Rollin' rollin' rollin'

(by scicurious) Sep 22 2014

Scientopia has meant so much to me. It has been a home, a comfortable place, for so long. It has seen me through the biggest transition of my career. My career(s). The people here have been a source of advice, mentorship, strength. Scientopia is a wonderful group of people.

With my new job came new responsibilities, and far less writing in the evenings. Let's face it, when you write all day long, coming home to write at night is a tough call. I've been sad to see my blog so inactive. But that's life, and I'm active in as many places as I can be. I'm not a scientist anymore, instead, I'm a science writer, communicator. Someday I'll be a science journalist (I hope).

So after some thought, I've decided to move on. With the help of the talented web developer Karen Wolf, I've launched a personal author site. You can find all my archives, my blog, and my contact info there, as well as links to all the current stuff I'm doing.

But don't stop reading here! Why would you ever do that! Don't forget me, Scientopians. But readers, make sure to stop by and see the wonderful and necessary views from inside the heart of science.

Internet love always,

Scicurious (Bethany Brookshire)


3 responses so far

Raleigh Reflections

(by scicurious) Apr 14 2014

Yesterday I ran in the fourth race of my crazy idea to do 12 half marathons in 12 months. The race was in Raleigh, NC, which put out its best spring colors for the occasion. And its pollen. It brought LOTS of pollen. Thanks, Raleigh.

Unfortunately, the amazing traffic horror that is Northern VA did its worst, and it took me 8 hours to make what should have been a 4 hour trip. It's a good thing I like podcasts and audiobooks...

But I got lucky, in a way. Enough people were also in the traffic that they held emergency race bib pickup the morning of the race, so by 5:30AM I was a real registered runner and ready to go.

The races are getting easier. I didn't think they would. I mean, I still LOATHE the terror that lies between mile 10 and 12. But I'm in better shape, and even the rolling hills of Raleigh (and boy, did they roll) could not bring me down. I ran a personal best of 1:53:29, sticking to sub 9 minute miles the whole way (previous PR 1:54:19, which I performed in Philly in...I think 2011). It brings me hope that I'll break that 1:50 mark eventually!

The weather was beautiful, the race well organized, I was with friends from grad school, and generally I had a great time. But as we stood around after the race, all was not well. Word went around that someone was receiving CPR at the finish line. He was not the only one.

Two people died at Raleigh. Two men, ages 31 and 35. One between mile 10 and 11 and one at mile 13, less than two minutes from the finish.

It was shocking. I've heard of deaths during marathons from natural causes, overwork, undiagnosed heart conditions, dehydration or hypokalemia. Of course we all feel pretty tense, as it was also just the anniversary of the Boston tragedy.

But this is the first time I'd ever heard of deaths during a half. And the men were young. One was my age. I can't stop thinking about their friends and family, waiting for them hopefully at the finish, ready to hand out Gatorade and celebrate.

We all know that things happen. The medical tents every two miles and the golf carts along the course to transport the sick and injured are testimony enough to that. I now realize that I was running near where one man went down, between miles 10 and 11, and they pulled us off the course onto the sidewalk while the ambulance came racing by.

It's a sobering reminder that I have a hobby that can kill people. Not because other people wish them ill, but because the hobby itself beats up your body.

And it's been making me think. There's been a recent uptick in race deaths, or at least, in the number I hear about. Why? Are people running it even though they are out of shape? Are they running with underlying problems? Are they inexperienced and not listening to the signals they are getting from their bodies?

No one really knows. It could be any of these things. But it did make me say to myself: LISTEN to my body. Listen to it. And if it says stop, stop. Not in the "this hill sucks and my legs hurt" way, but in the "my heart is doing crazy things, and I am having an asthma attack" way.

It can be easy to ignore your body and its signals. Especially on the racecourse. Signs around us proclaim "no pain, no gain!", "pain now, beer later!", "pain is weakness leaving the body!", you look around you and you see the people running around you, and they look ok, and you don't want to look weak. As the miles accumulate, your brain starts to get a little funny. You're tired, and those messages, the acts of kindness on the race course, small dogs, everything seems to have more meaning and seriousness than it ever had.

...and this can be dangerous. I'm getting tired of seeing all this "motivational" stuff that screams of manliness (or whatever), of embracing the pain. This is a race. Not a war. This is a race that you run because you want to see if you can. Because you want to be in shape, maybe even because you want to have fun. It is not a fight to the death against the forces of weak willpower and flab.

I worry that those messages may motivate the wrong way. They may encourage people to run through pain that is telling you to stop. They've done it to me. They've fed my inner competitive spirit (which is, admittedly, exceedingly strong), and kept me running when one knee can barely take my weight. Kept me sprinting when I am inches away from throwing up, and end up dry heaving  on the other side of the finish line. I'd like to think my inner common sense would bring me to a halt for something actually life-threatening. But well...I don't know. I need to keep that in mind.

