The Pointy End

I just returned home from a wonderful conference (and holiday – cue strange looks from fellow scientists). I’m feeling inspired but also terrified. I’ve realised how awesome my project (potentially) is, but also the huge amount of work I have to do before I get there. I digress; I have a lot of stories to tell from last month’s experiences, and this realisation of what my future potentially holds is just one of them. And it’s not the one I’m supposed to be telling right now. Ahem.

On the first morning of the conference I sat myself at a breakfast  table with a pair of senior (ish) scientists who I had been introduced to the previous evening. They told me about another great conference which was coming up in 2016, and advised me to attend if not just for the science, then the venue. I replied that I hoped I’d be finished up with my PhD by then, so maybe I couldn’t attend.

Them: “Oh, but you’ll still be in the field.”

Me: “Yeh, maybe.”

Them: *genuine blank faces* “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, I don’t know if I’ll stay on in research.”

I don’t think I can quite describe the looks on their faces, only that they led to my immediate realisation that I had made the scientist faux-pas equivalent of farting loudly at the dinner table, or maybe proudly admitting to killing my own mother. I felt extremely ashamed and unprofessional, worried that I had just casually blown several career bridges.  These guys were going to be warning anyone and everyone about that crazy bitch who thought there was a life outside of academia.

As well as ashamed and unprofessional, I also felt viscously defensive. For once, I was able to keep my opinions to myself and instead internalised my rage, ready for a highly emotionally charged text marathon with my supervisor later that evening.

How many other senior scientists are completely unaware of the fact that they are in the pointy end of the research career triangle? What do they think happens to all those PhD students who waft in and out of their peripheral vision while they’re busy leaning back in their office chair, hands behind their back, legs spread wide in a macho stance, while they tell everyone to “JUST GET IT DONE.”?

(sidenote: I may have had several unfavourable experiences with these Silverback types.)

This ingrained ideology of academia being the One True Path is many things.

  1. It is unrealistic (see above: IT’S A TRIANGLE).
  2. It is unsupportive (see above: invocation of shame, inadequacy and unprofessionalism).
  3. It is unhelpful.

So what should “we” (i.e. scientists, research community, universities) do? What IS helpful?

Here is when I call upon a recent episode of RN’s Life Matters, “Early career scientists trapped in ‘perpetual adolescence’”. The show featured Prof Doug Hilton (Director of WEHI in Melbourne) and Dr Melina Georgousakis (founder of Franklin Women and senior research officer, National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance). Both of these fantastic scientists emphasised the idea that we need to see a change.

We need a change in culture in science; we need to let scientists know, from an early stage in their training, that if you don’t stay in academia, you’re not a failure and you’re not letting the system down. We also need more training for postgrads where the assumption isn’t made that they will be the Silverbacks of the future. By the time we graduate, we already have obtained so many skills, on top of the “technical stuff”; we just need to get better at realising this and promoting ourselves and our talent.

This all being said, the idea of leaving research forever does make me sad. My project is part of me, and I can’t imagine letting it go completely. I’ve actually spoken to several scientists in industry, who all recommend that I try to make it in research before trying in any other field. This makes me mad. I don’t want to get to the point where I’m forced to surrender a particular career. I want to call the shots!

To quote Amy Poehler, it’s best to, “treat your career like a bad boyfriend.”.

“Your career won’t take care of you. It won’t call you back or introduce you to its parents. Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around… it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go to sleep with somebody else”.

But the question is, can I really break it off with my “bad boyfriend”, before he breaks it off with me? Do I have the courage? What if he really does turn it around? From experience, it hurts like hell whether you are the dumper or the dump-ee.

There is always be that period of mourning.

My career strategy has always been: don’t have one. Keep your eyes open for every opportunity that comes your way, and do what interests you. As Tina Fey says, “Say yes, and you’ll figure it all out afterwards.” I know I hardly have a lifetime of experience to reflect on, but this strategy has worked for me so far.

In conclusion I guess, I’ve learned/ reinforced to myself:

  1. I need to keep my eyes open for every opportunity.
  2. I need to be aware of my own awesomeness.
  3. The One True Path is BS (i.e. fuck the haters.)

Walking Backwards, Blindfolded (Crying)

During my last few chaotic weeks of mysterious experimental hiccups, I found it really hard to leave work in the evening with anything on my mind other than failure. To leave a day of work unfulfilled, with the weight of wasted time and energy, is never a great feeling. But, if you’re emotionally intelligent and in control, it’s somewhat possible to talk yourself down from a mountain of negativity. Usually, there are lessons hidden in our mistakes and ‘wasted time’. Usually, a rest and a new day can do wonders to shake those feelings of guilt.

In the instance of research however, we can go through really long periods of (perceived) failure and wasted time. Not only can it take a long time to progress forward, but you tend get very frequent reminders of just how stagnant you/ your work/ your progress is along the way. Each day brings new mysteries to be placed between you and your goals.

For example: you have samples for which you want to collect data for using an experimental method. You might think that Step 1 of this progress would be:

1. Collect data for your samples using an experimental method.

You dive in with all good intentions, before quickly realising that Step 1 is actually:

1. Read everything you can get your hands on about the experimental method.

Then, you think you’re ready. Back to the lab, let’s run the protocol. Ooops. Those results can’t be accurate. Maybe you were wrong…

1. Correct experimental method so as to control for numerable variables.

As you start to tweak the protocols for your specific needs, you realise that maybe you need to make changes to the work flow BEFORE this experimental method can even be performed. For example, the way you collect or store or prepare your samples…

Before you know it, you are weeks into a project and you haven’t even carried out the Step 1 which you thought was the Step 1 back when this whole nightmare began. Far from moving forwards, you’re walking backwards, as you keep illuminating just how much work actually needs to be done before you can reach your original goal. And every day brings more ideas and mysteries that need to be consulted; despite all the work performed, your workload is actually GROWING. Even though you might achieve something in a day: answer a question, shed some light, perform one step of a hundred step protocol; it feels as though you have achieved nothing, or at least nothing worth feeling good about. When even success feels like failure, it’s not a great place to be as far as mental health is concerned.

My supervisor often tells us (her four students) off for comparing ourselves to each other.

I suppose the same goes for comparing our actual successes to our target successes. It’s a waste of time and it’s really an invalid process to go through. Sometimes, those original targets were envisioned many months, many papers, many experiments ago, before the scale of the task at hand was truly understood. While it’s great to have targets for your research, sometimes unanticipated mysteries of science can get in the way of achieving them. The only thing you can do is give these mysteries the space and time and energy they need: and stop beating yourself up about it (it’s really not your fault).