Monday, April 30, 2007

Days and Dishes

I find myself wanting to say something important. As new people visit and comment, as I reflect on learning from so many of you, I feel like my contribution should be meaningful. Whether you read blogs to be comforted or entertained, educated or distracted, I'd like stopping by here to be worth your time. I appreciate the comments and I keep track of site stats because there are many blogs that I read yet don't say much.

Yet...it's not that profound. My life is characterized by a great deal of boredom. I push buttons and wait for software to run. I fill out paperwork and wait for someone to ask for revisions. I write papers and wait for rejections, already planning which journal gets it next before the first journal has decided anything. Sometimes something interesting happens. In the case of my defense, it was a really bad something. If we speak of my finding a job which has allowed me time to screw around, accomplish very little and start to work on my mental health, I start looking incredibly lucky.

Friend and I attended Easter dinner at Cousin's house. She invited several friends and we were speaking to one woman as we cleaned up the kitchen.

"What do you do?" She asked, loud and friendly.

"We both work at [current institution]." I said. "We do research." We each offered details when she continued to ask questions.

"My doctorate is in [my field]." I replied at one point, having been asked about my background. I tossed it over my shoulder while I rinsed plates before placing them in the dishwasher. I bought those dishes for Cousin one year. She wanted a plain set of bowls and plates and Mom decided Ikea had nice ones for excellent prices.

Rachel opted out of the trip at the last minute, leaving me to fend for myself at the bright blue superstore. I wasn't able to get a cart on a Saturday morning, so I wandered the store with a bag over my shoulder, carefully filling it with random items that weren't overly heavy. When I was nearly finished, I found the dishes - plain white with a gentle upsweep of the edges on the plates and clean curves on the bowls - and made sure there was cardboard between each piece before carrying them downstairs. I wanted a basket for myself, so I picked one up amidst the selection of houseplants and stood in line.

I ached. As I was waiting impatiently for all the people to get out of my way so that I could offer money for my items, my shoulders and back hurt from carting so much crap around. I scolded myself for being in suboptimal physical condition, feeling inferior to all the fit yuppies that pranced around proudly with their furniture in bulky boxes. I could barely carry a set of 13 bowls and plates (1 extra in case I broke a piece), picture frames , miscellaneous items and a basket. I finally made it out, wrapping the plates in bags, then placing 6 in one bag and 7 in another. I placed the transparent plastic handles over each wrist, picked up my basket filled with bowls and made the long walk to my car.

I couldn't restrain a whimper as I continued to walk. I desperately wanted to beg someone for help, but they were all heading toward the store as I walked in the opposite direction. Had anyone offered, I would have accepted gratefully. But it was just walking and carrying stuff. I could do it. It hurt, but it was the trip was finite. I loved Cousin and wanted her to have the pretty plates and bowls. Mom wanted to save some money and I loved her too. So I would get the dishes to my car. I just had to.

I finally made it, resorting to counting each step as I moved closer to my car. I had parked next to a planter that contained a tree in a mulched area. I sat the basket down and stayed bent over it, letting the bags that dangled from my wrists finally rest on the ground. I steadied the basket, rocking it a bit so it settled in the mulch, then moved the plastic from the welts it made near my hands. The bags were really heavy and having walked forever, my body was marked for its efforts.

"Oh." I said pitifully when I saw the angry splotches and rubbed them gently. "Ow, ow, ow." I stood up to stretch my back and watched a single bowl tumble from the basket that had shifted slightly. It hit the ground gently and cracked into three large pieces. Distracted from my injury by the insult that had just occurred, I stared at the stupid bowl that I had carried across the freaking parking lot all by myself so Cousin could have a few extra dishes she'd never use and Mom could save a few dollars she didn't really need. And I swore.

I tend to become fixated on a goal. I somehow decide something is important and am willing to suffer in order to achieve some random end. The overall journey isn't that interesting. I just take step after step because I don't know what else to do. I read and go to work and write the blog. I fought like hell to salvage my defense, then accepted defeat and moved on because I didn't see another choice. It's just what you do, I think. You're standing at Ikea with a bunch of dishes and you need to get to your car. Whether the stupid plates are heavy or not. Whether the car is far or you got a kick-ass parking spot. You just walk toward the car and hope for the best.