Was this glorification of pain the cause of either one of the deaths? I'm sure not. But it did make me think. When does "no pain, no gain" cause more pain than gain?

One response so far

A day in the race life

(by scicurious) Mar 15 2014

Third race down! Today was the DC Rock and Roll Half (and full, and 5K). It was a beautiful morning for a run and DC was out to support! The free beer offers from the all male houses (which...were not frat boy houses? I don't think we ran through GW...) were amusing. I saw one guy take them up on. Bet he puked later.

Considering I couldn't train really at ALL for this race (I've been sick pretty much continuously through February), this went much better than expected. Ran slow, but felt very good, in fact so good I could have kept running at the end! A very good sign.

Today, though, as I recover on the sofa with my feet up, I thought I'd give you the anatomy of a race day. Training days are just normal days. Get home from work, go for a run. Make time on the weekends, go for a run. Or do weights, or cross training, or hills. But race day has a ritual to it. Ideally, the ritual is so you will have the best race day with minimal discomfort. We'll see how well that actually works:

Race Day:

1:00AM: ACK, is that my alarm? Is it time?

2:30AM: ACK, is that my alarm? Is it time?

3:00AM: ACK, is that my alarm? Is it time?

4:30AM: ACK, is that my alarm? Is it time?

5:30AM: alarm goes off. Brew coffee. Only one cup allowed.

All items for race day have been laid out so I won't forget anything:

race day stuff

Here you can see: the race number, shoe tag and pins (left), the amphipod hand water bottle with zipper pouch (haven't switched over to belt yet, they always ride up on me), Gu in desired flavor that I know will go down well mid-race (salted caramel), ipod holder, clif bar (that's breakfast), metro card, ID, keys, and $20 (in case).

All of that will go in me (the clif bar) or on me. I don't gear check.

5:38AM: I start trying to force down the clif bar and coffee. My body takes this time to remind me, with forceful reminders from my intestine, that I have a really stupid hobby. Bathroom.

5:50AM: Dressed. Again attempt the food. Force it down, I will need this before the race is over and I know I will fall over if I don't have it.

5:55AM: Stomach again reminds me forcefully that I have a stupid hobby. I am not inclined to disagree at this time.

6:05AM: Gulp the last of the coffee. Tell the stomach that it's coming with me whether it likes it or not. Leave the house.

6:15AM: Heading to the metro. Getting nervous. When I lived in Philly, for local races, you would ALWAYS see other people walking toward the race start. Here, I see no one until I get to the metro station itself. Ah! Other runners! I'm probably not too late!

6:17AM: Get on the train. Soon joined by a nervous looking young man carrying a half bagel in a plastic bag and a very long suffering guy who's clearly headed to the train station or something. He doesn't know what to make of increasing numbers of nervous, chattering runners.

Why DO we get nervous? I know for most of us, certainly for me, it's not my first time. I know my body can do this. It's done it before, barring accident it will do it again. At this point it's not even a particularly difficult experience! But somehow, I'm always a nervous wreck. Clearly everyone else is, too.

6:50AM: Arrive at the race start. Took a good 10 min just to get out of the metro. For the first time in one of these huge, 5 digit registered corral is toward the front! I CAN SEE THE START LINE! Like really see it! And hear the announcements from the stage and not re broadcast along the line. Go me! I pause to enjoy the sight.

6:55AM: Sigh. Better go pee. Don't want to lose time during the race. Shortly find a truly awesome looking outdoor bathroom setup with an orderly line and attendants! I stand in line for 5 min before I am told that this is the VIP bathroom and I am not VIP. WTF. I ask irritably where the plebs pee. I am pointed to a bank of port o potties. Of course.

7:00AM: I can't help but notice these bathroom lines are SHOCKINGLY long. Not nearly enough port o potties. I resign myself.

7:25AM: What do you MEAN I am still only halfway to the toilet?!?


But we start in waves. And surely they'll take 2 minutes between each wave start,

7:40AM: There goes my wave. I'm not in it. I could have just run off but at this point I DO need to pee. And you don't want to lose time once your chip starts...

7:45AM: Get to the front of the line. Look at port o potty and am very, VERY grateful that I got good at squats this winter. Runners, seriously. Are we not civilized?!

7:46AM: Jogging off to the race start. Start 7 corrals behind my assigned one. And I'm OFF. Dodging people who are 7 corrals slower than me for the first 6 miles and feeling really guilty about it. I finally catch up to my assigned corral. I'm kind of glad I wasn't in my own corral. I would have been with the guy who was dribbling two basketballs the whole race.*

Favorite race sights:

1. The policeman helping close off the road who was cheering enthusiastically. Normally they just stand there. I'm so happy they are there to help us out and I hope they are getting paid (I assume?), but it was esp nice to see a guy who cared.

