Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What I would have done differently

An essay by Katie, a post-doc in beginning her third year of a three year fellowship

When finding myself in a hole, I chose not to climb out and run away, but to dig deeper. After the debacle of my defense experience, I was desperate to leave grad school, sans diploma that currently resides in a silver frame on my mantle, and go somewhere to prove that I was worthwhile and smart and useful. The driving force in my life was twofold.

I wanted a house and a salary that meant I could afford one. And I wanted, craved, coveted publications.

Tired of mentoring projects and doing science that didn’t work well enough to be written up, I wanted certainty in results so that I could write words, check references and put lines on my CV. If papers were the way to measure my worth as a scientist, I would have as many as I could grab with my greedy little hands.

I therefore am doing a post-doc in the field which occupied my graduate study. I was familiar with the literature and it was straightforward to add new lines of research to the ones I already knew. The project for Quiet Mentor on which I’m giving a talk is based upon pieces of work I’d done in grad school. They’re melded differently and are done in a new population, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed by setting it up or making it work. The techniques and methods were not new so I was just doing my job. (For how I deal with novel work, recall how I panicked over writing my book chapter. That was not good.)

In terms of wishing I’d done something new and different, diverging from this particular path of study, I don’t know that I regret my choices. Certainly there are benefits to going that route, but I have learned and accomplished enough to be pleased with what I’ve done so far.

When I look back and sigh, therefore, it’s over all the time I wasted rather than all the decisions I made.

When working in a large institution doing a highly collaborative project, there have been delays. Weeks turn to months where I wait for IRB approval, hope for patients to be recruited, worry over supplies that have not been delivered. In grad school, all of this was taken care of. Advisor handled the details so we could focus on work. Computer problems, scheduling errors, patient recruitment? We had people who did that and a quick email to the appropriate resource would usually lead to some solution. I learned that these people were sometimes busy and that to bother them was to annoy them, so I waited patiently until they had time to deal with me.

Here, I am part of a bustling department that has a huge focus on writing grants. Everyone is writing something or meeting to plan the next submission. I don’t begrudge them this effort and, in truth, if I were to list a skill I’ve developed since arriving here, I’d say my writing has improved tremendously. I finished documents from my graduate work, publishing everything I had to offer. Something clicked and I’m now able to organize and explain where before I would flounder and become unbearably wordy and dense. But the writing process - for grants or papers - can be a slow one. Putting text on screens, printing a document, handing it over and waiting for someone to tell you what he thinks.

I have likely spent more time waiting than I have working, which explains my bipolar habits. When there is stuff to do, I do it to the exclusion of all else. When there is nothing, I now have data with which to play, but in the beginning, there was nothing to do. I was painfully bored and instead of insisting someone give me work, I escaped into blogs. I read and I wrote, spending hours of each day putting words together to tell some random story that I wanted to remember for some reason. The problem is that I don’t think I could even make my way through my archives. There’s simply too much text describing the tiny triumphs and crushing disappointments that somehow accumulate over years.

If I had exhibited a bit of the dedication I have for this endeavor to the work I’m here to do, I think I would have pushed documents through the processes faster. Insisted upon meetings, wheedled for resources, learned more.

There’s a line, of course, that varies across institutions and departments. How hard one should push depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is that I’m a young woman in a department of older men. I often come across as whiny or shrill when I’m simply trying to obtain what I need. I have no idea how to avoid this perception and am unsure if it's me or the department, though I think it's a mixture of the two.

“Jill,” I wrote the other day, “I can’t get access to the patient database and people have stopped answering email and returning calls.” (Lesson 1: Call. It appears to be harder to ignore voice mail that the electronic variety. But it wasn't working for me here.) “Is there any chance you can find me another route to get this problem solved?”

I know she’s busy, but I need help and she has access to resources of which I’m unfamiliar. My innate hesitation to bother people has lost hours of productivity though, so I’m now more likely to sic Jill on those who ignore me rather than waiting in endless patience and whining about it on my blog.

I made an apologetic face when I peeked in Tim’s door and found him on the phone. I went back to my office and knew he’d find me when he finished.

“You rang?” He asked, poking his head in moments later.

“I need your computer to pull some files.” I informed him.

“Sure.” He said easily. I like Tim a lot. But then he went to leave. And so I would have been lost as to when this was supposed to happen. In the past, I would have remained quiet, wondering what I missed and how I should know the expected time of my arrival. I would have gone home early, feeling inadequate and stupid for not being able to do a simple task.

“Tim?” I called this time. “When?” He shrugged in response, so I asked if now would work.

“Don’t you want to each lunch?” He asked, glancing at his watch.

“Nope.” I replied. “I want those files.” I grinned at him and he said he’d be 15 minutes on his system, then would go to lunch himself.

For me, the regret is that I didn’t learn one lesson better and faster.

If I don’t know the next step, I need to ask.

If I’m walking out of a meeting without any idea as to what to do next, I need to pause before rising from my chair and say something like, “So where do we go from here? Not in general terms, but specifically. What needs to happen today?”

I now make lists, clearly map the path from one task to the next. How to collect data, how to find money, who to call for this problem, what form to fill out for this access. I’ve found there isn’t a magical way to look knowledgeable and capable in these situations. I just have to ask.

Post-docs are a renewable resource here. A sea of plankton that are noticed only when one becomes particularly tasty from good results or excellent background. So as I’m swimming around, bumping into other plankton and trying to fight the strong currents that urge me to nap more and worry less, I try to be a bit noisy.

“I need help.” I say in my tiny plankton voice, crossing my arms and being a presence for people to notice.

My confidence took a severe hit with my defense experience. It has taken time to recover. It also takes time for committees to meet or for ideas to develop. It will never be quick and easy with me, I fear. Yet what I tell grad students is to know the next step. If you don’t know where to focus your immediate energy, find someone who can tell you. The identification of resources and their subsequent utilization has been a continuing source of awe for me. I regret that I didn’t do that sooner.

The papers I so wanted have yet to get written, though I have made small strides at adding to my CV. We’ll see if I can figure something out in the next year. If not, the hope is that I can do better the next time around.


Pseudosanity said...

True, oh so true. While details vary, the core of the story is same for all grad students. We do the best we can, with what we know, not what we wished we knew.

ppb said...


Alethea said...

I'm a few years (a couple?) further on, and what I've learned is - we don't stop learning. You get more efficient. You think you're working like crazy, and you can't possibly fit anymore in, and somehow you do. I also had kids in there, and it's exactly the same learning experience - how to get efficient in your very own personal way. I liked reading about your take on this evolution; I found the postdoc years to be my steepest learning curve in how to be not just a scientist but a well-rounded professional.

Anonymous said...

a good read! i feel like i waste time waiting when i shouldn't...

Anonymous said...

I've always been a (silent) fan of your writing. This post was simply superb.
"Know where to focus your immediate energy", to me, is a powerful insight which i think will change a lot of how I do things here! thanks!

post-doc said...

That was a really lovely comment. Thank you.

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