For the first time in over 3 years I opened the folder on my computer that contains the grant and fellowship applications that I submitted during my postdoc, including one that was still work in progress. By the time I left academia, I had submitted 10 applications, none of which got funded. The reason I opened this folder was to share one of them with someone, not necessarily because I wanted to read them again. But as these things go, I found myself going down the rabbit hole of reading my old applications. And something struck me: they lacked the spark of really wanting to discover something in science. They all read a little like: “look I have an okay CV, I can do a whole bunch of things and collaborate with a whole bunch of people. Oh and then I’m going to do this project”.
And I remember a conversation I had with 2 more senior scientists in the process of writing that unfinished application that revived that spark. They asked me what the question was that I really wanted to answer and what it was that got me excited about neuroscience in the first place. But by then I had already made up my mind about wanting to leave academia, so we will never know if rediscovering the spark would have got me funded.
But it did make me realize once again that I got so caught up in chasing funding that I nearly forgot what it is all about: studying something and trying to find answers to questions that fascinate you. And it also made me realize that except for those 2 people, none of my advisors or mentors ever asked me that question: what it is that I really want to study and that really gets me excited to understand further. And more importantly that I forgot to ask myself that question as well.
My main reason to leave academia was the short contract I was on, in combination with the difficulty to get funding in order to sustain myself in academia. I wanted stability and be able to think about projects longer than just the year I had funding for. So I left for a position in industry.
However, shortly after I joined the company that I work for, there were rumors that our part of the company would be sold. If that were to happen, it was very unclear what would happen to the employees: would we be asked to move elsewhere, would we be fired? Fortunately that did not happen, but it did reinforce the notion that industry is not synonymous with stability.
And then at the beginning of this year I started an assignment that was supposed to last for six months. Currently, we're near the end of the year and I am still in that assignment. I enjoy it and people around me value what I do. It does however, lead to a whole bunch of uncertainty about what will be next: can I stay in the assignment (which I would like), or do I go back to my actual job? It made me realize all the more that there is uncertainty and change everywhere.
I do feel that I am much better equipped now then when I was a post-doc to deal with change. I know much better what I am good at because people give more feedback here than in academia, and I trust that there will be a job that I like somewhere for me. And it really helps that I have a permanent contract here that is not dependent on whether I find funding to sustain myself.
Most importantly, inside I went from feeling like a tiny boat that could be knocked over by change...
.... to a much more stable rock that stays stable among change, on most days. On other days I REALLY wish I knew what I am going to be doing next year and what I can look forward to.
The first year after BlueEyes was born, I vowed to myself never to take any important decisions in the first year postpartum. I was too tired, emotional and just not myself to be trusted to do anything else than do the work I had thought out before that year and take care of my baby and myself. It was even difficult to decide whether to work during naptime or take a much needed nap myself.
A little over two years later, Little Brother was born and I completely disobeyed my own order not to take any decisions during that first year. We moved, I briefly started a new post-doc job and then decided to leave academia. I still believe that was a really good decision by the way, but I wish there was a good way to figure out if you can be trusted to take decisions at a particular time.
I notice that there are differences during my cycle in terms of feeling confident to take a decision (or not at all), and then there's prodromal migraine phases during which I feel sad and completely incompetent. Usually I only figure out that this brain state was there after it has ended. It makes me realize how nice it would be if there was a little light on the inside of your wrist that would switch on if you are good to make important decisions, or something like that. Or is that what mindfulness is good for...?
What about you? Do you know when your brain can be trusted to take decisions?
Decisions are never straightforward and often there are reasons behind a decision that may seem very irrational, yet are important reasons anyway. For example, I held off breaking up with a boyfriend for longer than I probably should have because I really really loved my in-law family, and realized that breaking up with him also meant never getting to see them again.
Ever since I left academia, there have been subsequent decisions that made me move even further away from neuroscience. And when I received this tweet it made me realize that going to SfN is a bit like my adorable ex-in-law family: it is the part that makes me not want to let go of neuroscience. I’m not going to SfN this year, and if I continue on the path that I have started on, I may not go to SfN for the foreseeable future.
