meg Ryan is taking things in stride and it makes you feel like less of a person just to see if the therapist realizes what a backfired idea it could've been. (then fire her)

At 7:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you could also see "Up" which is out now, also about loss and moving on (which does always seem to be about moving on to better things!, although maybe that's just Hollywood).

I tend to go with the biblical mantra "This too shall pass". Even if you were in the perfect spot right now, you'd still be constantly at the risk of losing it. Maybe you'd get the faculty position, an R01, but no renewal, and then kicked to the curb. Everyone has to deal with the "what if this doesn't work out?" question, I guess some people just repress it. Others are blissfully ignorant. Sometimes I think it's a curse to be able to pay attention to and pick up on things so well.

My last move was from grad school to postdoc. I remember feeling pretty defeated at the end of grad school. Kind of like I just finished a marathon-in last place. When I changed environments I soon felt much better because in that new environment all that I went through previously started to paid off. It's like I had been discounting all the knowledge and skills and progress I had made in the old position. All of it was revealed in the new place, and probably only could have been revealed in a new place. And I'm not saying it was something specific to the new lab or anything, it's more like I just sloughed off my old snake skin and was a fresh new creature (from my perspective).

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

when it comes to the actual science then yes persistence and tenacity often pays off. tackling a difficult problem for however long it takes - years perhaps - is what makes the breakthrough happen, assuming that you continue to have the resources to pursue it for that long. Nothing in life that is worth having, comes easy. Picking off low-hanging fruit is not as personally fulfilling as success that is hard-won and difficult to obtain.

But the thing is, in doing the actual science you have many more things under your direct control which is why persistence eventually pays off. (unless you are always completely barking up the wrong tree which hopefully should not happen often if you are a good scientist)

But when it comes to career prospects in science there is very little that is within your control. We all know how the system is fraught with politics and how a few powerful people control everything for everyone else. We know that if you don't fit a certain mold to put you in the insider's club, then the odds are significantly stacked against you. When so little is within your control, knowing when to cut your losses and leave is I think the better model to follow...and along these lines...Since you gave the analogy with a movie, I will give my own analogy via a Madonna song (the Power of Goodbye). here it is on youtube for those not familiar with it:
sure the song is about letting go of relationships but i think it applies just as well to letting go of any other long-held dream or something that you have had a love/hate relationship with. There comes a time when the relief from the pain ending, can outweigh the devastation of the dream ending.

At 5:19 AM, Anonymous bsci said...

It seems the odd lack of advise on the stay or leave question directly relates to question of what is next. For all the negatives you are getting a salary which, I assume, is livable. It might be worth quitting if you know what you're going to do next and it will either give you more job satisfaction or the same lack of satisfaction, but more money and a potentially better direction.

I know you struggle a lot with wondering what else you want to do, but it seems important to make at least some progress in that direction before leaving your current job.

At 6:40 AM, Anonymous chall said...

on a note about therapy, I'm not sure you'd find the "answers" just in therapy. Usually it makes it easier to reflect and think about what is important to you, when ever the next choice comes up. It's not always fast in time though.

Personally, I find that it is harder to make decisions the older I get - leaving or not leaving science is one of those. I don't know where I'll be next year this time, I don't know if I will be in science or not but I doubt it will be in Academia since I have't applied for one single grant.... also a choice I would think?!

I wish you luck with deciding and trying to suss out what you want. A friend of mine said, I didn't know that I was sure about leaving science until one day when it just seemed like there was a sun in the day and I applied for That Job and got it. It wasn't hard to leave Academiascience hen.

I guess I am waiting for the moment and until then am kind of happy where I am.

At 8:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many people surely have given you the advice that you should leave science. Surely they must have. I know I have before on your blog. You should leave. You are miserable. Life is better elsewhere. I was a postdoc and I was miserable. I left science and I am happy. I did not stay as long as you and get as miserable as you are. I think that was a mistake on your part. It only makes it harder.

No one knows if you will achieve what you want in science. I think that's why no one can advise you if you should stay or go. No one knows because it is unknowable. You think, and they think, that if you achieve your end goal, it's all worth it.

I think it is not. I think you are damaging yourself. I think you should leave. You are gambling with your life. I think gambling with something as important as your life is the wrong thing to do. That is why I am advising you to leave at the earliest opportunity. Make a plan and execute it. You will be happier.

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous thinkerbell said...

Nice post. And from what I can tell you are right and exactly where you say you are: ready to stop with thearapy. In my opinion, as soon as you realize it's up to you, you are ready to quit seeing your therapist. It's time for a more proactive and less let's-talk-about-it approach. Sounds like you would benefit more from a coach than a therapist (distinct difference!). Also, have you talked to people at your University's career center? Probably you have, but how about going back to them again knowing what you know now? Get one of those career assesment thingies, see if you really like science or if there are fields you like too but just never thought about. As for the quitting part: it's scary as hell but it is definitely NOT the end of your life should you decide to do that. And on another quote: you only regret the decisions you don't make. (Obviously this cheerful advice is coming as I have finally gotten an experiment to work after xx tries.). I have to say, I love your breakdown of YGM, never looked at the movie like that (also don't think you are supposed to, it's a romantic comedy after all, not a career movie), but it made for some interesting reading. Good luck!

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched this semi-recently (or multiple parts as it tends to be on many times over a short span), and was disheartened by her seeming lack of caring as well. She seems to give up or take defeat all too easily. It's so hard to know when to pack it all in, and I wish I could say. The ridiculous optimist in me always wins out and I always hope that more work will make it better. We'll see, I guess.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger Psycgirl said...

