Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bad week, part 2

I'm also going through some kind of mid-life crisis about my career. I seem to do this to myself every couple of years, always to no productive end.

I applied for a job here at the University. It's a job as a coordinator for the graduate program for a totally non-science department here at the U. I'd be handling applications to the program, coordinating recruitment, fielding phone calls and questions from prospective applicants, managing the current grad students, and doing lots of odds and ends for the grad program. It's an administrative position, one I think I'd be rather good at. But it's not at all science-related, and that scares me.

Anyway, I had an interview earlier this week and they liked me enough to request my references and invite me back for a second interview. And since they wanted my references, I had to tell my bosses.

My bosses weren't entirely unsupportive, but they used lots of ominous phrases like "terminate your postdoc" and "closing a door firmly on your future" and "a decision you'll regret later". I can understand their point of view, but to some extent it's just the same kinds of threats that I've been hearing since I entered grad school. "If you leave, you can never come back."

It's so frustrating to feel like I don't have any freedom to explore my options for my career. I mean, this is my f%#!ing life we're talking about, and I'm so frustrated to feel like I can't even have a frank conversation with someone about my career.

The head of my lab, Dr. DNA, really felt like leaving the bench would be a huge mistake. "You're so early in your career" she said, "you're so young. You don't know what you want yet." She felt like it was motherhood that was simply distracting me from my work and making me feel like it wasn't any fun. "You just have to find a way to make it work," she said. "You and Husband can alternate responsibility for the Bean. Some nights he'll have her and you can stay till 7:00. Or you can plan your long experiments for a Saturday."

But what Dr. DNA didn't seem to understand is that I don't want to have to spend my Saturdays in the lab. I don't want to never see my husband because we're alternating late nights at lab. I just don't want that. I like science, but I don't like it more than my family. Why is that so hard to understand? And if that kind of schedule is what it takes to be at the bench, then I just don't want any part of it. Not at all.

I told Dr. DNA that I didn't want to spend 60 hours a week in the lab, that I wanted my job to be just that: my job. "Well is there any job you can think of where you'd want to work 60 hours a week?" she asked. "Not really," I said. She didn't seem pleased with that.

So I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know that I want to take this grad coordinator job, knowing that Husband will probably be starting a TT position in another city in 15 months. I should probably just stick it out at the bench till then and look like I at least gave my post doc the ol' college try and figure out what I want to be when I grow up when I know where we'll be. But in the meantime, bench work is feeling pretty miserable, and I am sick of hearing the same old garbage about people who want to leave the bench.

In my lowest moments, I think about what the Bean would think of her mommy. What will she think about mama's career? Will she know that her mommy is a failure?

I'm conflicted, as usual, and I don't know where I'm going or what I'm doing. I hate my job, I'm scared to leave it. I don't like what I'm doing, but it's the only thing I've ever done, the only thing I'm trained to do. I don't know what I want to do with my career or my degree because I haven't had the opportunity to try anything else. How does one even choose a career? And why does everyone seem to think that it's better to be miserable in academia than to even think about doing something else?

ARGH!!! I hate the cult of academia.


Nicole said...

This is really hard stuff that you are going through. I think it must be incredibly difficult and brave to consider doing something else after all of your training and commitment to get as far as you have in science. I'm not sure if there IS a win-win solution to be a successful scientist (yes, and work 60 hours plus in the lab) and also feel like you spend enough time with your family. There simply aren't enough hours in the day. But I also know many women who make it work for them.

I don't think your daughter will EVER think of you as a failure if you CHOOSE to quit your postdoc. The key word is choice. You have to decide what is best for you and your family, and what will ultimately make you the happiest. And that will make your daughter the happpiest. Happy mommy=happy baby. This is a cliche, but it is also true.

hypoglycemiagirl said...

This is very close to breaking my heart since you've worked so hard. I'm not sure if I get this right but here are few thoughts that immediately pops up in my head

1. You're not a failure; you've tried to make an optimal solution for your career, your husbands career and your family. Optimal doesn't mean perfect.