2. Little kids giving out high fives as you run by. Always a favorite. Also the people who bring their dogs out.

3. The guy who was handing out water at the water stop like Oprah: "YOU GET A WATER! YOU GET A WATER! EVERYBODY GETS A WATER!"

4. The all female drum line at mile 8. Awesome!

By 10:00AM I am done, through the race chute, gotten some gatorade and gotten over my shock that there are no bananas. A long metro ride and I am home to shower, and then pass out for a few hours.

It's nice to see all the people running together, finishing together, hugging at the end. I usually run the race by myself and the end feels odd. It's better when there's a friendly support crew at the end to give me a sweatshirt and Gatorade and stuff. But I know waiting at the end of a's a really charitable thing to do. It's crowded, it's loud and this can't possibly be entertaining.

Tomorrow: we start training again! Next up, April race in NC.


*These people make me grit my teeth. Yes. I'm very impressed that you have become so bored with racing that you can run a marathon backward at a 9 minute pace while juggling. Very impressed. But really? Do you have to? Are you not aware that for many, many of the people running today, this is the HARDEST THING they have ever done?! And you're going to breeze by them backward while juggling. Because you can.

2 responses so far

Don't tell me how to be inspired

(by scicurious) Mar 12 2014

This is a rant. It's a rant because, sometimes, you've heard something just one too many times. And sometimes, things link together in my head.

I had a conversation with a friend the other day. He was shaking his head over a girl he was seeing. She called herself a fantasy fan...but she had never read Joseph Campbell! HOW?!

I am a huge fantasy fan. I've never read Joseph Campell. And I lost my temper.

Because I have been told, over and over again, that my education is incomplete unless I've read X. I'm not a TRUE fan of a genre unless I've read Y, and I'm just not a nerd at all unless I've been blown away by Z.

My friend stated that Joseph Campbell is important because he felt that for any aspiring fan or writer, "A Hero's Journey" would be required reading. The "methods section" of the fantasy genre, like how you have introduction to certain texts as a history major which introduce you to all the main concepts.

I disagree. Last I heard Joseph Campbell was an author (Edited to add: he was also an academic and mythologian who introduced really important concepts and tropes, like the hero's journey, which are used to this day). He did a lot of really interesting work, but he is not a required gestalt for the enjoyment of fantasy. And I think it's very possible to be an expert in something without having read the "must read" list of things that mostly old white guys have developed for us to be educated by. Does a person with a PhD and many publications in ancient Chinese history really need to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to be considered an educated individual? If you answer that with a "yes," I'd really love to know your reasoning.

He may think that if you haven't read Joseph Campbell you are an ill-educated fantasy reader. I might think that if you haven't read Mary Stewart and Marion Zimmer Bradley you are just as ill-educated.

Who is right? NEITHER OF US.

You don't get to determine what inspires someone else or even what someone else considers good literature.
The "classics" do not define education in most subjects. I understood the concept of evolution long before I read Darwin, because I had read other books on the subject. After I read Darwin, I cannot say that I understood it any better. Darwin had the original concept, yes. He was really thorough about it, yes. But it is very possible to understand evolution without ever having read Darwin. It is possible to LOVE fantasy without ever having read the Silmarillion (heck, I have read it and I think it lessened my love of the genre slightly. Sorry, Tolkien).

Read what you like. Be inspired by what inspires you. Do not feel pressure to be inspired on someone else's terms.

I was reminded of this argument again yesterday as I tweeted that I had watched the first episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos. It was ok.

It was my first exposure to Cosmos. I have never seen the Carl Sagan version. I was too young for it, and was raised primarily on Bill Nye, Ranger Rick and the Magic School Bus (the "inside the body" book and episode sticks in my head today. INSPIRING AS ANYTHING). My parents are not scientists, and I'm not sure they've ever seen Cosmos either. I never even HEARD of it until, like Ed, I heard about it on twitter a few years ago, looked it up, and saw what it was.

But of course, on twitter, every time I reveal I haven't seen the original Cosmos, I get a lot of "WHUT?!" "NO!" "HOW?!" I have even been told at times that I'm not a true science communicator because I haven't seen it and been inspired by it.


And I lost my temper again. At a poor tweep who didn't know what they stepped in. Sorry @KeesEngels. It's not you! It's my past history of not having read Joseph Campbell!

It is completely possible to be inspired in science without having seen Carl Sagan. Heck, it is completely possible to have seen Carl Sagan, go "meh," and be inspired by something else! Carl Sagan is probably (to this date, still haven't seen it) great TV. Probably very inspirational to lots of people. I by no means want to knock good Sci Comm. But it won't be inspirational to everyone. And that's ok! Matthew Francis put it best.



