Friday, May 3, 2013

Academic Heartbreak, Academic Pride

I have two facts to share with you today.

May 17 is my last day as a postdoc.

My postdoc project is imploding.  Therefore I have no plans to write a paper from the work I’ve been doing for the last 2.5 years.

How could this happen?  In my more desperate moments, that’s the question I ask myself.  The short answer is circular: it happens.  It happens because discovery science is inherently risky, and sometimes your hypothesis is wrong.  It happens because in this line of work, there are no guarantees.

So in addition to not getting my grant funded, I will have no publications to show for my time in the Amrein lab, and that breaks my heart.  I’ve been saying for two years that I am not leaving this lab without a paper, and hey, guess what?  I’m leaving without a paper.  It’s my worst case scenario come true.  Trying to wrap my mind around this reality has been really hard.  I am running out of emotional energy.

Until recently, I loved my work.  Loved it.  The project was exciting and novel, the data were mostly encouraging, and I felt good about the work I was doing.  I felt like I was on the right path, that I was going somewhere.  But then things started going off the rails.  I had a serious setback in February, but it felt like the project could be salvaged.  Then we found out the grant was not going to be funded, so time was running out on my chances for a publication.  Then the data just…quit.  I don’t know how else to explain it but to say that the data don’t support the storyline.  That’s nobody’s fault, of course, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.  It’s like, Really?  Now?  I felt like I was thisclose to wrapping up a nice story, and that would have been a very satisfying end to my postdoc.  Instead, I feel like I’m leaving with my tail between my legs.

As a postdoc, I am a failure.

More technically, I suppose, it’s my project that is a failure.  I had a meltdown last night, with tears and everything.  All the feelings that have been bubbling beneath the surface just poured out of me like a blubbery volcano.  Anger, sadness, frustration, boredom, hopelessness—I couldn’t contain it any more.  I have tried hard to handle my situation with grace and dignity, but my efforts are unraveling.  I feel like I can’t do it any more.  I can’t be a stoic scientist, shrugging my shoulders and saying, “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”  Paul reminded me that I did what postdocs are expected to do: I did science.  I gave it my best effort.  So how is that failure?  Scientists are responsible for producing data and presenting it honestly, not for producing a particular set of results.  To do otherwise is to commit scientific fraud.

And that is perhaps where I am redeemed.  Honesty has always been a strong point of mine (hence this post!).  I took my project as far as it could go.  That was my goal with this risky, exciting project, and I think I accomplished that.  And now I need to find my way to a place of peace and acceptance that this stage in my career is over.

On my better days, I am proud of myself for taking a big risk with my work.  I am a not a risk-taker by nature; I’d rather bake cookies than climb mountains.  But I climbed the metaphorical mountain when I moved to Texas and embraced the “big risk/big reward” model that my boss uses in his work.  It didn’t work out for me like I hoped it would, but on my better days, I’m excited to see what lies beyond the mountain.


Rosiecat said...

PS This advice is perfectly timed:

And I've already accomplished #2 and #4 today! I'm planning to go for a run tonight, so #1 is on the docket too.

Anonymous said...

Well, RA, mixed reaction here:

1. Regret that you have to go through this difficulty.

2. Excitement that maybe this will lead to some fascinating new job away from the lab!

3. Hope that maybe you'll spend some of your transition time in Michigan. Pretty please?


Anonymous said...

Oh, this is totally unrelated, but as long as I'm here:

I have been meaning to tell you for weeks that your gift of Eating Well rocks my socks. You know the breakfast sandwiches in the April issue? I've eaten that carrot cake one twice a week for the last month. We also made a big batch of the egg pesto sandwiches and froze them. Thanks again for sharing such deliciousness with J and me!


Rosiecat said...

Hello, dear! Thanks for your sweet comment. I'll follow your example and write in list form:
1) I am spending some time in Michigan very soon! Next month in fact. I shall e-mail you the dates in just a moment.
2) I am so happy to hear that you love EatingWell! Consider it a gift from me and Nicole (who first shared EW with me). I remember that carrot cake sandwich and thought it sounded delicious! I shall put it in my cooking queue. (Ha, as though I'm organized enough to have a queue right now...) I'm not sure how much time you have to read for pleasure these days, but I think EW also features some amazing articles--some of the best I've ever read.
3) I miss you! Here's hoping we can spend some summer fun time together :-)

Raquelita said...

My heart goes out to you reading this. There have been times when I've felt the similar problem of research ideas not panning out. As a historian, I am beholden to what the documents in the archives reveal and that's not always what I think they will or what I want them to. You are so brave for taking the risk and so strong for admitting your difficulties here in this space. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you that something amazing comes your way very soon!

Rosiecat said...

Raquelita, thank you for your sweet comment! It warmed my heart and lifted my spirits. I think many research fields have their own version of the failures that you and I have experienced. And yet the research enterprise really REQUIRES us (or someone!) to take those risks, to move the ball forward at the risk of making a foul move. I have the utmost respect for people who have the kind of stoic attitude that lets failure roll off of them...then again, those people are often in a more secure position when they take bigger risks (such as my boss). The magnitude of my risk is much greater than the magnitude of his risk, at least with regard to my project.

My hope is that by writing about my own struggles I can make better sense of them myself and encourage/support/help others who may find themselves in similar positions. I know I'm not the first one to make a career transition out of academic STEM and into...something else :-) The questions are of the "what?" and "how?" variety.

Shannon Grande said...

As someone who has been in her postdoc for over 4 years with no paper... I am right there with you. Frustrating, although my challenges have been slightly different. I am trying to get out, but have found that I am not good at selling myself and interviewing. I'm starting to feel stuck, but just need to keep trying... something will work out! for both of us!

Chrissy (The New Me) said...

I missed this post the first time, but I wanted to chime in late. This is heartbreaking and a huge disappointment, and I'm sorry that the experiment didn't pan out like you hoped.

Even though my field is the complete opposite of the sciences, creative writing is sort of the same thing with the risk/rewards. I can't tell you how many rejections I receive each week, how many short stories I slaved over and will probably never see the light of publication. I will give you the advice that I give myself: it's all part of the process, and it means that the next story I write (and the next adventure you pursue) will be more likely to succeed because of the failures that came before it.


Rosiecat said...

Shannon, I'm sorry to hear that you too have struggled in your postdoc. I think as a group, we face similar challenges, but of course every project, lab, and postdoc is unique, so things aren't *quite* the same across the board. If you ever want to talk, you know how to reach me! I'm happy to offer any advice or wisdom to help you sell yourself better during interviews. It's tough, I know.

Thanks for your thoughts and sympathy, Chrissy. Certainly the rejection side of things is similar for us! I'm sort of at a point where I'm more interested in getting paid to help other people than spending a lot of time on my own creative pursuits. That's what blogging is for :-) Mostly I'm just feeling worn out right now and I feel like I can't hit the reset button until I have some real time away from science.