Today I went in early for a meeting that got moved to 1:30 instead of 9AM. So I did some data analysis, revised my chapter, organized email. I talked to my mom and was told she needs to have both knees replaced at the end of June. She's scared so we talked for a little while until she got to work. I went to a noon seminar that was surprisingly good. I learned a lot from a well-delivered, clever talk. I also had free lunch. I went to my meeting and waited an hour for it to begin. I hadn't taken anything to do, so I made a list of things I could be doing were I not sitting in a conference room across campus, waiting for someone to come talk to me. After we finally met, I arranged several details for my studies, then decided to come home.

"I'm glad I didn't know I should call you doctor before." Cousin's friend said at Easter.

"Why?" I asked, smiling when I noticed how those plates that I suffered to obtain were marked from good use. Forks and knives had scratched the bright white finish. But the shape was still simple and lovely.

"I would have been embarrassed to talk at all!" She exclaimed in a drawl. "You're both so smart."

"Educated." I corrected her easily. "I just went to school for a really long time. Jumped through the right hoops at the right times and eventually they let me graduate."

I did get hurt. And it's hard to deny I'm a bit paranoid and disillusioned. The defense experience left me feeling alone and inferior and with sore muscles and raised welts. The dishes were so heavy and I accidentally broke a bowl or two. But I only know how to keep going forward. If I'm being honest, I'm doing this because I can't think of a feasible option. I don't know that I'm particularly happy. I never dreamed this was to be my future and only chance for joy. I'm not impressed with myself for getting here - I had a great deal of help and just did what I had to do.

For some reason, I think I'm supposed to do experiments, write grants, publish papers. Is it sad that my reasoning for carrying the dishes to my car seems more compelling that what I've chosen to do with my life? If anything interesting happens, I'll certainly let you know. But days like today just feel like I'm counting steps. It's not painful or particularly difficult. It's just work that needs to be done.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Inaction

I met Chienne as she crawled out of a too small cage in the back of a van. I found her on petfinder and when I found that she had but days to live, I asked that she come live with me. Mom and I drove to a rest stop to pick her up, along with 10-15 other families who were getting new family members from a more southern state.

The email sent prior to meeting day asked that we keep away from the van. The dogs would be tired after their trip and it intimidated them to too many people crowded around the van upon their arrival. So Mom and I stood back and waited. But once nearly everyone had their dog, we asked after Chienne.

"Go ahead and wait over there." A harried volunteer suggested as she was filling out forms and collecting fees. So Mom and I approached the open door slowly, asking about the dog I'd chosen. A man motioned to one of two cages that remained filled and I was heartbroken looking at the puppy who would become my very best friend. She waited, brown eyes wide with fear, cowering when the man opened the door to her tiny cage. He drug her out by the chain collar she wore, against my protests that he give her time, and we removed the old collar to put on the new one I brought as she stumbled, trying to regain her balance having been forced to lie down for hours in a tiny cage.

She was terrified, huddling low to the ground and eventually deciding that my mom was worthy of some trust. She would shy away when I approached her, leaving me close to tears with concern. Her eyes looked glassy and she had a nearly-silent cough. She was draining, ick dripping from her nose. She looked painfully thin and smelled almost too awful to bear.

"It said $100 online." I corrected the man when he demanded a check for $150.

"The paperwork says $150." He said then turned away to deal with another family. I looked to Mom, holding Chienne's leash while she watched the dog with concern.

"Give him what he wants." She advised. "They can't have this dog back - we're taking her home no matter what."

So I gave him a new check, looked around at all the dogs who seemed quite unwell, and loaded Chienne in the car. Mom drove and the dog sat on my lap, allowing me to smooth the dirty fur on her back and head and eating treats as quickly as I could produce them out of a paper bag for her.

We entered my apartment - I'd moved in earlier that day - though the sliding glass door and she immediately jumped on my dad as he rested on the couch. She's always been fond of her grandpa. We put her in the bathtub as she shook and looked terrified, barely scratching the surface of the grime with the first application of shampoo. We let the water run off her, dark and disgusting, then repeated the process until she was reasonably clean. I tried to clean her ears, but they were sore. I left them until we saw the vet the next day and she was treated for worms and mites and infections. Kennel cough and some other disease rounded out the visit and I was sent home with pills and ointments and instructions for care.