People who require you to read or watch or be inspired by certain things are people who want to believe there is one TRUE path to science, fantasy, etc. The path they took, the true one, the best one.

Those people need to get over themselves.

Do not expect or require everyone to be inspired by the same things you are inspired by. Accept that what inspired you may NOT inspire someone else. Let's all be inspired in our own way. After all, the point is the inspiration, not where it comes from.



*Footnote: My friend who was talking about Joseph Campbell recanted in the face of my arguments. Because he's a cool guy. Also, I throw elbows when I argue.

43 responses so far

Life chafes, sometimes.

(by scicurious) Mar 10 2014

I know that The Goddess Isis sometimes refers to things "chapping her ass." I never really was able to picture this.

...until my last half marathon. I have never suffering chafing before, but HOLY CHAFING BATMAN. I'm not sure what went wrong. It was a beautiful day, warm, I was wearing my lucky running skirt that I have worn through more races than I can count. Yet suddenly, somewhere before the Gu but after the big hills, I was very conscious of my thighs and how they rub together. A lot.

Normally this doesn't bother me. I don't strive for thigh gap. I strive for muscle. But muscle is large, and rubs together. I tried to adjust stuff. No dice. More rubbing. By mile 10 I was forcing each stride through gritted teeth.  I refused to stop, and it was an out and back. By mile 10, the fastest way to stop to keep running til you get there.

By the time I toddled through the finish, I was running bowlegged and little seeps of blood were starting on the inside of my thighs.

What happened? Who knows?

But it did make me think about runners and shame. And kindness.

After a race, I found out how little shame I had. There I am, waddling out of the corral, and a couple stops and anxiously asks me if I'm OK. My normal response is to smile politely, but I've just run a very painful 13.1 miles. I've got no filters. "Oh I'm ok, I just have been chafing like HELL," I ranted. "I swear there's blood running down my thighs!"

The woman in the couple (who didn't run) got wide eyes and backed away slowly. The man, who had just finished the race himself, looked sympathetic and nodded. He didn't back away. He knew how it was to have no shame.

In the bathroom, changing after the race (no showers, and home was 4-5 hours away), I braced myself. I had to put SOMETHING between me and my jeans. Or my jeans would have some very interesting new blood stains by the time I was through. All I had was deodorant. I didn't own Body Glide then, I'd never chafed before!

And here's where the kindness comes in. A woman stopped and offered me her Body Glide. Only a fellow athlete would do that, offer a stick of something for another woman to rub on her sweaty, slightly bloody inner thighs (if I were her I would have thrown it out after, that can't be sanitary...). I could have cried with gratitude. She didn't even blink. It's what runners do for each other.

The first thing I did the next day was pick up some Body Glide.

The next race is this weekend. I think chafing will ensue. Worse, I've been sick almost continuously since my last race. I couldn't force myself to run when every swallow felt like I was gulping knives. I'd hoped to do well in DC, but it looks like this race may involve far more pain than chafing.



4 responses so far

#scio14 Wrapup: Read the Comments!

(by scicurious) Mar 09 2014

It's now been a week since ScienceOnline Together 2014 (and I don't know about you guys, but I'm still down with the hideous #scioplague. I'm really ready to be done with feeling like I am swallowing a sword all the time). It was, despite some difficulties that I hope we all move forward together to solve, a fantastic opportunity to meet new people, chat with old friends, and engage in some really interesting and important discussions on how to communicate science in an online world. This year there was a little more focus on visual forms of communication, ways to get science out there that don't always involve writing lengthy explainers. While I'm a lover of a well written explainer, I am very, very glad that these different methods, using infographics, video, virtual games and other methods are getting some play. There is far more than one way to communicate science, and I want to see them all done well.

This  year I was very pleased to lead a session, proposed by the brilliant and notorious Ivan Oransky, on commenting. The following writeup is based on the GREAT notes by Kristin Harper, who was nice enough to be the note taker. It is sometimes out of order and highly biased. If you were at the session, please do write up your own summary and help me out! Or, even....put your opinions in the comments. 🙂

Everyone knows you shouldn't read the comments. Comments with a nasty tone can bring your article down. Comments are full of trolls who tell you about your comma problems and call you an "unbridled" man-hater. The idea that you shouldn't read the comments is so pervasive that there's a twitter feed for it. Due to research showing that negative comments bring down the opinion of a piece, PopSci banned comments altogether.

Why do we want comments at all? I personally like comments because often...they tell me I am wrong. I'd rather be told I am wrong, get the science right, and improve my understanding and the understanding of my readers, than let incorrect statements persist. In addition, I find my commenters are often funny, smart, and can add a lot to knowledge of a topic. Other session members said that comments added multiple answers to a single question, giving different perspectives.

