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?