Personal

To leave, or not to leave?

Sadly, I’m not so sure anymore that science is for me.

I absolutely love being in the lab while trying to crack problems. Thinking about the project we’re doing, why it’s important to be pursuing it. How to pursue it. Which methods to use. The thrill of going to the lab and getting some small results every day, even if only cells that are happily growing. After a lot of work, collecting all the data and writing up a paper. Discussing new ideas. Presenting them to the lab, to the institute, at conferences. Setting up collaborations. I really really enjoy it.

At some point however, negatives started to seep through that pink cloud. A collaborator who warns not to try to reproduce some paper, as they think it’s irreproducible. A colleague who is very sloppy in processing data, leading to perhaps wrong conclusions. A supervisor who is pushing their students so hard, that some get depressed, some get to hate science, none of them are happy. A PI who copies his postdocs texts to his grant applications without giving them any credit. The list is, unfortunately, quite long.

I understand the roots of these problems. The pressure is immensely high. Who doesn’t publish, goes down. Who doesn’t get money, can’t pursue their projects. What science needs, is a way of evaluating people other than output in form of publications. But that’s worth of a blog post of its own… I’m very curious how I’m going to end up – after a period in Oxford, no paper yet. No one is going to ask why, not going to care that my promised contract didn’t come when I got pregnant and that 2,5 years just aren’t enough to build up a project from scratch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness. What really makes me happy? So far, being a scientist has defined much of who I am. But does that mean it makes me happy? Or should I accept that I’ve been viewing academia through pink glasses and that it is in truth a ruthless world of constant pressure, publishing, networking, writing and selling instead of being about careful analysis, observations and hypotheses. Perhaps a 9-5 job, with higher salary and less uncertainty would be better suited to my family needs…

Now that I’ve rediscovered the internet and social media, I’ll find out more about leaving academia such as these podcasts and try to decide what to do after my maternity leave. Any pointers to other people or blogs are most welcome 🙂 Having a screeching 4 month old does limit my possibilities to roam around the net…

Hello there. I’m still alive. Kind of.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been away from the wondrous world of social media for quite a while. So many things were happening, that mysteriously no time was left for the online world. Also, my moods have been varying greatly. Note the understatement there. I didn’t want to fill this blog with not necessarily heartfelt negativeness.

I think I’m going through a phase many (early career) scientists go through. What am I? A scientist? A writer? Or perhaps a friend, a musician, a daughter, a …? How many percent of my identity is defined by science, how much made up of other components? What will fill me with happiness, when I’m 80 something and ready to die? The one extra paper I squeezed out, or the time I spent with my family?

You may ask what triggered this avalanche of thoughts, or perhaps not. I have the feeling it’s quite common in nowadays science to philosophise a bit about the meaning of it all so maybe you may actually not want to ask why. I’ll tell you anyway.

Last year, I was in Oxford. Doing some pretty fun research in a pretty bad environment. Narcissistic PI. Egocentric colleagues. You name it. Still, I was hooked on the research and overall happy. Then two things happened:

I got pregnant. My PI did not give me the promised contract extension.

I am still in a very introspective and reflective phase and will undoubtedly expand a bit more on what exactly happened the last year in further posts. Most importantly for now, I’m very happy with my baby and partner. Career, I don’t know. Life turned upside down having no job, being pregnant, moving to another city in a country with a language I don’t speak.

Right now, I guess being a mum has replaced much of the scientist, but I’m sincerely hoping that is a temporary state. It is probably a survival instinct, as I would most likely go mad as a scientist sitting at home changing diapers all day.

Occupying me most, is the not knowing what’s next. Once the kiddo is old enough for daycare, will I start applying for other postdoc positions, make the transition to industry, to writing, to consulting, or to something else completely? Opening a cat cafe sounds like a perfectly solid life choice to me at the moment 🙂

To be continued…

 

Dr Ks 364 days in Oxford

Exactly one year ago, I was torn between excitement of my upcoming one-way flight to Oxford and sadness during my grandfathers funeral. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Oxford exactly one year. And what a year it’s been…

The first days were exciting, my boyfriend joined me for a flat-hunt. We were fairly successful and even had some spare time to enjoy Oxford and each others company. Things turned ugly pretty fast and I vividly remember the moment he walked out of the hotel room to return to Germany a few days later. I felt abandoned, lost, alone in a new city without anyone to talk to. Maybe I also released the emotions kept in during the funeral, as I didn’t need to pretend to be strong anymore. I forced myself out of the hotel room to allow cleaning, but all I wanted was to hide.