But as our discussion at #scio14 showed, not all comments are bad. David Shiffman of Southern Fried Science noted that because his group blog is very focused on marine science, the commenters tend to me more knowledgeable than they might be on sites that are more general. On the other hand, Ivan Oransky pointed out that on Retraction Watch, some comments might be knowledgeable, but they can also skirt very close to being libelous, and Victoria from PLoS blogs agreed that accusations of fraud and libel cannot be left in the comments section. Tara Haelle noted that when she writes about vaccines, for example, she welcomes discussion, but doesn't want links to harmful sites to slip past, and that it is sometimes very difficult to tell the difference between a concerned parent and a troll who is "just asking a question." We discussed how some bloggers prefer pre-moderations (all comments are held for approval), or post-moderation (if something harmful appears it can be taken down). Comment moderators noted that, on high traffic sites, sorting through the comments about three times a day could do the trick to separate the wheat from the chaff.

When it comes to comment moderation, there were several different options. Bug Girl said that she uses a yellow card/red card system. My own comment policy asks people to avoid ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies. I employ a three strike method, and should you attempt to be a jerk, I'll tell you how you are violating the comment policy, and give you a chance to re write your comment. In most of the situations, I have found volunteers gladly rewrite their comments. They'd rather make the point than insult. Others at the session recommended systems that allow you to downvote comments that are bad (enough downvotes will hide the comment altogether), and those which allow a flagged reporting system that sends an email to the administrator. Still others recommended disemvoweling a terrible comment (just taking out all the vowels) or rewriting it in haiku form. Moderation AND a form of therapy. Others, like Ivan, note that he will edit comments that are libelous or severely problematic, and often includes a note saying how he edited the comment.

I myself prefer not to edit comments. I don't want to silence voices of dissent, or those who might be unable to speak up in any other forum. Ad hominem attacks, however, cross the line.

But of course, before you can have negative comments or positive comments or even off topic comments, you have to get comments at all. We noted that a lot of comments have moved, and conversations often take place on Facebook or Twitter rather than in the comments of posts. Likes and RTs are the "nice post!" of 2014. To gather these comments into one place, Victoria Costello of PLoS Blogs recommended storify, and noted that PLoS has developed a media curation tool for its site. There are also widgets that connect Facebook comments to article comments.

But it also helps if you don't require a potential commenter to create an account, or use an interface like Discus, where one account makes it easy to log in on many platforms. Several people in the session said that for those truly desperate for comments, ask a question, even give away items for the best answer.

What came out of all of this? Ivan (who proposed the session in the first place and who I consulted for advice) both agreed that we wanted the session to be productive, to come out with something useful. We decided to crowdsource ideas for best practices in commenting. Not everyone chooses to have comments, and that's ok! But I say that comments are like sex. Not everyone will choose to have it, people may choose to have it in different ways and with different people, but if you want to have comments, it's generally a good idea to use a condom. Have a set of best practices and a comment moderation policy that you can refer to.

Below are the best practices that we came up with over an hour of discussion. These are obviously not comprehensive, and we'd love to get more feedback and ideas!

  1. Have a clear written comment policy. (But expect that people probably won't read it and you'll need to remind them.)
  2. Provide positive feedback for good comments wherever possible. For example, you can link to a comment in a follow up story, make something a featured comment, or reply to a comment with a note about how great it is.
  3. Reserve the right to edit comments or delete comments. Don't be afraid to enforce your policy.
  4. Define name calling. "This person is a fraud" is just as much name calling as "This person is a stinky carnivorous hippo."
  5. Limit the number of links. WordPress often defaults to sending comments to moderation if there are two links in them or more. This helps keep spam down. Let people know that when they complain to you about their well researched comment with many links. Keep an eye out for those comments. They aren't all spam!
  6. Most importantly: Join the conversation! A good commentariat is the result of good interaction between the bloggers and their commenters.

So, how did we do? What do you think of our best practices? Let us the comments.

2 responses so far

#Scio14 prep: Read the comments?

(by scicurious) Feb 05 2014

This year, I'm the facilitator for a Scio14 session on comments. The idea was originally Ivan Oransky's, so I asked him what he thought about the session. Based on his feedback and ideas of my own, I came up with the following:

Some might say “Don’t read the comments!” Lack of moderation and free reign of trolls can be enough to make sites like Popsci shut down comments entirely. Scientific articles have shown that negative tone in comments can influence what people think of the science presented. On the other hand, some sites are embracing comments, such as Pubmed. Should you allow the comments? Which should flourish, and which should go to the spam folder? This discussion will talk about legal obligations and different types of comment policy. The goal will be to set up a guide of best practices which bloggers, old and new, might find helpful as they don’t read the comments.

So. Which is it? Shut down comments entirely? Let them free? Moderate them carefully? I'd like to have a discussion on all three of these options, all of which may be useful in some situations.

I also think it's good when a discussion at Science Online ends productively. So I'd like to facilitate this session with a goal of coming up with "best practices" or "guidelines," for running your own comments show. How to engage and moderate, or not.

