Archive for the 'Decisions' category

Back when I had a baby and a fellowship rejection in one week

Over four years ago, I came home from the hospital in the evening after a day that started with me thinking I was in labor (and so did the midwives, by the way) but ended with me not being in labor anymore while the baby was still in my uterus. I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed, but just before that I checked my email. Back then, my private email and most of my work email came to the same email address. And there it was: a long awaited email from the EU with the results of whether I was going to get a Marie Curie fellowship to do my own research back in the homecountry. As the EU did back then, the email just said something along the lines of "fellowship results", and then you had to click a link, log into their participant portal, find out that your password has expired, make a new password, log in again to then find a very cryptic message that still did not really say whether you got the money or not. I was exhausted from being in the hospital all day, but my heart was racing at the same time because I wanted to know if I got the fellowship or not.

Fast forward: I did not get the fellowship but I did have the baby 5 days later. And now that I look back at these emails I'm surprised to see that within 2 weeks of giving birth I was emailing with the professor who gave me feedback on this grant on how to rework it into a new grant. I so much wanted to succeed in academia that I kept thinking and working around birthing a baby. But before you get all judgy, I also remember very clearly how this was a way for me to stay connected to my normal world: my world that I was used to and to try and avoid the world I had experienced with my first-born: a world where I felt so alone with a crying baby. I was not - and am still not - someone who can sit still for a long time. I wanted to continue to think about science even though I had just had a baby. I want to take care of a baby and think at the same time.

I was reminded of this when the other day, a journalist tweeted the following:

And of course Twitter had lots of opinions, that Racael Pells summarized for Times Higher Education. But as you can imagine from the story I shared, this could have been me (that is - before you come to the part where she describes that the academic in question was male).

In hindsight, perhaps I wish my work email wouldn't come to my private email address. In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have checked my email after a long day in the hospital. And in hindsight, I wish I could have been more in the moment with my little baby. I wish I had seen more examples of how people actually do this, as opposed to stories of women who submit manuscripts while in early labor. I wish academia wasn't so much of a linear career path, where I was afraid to take some time to be in the moment with a little baby. But there are many moments in a day. Some moments were spent mindfully bonding with my new baby, and other moments were spent sending emails. That is how it was.

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On finishing papers after leaving the lab

Yesterday Michael Eisen tweeted this. I replied that I had actually finished 2 papers from grad school during my post-doc and 2 post-doc papers in my next job. In all honesty, I also still have an unfinished paper from grad school. So how did I do this and what factors are important in determining whether you'll be able to finish that paper after leaving the lab?

I think what helped me most is to make it non-negotiable with yourself whether those papers are going to be finished. They just have to get finished. Think of it as brushing your teeth: you don't ask yourself each day whether or not to do it, you just to it and that makes it take much less effort than to continuously negotiate with yourself whether to do it or not. And especially during the transition between grad school and post-doc, I just HAD to finish those papers because I knew that getting them published would make me more competitive to obtain a fellowship (my long-time readers may know that I never actually got a fellowship or grant, but still). After transitioning into industry it was a bit different, but in my current job I can still use published papers as a sign that I was productive, collaborative, etc during my post-doc.

What worked best in my experience to finish papers while in another job, was to allocate an hour in the morning to work on the paper and then switch back to my actual job. I would probably do this 1 or 2 days a week so progress was generally slow. Every now and then I took a whole day of, for example to write the discussion, which is really not something I can do in an hour here and there but requires a longer stretch of attention. With the generous amount of vacation days where I am now, this was something I could afford every now and then to get the paper finished. Also, sometimes I would work evenings or weekends on an unfinished paper, but I'd like to keep that to a minimum.

A big determinant in whether or not you are able to finish papers after leaving the lab is whether your co-authors are cooperative and also want this paper published. If they need to play a big part in getting it finished and for some reason don't do their part, this is clearly outside your circle of influence and will make it hard to get it done. So before you start taking days off to finish a paper, it is wise to make sure that everyone is on board and agrees on who does what.

And I want to finish by saying that while I believe it is do-able to finish a paper after leaving the lab, if you are the grad-student or post-doc that leaves, I think it is also okay if you decide not to finish a paper. If getting the paper published is not going to bring you much, and the costs of putting in the effort outweigh the benefits, then just don't. But in that case, I would be clear about that because there are few things I dislike as much as revisiting decisions and keeping half-finished things in the back of my mind and/or harddrive.

What about you? How do you deal with unfinished papers after leaving the lab?

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I'm on the Recovering Academic podcast!

When Cleyde, Amanda and Ian started their Recovering Academic podcast I started listening to it, usually on my runs. I really enjoy their podcast and how they talk about transitioning outside academia and all the feelings and practical issues that come with that move. So when they asked me recently whether I wanted to be interviewed, I immediately said yes. It was almost surreal to be IN a podcast that I usually listen to, but it was mostly a lot of fun and I thought - but I might be biased - a nice conversation.

Now it's out and you can listen to it here! And please share what you thought about it!

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An analogy for how I feel in my career

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.

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The art of losing

Jan 10 2018 Published by under Decisions, personal posts

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.

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Happy 2018!

Jan 09 2018 Published by under Decisions, life in the office

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.

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The spark in science

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.

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When can my brain be trusted to take decisions?

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?

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I am not going to SfN this year

Oct 30 2017 Published by under Academia, Decisions, meeting, networking, science

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.

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On skills you never use anymore

Sep 24 2017 Published by under Academia, Decisions, moving, new job, postdoc

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?

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