The volunteer group who ran that particular organization was supposed to check on me, or so said the paperwork I signed. When nobody did, I wrote to the local contact and mentioned that Chienne had been in worse shape than I'd been led to believe. We were handling it, but I hoped that the dogs I'd seen were the worst of the bunch and that their group was doing better by the other dogs who remained in their care. It was a bit snippy, I suppose, but they hadn't taken good care of my girl! Her ears were the worst my vet had ever seen and I'd just listened to the sweet dog whimper as Q-tip after Q-tip scooped disgusting-ness out of her ears. She hadn't had a voice for 4 days, having - I assume - lost it while crying on the trip north. She continued to cough and drain, leaving me to wake with her in the night.

I wanted to take care of her - she was my dog and I never would have given her up. But I also was a bit sick that I'd helped support an organization that now seemed rather awful. I mentioned the extra $50 and said a bit more preparation would've been of help.

I received an email from the leader of the organization the next day. It was all in capital letters, full of nasty language and insults and enraged that I would dare question her practices or make one of her volunteers feel badly. Her husband had brought the dogs up to meet their families, she ranted, and she would never tell him such an awful thing had been said about one of the dogs he took time out of his life to help place.

"Leave it alone." Mom said, even after I'd done additional research and found multiple complaints about that woman. She'd been barred from working with animals in several states and had been arrested for keeping 40 dogs in her home in terrible conditions about 2 years prior to my coming in contact with her. "She could be dangerous and you live alone. What if they come to try to take Chienne away? Just let it go." She insisted.

And I did. To this day, I'm furious and sad when I think of them. But I never wrote to petfinder to file a complaint. Never noted that I had a problem at all, save that first email to which evil leader responded so hatefully. I was afraid of the consequences, so I nursed Chienne back to health (save the allergies, poor girl) and we went from there.

In my graduate career, I was pretty involved in service opportunities. Near the end of my studies, I served as the representative for graduate students in the School of Medicine. A group of higher-level faculty and administration was seeking to improve the learning environment and my Dean asked if I'd be willing to participate. Flattered, I went to meetings and offered input.

I therefore knew everyone with whom I could have spoken about my problems with Advisor and Pete. I was aware that they were forming a spreadsheet about problem faculty and staff. I knew my problems would be treated confidentially and that someone might have a reasonable idea on how to handle my struggle. I liked the people involved and knew that some of them thought highly of me.

That was part of the problem. I was miserably ashamed that things went so badly around the time of my initial defense date. I didn't want anyone to know that didn't absolutely have to have the information. And the department was abuzz with gossip regardless - I didn't want it to spread beyond those already speaking of it.

In addition, I still don't know what the right answer was. I was incapable of staying though - I could not have gone in that office every day and worked, having turned down job offers and delayed the defense indefinitely. In the event that it was the only option presented by an outside mediator, I'm not sure I wouldn't have quit. Then again, I likely would have become so angry and depressed that I would have filed more complaints and sought some resolution I felt was fair. But given the ability, I ran away.

After things had officially fallen apart, I was packing boxes in my apartment - sometime in late July, 2005 - and George called. He asked how I was and we talked for a moment, then one of the other students in my group took the phone.

"Guess what." He said.

"I'm sure I can't." I offered.

"Advisor just wrote an email to George suggesting he put Pete on his committee." And I sat in silence. I can only conclude that Advisor wasn't upset over Pete's behavior toward me since he encouraged him to have power over another student.

I was hurt. Even more, I was surprised.

George was angry. He replied that he saw the defense as important - a culmination of work and study and wanted to be proud of his degree. After my situation, he wrote to Advisor, he would never allow someone so dishonorable and cruel to taint his own graduation. He would be ashamed to have Pete on his committee and refused to do so under any circumstances. Then he said Advisor should speak with him directly should that be a problem. Such a passionate tirade against Pete touched me. And I still blink back tears upon first seeing George at conferences. He's terribly sweet.

So I think my struggle taught those around me a lesson. (Don't trust Pete.) But given the story secondhand? I'm not sure anyone would believe that I wasn't a screwup who deserved what she got. It's unpleasant to believe those with whom you work are capable of behavior like I experienced.