What are your thoughts on this? What commenting issues would you like to see discussed?

7 responses so far

You Will Be Assimilated.

(by scicurious) Jan 24 2014

Blame Bashir for this one.

In a previous post, I talked about how I wasn't yet free of academia. How it's still got hooks in me, in the form of papers that need to be published, and that won't get published until I get them out. Bashir noted that it was like Borg.




Borg, for those not familiar, are characters in the Star Trek universe. The most quoted phrase is 'resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.' Borg are partially cybernetic and act as part of a "hive" controlled by a queen. Like metallic, slightly slimy looking bees. But smarter (though I have always wondered why they have to look slimy). If you get assimilated into the Borg, it's very hard to leave, they give you all these cybernetic implants that influence your thoughts and dampen your feelings. Freeing someone from the Borg is a difficult experience, with lots of surgeries to remove the implants (for example your organs have to relearn how to function on their own). Often it's lifelong, and you are never truly free.

In particular, consider the character Seven of Nine, from Star Trek: Voyager. She was integrated into the Borg when she was 6. Grew up and lived her whole life as Borg. She then ends up on the Voyager, and they begin taking away her cybernetic implants. She begins to function on her own and build a life for herself. But some of the implants, esp the cortical node, can't really be removed well. She always has difficulty with some things, especially emotions. But she has some advantages as well, she can always sense Borg activity, for example.

(Seven of Nine. Pity her, she had emotional issues and had to wear a LOT of catsuits. Source)

De-assimilating from the Borg does, in a way, remind me of academia.

Obviously academia does not give you cybernetic implants in grad school (though if they are, they'd BETTER come with the health plan and a decent increase in stipend). But leaving academia and its culture behind can be jarring. I had been in it, in some way, my whole life. I believed that it was the best place. It is, in many ways, great. But it's also very much its own world. Some other careers may be similar, but I've only experienced this one.

There are so many things about academia that I have assimilated, and that, via slow and sometimes painful surgeries, I have to get rid of. Instead of cybernetic implants, maybe I shed them in a different way. Shreds of lab coat here, a nitrile glove there. A few examples:

1. I'm learning the outside way of behaving professionally. Emails in academia could get very passive aggressive or just out and out aggressive. Thankfully, it's a minority of people who do it, but in academia, that kind of behavior (along with other kinds of bad behavior) is often allowed to perpetuate, as long as the science is good.  I know you don't do that on the outside. I know people who feel physically sick checking their email sometimes. I still catch myself questioning many emails I receive. Was it meant to be snarky? Is there another way to interpret that? What did I do? At the same time, though, I know I shouldn't need to be handled with kid gloves.

I also don't seem to know how to communicate casually, yet professionally. I alternate between hyper-formal, ultra passive prose, and one-liners. I know there's a happy medium in there somehow, but I'm still learning where it is.

2. I don't know when to quit. If you don't have every spare minute in academia filled (and by spare, I mean til at least 1am every night, a family can count as a hobby), you are not doing enough. Find more things to do. More projects, more grants, more papers. Outside, well, don't overload yourself! Because if you do, you do everything worse. Better to do less, and do it well. This is still a major, major shock to my system. My gut is always telling me to do more and more and more.

3. I don't know how to take criticism. Or rather, I know how I SHOULD take criticism. I know I do not take it well. This is odd, because I remember a time when I took criticism well. I did a lot of theater and music, it was something you HAD to take well. I took it, I improved, worked harder, fixed things, and did better. Sometime during grad school, however, criticism began to paralyze me. Every critique felt like a critique of me, as a scientist. Since a scientist was what I WAS, all criticism began to feel like criticism of me, as a person. Sometimes it was indeed phrased that way. You are careless. You are not smart enough, why don't you get this?! You are not focused.

I remember once, my aunt asked me what peer review was. I explained, and to show what I meant, handed her a review of one of my manuscripts. When she handed it back, she was on the verge of tears. She asked how they could be so mean to me. It was an accept with minor revisions. But it was full of things like "the authors do not grasp...", "the authors fail to state...", "the authors smell..." (ok, no). And I remembered when I first read that review. How my heart sank and my stomach hurt and my PI had to TELL me is was accepted. Because it surely did not say that anywhere on there.

Before academia, I would have taken criticism and said "I can be more careful, I will work on focus. Intelligence will just have to deal." But after academia...criticism still makes me work harder, but I first spend a period completely paralyzed by panic. Panic, gnawing self doubt, and shame. Why couldn't I do better? What's wrong with me? Why am I such a terrible person? Why am I not smart enough? Isn't there a way to make myself more careful, more smart? Outside of academia, I am relearning to take criticism. It is a long process.

