Today I decided that it’s time for me to write a really honest post about what is happening behind the scenes around here. I want to share my still-unfolding story with you because that’s what writers do: they tell stories, sometimes other people’s stories and sometimes their own story. This is my story.
It’s been a really hard summer. In June, I received an evaluation at work in which I was told that my performance “needed improvement.” I was informed that if my performance did not improve by October of 2011, my position may be eliminated. In a nutshell, I’ve struggled in my research since I started my postdoc in October 2009. My main project, the project on which my advisor and I thought I was guaranteed success, failed to go anywhere. It failed to thrive. I spent over a year on that project, trying to make some progress, but all I got was negative data and frustration. This type of failure is really common in science—it happens all the goddamn time. At the end of last summer, when it became clear that this “surefire project” was becoming elusive, I started working on a secondary project. On that secondary project, I also generated a lot of negative results (which, again, is very normal in science!), but very slowly, I started building a project. I started seeing an interesting phenomenon, one that repeated itself, and I thought, Could this be real?
The new project has had its share of ups and downs, but there was a trickle of interesting data that kept me intrigued, so I continued to work on it. For a variety of reasons, the work on that project was slow, but I kept plugging away at it. The aforementioned “guaranteed success” project faded from my everyday thoughts, but it didn’t fade from my advisor’s thoughts when he did my annual evaluation. Because I had failed to make progress on that particular project, and because my advisor and I had been going through a rough patch, he gave me a really negative evaluation. To be honest, I had been expecting a negative evaluation because things weren’t going so well between us, but still, when I finally held the document in my hands, its words shook me hard and long.
I did what anyone would do: I cried. I got mad, I felt sorry for myself, and I panicked. I talked to friends. Then I got to work: I wrote a rebuttal to my evaluation, using a rational, evidence-based approach in my responses. I met with my advisor a few days later, bringing my rebuttal with me. We hashed it out, quite calmly even, and we came up with a plan for the summer. Then it was time for me to show and prove: show him that I could do the experiments and prove that my project and I were worth our spot (and funding!) in the lab.
So I got to work, and I worked hard. I was in the lab seven days a week, trying to crank it out. I’m still in that phase now, though I’d say things feel more optimistic to me than they did three months ago. One thing that I decided against doing, even though it would have been reasonable to do it, was launch into a job search. I thought long and hard about whether I should just find another job and walk away from this one. There were two good reasons not to start a job search right away. The first and best reason is that I liked my project. I still do. And I wanted to give it my best shot to see if I could build a story out of it. The second is that four months is not a lot of time in the research world. Blink and four months will have passed. If I really wanted to give my best effort in the lab in those four months, I couldn’t be distracted by looking for jobs elsewhere. I had to focus.
In June, immediately following my evaluation, I was a wreck: angry, anxious, scared. I don’t think I’ve ever received such negative feedback on my work. It was demoralizing and upsetting, even if I didn’t agree with all the specifics of the evaluation. I’ve always been a hard worker and a high achiever, but now I was facing a boss who was telling me otherwise. And the thing is, he wasn’t totally wrong. I had been struggling in my research. I had been unlucky. And I was frustrated with that. But never before had an advisor come down so hard on me. It rattled me.
I took my time, processing the aftershocks of the bad news. Perhaps it sounds like I was overreacting, but consider this: in my life, my work is huge. It’s my livelihood, of course, but it’s also part of my identity and my pride. I moved 1100 miles for this job, giving up all my local friends and comforts as well as easy travel back to Michigan to see my family. I made huge sacrifices for my current job because I thought it was worth it. And now here it was, crumbling beneath my feet, despite my best efforts to make it work.
But here is the amazing thing: after giving myself time to feel however I happened to feel, I have arrived at a better place. Research-wise, I feel optimistic about the future. More importantly, I feel at peace about whatever happens. I may still lose my job (or as I like to say, because it sounds better, “my contract may not be renewed”), but I know that I gave it my best effort. That’s really all I can do. The only way for me to guarantee that my experiments will yield a particular result is for me to fake the data, which is not a strategy I endorse. For me, recognizing that all I can do is perform the experiments patiently and thoughtfully was a huge step toward making peace with my situation.
Is my situation still anxiety-provoking? Yes, absolutely. Not knowing whether I will have a monthly income in November does not make me happy. But for now, I’ve chosen to focus on what I do have, which is a few more months in this job. After that, we will see what happens.
Either way, everything is going to be okay. That much I know.
Here’s a photo to illustrate my research interests. Any guesses?