Right after I defended, Advisor stopped by as I worked on revisions. "Everyone was glad you waited to defend. We felt you were really comfortable and confident in the material and your work since leaving has obviously been good for you."

I looked up and shook my head. "That was the exact presentation I would have given in July." I said. "I haven't changed a single slide since then, nor do I know anything more than I did had I defended then. Nothing." Advisor turned and walked away. I was right - hiding in your house and watching daytime TV doesn't really prepare you for much of anything.

I am left knowing one thing - when faced with a choice, the person who should have been my strongest advocate offered support that wobbled then disappeared. It is awful to look at Boss and wonder if he'll someday screw me over. Even knowing how extremely unlikely that is, I wonder. Same goes with collaborators - I don't really trust anyone. It's not safe.

I'm left wondering about my true ability though. One of those grad school papers went to a journal and sat for over a year. I can't really remember how long, exactly - could have been 18 months. After 6 months, I would send an email requesting an update on the 2nd of each month. I received prompt replies, promising they'd decide soon. Eventually, the editor wrote that only one of the seven people returned a review. It was, however, positive, and the editor's reading of the paper revealed no major deficiencies. They would therefore like to apologize for the delay and would be happy to publish the paper after some revisions were made.

That's hardly exciting news. It's not bad enough to reject, having made me wait so long. And I was not horrible enough to fail, having delayed my defense for months and putting me through such a misery. In both cases, it's good news. My paper got published. I have a PhD. But there's always the vague feeling that it was more luck than skill - people ended up feeling badly and just let things slip by.

Whatever his/her mistakes or problems, I would not wish an end even sort of similar to this on anyone. And dogs like my Chienne should never suffer so in shelters. I just did nothing to prevent it happening in the future. Which is yet another reason that thinking of the defense experience makes me feel badly.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Notes

I very much appreciate the comments on my last post. I'm thinking of the follow-up and have some of it written, but it's still difficult to consider carefully so I'm taking my time with it.

I'm busy trying to figure out exactly how A becomes AI. Pretty though, yes?

I'm also in the middle of a bunch of analysis for Carrie's project. Nick's fan is running as loudly as it can to try to contain the heat generated by such hard work. Apart from glancing at results screens very occasionally, I'm working not very hard at all.

I received a paper to review in the wee hours of the morning. It's only my second one, so I was rather pleased. Advisor did all his own reviewing so I've never learned to do this well. Perhaps I'll work on the paper this weekend then ask Boss for a tutorial as to how he rates papers. It'd be good to know the proper way to go about such a thing instead of just winging it. Especially since this is based in my favored disease, but far outside my research area.

I bought 3 more 2GB USB drives since, as studies start, I have far too much data that needs to become portable at some point. They were $20/each and I needed to spend $50 for free shipping. So I opened them all - identical little swing drives - and have decided to name them Eenie, Meanie and Minie. I find this adorable. There is then my first 2GB travel drive that has remained nameless. He shall, of course, now be known as Moe.

Grandpa taught me that rhyme when I was little and I believe that if you catch a tiger who then hollers, you must let him go. Never, never, never make him pay. I feel my way is kinder - who wants to make cash while a poor cat suffers? (I also mentioned that I love how much church uses 'debtors' instead of 'trespasses.' I'm big on tradition in word choices.)

It was a good day today. I was home - in case I didn't mention - on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I almost didn't go in today, but needed to print a bunch of stuff and start more analysis at work and put in a bit of time. I'm glad I went. It's good for me to see people and get a change of scenery, even when I am legitimately working at home. When I drag my feet on getting to work next week, I hope I remember that.

I should get back to Photoshop for figures while my analysis continues. I just wanted to say hello and thank you. In case I haven't mentioned it lately, I'm grateful you read. I started this blog after I'd scheduled my defense, but before I'd actually given it. I've communicated far more through this medium than any other and it's a tremendous comfort knowing that you're out there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Indefensible

I have, over time, referenced the problems surrounding the end of my graduate career both within posts on my blog and in comments elsewhere. I don’t know that I’ve ever detailed the whole story since – like a few others who also struggled near the end of their graduate careers – the stories seem unique enough to be identifiable.