It makes me realize that it is impossible to have everything and that moving towards one thing, means saying goodbye to another. What I love most about going to SfN is the profound feeling that I’m part of a large group of people all working to better understand the brain and find ways to cure psychiatric and neurologic diseases, yet at the same time meeting friends from all over the world. It’s like a warm bath of people and science. And then there’s sfnbanter! But I will be doing other things.
For a while one of the hardest things about leaving academia to me was the fact that I spent years getting really good at things that I never get to do anymore. I was good at patching cells in slices from adult rats. I was rather proficient at inserting jugular vein catheters, even in small rodents. I enjoyed doing those things, but in my current job I never get to do them, or even teach other people how to do these things. Every now and then, this makes me wonder whether doing a post-doc was worth it, had I known where I would have ended up. But that is the opposite of my more prevailing thought: that actually learning these skills has given me insight into what kind of work I enjoy doing (and which parts I don't like) in order to get a better picture of where I want to go next in my career. What I loved about doing surgery on small rodents was the flow that it brought me in having to pay attention to every little detail in order to make sure the procedure went well. And I enjoyed looking at a well-sutured animal while they were recovering, knowing I had done it well. It may sound crazy, but working on slides for a presentation that turn out looking really nice in the end gives me a bit of the same feeling.
For a while, I thought this big difference in the skills you acquire versus those you use in a new job was unique to recovering academics, but listening to a recent episode of the Women Killing It podcast, I realized this is not the case. In this episode the guest, Gretchen Rubin talks about leaving law to become a writer at a point when she was very successful in that area and had invested years in getting there. They talk about how many people who are successful in their career have perhaps not taken a linear path but were successful in a different area first before transitioning into something else. And how you will learn many things on the way to another destination, mostly about yourself and about what you enjoy doing.
What skills (academic or otherwise) do you have that you never get to use anymore and how do you feel about that?
This morning I came to a realization that shocked me and that made me quite painfully aware of my own biases. Already a couple of times I had come across this headline on twitter: She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell. Every time I saw it I couldn't help but think: Oh man, another person who was oppressed/harrassed/assaulted in whatever way by some man who has the power to do so and still goes unpunished for way too long. But it didn't touch me enough to read the piece. Or to retweet it or say what I think about it. It just made me a little numb that this just keep happening over and over and over it seems.
And then someone tweeted the name of the victim in this case. And I recognized the name and realized that I had seen her present her work and I was so impressed with her. She was energetic and funny and a really good presenter who did very interesting work. All of a sudden I cared so much more about this case. And that is the part that shocked me.
Because someone shouldn't have to be energetic and funny and a good presenter for me to care. I should always care when someone is oppressed or assaulted or harrased, whether they are boring or funny to me and whether I like them or not. It made me think of whenever men say things like:"We should care about women because they are our daughters and wives and sisters" and I think to myself: no, we should care because they are people. Yet I do the exact same thing in my head: I care more about people that I know and/or like.
How can I change this attitude and make sure I don't stop caring about cases like this one? By reading the statistics about how often women are sexually harrassed in science that make me angry every time I look at them. By linking to all the pieces online that show how hard it is to file these complaints against established men when you are the victim, but also how there are kind people that stand by the victims. Although at the end of the day the question remains whether you can ever really win in a case like this.
The other day I watched the 2016 Disney movie "Vaiana*" with my two sons. We all really liked it and I think my kids have watched it about five times since we watched it together. For those three people who haven't seen it or heard about it: it's a Polynesian inspired movie about the daughter of an island chief who gets chosen by the ocean to find the half god Maui and save the islands.
However, around two thirds into the movie, Vaiana realizes that it is a very difficult task and at some point she talks to the ghost of her grandmother who inspired her to go on this quest and says that it is just too hard. At that point, I thought how funny and awesome at the same time it would be if the movie would just end there. The lesson would be that sometimes, you find yourself on a very difficult journey, in the presence of a narcissistic half god (wait, is this a metaphor for some academic labs?!) and you realize that it is just too hard. And that it is fine to realize this and decide you're going to do something else. You've learned things on the journey that have made you stronger and more experienced, but at the same time you realize that this journey is not for you. Wouldn't it be good for kids to learn that there is no shame in deciding to give up sometimes?