4. When the professional is often personal. Not that there weren't professional standards in academia of course. But when all your colleagues are all your friends (and often your only friends) and are often also your significant others, well, things get mixed up. There were colleagues you couldn't work with because your friend had divorced them and it got ugly. And of course, you're all talking about work outside of work. Often, you feel like you don't know HOW to talk anything else but shop.  Academia was my life. Soon you just become wrapped up in it, and everything else begins to lose importance. Outside, I've been relearning perspective.

5. You can be positive. So much of academia is based in criticism. It's important criticism. Science would not advance if we just said things looked nice and sent it along. You have to probe, you have to say "that's unacceptable with an n=3," you have to say "that explanation isn't adequate." It's incredibly important. But it also, over time, can make people really negative. Things you screw up become "how could you!?" and things you did right...well they were what you should be doing and deserve no praise. I've observed before that only academia could turn successes into mere not-failures. If you DIDN'T see something wrong with that talk you were just at, well obviously you don't know anything about the field! Too gullible!  Cynicism makes you look smart.

This isn't the case outside. I love that I can be enthusiastic about my ideas...and that's ok! Other people are too! We work with ideas and refine them, rather than ripping them apart before building them again. The net result may end up the same. But the process is so much sunnier. Even when people don't like your idea, they say "well, I don't think we're interested in that," as opposed to "how could you attempt something so stupid." People are congratulated on their achievements...and you feel they HAVE done something good. Sure, it's your job, it's what you are supposed to be doing, but you're good at it, and that deserves praise. This, above everything else, has made me happy to be where I am.

I'm sure there are others, pieces of academia that I will shed over time. But I hope I keep the positive things. Seven of Nine could sense Borg. She could also act without panic in a crisis. I hope I will keep my academic remnants, my training, my questioning, my background and my ability to do research. I hope I will keep some of my cynicism, so I remember to look for the flaws and stick to careful interpretations. There are advantages to assimilation, after all.

7 responses so far

First one down!

(by scicurious) Jan 18 2014

Remember that harebrained idea I had about running one half marathon per month for a year? At first, it didn't seem real. I worried I would laze out of it. Then I registered for the first six...and I still worried I would laze out of it. I told myself I couldn't. I've already spent too much money to be lazy, right?

Well, today it's real. Today I finished the Charleston half marathon. Sunny morning, quite cold (for Charleston, SC), but a nice flat course. MY only regret is that they had shrimp and grits and beer at the end, and I just couldn't bring myself to eat any (appetite comes and goes when you're running for two hours, and when you pick up the pace at the end...well it goes). I had a giant coffee instead.

At some point in the race you start to wonder what it's all for. My point for this is usually around mile 11. Up to mile 10 I have the novelty of the race, the place, the people (good crowd support, Charleston!), contemplating when to take my gel (mile 9 in this case), the weird feeling that maybe I'm losing a big toenail? (Nope, still there!) I feel good because 10 miles, at this point, is something you've done and passed many times.

At mile 10, I get the extra lift. 3.1 to go! That's only 5K! The day I can't run 5K is a very poor day indeed. So I keep going with a spring in my step.

...and then mile 11. The spring was short lived. I realize I've been running for ages. I'm hungry. My legs hurt. I start to finally breathe hard enough to notice I'm panting. I realize that if I want to break 2 hours I need to speed up a little. At 10 miles, that seemed like no problem. Now? ARE YOU CRAZY? I can't possibly.

This is the moment of existential crisis. Is the moment where I've bonked before (always at mile 11), and where I wonder...why do I do this? Why the HECK do I run distance? Aren't there better ways to stay in shape? Do I really need to love cheese so much?

Why on EARTH did I decide to run 12 of these in a year? Why would I want to run one ever again?!

Then I hit mile 12, and well, there's only one mile left to go! Only 8 minutes and 30 seconds left if I want to beat 2 hours. I better get moving.

Of course, basking in the glow afterward: sitting down, with a foil cape, a large coffee and a banana, well I mean, obviously I'm running another one! Soon! Of course! I'm a badass!

Then I try to get up. Heh.

Time appears to be 1:59:mehmehsomething. Official times aren't yet posted. I broke two hours, which was my goal. Now? Let's try to break a 1:58 shall we?

charleston 2014

4 responses so far

Tips for getting out.

(by scicurious) Jan 13 2014

Deciding to leave academia can be a wrenching experience. Sometimes, people who decide to leave are bitter and angry to their core. Other times, they are sad, with constant feelings of failure. And many, many times, they feel lost.

When I first really seriously thought of getting out of academia, I remembered an 'alternative careers' seminar I attended my first year of grad school (the only one, actually, that I ever DID attend in grad school). The speaker was Nancy Baron, the author of "Escape from the Ivory Tower." At the time, her talk of alternate careers inspired me. I bought the book. I read some of it. Then, I got swept up in experiments and grants and more experiments and classes, and forgot.

