Imagine this: every year you go on vacation to a location close to home, say Drenthe*. It's fine to go to Drenthe, there are farms where you can pet a little horse, there is a small museum and some sights to see. But then one year, instead of Drenthe you get to go some place really nice and fancy, say Ibiza. It is awesome, you have sun and beach and parties and it gives you much more energy than Drenthe. It makes you realize that there is so much more in the world than just going to Drenthe.
But then the next year, circumstances dictate that your vacation goes to Drenthe again and not Ibiza. Complaining about it makes you feel spoiled because it is a vacation after all, but now that you've seen what vacations can also be like, Drenthe just seems a bit bleak in comparison.
This is how I feel about being back in my old job after having spend last year doing a different job. It feels like a huge first world problem to complain about something I liked before, but at the same time I feel like I keep doing the same thing that is not giving me a lot of energy where in the other job there were so many new and exciting things that were giving me energy. And even when those things would not be new and exciting anymore I believe they fit me better. And knowing that, additional time spent in my current job does not get me to where I'd want to be in my career. I need to figure out how to start the conversation about other opportunities within the company because it seems that people have already forgotten that I said how much I liked Ibiza and now just sent me back to Drenthe thinking I'd be satisfied just being on vacation.
*Feel free to replace this with a location close to your home.
This morning when I cycled to work I listened to this Hidden Brain episode about making fresh starts. It ends with Amy Mann reciting the poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop.
This year, I've lost quite a few things: my kids are both in school so I lost having really small children. I left my old apartment. And even though it is not my loss, when Little Brother recently lost his favorite stuffed animal (a monkey he received as a present three years ago) at school, it definitely felt like my loss. Coming from a family of hoarders, I am quite bad at coping with losing things. Little Brother on the other hand seems quite undisturbed. The stuffed monkey is still lost, and every now and then he asks whether the monkey is still hiding, searches for the monkey and concludes the monkey is not back and that seems it. At the same time I am heartbroken about the monkey and I picture him laying in the cold on a muddy playground somewhere.
I am also slowly losing my identity as a scientist. Or perhaps I'm not losing it, but it is no longer my main identity, which I think is a good thing for me. As they say in the Hidden Brain episode: "when one door closes, another one opens". That is definitely true for the scientist identity loss, but I'm not sure which door opens for a lost stuffed monkey.
Happy 2018 everyone! I had a two week break and it was delightful after the busy year I had. It gave me some time to think about everything that I had done last year and where I want to go this year. A tweep recommended to use Yearcompass for that which I started, but to be honest I still haven't finished because it takes quite some time to fill everything. But it did help me to sort my thoughts about what I find important for next year.
I think my main
struggle challenge for next year is going to be how much change I am going to look for. Am I going to stay in my current job that I'm quite satisfied with but is maybe not as challenging as I would wish, or will I look for something that might fit better? A tweep came up with a solution for that, except that I still have to figure out how to embed this solution in my actual life.
Stay tuned for more on that ;-). As each year, the resolutions for running and blogging are that I wish to do more than last year, but that I'm also okay if it stays approximately the same.
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.
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?
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's been quiet here for longer than I had intended. We moved to a new house 2 months ago, which was right after a really busy period at work. This doing my own job plus the new work thing was kicking my ass quite a bit. Mostly because I started by trying to do most of my own job but then squeezed in two days a week, because the other days were spent in the work thing. One major thing I've learned is to be much clearer about what I can and can't do in the time that I have.
The new house is great, and the new work thing (which by now is not super new anymore) is also great. Which now poses the dilemma of which work thing I like most - in case an actual job opens up in the new work department, which might happen but is still unclear when. My thoughts about this are not yet coherent enough to write down here. So expect more posts about all these questions and doubts: how to figure out what you want, how to determine which aspects of a job give you energy and which are energy drains, etc. And then there's the difficulty of moving within a company while still keeping everyone (or at least most people) around you happy.
Most academics work hard, whether it is the amount of hours you spend in the lab or the efficiency and focus with which you dedicate yourself to your work. And having spend the last 2,5 years outside academia, I don't think this is much different for people outside academia. If I look around the company I work for, many people put in more hours than stated on their contract and work hard.
But lately I've been wondering why we all work so hard? When I was in academia, I worked hard because I wanted to have my own lab one day, and I knew that for that I needed papers and funding. I worked hard for a long-term goal. And even though I liked doing the work, on many days I did not like the work and purely did it because of that long term goal.
Now, being outside academia, I don't have such a clear long-term goal, and I especially didn't have one when I had just transitioned outside academia. I have been working less hard than in academia, or perhaps I should say: I've been less obsessed with the feeling that I have to work hard. But I'm still working more and harder than I technically should. And I'm trying to get a clear view for myself why I do it. Is it because I hope it will get me higher up in the company (yes, I think), is it for external recognition (yes I guess), is it because I like doing the work (yes, on most days), is it because this is the example my parents have given me (yes, both my parents worked hard and outside of their official working hours)?
What about you? Why do you work hard? Or do you like your work so much that it never feels like hard work, but rather like being allowed to play around all day?
More recent discussions on this here, here and here.