At this point, I guess I’m ready to write out the details. I just read an email that made me cry a bit. I’ll respond directly, but in the event that anyone else finds my situation useful, I can post it here. The thing is that it’s been a little while. I graduated in December, 2005, having defended that November. I’ve published all of my graduate work. I’ve been successful thus far in the postdoctoral world. I’m not setting the world afire, mind you, but I am not stupid or incompetent or, I think, in any way deserving of the mess I found at the end of graduate school. I’m also one of the stories that eventually goes well and if someone can take a spark of hope from it, then I’m more than happy to suffer publicly.

Let’s see. The beginning… I was sitting with my research group around a table in the conference room. We had weekly group meetings and amidst the bad cookies and progress reports, George reported that he had started writing his dissertation. George started research a year after I had, so I immediately – competitive, little soul that I am – was stunned that he was planning to leave when I planned to stay another year. It was then I started to consider what I wanted to accomplish before graduating. Never being one to just put in time, I met with Advisor and asked about my future directions.

“Start writing.” He said.

“The papers?” I asked. “They’re mostly written. One is currently being reviewed, another is almost revised and the third has one more analysis to finish, then I’ll write it up.”

“Then I guess you should talk to your committee and get going on the dissertation.”

Thrilled, I reported to my parents that I would likely graduate in August since I didn’t want to rush for a May graduation that was a mere four months away. I finished the final analysis, wrote up my last paper and sent everything out for review. I began writing the dissertation, turning in chapter by chapter to Advisor. He commented sparingly, as was his habit, and had me change very little. I spoke to all but one committee member, asking if they wanted to see the chapters as I created them, and all but one agreed to a defense date and said to send the document when the draft was completed.

The final member of my committee ducked my emails, but this wasn’t unusual. He was busy with clinical as well as research responsibilities. I continued to update him on the progress of the papers – he was a co-author on two of them and was, I thought, very familiar with my work and goals. In fact, I liked this man very much. He was young, but extremely bright and personable. He’d offered to pay my way to a conference one year when I ran out of travel money. He revised documents carefully for my prospectus and each of the papers he’d seen. When we spoke, he was encouraging and helpful. I failed to get many interviews when I sent out the CV Advisor had approved. Pete asked to see my application packet and gave me extensive revisions on my CV – format and order and headings and what was included. The next batch of applications yielded nearly 10 interviews. He also wrote me a brilliant letter of recommendation for the jobs I was seeking – some postdoctoral, some in industry.

“July 8.” I reported to my peers at our annual conference that year. I finished my thesis document sitting on the beach, inching my towel-covered chair under the umbrella to reduce the glare on the laptop.

“Is Pete on your committee?” One of the former members of my research group asked while we stood at a bar, sipping mojitos.

“Of course.” I said. “I work with him a lot.”

“He’ll fuck you over.” He said, and I shook my head at him. The very thought was ridiculous.

“Seriously.” He insisted. “I did work, wrote code, analyzed data, and the bastard published it without even putting my name on the paper! If you turn your back, he’ll stab you in it. I promise.”

“I don’t have data worth stealing.” I said lightly. “Plus, I like him. We work well together. It’ll be fine.”

The dissertation went out with Advisor’s blessing and a typical “Looks great!” scrawled across the top of the first page. I checked in with my committee by email as I traveled relatively extensively, interviewing rather successfully. I felt amazing, frankly. I was completing my doctorate in four years, a year sooner than I’d planned, and though I hadn’t found the perfect job, I decided I could choose one of the opportunities and learn a lot. I was convinced I had done all I could in my graduate environment and was eager to begin somewhere else. In my head, it was all but officially over. The actual defense was a mere formality in my department. Everything was lovely.

I returned to campus for a couple of days between interviews, having been traveling from my parents’ city since Chienne was living at their house in my frequent absences. I, sitting at the desk that was in one section of the living room in my tidy, one-bedroom apartment, opened Outlook Express and checked my email. It was two weeks until my scheduled defense date and I just wanted to make sure all the paperwork was in order and details arranged. After confirming the receipt of all paperwork with the graduate coordinator, noting the room reservation for my defense, and making sure the apartment complex had received notification that I would be moving when my lease was up at the end of July, I noticed there was an email from Pete.