But of course, this is a Disney film and not real life. So I guess I'm not really spoiling anything by telling that it does not actually stop there.
* when writing this post I found out that the movie is actually called Moana in English speaking countries and Vaiana in some (?) European countries.
It has been much quieter here on the blog than I had hoped, but the first half of this year has significantly kicked my butt. Every time I tried to put my thoughts about that on paper it did not lead to anything coherent and/or blogable. But then I had a really nice break over the summer, which even allowed me to read books!
Living a Feminist Life - Sara Ahmed: I had been following Sara Ahmed on twitter for a while but so far I had never read any feminist literature. Reading Sara's book was great because she is able to put in words what it means to experience sexism and racism and what it feels like to address those issues, sometimes over and over. Her style is interesting, as it very much reads like a flow of thoughts, which made some parts hard to follow at first.
Homo Deus - Yuval Noah Harari: This was a gift from my brother and is actually the sequal to the book Sapiens, but I started with this one and have Sapiens still waiting for me. In this book, Harari talks about how things like famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges for human beings. I thought that the first part of this book sounded a bit 'splainy to me, but I was especially impressed with the second part of the book where Harari talks about how we see the human brain as a collection of algorithms, that cannot compete with the algorithms that humans are creating at the moment, or will create in the future. I was impressed by his ability to think outside of what we currently know and experience and describe what the future might be like when computer-algorithms become better than biological algorithms (which I guess is already the case right now for some specific tasks).
The angel's game (in Dutch: Het spel van de engel) - Carlos Ruiz Safon - This book had been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 8 years. Together with my husband and brother I had given it to my grandmother for her 80th birthday. She brought it on vacation with her into the mountains, read until page 28 and died in her sleep of a massive stroke. My mom wrote down where my grandmother was in the book after she passed away when she drove to meet my grandfather at their vacation destination and later gave the book back to me. It took me 8 years to not get so incredibly sad when I picked up this book that I could actually start reading it and think about the awesome person my grandmother was, and how weird it still is that she isn't around anymore. With respect to the book: it is a good vacation book, because the story just pulls you in. But it is not a mind-blowing story and it sounds and feels very similar to Shadow of the Wind, the bestseller Ruiz Safon wrote earlier.
What about you, dear reader of this blog (if you are still around), have you read any of these books or do did you read anything else worth sharing during the summer?
There's having to take time off for parental leave. There's not always being able to stay for networking after work. There's having to stay home when your kid is sick. And the list goes on and on why becoming a parent means sometimes not being able to be at work or working. However, it is still the case that for mothers this compromises their career more than for fathers, resulting in less pay and an overall perception of being less competent: an issue called the motherhood penalty, which was also highlighted when Gina Baucom asked for examples of crappy things that are being said to women academics the other day.
The other day I got a bit more insight into why this could be on a level I hadn't considered yet. Someone I know had her second kid about a 1,5 year ago and the first time year had been quite a struggle: she was tired, also moved to a different house and at the same time was making a huge effort to perform at the same level she did previously. This nearly resulted in a burn out, except that she had a very kind and caring manager who sent her home at just the right time and told her to take it easier. At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise.
After this first year, she started to feel like her normal self again: more sleep, normal hormone levels, etc. However, at the same time she noticed that her manager still treated her like the more fragile person who needed help and protection. Her manager would not give her the more challenging projects even though she was very capable of taking those on again. And ultimately her male colleague who had been there shorter got a promotion and she didn't. Seemingly because her manager could not get rid of the notion they had of her being weak. She felt that not only did she have to fight to get back into all her projects, she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person.
I'm not sure there is an answer here in how to navigate this path, but I'd be curious to hear what you would advice here, dear readers!