Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Black Hole of Early Postdocdom

If I were ever directly asked in an interview what my biggest weakness is, what I would say out loud is my risk of over-commitment which can lead to burn-out if I am not mindful. But that is not my actual biggest weakness as a professional.

My biggest weakness is fear of appearing less than independent. Which often leads me to a lack of asking for help, even when I know this might speed things along. Which leads to stunted progress and lack of momentum.

I have spent the first month of my post doc in a Sisyphus-style loop of working as independently as possible, then running into a major road-block which forces me to overcome my fear of being burdensome to ask for a small bit of advice from a colleague/mentor. From there, I begin pushing my rock uphill again.

In the lab that I was incredibly fortunate to join, there are teams of scientists whose independent research is connected by a common theme (i.e., a disease, a biological systems function). When I interviewed to join the lab, I met my likely future teammates and was thrilled to be able to work alongside and get to know them. However, the week before I started my PI advised a complete project switch [allegedly] based on facilitating my career goals. Now, I don't really have a team. I am isolated both conceptually and geographically from everyone except the lab manager (who is fabulous, but not the person from whom I need to absorb training).

My "team" consists of two tangential and very senior [read: checked out or physically not around] lab members, who I have to force to meet together once a month, and who I occasionally see individually during the week. I am pursuing experiments on my own using techniques that I have never used, in an environment where I have not been shown the rules of conduct (e.g., which centrifuges are so old they have particularities, or that we have a core of microscopes instead of our own). This forces me to ask any one of the 52 members of the lab where things are, how to arrange time on apparatus, and how to generally function in this world.

Everyone is very kind and helpful with small or vague bits of information, but without teammates I am not being trained, nor ingesting information about my new field beyond the literature. I am trouble-shooting in re-inventing the wheel when I should instead be trouble-shooting new questions and pursuing experiments that at least have the illusion of forward momentum.

I have always been in smaller labs prior to my post doc, but this massive operation with 12 postdocs among many others is a whole new world for me. Etiquette is different. Expectations are different. Independence is different. I have met with my new PI once since I started 6 weeks ago, and still being in the early stage of needing to appear competent was too scared to bring up any questions of real substance.


The black hole of Early Postdocdom is eclipsed only by the ominous cloud that is HMO health insurance, and the anxiety over missing my first treatment in 7 years due to inherent absurdities of the "system".

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

first guest post!

Earlier this week I was thrilled to be able to write a guest post for the Portrait of a Scientist as a Young Woman blog, of which I have been a huge fan for several years.

My first day at New Job is tomorrow.  I expect it to be slow-going, as my project focus has changed drastically since I interviewed.  In the midst of relief that I hadn't spent all summer becoming an expert in my earlier project (procrastination, for the win!), I am beginning to feel the true weight of entering into the unique position of post doc, a.k.a, Expert Novice.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

on taking "time off"

Free time is a strange thing.

When I arranged the time interval graduation and beginning my postdoc, I was advised by several reputable and wide-ranging sources to take 2-3 months off if at all possible. It was, so I did.

I approached this time with dread, fearing that in three months away from the bench I would lose pipetting and critical thinking skills alike. That I would swiftly facilitate moving to New Job City and spend two months traveling but mostly bored out of my mind. That is not even remotely what happened.

It took two beastly months to move to New Job City, during which I also became H.K.'s interim administrative assistant as he generously moved his expanding Company to said city. When the dust began to settle, I worked furiously for weeks to transfer medical referrals and authorizations so that I would not miss my next treatment. A nightmare, which culminated yesterday in the most sketch and traumatizing infusion I have ever experienced [in 7 years, y'all].

The "to-read" tower beside my bed has been marginally reduced. Our new domicile now feels like a Home. I have taken up and played a substantial amount of Hearthstone. I've indulged in some delicious wine. Last week, our typical world travel logistics reversed as I followed H.K. to Europe for one of his conventions.

It's been time well-spent, and now that I have one week left before New Job begins, I am feeling a bit of panic. Because contrary to my early anticipation, I am not sure that I'm ready for it to be over. I'm mildly afraid to return to the bench, because although these last three months have been productive, I wanted to do so much more. And concern lingers that I may have forgotten how to pipet or design experiments.

Then, of course, there is the existential deliberation over whether the ability to refrain from reading literature for three months -- excepting the occasional abstract (which shocks me to my core, btw) -- means that I am not a serious scientist.


Through all of this, the Crohn's baby has been restless. Unleashing a roller coaster tantrum the likes of which I have not experienced in years. Although I have semi-successfully transitioned to a New Job City Gastroenterologist, and been "controlling" symptoms with diet, over-the-counter and donation-accepting remedies... let's just say I spent plenty of Euros visiting Europe's public toiletten/s.

Friday, July 22, 2016

new beginnings

It seems to have been 3 years since I either gave up on and/or forgot about writing here.  But having some time on my hands to revisit some old posts and comments, I'm so very glad to have these memories, thought processes and states of mind cataloged.