2. It's not true that you cannot return if you leave science. I did for 18 months. I struggled to come back, that's true, and I haven't yet entirely caught up with what I missed. Trying something else could be an eye-opener. You may find that "something else" is great for you or that you really long back to science.

3. You say you like science but hate your current bench job. Is there any possibility for you to do something else than bench work? Maybe some more computer-based projects (theoretical or analytical) so you can be less dependent on working at a specific place at a specific time? The fact that my current postdoc is only modelling and statistics has made it possible for me to live the way I do (but that's maybe not highly recommended)

I have a gmail account if you want to discuss more...

ScienceGirl said...

Don't succumb to the academic cult - you have to make decisions that are best for you. It is hard when the right choice is not obvious, but hang in there, I am sure you will find it.

drdrA said...

Wow, do I know this one. When my children were small (and I was a grad student and a postdoc) I often felt like this. And now that I'm TT, I still wonder sometimes whether its all worth it.

Only you know what is right for you and your family. And I don't think that taking a time out is permanently closing the door on Academia- will it be a little more difficult to come back if you choose to do so? Yes, well ok. You've done difficult- you had a baby. I'd say if you can do that, everything else is pretty much a cake walk.

I like your site and will blogroll it at my site!

ScientistMother said...

Leaving the bench IS NOT closing the door. The fact that your PI thinks that, just shows her lack of imagination. There are many things you can to in science or life that will enable you to come back to the bench if you so choose. I worked as a consultant, then a tech after I finished a Msc and before starting a PhD. It will be difficult but the lab that you go back to will be one that will think of your time away as an asset.

Leaving the bench IS NOT failure. As much as I want to see more of you (women) go through to the PI stage, many of us won't (including men). That is ok. There are positions like the one you described, or in not-for-profits co-ordinating which grants get funding, grant facilitation, as well as biotech. Because I did leave for awhile I did alot of research into the other options route. Contact me offline if you would like more information.

As a mom, I know you have to be passionate about your job to feel that it is worth leaving the bean. You will find something. Good luck!

Ms. Core said...

I feel like scientists who are not totally happy want to validate their own unhappiness by making sure other people who are unsure stick it out and be miserable like them. They feel very smug about how tough and dedicated they are since they pursued an arduous career without really wanting to.

I hate how they are scaring you with "The evil you don't know" tactics. In the long run are you going to look back and think "I wasted all those long years when I could of been doing more bench work" or "I could be of been spending more time with my daughter"? I think the answer is clear from this post.

So, forget them all and do what you think is right for you. Perhaps experience as a grad coordinator will get your foot in the door for other administrative jobs, potentially science related ones at the next university you are at. And remember that most administrative jobs are not run on soft money which has added benefits if you will be staying in one area for a long time.

I know it's a scary step and I am grappling with similar things so I feel your pain. In fact this post brought tears to my eyes. I wish you the very best.

mama of the valley said...

As someone outside academia, let me offer my support of your sentiments. I resent (on your behalf) the implication that being a mother is getting in the way of your career. That is so ass backwards. Of course nothing is as important as your daughter, your
family. Duh. That's appropriate prioritizing, not confusion brought on by motherhood. Science isn't going to give you sweet little kisses on the cheek or take care of you when you're old.

As for sticking it out 15 months...
Think how much life you've gone through in the last 13 months since you had your little girl. 15 months is an enormous stretch of time. Don't be miserable any longer than you have to!

BugDoc said...

The only way to find out about other career options is to talk to many people. I think it's fine for your PI to suggest caution before moving on to something new, because it can be more difficult (but not impossible) to transition back to research. However, it's unfortunate that this information was communicated with disappointment, rather than just as information.

It is not a failure to try to find a career that you find interesting and fulfilling. My job balancing a t-t faculty position and my family is really difficult for me, but the science is fun and interesting enough for me to enjoy coming in every day. If I didn't look forward to coming in, all of the angst and stress definitely would not be worth it. Life's too short to be planning a career you can't get excited about. Hang in there and keep looking for something that feels right for you.

