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.)

Competitive Busy-ness

I am flying home to stay with my family.

Naturally, it coincides with a conference (that’s the life of an academic). I have decided to stay with my family from the end of the conference (late- November) until after Christmas. It was kind of annoying the way the dates worked out but I figured that I couldn’t pass off the opportunity to go home, and I will have lots of writing up to be doing, so being away from the lab shouldn’t affect my progress.

When I tell people I am going home for two months, in short: they don’t make me feel great about myself.

“Haha, alright for some!”

“How do you get away with it?”

“I didn’t take a holiday for 4 years when I was doing my PhD!”

They make me feel guilty. Which is ridiculous…I will still be working for the majority of time when I am at home. I know I will be OK. My supervisor knows I will be OK. I guess one thing I need to get over is giving a crap about what people think (unless of course those people are people whose opinions ACTUALLY matter).

But another thing this made me think about was the concept of competitive busy-ness. Exaggerating how hard we work or how little time we take off, or even how stressed out we are, and playing these things against each other. It’s a game we play with our…

…partners: “Today was insane, I haven’t stopped to think…” / “YOUR day was insane, you should have been at my office!”

…friends: “Sorry, I’ve just been so flat out with X and Y, I haven’t had the opportunity to call and catch up in so long!” / “Oh no, I’m just as bad, I’ve been crazy busy, I feel terrible.”

…and our colleagues: “I can’t wait to finish with this bloody X.” / “Oh tell me about it, I have piles of Y to do and it’s going to take up so much time.”

All this roughly translates as: “I AM JUSTIFYING MY EXISTENCE BY ACCENTUATING MY RESPONSIBILITIES AND THINGS I HAVE TO DO.” It’s a really unhealthy and depressing habit to get stuck into. It’s also a pretty dangerous game to play with yourself.

It’s quite easy to get stuck into though, and I found myself doing it this week. I have lots of data to gather for an upcoming deadline so I was coming into the lab early and leaving late. Towards the end of the day, my brain was frazzled and I took twice as long to do things as I had to keep fixing up my mistakes. I would go home, tired and grumpy, but come in and do the same thing the next day, because on some weird level, it felt good to be run-down and flustered. It meant I had got the most out of my day. I must have done, right? A 10 hour day HAS to be productive…?

In reality, I know that just coming in and having a thoroughly productive and focused 9-5 work day is 100% more effective and better for my well-being than working a scattered, depressing, 8-6 day. But at this stage in my research, it’s easier to count hours than it is to count productivity, and thus count those hours as “justification tokens”, just so I can feel good about myself. It’s an addictive cycle.

I hope that I can learn to accept that the quality and quantity of work I can achieve in a “normal” work day is definitely acceptable, and I shouldn’t try and out-compete myself if it only results in (and feeds) anxiety.