I'm sorry your therapy hasn't helped :( Maybe you should talk to your therapist about it, and she can try something new?

Personally, I'd always prefer my clients to tell me when something isn't working, so we can figure it out together. (And as a grad student, I'm sure she has struggled with money at some point.)

That movie does seem like a pretty shitty example though...

At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a new reader here so apologies if this is out of context. I relate so much to your job in/decision and to the therapist business. There are two things it might help to keep in mind. Firstly, whatever decision you make, once you make it and move forward with 100% commitment, will feel much better than perpetual indecision. It isn't a clear decision but you have to move forward for your own happiness. Also, if you are a postdoc now, whatever step you take next (in or outside of academia) will be very different day to day than your job now. If it is the system you hate, than that doesn't help. But if it is your daily tasks that you hate, maybe that does.

At 3:14 PM, Anonymous movie buff said...

I don't think the movie your therapist suggested was very realistic. it's a mainstream hollywood movie after all, it's all about cliche characters and story trajectories. Of course the Meg Ryan character appears to get over her loss so effortlessly and move on quickly. And of course she meets a man soon after and that makes everything OK.... In reality though, what are the chances that if you've just lost your livelihood that you're gonna be in a frame of mind that makes you attractive enough to a potential romantic partner to spark a relationship? but this is hollywood. Showing her unable to meet ends meet from the loss of her business, sinking into bankruptcy and subsequently turning to alchoholism or drug abuse to cope is not going to fit the rom-com genre which is what this movie is.

Maybe your therapist was trying to simplify things by recommending such a simplistic movie. May help, or may not.

At 4:07 PM, Anonymous oliviacw said...

Tangential note on "You've Got Mail" - it's not as good as the play on which it is based (a Hungarian play from the 1930s). English-language versions which are better than "You've Got Mail" include "The Shop Around the Corner" (film, 1940s) and "She Loves Me" (Broadway play, not currently running). Incidentally, in the original and earlier remakes, the man and woman are coworkers in the same shop, and aren't business competitors, which gives a very different dynamic.

At 3:00 AM, Anonymous ancient physics postdoc said...

Hi MsPhD - I can relate to a lot of what you write here, having experienced similar things and thoughts (although minus the therapy experience). In case it's any use in your situation, here are some things I've done and strategies I've planned for dealing with stuff.

1) Regarding the quit/continue question: This is something I ask directly to *some* of my mentors every once in a while. One needs to be careful about this, since (i) some people (typically more senior and reserved ones) will find this question uncomfortable and off-putting, and (ii) among the "mentors" there may be ones who really don't give a shit either way and will blow you off with some bland non-answer. But it is the "mentors" who are in a better position than anybody to answer this question, provided they care enough to give a proper and truthful answer. And there is a psychological trick here: If the the mentor advises "continue" then he/she will feel under more pressure help you succeed (e.g., by writing a stronger recommendation letter) since he/she feels responsible for sending you on in this direction.

2) Earlier this year I expected to have to finally leave academia later in the year, and started planning for it. My exit strategy was to try to find a postdoc position working on some physics-related research topic of direct relevance to industry (completely different from my previous research) and use it as a stepping stone to an industry career in that area. (The specific topic I had in mind was numerical solutions of partial differential equations for stuff like electromagnetism, which is quite a major area of applied physics in industry. Maybe you could choose something like bio-statistics? No doubt there are other possible topics in applied biosciences that I don't have a clue about.)

It's probably very difficult to start an industry career without relevant experience, so doing a postdoc in the relevant area seems a solution here. It might be hard to find such a postdoc position in an area one hasn't worked in before, but on the other hand maybe it's not so hard since (i) postdocs in applied areas are generally more plentiful and easier to get than in "fundamental" areas, and (ii) the applied folks tend to naively regard the ones doing fundamental research as being "really smart", and may therefore be glad to hire such a person who wishes to change to an applied topic, despite the person's lack of previous experience in the topic.

There were a couple of possible endpoints I hoped to reach in this career transition:
(i) Develop enough specialized expertise and contacts to eventually set up as an independent consultant -- working from home, taking on as much or as little work as I feel like, never having to get out of bed before noon, etc :)
(ii) Make some research advances on the applied stuff that leads to a concrete improvement on previous methods (at least in some cases). Develop a new commercial product (e.g., software package) based on this, and set up own business to develop and sell it.

A commenter in a previous thread on this blog wrote about the feeling of loss at leaving academia being replaced by a feeling of exhilaration when contemplating the possibilities in his/her new life. Same happened to me after contemplating the preceding for a while.
At any rate, good luck and best wishes for whatever you do.

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Candid Engineer said...

In my experience, the most useful thing I have ever gotten from my multiple bouts in therapy is the ability to cope. The know how, the tools to help yourself do the things/make the decisions you need to do and make. If your therapist isn't helping you with this, find another. I second the opinion of seeking out someone in cognitive therapy.

Expecting a silly movie to yield profound life answers is well, silly. Your therapist was probably just trying to be helpful, but this was obviously not the way.

You know, leaving science for now does not need to be the end of the game for you. You could potentially leave for now, try to find something else that you love and focus on it. Maybe you will love your new life immensely. Maybe you will miss the science. Maybe taking a step in a different direction will yield the answers you are looking for. You can always step back into science at a later time if you feel you've taken a wrong turn. Maybe it wouldn't be as easy or as pretty, but you could do it.


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