Science

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…

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Why I can’t *secretly* take over the world

Sometimes, mostly when least expected, I have brilliant ideas. Like on the bus. Or in the bathtub. When I’m not even trying to control my brain but am simply staring at the world passing by, when I’m almost falling asleep and just letting it happen. Lots of ideas are irretrievably lost, but every now and then I hold on to it and get to my laptop or tablet. I work it all out. First this fellowship, then that committee role and organising that event. Et voila, my career is fixed for the next hundred years.

(and yes – if you thought I was thinking about brilliant scientific ideas, yup, they happen too in the bathtub, but those are not what this post is about)

Sometimes, after waking up from my trance where everything is rosey, I wonder whether the path I envisioned is realistic, whether things I’d like to apply for are too ambitious. Or may not fit my supervisors expectations. Like a few months ago, when I asked him to back an application for a teaching role – “you sure you want to do teaching?”…

Yes, I do. But maybe I do not always want to tell the entire world. Maybe I just want to try on a new role, see how it goes. Or just see how far I can get with the application procedure, without having to admit that I’m actually as arrogant to believe my chances are good enough to apply for THAT job.

Impossible, no secrecy permitted here. I’ve asked both my PhD supervisor and my current postdoc supervisor for at least 5 letters of recommendation so far this year. And the end is nowhere near in sight. Travel money. Teaching positions. Research Fellowships. All kinds of things really.

I like applying for stuff. Maybe I’m a bit mad. However, I like to write applications as I simply like writing and think it’s good practice. Especially when, like now, they are not absolutely necessary for jobs I need to live, but are merely extracurricular functions. I’m nosey, curious and restless and I know it, so I would simply like to use that energy for something useful.

But do I really have to admit that to my boss, with every thing I apply for?! Even though he says he doesn’t mind writing letters, he has to start wondering at some point when I actually get to do all these things, whether it doesn’t interfere with my work? It doesn’t interfere with it, but sometimes I’d rather have he didn’t know about everything I get up to.

Besides that, I feel guilty for claiming so much time. Some roles require three letters. Even if some of them have asked me to write the letters for them, they still edited them and wasted time on it. And then the search committees, who have to get through so many letters…

So my plea, arising from a tiny frustration… Could we please stop asking for letters of recommendation up front?! Make a shortlist, ask them for references, but don’t ask them from everyone immediately. I always wonder what the added value is anyway, does it every happen that are not absolutely positive?! It might make a difference maybe when you have two very good candidates, but like I said, it should do then to request more information only about the people you’re actually interested in!

 

(the actual trigger for this post btw… I sent off an application for something with deadline tomorrow. Warned the beloved letter-writers well in advance. Sent them a subtle reminder last weekend. To get a panicky reply from one of them: “I forgot! And I’m on holidays in Uzbekistan now with my laptop locked away in a safe at home! How can we solve this?” *facepalm*)

What goes around, comes around

I wonder why this is happening. I feel like I am going from unknown depths in my life, to climbing back up that mountain within days. Which means that one week I’m making you read how miserable things are and then in the following week I tell you how fabulous life is. Lets hope I won’t keep bouncing as strongly…

On Thursday, I attended a course organised by the Medical Sciences Department on how to teach in small groups. Having my recent application for a teaching fellowship in the back of my head, I figured this might be a good preparation for an interview – should I be invited for one… And let me tell you this: I’ve never been to such an informative and fun course before. After half a year in Oxford, asking occasional questions about the University and its colleges but getting only vague answers, I now finally understand what these colleges are. And also know what these mysterious tutorials are good for. (note to self: write a post some day to share these insights with the wider world!) Unfortunately, the course ran a bit longer than scheduled and I had to run for an appointment at the dentist (of which I seem to have too many lately…).

I decided to send one of the organisers an email to apologise for running off like that, before they had finished. And to tell him I thought the course was really good and was even considering to go further than this one day and try to get an official teaching qualification. Not because I anticipate to need that in near future, but because I’ve always been interested in education and this course had rekindled that spark.

On a side note, I strongly believe that positive feedback is very important. If I am happy with something, I tend to tell people. I realised that the British are even more surprised with that than people back home. When one of the PhD students in our lab had given me a protocol that was really easier than my protocol, I told him I couldn’t believe that would work, but would try it anyway. When it did work, I told him and thanked him for sharing his secrets. And I’ve also told our lab manager that I’m impressed with the way he built a lab from scratch in half a year and is juggling the partially opposing expectations from us, the PI and the director. They both seemed genuinely surprised with my feedback, but really happy. They both told me that generally the British don’t say that kind of thing out loud. On the other hand, they also don’t complain. It’s still pretty alien to me, why can’t you show some emotion and let people know how you feel?

But to get back to this course. I went home after seeing the dentist (and being told that a third tooth is dying off too 😦 ) and sent a tweet into the world, linking to this course and telling how good is was. Then, I phoned some friends and told them too. And realised that I had really enjoyed it, so why not give them that feedback? So I did just that. I googled one of the organisers to get an email address and sent off this email. The next day, I got a reply that he was really happy with my feedback, as they rarely got any. Which convinced me that it is good to let people know when you appreciate them or what they do. I really dislike the fact that people seem to be more willing to complain about negatives than to truly appreciate positives.

Which would’ve been fine, if this had been the end of it. But then I got an email from the other organiser (there were two) to thank me for the email I sent the other guy. Turned out it probably was the last course he would run and my feedback made that kind of special to him. I explained what I said earlier in this post, that I am convinced people should speak up more when they appreciate something. To which this second organiser replied that this was exactly what they had been trying to explain during the course, that teaching isn’t only about getting facts through, but about inspiring people and making a difference.

And then. I still can’t believe my luck. He offered to mentor me if I’d like to start with a portfolio, which is necessary to get this teaching qualification, and that if my molecular biology is any good, he might even be able to help me get started with teaching. Are you kidding me? Most people apply for millions of things before they get offered a position, because of the high competition in medical sciences in Oxford, and he just throws something in my face? I still have to reply to his email to accept his offer, but I definitely will!

I’m absolutely not trying to say that you should become a slime ball trying to convince everybody you love them, because you think they will then magically fix your life for you. That’s not gonna get you anywhere. But you can make a big difference for people by genuinely appreciating them and what they do. With little to no effort, you can make people happier. And every now and then this comes back to haunt you 🙂