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.
Yesterday I was chatting with a colleague who has 2 small children. We started around the same time and have both been evaluated pretty positively since we joined the company. At the end of the year I got the opportunity to do a new work thing and I accepted this even though I'm now realizing that I am really working at the limits of how much work I can do. She got the same offer and declined. With a heavy heart because it was something that she wanted but with kids that are smaller than mine (and sleeping very unpredictably) she was afraid she would disappoint people because of not being able to deliver what people expected. And because she was afraid she would be exhausted literally all the time.
I've made similar choices when my kids were babies (and am actually still making this choice by officially working 4 days a week instead of 5). But I also realize that declining such an offer before even trying means that perhaps you're missing out on something that could have worked out. But I can also definitely see that the prospect of being exhausted/underperforming makes you opt out. And I'm guessing there's probably a gender difference here. And a bit of perfectionism?
Have you declined opportunities because you were afraid they would be too taxing?
A pessimist would say: "nothing like comparing yourself to your peers who went into marketing straight after an MSc to doubt the value of spending nearly a decade in academia." Similarly, Science Magazine has a recent article on the price of doing a postdoc where they calculate that:
"On average, they give up about one-fifth of their earning potential in the first 15 years after finishing their doctorates—which, for those who end up in industry, amounts to $239,970."
Having spend 4 years in the US (3 years as postdoc and 1 year as non-TT faculty), I have definitely made economic sacrifices compared to peers who stayed in the homecountry, and especially to those who left academia after an Msc or Phd. Not just the difference in income between academia and outside (which by the way is a much larger difference in the US than in EU). But also think of moving costs that weren't compensated: moving back to the homecountry we were both postdocs again and the university compensated us for 500 euros total. The costs of moving an entire family across the Atlantic was at least 10 times and maybe 20 times that much. We spent a good portion of our savings on moving costs and I'm sure we're not the only academic family to do that. Also, not paying for retirement savings for 3 years, and having a tiny foreign retirement account that will cost about the sum of what is in there to move it here. I realize it is a privilege to be able to spend money on choosing a career that is not financially optimal and at the same time that means that academia might miss out on people who are not able to do that. But then again, shouldn't we all go to school for whatever job it is where you sell shady mortgages and get filthy rich? That's not what life is all about, is it?
I tend to be an optimist and I wonder if we're not missing the value of doing a post-doc here. Looking back, it was a great period of being able to focus solely on the scientific projects I was working on, without course work and the pressure to graduate that happens during a PhD and all the other stuff that comes with a more advanced scientific career either inside or outside academia. Also - to me at least -, it was a uniquely flexible time for having babies, being sleep deprived and pumping milk. Also, it was great to be able to live in a different country for a while. But I guess I could have done that while working for a company who would have paid for my moving expenses.
I'm not quite sure what the answer is here. I've asked before if you felt you spent too much time as a postdoc, but I guess the bigger dilemma here is how to deal with all these people that are in academic postdoc positions without the prospect of all landing permanent positions...? And what is the value of doing a postdoc if afterwards you leave academia?
A couple months ago I went to a networking thing with women I had never met before. I would encourage everyone to do this, because for some reason explaining who you are and what you do to people you've never met is really interesting and allows you to re-examine what you tell people about yourself and thereby how you see yourself.
I talked a little about how I had some doubts about whether I was enjoying my job and when I should worry about when to make a next step in my career. One of the older women said:
"You should realize that you have another 30 years of work ahead of you, so change doesn't need to come right this minute. In the meantime, you should try to enjoy what you are doing now."
I knew in a rational way that she was right, but it took me a couple weeks to really realize what she had said. And then when I was at SfN and I heard myself talk about what my job entails, I realized that I actually have a job with so many aspects that I really like. And it seems like just when I became aware of that, a really interesting opportunity presented itself: next year I get to take over from somebody on parental leave for six months who has a job that I have been wondering about whether I would like it for a while. I get to do that for 50% of my time and my current job for the other 50%. It will allow me to work at a different location with different people and see a different side of the company there that is a bit further away from what I have experience with so far. I'm super excited about it and also realize that this seems exactly the shiny new opportunity that I needed to get out of the disrguntled slumpy feeling!