Two months ago, I successfully defended my PhD, something which I could barely fathom in a realistic way when I started this blog.  Not only that, I will be starting a post doctoral fellowship in September in a lab whose size, prestige, momentum, warmth and [dare I say] luxurious environment I was not prepared for.  Once again, H.K. and I relocated for my career.  He and his career are flourishing.  All of this I can review in a later post.  It is likely worth reflecting in summary on my graduate experience and finding the way forward.

For now, a period has ended, and there is a way forward.  But for the first time in my conscience existence, I don't know where it will lead.  And that is both terrifying and exulting.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

this is who i am

This week, I have been attending my first international conference, specialized to my brain region(s) of interest.  It has been absolutely phenomenal.  The resort where it's being held is the nicest place I have ever stayed, the food is spectacular, I am making new acquaintances slowly but surely, and the content... is pretty much like losing ones virginity: it hurts [my brain] sooo much, but I can't get enough of it and I want to stay in this world forever.

It reminds me that I have been wrenched apart from this [insert brain region(s)] world by entering into a graduate program where the only expert around is yours truly.  I love my program, the people in it and the experiences that I'm having, but I miss this other world like nobody's business.  And I want back in.

I want back in so badly that I am already perusing for potential post graduate positions.  One of the several amazing things about this conference is that it is small (~300 p), and there are many big players here.  I sought out one of these fellows and engaged in an either triumphant (he remembers my name) or catastrophic (he remembers my name and blacklists me) conversation wherein I suggested that he made an unfair claim in a paper, and he ended up seceding that I was correct.  That was my shining moment at this conference. [UPDATE:  I met said giant of neuroscience at a workshop several months later in Italy, and not only did he remember me, but we had a very pleasant conversation.  I love science.]

I had hoped that the poster session would go so well, but alas, I was the only therapeutics poster in the whole show and folks were much more anatomy and e-phys oriented this year.  One of the either great or unfortunate things about this conference (depending on your focus) is that the overarching direction of the theme can be pretty biased depending on who is organizing it that year and how many of their cronies are the primary speakers.

As such, my poster was not the star of the show and I have not yet been offered a post doc position.  Neither of these things are remotely reasonable expectations.  But this is who I am.  I set unreasonable goals with ridiculous standards, and that is how I am granted travel awards and fellowships, but it is also why I am sitting here tonight regretting that I did not try harder to be sociable.  That I did not harass all of the people that I could have.  That I did not reel them all in, and that I probably wont win the "Best Poster" award.

Monday, February 11, 2013

do not be self-defeatist

Sunday night came and went with far too little trouble.  No panic attack, no depressive bout.  I'm sure the beer helped.

I spent the weekend buying new Office software, backing up my home desktop computer in order to reformat to Windows 7 in order to be able to use said software, and furiously putting together 3 presentations.  I practiced one of them so many times on Sunday that my tongue gave out on me.  And then I decided to take a break.  With beer.

This morning, I am paying for the beer (2 bottles, btw) -- and probably the relaxation as well -- with unrelenting morning nausea and dizziness.  How I made the bike ride to work is a mystery.  How I will make it home later is an even greater mystery.

But in this physical unpleasantness, being thankful that all the undergrads are taking midterms this week and are not all up in my grill, I am making an honest effort to not be self-defeatist.  A subtle metaphor to my weekend, it is somewhat like reformatting my default mode and replacing it with a new operating system.

My week is not doomed from the start, my anxiety is unfounded, and the academic world will not decide Wednesday afternoon that I am not fit for a PhD. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that I'll run 2 min over.  Do not be self-defeatist, do not be self-defeatist, do not be self-defeatist.

Monday, February 4, 2013

barely hanging on

Mondays are supposed to be my easy days.  They are the only days where I do not have to teach, take a class, attend a seminar or schlep back and forth between the main and medical campuses multiple times.    Mondays are supposed to by my get-your-shit-together days.  I haven't had a good Monday since December.

The impetus of everything I am doing for this degree is that I love --generally speaking -- science itself. And I love that I have the freedom and opportunity to dance with it.  This term particularly, I am severely lacking in that love.  All I want to do is sleep.  Because I don't sleep.  I don't do yoga anymore.  I barely eat and when I do it is desperately and not healthily.  I don't relax... ever.  I am so deeply freaked out by the awesomeness of my commitments this term that I am, in fact, barely functioning.  When I finally do fall asleep, it is not for long, and when I am forced to get out of bed in the morning -- get ready for this one -- my ambitions for the day are drowned out by the abounding excuses to stay in bed.  Y'all.  This is a phenomenon generally unfathomable to the Ragamuffin.  It's like my body is trying to speak to me... I can almost make it out... "you have an autoimmune disease... yooooou jackaaaaass...!"

Today, I hate everything and everyone and am even pissed off at my boss for no particular reason.  I am pissed off at my brain and its lack of cooperation with my demands.  I am pissed off at my demands for being so unreasonable.  I am pissed off at 2 of my 3 undergrads for aspiring to nothing despite my most fervent efforts to make them love and commit to what they are doing under my supervision (so much so that I may have to "let them go"... seriously.  I have never encountered this situation in my 5 years of mentoring 14 undergrads...).  I am pissed off at my lack of creativity, and at my not being a good enough teacher or student.

My body hurts, my brain hurts, my heart hurts.

I want to go to sleep.