I was really glad when I could start work, so I wouldn’t be facing the hotel room anymore and had some distraction. Turned out that my colleagues are absolutely fabulous. There were many Christmas lunches, dinners and parties and before I knew it, I was on my way back home again for a two week Christmas break. Returning to Oxford was even more difficult than before, because I felt like leaving my real life in Germany on hold for a shallow substitute in Oxford.

Winter was grey, windy and rainy. My work seemed to progress albeit slowly. My boyfriend visited once, during a period of festivities back home he hated. I was really happy to have him over so unexpectedly, but in retrospect I already should’ve asked the question: why can you come to Oxford when the alternative, being at home, is worse than being here, but why can’t you come over just to see me?! I went home several times.

It became clear a long-distance relationship is going to be difficult and I started looking at alternatives. Could I go back without damaging my CV overly much? Doubt crept in though, because I realised I quite enjoyed being in Oxford and didn’t really want to go back. I started to realise it’s not fair to treat my time in Oxford as my life being on hold, because I’m living here and now. To be happy, I’d have to invest in hobbies and friends over here as well.

April then literally hit me. I had a freakish bike accident, which had me waking up in the hospital totally confused and lacking several teeth. When they asked who I’d like to call, I realised there wasn’t anyone in particular I’d like to call. Another wave of loneliness swallowed me for a week or so. I felt so terribly alone, I couldn’t face it and went to work two days after the accident, with my face stitched up and lacking teeth…

We decided it’s better to break up. He didn’t want to come here, nor me back, so we reached a stalemate. His grandfather died and I went back for the funeral. It was bizarre to hold him, to comfort him, in the knowledge that our relationship was over. But still caring enough about him to want to comfort him. Two weeks later, I went back again to sign the papers needed for our break. I sold my share of our house to him and we loaded a van with some of my possessions. Most of it stayed with him though: I didn’t think I’d be able to face the memories day after day.

The weeks that followed must’ve been the blackest of my life. Stripped of everything I held dear, I had no idea where to go. My friends weren’t here, my family needed me back home, I suddenly didn’t have a boyfriend, house or cats anymore. Progress at work was infuriatingly slow.

I hate cheesy sayings, but apparently time indeed heals. The months between then and now have been relatively quiet and given me plenty of opportunity for introspection. What do I want from life? What’s important? To be honest, I still don’t know, but I’ve reached the point where I’ll just go with the flow, do what feels good right here and right now. Anything else will follow. I realised I’m really not happy at work and tried to address it.

Because I felt I had nothing to loose anyway, I tried to explain to my boss why I am unhappy at work. We haven’t found a solution yet, but one of the reasons why I was disappointed is because I felt my input in a project went unacknowledged. After speaking about it, at least I’ll be an author on the manuscript and be included more. I’ve always been bad at speaking up for myself, but the current situation is definitely making me better at that.

I’ve started to see many more rays of light. Being on my own has forced me to make my own choices in everything I do. It made me more aware of my needs, more confident.

I’m organising a symposium. I’ve tried to address certain issues at work, which have been medium successful at most, but have led the Institute’s Director to tell me he’d write me a recommendation letter if I ever need one. He really appreciates the effort I’m making, even if my direct boss doesn’t see it. Apparently most people never speak up about issues they may have, which is a shame really.

I’ve been demonstrating in immunology classes and got lovely feedback. I’ve given my first ever lectures, on molecular biology and bioinformatics, and got good feedback on that as well. I’ll use the experience to write up a teaching portfolio, which’ll allow me to become an associate member of the Higher Education Academy.

I’ve picked up piano classes again, joined a group of people playing board games and another bunch of people going to the movies quite often. There’ve been ladies nights out. Or the occasional drink with colleagues. I’ve started volunteering at the Musea. Finally, I feel like my life is happening here. To the point where I’m not really looking forward to Christmas, as two weeks with my family is going to be odd. Especially because I’m not sure yet whether I want to face my ex again, or see the cats. That’ll probably make me incredibly sad and throw me back, so I probably won’t, which in itself is enough to make me sad again. Does that mean I’ll never see them again?!

So yes, the past year has been a special one. One that makes me realise I’m stronger than I think. Which has taught me a lot about myself. I’m not afraid of what the future may hold, but will just take it one day at a time. Let’s see where life takes me!