Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Resilience

I would like to start this post with a wonderfully calming photo.

November Clouds

There.  That’s better!

I’ve been struggling with how exactly I’m going to write this post.  We’re going to talk about my career today, like I said we would, because this is a blog about life.  Science is a big part of my life—it’s my intellectual passion, my livelihood, part of my identity.  Being able to say now that I’m a scientist is so fun.  Working as a scientist is very challenging, but I like to think that I’ve done the best I could with what I had.  And right now, I’m in a good place, science-wise.  Over the past year, I’ve been able to take an observation and expand it into a full-blown project with publishable data and a working storyline.  I’m immensely proud of this accomplishment, and until about a week ago, I was feeling very happy with my job—I was convinced that I was well on my way to a publication.  I hadn’t put a deadline on this project, but maybe I’d guess that with another six months to a year I’d have a manuscript ready to be sent out for review.

On Friday, November 18, I met with my boss for an unexpected meeting, during which he told me that in about six months, there would be no more funding for my project.  I’ll spare you the details of that conversation, but suffice to say that it was an alarming piece of news.  I sat through the meeting the same way I sit through breakups: calmly stone-faced.  Afterward, I struggled with tears on and off for the rest of the day.  I tried to call Matt after lunch, and when I got his voicemail, I got so choked up that I couldn’t speak, so I hung up.  Later that day, I called back and left a proper message.

When we finally talked that evening, the feeling that left me most unhappy was the complete surprise of this news.  I felt like a fool, assuming that all was well with my project and my position in the lab.  I worked really hard to establish my project, and I just felt so stunned that my hard work had led me to this point.  I burned with disappointment and anger.

I can’t go into any depth here about my boss’s decision because I don’t wish to make things worse by making accusations on this public site.  You only have my story here; he can’t defend himself.  And most importantly, I have no desire to burn any bridges.  What goes around comes around, right?  One never knows what the future holds, and while I’m not religious, I think that it’s not a bad idea to cultivate good karma.  So I won’t say any more about why I’m angry, other than that I have now invested two years of time in this lab, and I’d like to see a return on my investment.  I may be angry, but I am not bat-shit crazy!

In my line of work, there are two major items that signify success: publications and funded grants.  Publications, arguably, are more important than grants because they are the record of your accomplishments: what you have done that deserves notice, praise, discussion.  Grants are important for continuing your science, and they indicate that you have good writing and project development skills.  At this point in time, my number one priority is to publish my work.  I have decided that I don’t care how flashy the journal is in which my paper is published; the important thing is that it is published, preferably within the next 6-8 months.  So that is my immediate goal—so immediate, in fact, that I’d like to start writing the paper next month.  It won’t hurt to get a good jump-start on it, even if it isn’t submitted until February or March.  (In my dreams, it will be submitted by the end of February.)

As for long-term goals, I am in serious thinking mode.  I always thought that I wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college like the one I attended, but now I’m thinking more deeply about science industry.  I am still interested in teaching, training, and pedagogy, but I find it hard to believe that those skills would go to waste in industry.

What I really want from my career is to feel like I am part of a team of equals.  Being a postdoc is pretty lonely, and in my lab, I’m doing work that is quite different from what other people are doing.  I’m the only one reading the papers in this field, which makes me feel isolated.  I don’t like it.  In academia, people become stars.  I don’t want to be a star—I want to be part of a team.  I want to contribute to something bigger than any of us could achieve on our own.  I’m wondering if science industry might fulfill that desire of mine.

I also want to spend more of my time working with people, rather than toiling away on my own experiments.  I suspect I could be quite good at project management, in part because I’m good at setting realistic goals and keeping an eye on all the moving parts.  I’m actually pretty good at multi-tasking on a large scale: planning my time so that today’s experiments get done and so that I’m ready for tomorrow’s experiments.  As Matt loves to point out, I am an excellent planner, which I think might make me good at organizing multiple people on a project.  And importantly, I tend to get along well with my colleagues; in fact, the best part of both the labs in which I’ve worked has been the people.  So I see no reason why I couldn’t teach, train, and supervise other people’s work while contributing to the development of the company’s projects.