It was addressed to 2 members of my committee, Advisor, and someone not on my committee. I was cced. It basically said that he’d looked at the dissertation and it was clear that I wasn’t ready to graduate. There were problems too numerous to mention in a short email, he wrote, and after speaking with Advisor they were in agreement that I would not defend in 2 weeks. Instead, that meeting could be used to define the work I’d do in the next year at my graduate institution. We could then evaluate whether sufficient progress had been made and see if I was ready to graduate.

It’s one of those rare moments of complete disbelief for me. One where – quite dramatically, I’m sure – my world cracks open and I think, “This isn’t really happening. The world does not work like this, so there is some mistake. I will fix it and everything will be fine.” But I was sick and confused.

I called Advisor at home and asked what the hell was going on. “Did you tell him I wouldn’t defend? What’s happening?”

“I told you to talk to him.” Advisor said. “I thought everyone was on the same page – that we agreed you were ready.”

“I thought you all were! I tried to talk to him – I can forward you all the emails I sent! He ignored me, but he knew I was interviewing! He wrote a letter, edited my CV! He can’t just say ‘no graduation for you’ when I’m almost done interviewing! I don’t have a place to live after the end of July! We’re turning off my fellowship early because I was graduating!”

“Calm down.” Advisor said. “We’ll figure it out.”

I met with 1 committee member the next day before leaving to travel home – he was confused and said he’d have to look closer at the document. “Normally we do what your advisor says is appropriate. Now that he’s saying two different things, I need more time to think.” He said. I was to get a plane to travel to my current location to interview and talked to the senior member of my committee on the phone.

“My life is falling apart.” I said tearfully as I sped down the highway toward home. He made a soothing sound.

“Pete is overreacting.” He said. “I’ll talk to Advisor and take care of this. Go interview, forget about this. It’ll be fine.”

I made it home, then sat down with my parents in the living room and told them. And I fell apart.

“But he knows you.” Mom protested of Pete. “You like him better than Advisor!” I couldn’t offer clarification though – I didn’t understand either. I’d been offered no details, even when I shouted at him over the phone.

“You can NOT do this! It’s too late! I’m ready to leave! Why did you wait so long?” I railed at him, knowing it was unprofessional, but uncaring.

“I didn’t have time.” He defended himself coldly. “And I’m doing it for your own good.”

I canceled the interview here, only arranging to make it up when Boss insisted they wanted to meet me. I was ill though, spent the day I should have had meetings, given a talk and toured campus throwing up in my parents’ bathroom until Mom came home from work early, sitting on the rim of the tub and stroking my hair while I cried.

I went back to campus. (This is surprisingly hard to write, by the way. I don’t think about it often and thought I was over it. Goodness, though, I’m struggling here.) Anyway.

I had the first closed-door meetings of my career. Watched 2 members of my committee look painfully uncomfortable and apologetic as they said they could go either way. If Advisor pushed for graduation, they would sign off. But in the absence of said push, the document wasn’t strong enough on its own. Plus, I didn’t have a single accepted publication on which I was the first author. If I could get one or two of the ones under review accepted, that would soothe the committee, they said.

The hatred I felt for Pete was so extreme that I could barely speak to him. I did, though. He didn’t look sorry at all when we met in his office. The publications were important – I should have at least three before leaving. He had some ideas recently that I should do before I left.

“I’d like to hear the ideas.” I said.

“At the meeting we all attend, we’ll discuss it.”

“I’d like to hear them now, Pete.” I said firmly. “If I can salvage this and still defend in a week, I want to do it.”

So he listed ideas, all of which I’d already tried and had failed, and then mentioned vague concepts that would likely take years to learn and implement. Then he handed me the document and said it needed to be completely restructured. He noted his demands for the dissertation and I walked back to Advisor’s office.

“What do you think?” I asked finally. “I need to know why you’re not backing me up when you said I should write the dissertation in the first place. Tell me why you’re doing this.”

He avoided my eyes and said I needed to rewrite the thesis and hope it satisfied Pete. Since I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I rewrote the nearly 200 page document in 2 days.

I sent it out. One member asked why I’d done so much unnecessary work – it was fine before. Pete said I needed 3 publications accepted before graduating. Someone else said one was enough. Another said this process was cruel – they all needed to meet and decide what they wanted. Jerking me around wasn’t fair. Keep in mind that Advisor didn’t say that – someone else did. Senior member was out of town and I demanded they wait for him to have said meeting. I was informed the morning of that I was not allowed to attend.

