Archive for: January, 2014

You Will Be Assimilated.

Jan 24 2014 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

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!

Jan 18 2014 Published by under Harebrained ideas

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.

Jan 13 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

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

Science of Ick vs Damsels with Dragons: a storify

Jan 12 2014 Published by under Academia

Yesterday, I saw something about a "boys only" program at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. I wasn't thrilled. I tweeted. And it turned out, I didn't have complete information...and that further information made the issue even more complex. When it is ok to separate boys and girls? And to what end? Will this help or hurt participation in science?


I welcome more insights in the comments.


[View the story "Things That Go Ick vs Damsels in Distress: gender separation and science" on Storify]

8 responses so far

On speed, and cheese

Jan 08 2014 Published by under Harebrained ideas

As I started planning this harebrained idea of mine, I had several people contact me. Often they ask me to come to where they are to run races. But they also often include something about how they'll run, but they can't possibly keep up with me. This is really strange.

I'm not a fast runner. I never have been. My fastest 5K is a 23:22 and my fastest half marathon was a 1:52:19. That half marathon PR was a LOT longer ago than I like to admit. Since then, I have a knee that makes me spend a lot of time with a foam roller, and a lazy attitude that has shortened  and slowed my runs. My usual half marathon now is over 2 hours. My training runs are usually 10 minute miles. For most of these half marathons, I will be aiming for a 9:30 mile. If I CAN work up better speed, I would love to break 1:50:00 in the half marathon, but I won't beat myself up if I don't.

It's not particularly slow, sure. But it's not Ryan Hall fast either. I wish I were faster, but, well, running is running. No matter what pace we run, we get the job done. I think people are just as impressive running slow as when they are running fast. Often, slower runners are more impressive. After all, they have to keep at it for LONGER.

No matter what, people who are running (or, equally impressively, swimming or biking or walking or hiking or skiing or yogaing or lifting, or any other form of exercise) are impressive. They are getting out there, getting active, and doing something that, often, hurts and sucks until you are done. Anyone who gets out there and does more than they would normally do, in pursuit of health, accomplishment, or just feeling good is impressive in my book. And if we keep doing it, we must like it somehow, right?

I wonder where people got this idea that I was a fast runner. It is because I talk about running? Is it because I am doing the half marathon challenge at all? Neither of those are indicators. Talking about something often is no indication that you are in fact an expert (though now I wonder if there's a psychological phenomenon where if people see you talk about something often, they assume that you are an expert).

Why am I doing this? Not because I'm fast. Some people have told me I am doing this because I like to set attainable goals, or because I am awesome. Nope.

I'm doing this for cheese. I love cheese. And running half marathons means I can eat as much cheese as I want for the next year. I'd probably eat the cheese anyway, but I'd feel a vague sense of guilt. Now that sense is gone. Bring on the cheese.

800px-Peruvian_cheese_open_air_market(I will take four of each, please. Source)

Who knows. Maybe this project will make me faster. Maybe it won't. But in the end, pace doesn't matter. This train runs on cheese.



7 responses so far

The 'system' failed me. It should have failed me sooner.

Jan 06 2014 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

There are some posts that punch you in the gut a little. Lately, for me, those posts have been about life in academia. About 'the system'. Whether or not it failed people. This post was one of them. It hit me hard. But it made me think, too.

The post, "The afternoon I decided to leave academe - and what happened next", describes someone who could have been me (had I been a history PhD, anyway). She loved being in academia, but in the end, facing another year of adjuncting, she decided to leave. She is now successful in a completely different career, but she still fights a nagging sense of failure.

And she could have been me. My situation, lately, is very similar. Because I am no longer in academia. I am still writing up my last few papers (which, by the way, is a HECK of a lot harder to do when you have to do the work that pays first and try to squeeze it around a completely different full time job), but I'm not a scientist anymore. Instead, I'm a writer. I love my new career. But like the author of that post, I still feel that nagging sense of failure.

I could have kept at it. Many people told me to take another post-doc, take the 'part time' (though is a 3-3 with research and service really part time?), non-TT job I was offered. To adjunct, to keep trying.

And part of me really, really wanted to. I have always wanted to be a professor. I remember seeing my father in class once, when I was very young. He is a professor, and to me, he looked like the coolest guy in the world. So knowledgeable, so inspiring, so brilliant. And I wanted to be like that when I grew up. I wanted to teach, to think big thoughts, to present new things to the world, to have everyone think I was smart.

So I went to college. I went to grad school. I did a lot of science. I felt I was doing something that would change people's lives for the better, that would help people who suffered. I wanted to save the world. In the end, I wasn't good enough to save the world, not Tenure-Track good enough. But also, in the end, I realized that I did not want to BE good enough. I no longer wanted to be big wig science professor at a big wig university.

Throughout all this, I read a lot about people who feel the academic system failed them (or their friends). They were promised jobs, or they themselves had promise, and the system weeded them out with the ruthlessness of 8% paylines. I don't know whether the system failed them or not. We're all different.

But did the system fail me? There may have been problems with funding, may have been problems with mentors, or lack of them. There may have been issues with projects or support or a million other things. There may have been problems with me, with my attitude, my smarts, my drive. Or not. Or none of the above. But in the end, yes, I DO think the system failed me.

I think it didn't kick me out fast enough.

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106 responses so far

Tying up loose ends

Jan 01 2014 Published by under Academia, Uncategorized

A lot of people outside academia don't realize how slow the gears grind. Projects have to be conceived, funded, performed, written up. Submitted, rejected, submitted again, rejected with revisions, resubmitted, and then, finally, published. In an ideal world, the process takes months. In can take years. I'm out of academia. But I am not free of it. I have four first author papers still waiting. In my first few months out of academia, I spent all my free time writing three of them up. Checking all the data, dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Two have been submitted, and returned with major and minor revisions, respectively.

And now my spare time is devoted to revisions.

People ask me lately what it's like to be out of academia. It may be years until I'm fully "free." In some ways it feels like claws pulling me back to my old life. The revisions get harder and harder to do, as I get further and further from the lab. I begin to forget the literature, the established ways of writing, the phrasing. I forget how to think about things. It's hard to switch from your daily job to the work still unfinished. Especially when it's 10pm at night.

And unfortunately, the worse you get, the more you get chastised for doing things badly. And the more you fear and expect the chastisement. Emails from your old life make you sick to your stomach, even though most are completely innocuous. Academia loves sticks, and carrots a feel like they are deliberately undervalued. It really says something about academia that often, acceptance with minor revisions sounds EXACTLY like rejection until you ask somebody else.

This makes it very, very hard to complete those papers. Then you realize you're the one procrastinating and you feel even WORSE. I know it's my fault. I know. The papers need to go out. I know it's my responsibility to do them and do them well. But it is a slog. At best.

I'm determined not to give up. So far, I am putting in 30 min per day on a paper. Response to reviewers, reading it over, edits, reading relevant literature. Often, if I get into it, the 30 minutes will stretch to an hour or more. But sometimes I'm gritting my teeth and telling myself "30 minutes, you can do 30 stinking minutes." It's not much. It's not enough. But it is something.

6 responses so far