To be honest, I never thought I would consider science industry as an option for me.  I loved my college experience, and I do love the idea of being on a college campus as a professor.  But I have to say, I’m pretty curious about what it’s like to work in industry, and the good pay isn’t too shabby either...

Stay tuned for Part Two of this story…(yes, I know—it’s another multi-part story on this blog!)


daine said...

You'll land on your feet, Rose-Anne. Frankly, I'm surprised you still have such fond feelings towards academic science. As much as I loved my time there, and as important as I think it is for the world, it only took me a few months to rule it out as a career choice. I think corporate science will suit you just fine, and you'll be awesome at it. Good luck writing your paper. Forward it along if you want a copy edit.

Kate said...

Oh dear, this is tough. I'm so sorry things did not work out with your project funding, but you're got the right attitude: get that paper written and out there! You will get it done because you are motivated. And then -- exciting -- see where life will take you next! Great things are probably waiting for you around this next difficult bend.

Chrissy (The New Me) said...

I'm so sorry to read about this great disappointment, but I'm also admiring the way you are already looking forward, weighing your options, and seeing where your heart will lead you. With an attitude like that, and an adventurous spirit, which you clearly possess, I am absolutely sure that you, of all people, will be just fine.

Best of luck during the transition. It will get better!

Raquelita said...

It must have been a very difficult meeting to sit through, and I really admire how professional you are being about the situation here. Very classy.

I will echo the comments of the others here. I'm really sorry that you're running out of grant funding in your lab, but I am certain that you will land on your feet. Keep us posted on the situation and the options!

Rosiecat said...

Hey Daine! I suppose I've always had an unusual relationship with academic science because I never planned to work at the bench for decades. Though now, it's been about seven years for me between grad school and my postdoc...and hey, guess which lab I saw advertising for postdocs in the Science jobs listings? Our old graduate lab!

Kate, yes: great things await! I just gotta keep up the momentum...and I do like writing, so hopefully writing this paper will be more fun than work.

Chrissy, I'm *trying* to keep a positive attitude! Considering my options helps to keep my fear at bay. Also, I find that running, baking, and dancing help when I start feeling overwhelmed by things :-)

Raquelita, the meeting was strangely positive. I think my boss was trying to keep things positive, and props to him for that. The last thing I ever want to do is cry in front of my boss! Though I have, and not always because of something that involved me or my work.

Yes, I will keep you posted! My next post on this subject will be an update on the options I'm weighing.

Thank you all for your sweet and thoughtful comments. It really does help during this scary time in my life.

Valerie said...


I'm sorry to hear the news! I know that you will get yourself through this but I can certainly understand what a shock it must have been to have that conversation.

I just want to let you know that you have people out here rooting for you, and I wanted to offer my encouragement and support. You hit the nail on the head when you talked about how isolating research can be. This was a big reason why I left academics. I have been in industry for almost 4 years now (yikes! where did the time go?), and I have never regretted my decision. An academic life can be very fulfilling, but so can industry. Its pretty awesome to see a paint with a polymer I helped manufacture on the shelves at Lowes. I may not be saving any lives, but I certainly am helping to make the world a better, safer, greener place.

Anyway, if you ever want to talk more about moving into industry from an academic career, I'd be happy to be a sounding board. Oh, one more piece of advice--don't limit yourself to the area of science you did in grad school/post doc. I reached out and am now working as a polymer chemist. I never thought I'd be here!

Good luck to you. Keep positive and keep posting.

Shannon said...

oh no! i'm sorry to hear about your boss' decision, but they always say that when one door closes another opens. Love the thoughts you have about what you're good at and how that might translate. I'm still sorting through things myself, but we'll come out on top :)