I waited at my desk. Everyone knew what was going on – people stopped by my cubicle to check on me, offer sympathetic glances, sent emails to make sure I was OK. After about an hour, Advisor came to fetch me. From the look on his face, I realized that Senior member had let me down. I wouldn’t be defending on July 8.

He closed the door and we sat down. He sighed and looked away.

“The document is fine as is. We’ll discuss minor revisions when you defend. Pete said he’d attend a defense on the 8th but would treat it as an actual defense. One you could fail. Everyone else said that was inappropriate – we don’t do that to anyone, and would not do it to you. But we think it’s in your best interest to have at least one publication before graduating. You won’t be able to get jobs-“

“I have offers already.” I said. “People asked for the papers, read them and decided they were fine. I have jobs!”

“Well, later it could be a problem. And there’s no guarantee that they’ll get accepted. Publishing isn’t fair.”

Publishing isn’t fair?” I asked, incredulous. “What is this?!” (I was nearly hysterical and not behaving well, obviously.)

“We want one paper accepted – even if they ask for revisions – when one is accepted, you can set a defense date.”

“I want to leave now.” I said flatly.

“I asked them about that and they’re worried that you won’t ever defend. But I asked that you be allowed to start work at one of the posdocs – whichever you choose – while you wait. Of course, you’re welcome to stay here if you’d like.” We'd discussed this many times and I said that I couldn't stay, regardless of the outcome of that meeting.

“I won’t work for you after this.” I stared at him, and he looked away.

“Then you can leave. But I do hope you’ll come back to defend.”

“I’ll get each of those papers published – I promise you that.”

“You can’t promise that – it’s not really in your control. I’ve written good work that never got published.”

“That’s your failure, not mine.” I said, determined to do as much damage as possible. “I will get published and I will be back to defend. But I would never work for you again after this.”

Then I got to call my prospective employers.

“Good God.” One of them said. “I can’t believe it. I’ve read the papers, looked at your CV. You’re fine. Wow. Well, it doesn’t bother me – we’d love to have you here. I just can’t believe anyone would do that.”

“What the hell is wrong with those people?” Another said. “Do you mind if I call Advisor? This is ridiculous!” He called me back, disgusted. “I told him it was insane to expect you to base your future on some two reviewers who only were evaluating a single piece of your work, abdicating responsibility of your career when the people who know you best should be deciding such things. Absolutely ridiculous. Let me check on the funding situation here and make sure it won’t cause problems that you won’t have a PhD. But it’s fine with me.”

“It happens.” Boss said kindly. “We’ll do whatever we can to support you in finishing as soon as possible. If you need to travel back and forth or do work here, that’s all fine.”

I stupidly had hope that one of the papers would get accepted in those next couple weeks and I would defend in late July. They were all three rejected as I finished up interviews, packed up my things, accepted Boss’s offer and moved to my current location. (My parents – worried – came for the weekend around July 8. We went shopping and they bought me presents I called “sorry you’re a failure” gifts.) As I bought a house, arranged the move, started work, I was miserable with the knowledge of my defeat. Pete had known me and my work nearly as well as Advisor. Yet both clearly found me inferior at the end. So how was I supposed to know who to trust? Was failure inevitable? Cruelty waiting around every corner? What if I couldn't publish those papers after all?

I sent one paper – the one least likely to get published, I thought – to the worst journal I could find. I think it was a 0.2 impact factor. I was vacationing with my family in a rented house in Destin, Florida, in late September when I got an email saying they would like to see revisions of that paper. In an upstairs bedroom decorated in yellows and blues, I frantically used the borrowed wireless connection and forwarded the email to Advisor.

“May I defend now?” I asked at the end. We had spoken again before I left, but neither of us apologized. He let me down, withdrawing support for a reason he never explained. I was completely out of line with my comments, but felt at the time they were deserved. But we didn’t speak often and when we did, we were polite. He replied to the email and noted he would make sure everything went smoothly and that I should schedule a date.

My parents – between July and October – had bothered me nearly incessantly. Each time we talked, I was asked what I’d do if I couldn’t get published. Why I didn’t file complaints. Why I didn’t go to the Dean. Why I didn’t get something in writing as to what the rules were. Why they could make up rules not in the handbook. I didn’t want to talk about it or think about it. I just wanted to wait until I could make it OK. It had to be OK. I would finish and be grateful I hadn’t burned bridges. It would somehow be made reasonably OK.