Candid Engineer said...

Oh, I hear you. I am listening with both ears. And I don't know what to suggest.

Part of me says, screw it- do what will make you feel good. The other part of me says, bide your time until the move. Then you will be playing with a full deck of cards.

I'm not exactly sure how long you've been at your postdoc, or what is considered normal in your field... but would it be an option for you to stay at the postdoc for another 9 months or so and then take some time off before the move? Spend time with your baby and think about what you want? Then maybe by the time you move, you will have a better idea of what can make you happy.

I feel sorry that you have to put in such long hours. I do my best to keep myself at 40 hours a week, but I don't know how long I will be able to sustain that as the postdoc ramps up. The comment about "well what job will you be happy working 60 hours at?" was so, uh, telling. The simple truth is that happiness can happen at 40 hours a week.

drdrA said...

Gosh, I didn't read your post all the way to the end because I was running out to violin lessons-

But ... Oh my gosh- don't be afraid to try a new career!! Just as bug doc said you must talk and talk and talk to everyone you know or meet by blog about potential science careers what the opportunities are, what people like and dislike about their various jobs. You would be shocked by the openness of people if you aren't afraid to ask.

The beauty of this whole thing is that you have a CHOICE about what to do. You just have to seize the opportunity.

I said a whole lot about my irritation with people who treat any career that's not academic science as a failure. I have ABSOLUTELY no patience for that attitude. It's just wrong.

drdrA said...

oops, pushed publish too quickly- I meant, I said a whole lot about that particular irritation over at Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde a couple of days ago... (its a comment on the NF friend update...).

The bean-mom said...

Oh, honestly, this type of academic brainwashing and scaremongering just riles me up! How dare your PI talk to you in that way! (Okay, I know that many of them do, but why? Why??!)

You say that benchwork makes you miserable, and has done so for years. So why stay? "You'll be even more miserable away" the Academic Cult intones--but how do they know, and how will *you* know, if you never try anything different?

Although it may only be for a short time, even a year's stint in an administrator-type job can give you credibility and experience that can open doors to other administrator-type positions--doors that would not open if you continued doing the same old same old.

I miss research myself, and am starting to plan a way back in after almost two years off the bench. I know it won't be easy. But in the meantime I tried some different things, and I know those experiences have opened my mind, and given me a bit of an edge (even if only a small edge) should I decide to seriously pursue those other alternatives. I did some freelance editing for a friend's company, and then I used that experience to get work with another company. With the small bit of experience I've gained, I'll be more competitive for a fulltime science writer/editing career, should I choose to go that route.

At one point, I thought that maybe I'd like to teach at an undergraduate institution. I had absolutely no teaching experience, but I applied for such a position anyway. I interviewed for and was a finalist for the position, but ultimately did not get it. But while I was off the bench, I did some adjunct teaching at that institution to gain the teaching experience I lacked. And you know what I learned? That I much prefer research to teaching. But that's something I would never have known if I hadn't taught that class.

Okay, I know this comment is getting long-winded... Guess what I'm just trying to say is: benchwork clearly makes you unhappy. You should not be unhappy for any longer than is absolutely necessary. 15 months is a long time. And how will you find that happy non-bench job if you don't at least try one out?

Best of luck, Sciencemama. We are all rooting for you! Listen to yourself above all, not the Academic Cult (or even any of us here!)

Anonymous said...

Wow, so many comments, I'm going to come back and read them later. For now, hugs and cheers! And it sounds like your boss is totally unable to think outside the box. It's not just academia, but in lots of places that people will react weirdly when you tell them you want to balance your life with your work rather than work 60 hour weeks and on Saturdays, but frankly I suspect they're just jealous of those of us who have the courage and strength to search out careers where we can be with our families. I mean at least when your kid is still little! Nothing at all wrong with not wanting to work 60 hour weeks while your baby is at home learning how to walk.

I also hate the "closing doors" thing. In that regard I do think academia is worse than many other options. Leaving even for a short period might make it hard to leave, but if you think you'd be leaving the bench after those 15 months anyhow, there's no reason to be miserable for them when you could be happier doing something else.

