Friday, August 26, 2011

On Perseverance

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. 

Sticky Feets

Here’s a photo to illustrate my research interests.  Any guesses?


Raquelita said...

I understand what it is like to carry that kind of anxiety around all the time. I was unsure for much of the spring whether or not my contract here would be renewed and after I had two on campus interviews for tenure-track positions that did not ultimately result in job offers I had a rough few weeks in March and April. I hope that your contract is renewed and that you will be able to continue your research! In the meantime, try to remain in this optimistic place (I'm going to try to take my own advice here as well and be hopeful and positive about the job market cycle to come).

Valerie said...

Hey Roseanne! Its Valerie from Albion. I hope you remember me (I'm pretty sure you do since we're fb friends).

I stumbled across your blog quite accidentally a year ago when I was perusing the interwebs for something tasty and healthy to make for lunches. I was pleasantly surprised to find you posting all kinds of good stuff. I've been meaning to leave you a comment for a long time now, but you know how it is...So, today's post seemed like a good time to just say something!

I am really sorry to hear about your troubles with you current situation. I remember how smart and hard working you were (and likely still are!). Its rough when one person says something to totally derail you, especially when that person is your boss. I don't know the right words to say, but you seem to have found peace in all this mess. Good for you! Attitude really does mean a lot, and you have so much potential. I am positive you will find a good resolution. In the meantime, just know that I'm rooting for you. I've been there too, and found myself on the other side--and stronger for getting through it. Whew...that was a lot of words! Good luck!


Rosiecat said...

Raquelita, I really wish that academia were not so fraught with anxiety for its younger members. We all know how crappy the job market is, especially for tenure-track positions, so it's hard to be optimistic! But I'm glad your contract was renewed, and I wish you the best of luck with the next job cycle. I know it's stressful.

I am definitely holding onto my optimism!

Valerie, hi! Yes, of course I remember you! That's so fun that you happened to find me by chance. I believe you when you say that attitude means a lot, so I try to keep my spirits up, though that's not always easy. It might sound cheesy, but I really do believe that professionally, I have a lot to offer, and while I'd like to stay in my current job, I feel hopeful that if I leave this job, another great opportunity will find me.

I'm glad you found your way through your challenge. That gives me hope too :-) Thanks so much for your comment--that was sweet of you to say hello and to let me know you are out there reading.

Shannon said...

Eeek, you're right, everything will be ok!! and i'm sorry to hear about how this post-doc is going :( science is tough. I've been in quite the similar situation (with no real phenotype on a seemingly solid project), but have been able to get by... need to make some positive changes, though. i'm off to shoot you an email, we'll definitely chat soon!! *hugs*

Rosiecat said...

I know you're right, Shannon: lots of people have bad luck or crappy experiences during their postdoc, and nevertheless, they are able to pursue a career in science. I'm glad you've been able to get by, despite the bad luck in your project! My "solid" project imploded, and I just couldn't keep working on something that gave me nothing but negative results. I'm glad I quit that project when I did--it was the right decision for me.

Hope things are going better for you these days...I'm looking forward to chatting :-)

Chrissy (The New Me) said...

I read this post when you published it and meant to come back with a thoughtful comment, but never did. Good think I marked it as unread in Google Reader!

Jobs are never easy, are they? And I don't even think it matters what field you're in - they always seem to cause anxiety and strife and stress. Granted, your situation is a bit more tenuous than just despising your desk, so I understand how hard this has all been for you. But I hope you can find consolation in the fact that you love your work, even if it doesn't always love you back. That sort of makes you sound like a martyr, which is not my intention.

This comment makes no sense, so I will end it by saying I am thinking of you and I sincerely hope everything works out and you come out on top, where you clearly belong!

Rosiecat said...

Chrissy, your comment was really insightful! It's true: jobs aren't easy, which is perhaps a reflection of the innate tensions of marketplace dynamics. I've spent most of my life preparing for a career in science, and I don't have much experience with jobs outside of the research lab. I have a very limited perspective on the working life (if that makes sense). Research is so uncertain and tenuous that it's good for me to remember that jobs, not just MY job, are emotionally challenging. And you are right: on the whole, I love my job for many reasons. I get to work with very smart people, I get to do work that nobody else has ever done (my research!), and I am well-paid for my labors. I work in a reasonably supportive environment, and I have a lot of independence. It's a good job. But it's not an *easy* job, and my anxieties about the future make it hard for me to remember all the good day-to-day things about the job.

Thank you so much for your comment--you made me think! And I love that.