But the book stayed on my shelf. So when I decided to look at other options, I went to go find it.

...and realized the book was now over six years old. Many of the recommendations seemed old fashioned, half the web addresses no longer worked, and then, I was just out of ideas. I wanted out, but where would I go? What would I do?

It's easy to fall into that feeling of helplessness. You start to realize that you want to leave academia, and you wonder what you have to offer the outside world. Well...I can pipette! And I can handle mice! And I'm very good at ANOVAs...well. Crap.

But for those who want to leave, all is not lost! Here are some tips that I've picked up along the way, and I would welcome any other tips in the comments!

1. Develop your networks, and of course, hit the internet. There are many other professions out there. Find out what they are. Go on a hunt. You may be in academia, but everyone knows someone. And with all the people who left, it never hurts to ask around. Some people are...worried that advisors and other people in the department won't take it well, and so don't want to be loud about leaving academia. In those cases, you can ask the career center (though many of them are best equipped for undergrads). You can also look around at other, closely related departments.

And of course, the internet is your friend. There are LOTS of us here, and many of us are vocal about our own career changes, and glad to help out others who are heading the same way. We can help you out, help you find people to contact and network with. Network contacts can help you get things like informational interviews, which can lead to more networks and valuable information to help you as you start on your new career.

2. Prepare a resume, and have people outside of academia look at it. This is vital. I prepped a resume based on my CV with the help of a career center. They had no idea what they were doing, it was basically the highlights of my CV in academic order. I sent it to a friend outside of academia. Three drafts later, it was a completely different document. Formatting changed, emphasis changed, everything changed. Her insights were hugely valuable...because she wasn't an academic. She knew what people on the outside were looking for. Find these people, and ask them for help.

3. Join groups. Groups like the Versatile PhD were built for those going out of academia, and are replete with advice. Many unis hold job fairs, get on the lists and go to them. Check out what's out there. See if there are groups around the uni doing things you are interested in. Maybe there's a science policy group. Maybe there's a research council that you could get experience on. Maybe there are groups that hold workshops that you can get involved in. Maybe there's a newsletter for a group you are in that you could write for.

If there's not a group for what you are interested in, start one! You'll get valuable experience, and help build up your resume with leadership roles along the way.

4. Get started. For god's sake, get started. It is never too early to start developing new talents that might help you in your future career. Many, many times, I've had people mention to me that they wanted out of academia, or ask me for advice. I tell them "what do you want to try? You may want to get some experience teaching/writing/in policy/whatever." Some of them dive in, find something to try, and start doing. Soon, they are having successes in their new field, and feeling more confident.

But often, I'll come back a few months later and say "hey, did you try that thing?" And they haven't. They've been busy. They are tired. The lab is hard.

I understand that. I do. I worked my share of long hard hours. I've been my share of busy and crazy and knocked down.

But, in the words of one of my mentors, "we're all busy." You need to make time for the things that matter to you. If getting out of academia matters to you, if seeking a different career matters to you, GET EXPERIENCE. If you don't start looking and trying, it's easy to remain on the same path in academia, grad school to postdoc, postdoc to another postdoc, just funneling along the path you know. Get experience elsewhere. Without it, you will not stand out from the herd of other PhDs who are out there looking for a career change. A PhD, funding, and publications look great in academia, but they are little-valued currency outside the ivory tower.

A side anecdote: I applied for a fellowship. I got an interview for it. I was excited, nervous, but felt like I maybe had a chance. At the interview I met two other applicants. One was about to defend their dissertation. They'd gotten some patents on the way...and founded a highly successful non-profit to help low income kids learn sports. While getting their PhD.

The other was an MD/PhD who spoke four languages, and had recently been spending their time with Doctors Without Borders in a South American Country. While they were there, they'd noticed a need, and started a successful vaccination campaign in another nearby country. THAT was what I was up against. Get experience.

For many careers that require a science PhD, you will be up against people AT LEAST AS successful as you. You need to be better. You got through grad school, you have the ability to be just as intimidating as those people. You DO. Get out there, and become it. Get experience. Maybe you can teach a class at a community college. Maybe there's a policy group at your school you can get involved in. Maybe there are internships. Maybe you can start writing a blog or a newsletter for a group, or take on editing on the side to get experience. As I said above, if there's isn't a group for this at your uni? Make one!

5. Find fellowships and internships. Some of these are listed on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. Some of them come through internal listservs. AAAS has fellowships for mass communications and for science policy. Many other groups have fellowships for science policy as well. They are out there and they are designed for people coming from academia. They know what it's like to get out of academia, and are prepared to deal with those coming from that world, to help shape our talents for our new careers.

What tips have I missed? Let me know in the comments. And for those looking to leave academia, take heart. Some of us did it. You can, too.

12 responses so far

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