Anonymous said...

Ooops. I meant to say: "Leaving even for a short period might make it hard to RETURN." But that's only if you're looking for a job with the same type of PI you have, the type who are just perpetuating academia just as they found it and not trying to change things, but that's not the type of PI you'd want to work for if you came back to bench research anyhow, right?

p.s. thanks for allowing openID comments now! Now I can comment more! yay!

Ardel said...

sorry about your tough week, bean mama. know that i'll be living vicariously through you should you choose to move on. if somethings got to give to keep your sanity, i say go for it. being a mom is a career unto itself. bean and your friends and family are proud of you no matter what you choose to do.

Anonymous said...

I decided to forgo the bench when as a senior technician, I saw the evil politics of NIH grant funding (it's who you know) and the interdepartmental wrangling that is necessary to maintaining your position in the university hierarchy. I was so depressed when I realized that I had this science degree and, I felt at the time, it was going to go wasted. Because I was so clearly miserable (slogging through cloning, luciferase assays, cell culture, ad nauseaum), I knew I couldn't do it for the rest of my life, but I was paralyzed by the idea of trying something new.

I floundered for about three years in lab jobs, and saw a therapist to try and unearth what it was that I "really wanted to do". Then an opportunity presented itself in clincical research. I now coordinate clinical trials, and I am in heaven. Now that I am a new mama (a 4-month old), I am SO glad that I made this choice. I can have a reasonably lucrative career working 40 hrs a week related to science. My husband is a Ph.D. student (he LOVES the bench, but even he stuggles with the whole department seminar issue-he has to forgo seeing his daughter every Monday night). Also, my job can move wherever he goes (since we'd both be employed at research institutions), which is quite convenient when I think of the years of postdocs ahead. He's even considering industry, since he really doesn't want to be away from his daughter for the time that academia requires. I am always approached by fellow students of his (ironically, mostly female), asking me what I think of my job, and is there any way they could get on doing what I do?

This is a long post, but I can feel your pain and indecision. Bench science is not very welcoming to parents. But there are MANY careers out there for a Ph.D, not all of them at the bench. Grant administrator, grantwriter, NIH program manager, trial coordinator, hospital administration, quality improvement/infectious disease task force leaders at hospitals, highs chool science teacher, community college professor, science writer....the list goes on. I wish you the best of luck, and you are not a failure. No one who cares as much as you do could EVER be a failure. Success in life is not measured by the length of your vitae. :)

ScienceMama said...

Thanks everyone for such supportive comments. I had a second interview today and it went really well. I expect them to offer me the job. Now I just have to think about whether or not I want to take it...

EcoGeoFemme said...

I agree with everyone else. You have said that you've always disliked bench work, so it's clearly not the mom thing that is "distracting" you. I say try the admin gig! You sound like you might like/be good at management, so maybe that job would help you get a science related admin or mangement job when you move.

Whatever you do, decide for you and not for the cult.

Queen Zucchini said...

Jeeze I wish I'd read your posts last week!

No matter what you decide to do about the admin job, it's obvious your current job is really not making you happy, and you deserve to be happy! So I would continue to pursue other jobs, other options, even for the next 15 months - if you get "penalized" for your self exploration by not getting some future bench job, it's probably all for the best. I know one of the hardest things to do in the world is leaving the security of a job, even if that job makes you miserable. But it's either many many more years of being unsatisfied with your career, or a few months/years of chaos followed by many many years of satisfaction when you find that job that makes you happy.

If you think about it in the long term, it's really bench work and academia that's "closing the door" on other career options.

Good luck and stop calling yourself a failure!!!

p.s. you're really moving?!?!

Mike said...

If you have a backlog of data to get out then you can publish what you have during a break from academia and still return in the future. The key is to stay reasonably engaged in research while on your sabbatical, and publishing is the best way to do this. You can get another postdoc despite a gap in your official appointment so long as you keep up with the publications. Consider writing some conceptual/theoretical papers to broaden your work. You don't need to be at the bench to do that kind of writing.

Now, if you find that during your time off you are not interested in writing, then that's your sign to pull the plug. Your heart is not in it and there's no way that you can succeed as a researcher if you can't get the pubs out. Accept this truth and your life will be simpler and happier.

Best of luck to you.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

BAD CULT!! No biscuit. Seriously, your otherwise well-meaning advisors need to be told two words: BITE ME. Of course they think there's only one way and one path; they've been selected to believe that. They're academics.

Also, the 15-months thing doesn't sound too bad. If you hate it, you get to leave! If you like it, it was a good start! Seriously though, as someone shortly to be running away from bench science, I don't see any reason to keep doing something you don't like when presented with a better option. 60 hours a week has a name in the rest of the world: "Overtime."

Hope you're able to decide something that keeps you and your family in good spirits.

Amelie said...

If you're so miserable in the lab, do you seriously consider a bench carreer, or do you plan to do something else after the move anyway? The new job sounds like a great chance to try something else and put in reasonable amounts of time. I agree with others above that staying over a year in a job you hate sounds far too long, especially if there are alternatives! Good luck!

Janus Professor said...


I miss your posts and hope that everything is OK (or atleast manageable) over there. Take care of yourself!


Crystal said...

I 100% completely, totally understand what you are going through because I am feeling the EXACT same way. If you figure out what we should do with our lives please let me know. And check out my post today- it will either make you feel slightly better about research or much worse?

Hawkeyegirl said...

Hey....I'm a postdoc having the same mid-career crisis. Here are some statistics I found out about through the National Postdoc Association. The average number of trainees that a PI has is 25 students and postdocs. That PI will only retire once. That leaves 24 people without a faculty job. I think it is perfectly acceptable to want to use your PhD for something other than bench science. Science administration, non-profit work, teaching, scientific writing, science policy these are all completely viable options for a career. So I'm with you on the career crisis. Just do what is best for you.

winner said...

If im in the situation of the owner of this blog. I dont know how to post this kind of topic. he has a nice idea.

Anonymous said...

I feel you are talking about me. I actually love doing science, but as much as my family. and don't want to spend more then 40 hours a week in any XYZ job, so exploring my options as well. I think for a while I will take up teaching and then will see...
Good luck,

convergence said...

After 20 years I got so fed up with these issues I wrote a book - see below.

I have been in basic research for over 20 years and it has too often disappointed me how all too easily genuinely talented people slip through the academic cracks never to be heard of again. Indeed as a result of both my own frustrations over the last 20 years or so and observating similar struggles of so many other people, I wrote a book about these and other issues (Convergence...go to

Whereas there are legitmate "glass ceiling" arguments I feel these dont go deep enough into the problem that affects all young would-be scientists (even those a little more seasoned).

At the most basic level, my novel Convergence is about 4 postdocs who face a constant battle to get their feet on the next rung of the academic ladder. There are typical roadblocks that will be familar to all postdocs. However, at a deeper level I ask why is it that there are some who no matter how impoverished intellectually or how bankrupted in sincerity they may be, they always seem to do well while those that possess clear scientific intellect and an abundance of sincerity do so poorly.

Sometimes people need to see the precise manner by which such biases occur, indeed some need to see it blow by agonizing blow, for the penny to drop. How can such otherwise smart people not see they've had their pockets picked? Really it's a mind set, that it just never occurs to some that you can't just be academically smart or sincere about why you're into research, without critical networking skills all that potential is lost. In the end such people end up cycling thorugh one postdoc position after another and then disappear without a trace.

The book asks so many questions about the dynamics of the academic community, but ultimately I try to provide food for thought with 4 cautionary tales for those wanting to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences.

As stated, after reading your webpage, I thought I'd take a gamble and contact you. I've gotten very frustrated with agents, publishers, online directories and various other "resources" that are supposed to direct traffic to new books or authors. So I thought by contacting you, I might at least take a more direct route to alerting the core audience my novel tagets that my website exists.

Thank you for taking the time to read this email.