I went to campus in October for my seminar and was greeted kindly. Advisor took everyone to dinner afterward in celebration of my talk. Most students had a defense dinner – and I would have had I defended in July – but we instead dined and talked of how my talk went well and that I would come back in November to defend.

I arranged the meeting for 8:00AM on a Friday morning in November. I actually don't remember the date. I arrived in town on Thursday afternoon and checked in to a hotel near campus. I went shopping, buying a couple of university t-shirts for Christmas gifts, a book from Borders and a little red purse from Dillards. I picked up a sandwich from my favorite shop, a piece of chocolate cake from the grocery store I used to frequent and some soda from the gas station next to my former apartment. I then holed up in my hotel room, practicing the talk I’d perfected at interviews and had since forgotten in my eagerness to avoid thinking about the defense that might never be.

I spent Thursday night in and out of the shower. I was absolutely sick, shaking with fear and wide awake despite 3 Tylenol PM. While I tried to convince myself it would be fine, there was now a part of my brain that knew there was a possibility that the world could crack open and swallow me whole. There was reason to fear these people – they’d shocked and humiliated me before. I didn’t think they’d do it again, but I didn’t know for sure. In an interesting twist, I finally fell asleep after reading an erotic story. I’d read somewhere that people afraid of flying should read pornography on planes since it’s distracting enough to ease the fear. The story I read was about a woman who met the love of her life online, finally meeting him (hence the erotic parts), then marrying him. When I met Peter, I was convinced that the world was paying me back for the dissertation hell by offering my own version of the love story that might have saved my sanity. Sad, isn’t it?

Anyway. I dressed the next morning and arrived at the huge lecture hall I’d been forced to reserve. I hadn’t brought treats or coffee. It was me and my laptop, standing in the hallway outside the room, trying not to shiver.

Advisor arrived first, smiling and asking how I was. “Terrified.” I answered and he laughed weakly. Senior member then arrived, asked the same question and received the same answer. We went in the room and I set up the laptop, waiting for the other three members to arrive. One did, apologized for being late, then settled in. I hadn’t invited anyone to attend. For the July defense, I assumed the entire group would be there. My parents would have come so we could’ve celebrated afterward. Dave - another friend - had planned to make the trip back to campus. It would have been a big deal.

The actual event was treated like a secret. I wanted nobody to know in case something went wrong. So it was me and 5 faculty members. Well, four in the beginning, actually. Pete didn’t come. After waiting for 15 minutes, someone called him and said we were waiting. I started without him, he arrived a few minutes later, then asked a single question. Senior member asked another question. They were both easy and gentle, then I was asked to step outside. Advisor followed me out not more than 2 minutes later to congratulate me. I went back in to shake hands as the four other men filed out, unhooked my laptop and packed up my things.

I returned to our office space and began completing revisions so I could print a final copy for approval while I was still in town. I found a quiet lobby of the hospital to call Mom, then Dad, (both were at work) to tell them it was over. It went fine. Nothing was wrong. I’d be home that evening.

My dad went back to campus with me over Thanksgiving to print the 5 copies on the right kind of paper so we could turn them into the graduate offices. Poor Dad was worried about me and had the day off. So he drove me to and from campus to wrap up the details. We turned a copy into the various offices, I got my packet of alumnus materials, paid the final binding fees then drove home. We stopped for a cheeseburger on the way.

“I wanted to buy you something special for lunch.” He said, frowning. “To celebrate.”

“Sometimes things don’t go the way you want them to.” I said. “I just wanted it to be over, Daddy. And the cheeseburger is actually pretty good.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

100 More Things

I decided it was time for another link-filled 100 things post. This one was a lot harder than the first for some reason. But I did it!

In General

  1. I generally update my blog every day. I find myself with a list of writing projects, but blogging tends to remain a high priority.
  2. I also tend to walk my dog every day.
  3. I take pictures of what's outside.
  4. I can be rather irritable.
  5. I think that's OK.
  6. I have The Plan. It updates each month on the 12th. That probably interests nobody but me. I'm OK with that.
  7. My family lives in Illinois.
  8. There's Mom.
  9. And Dad.
  10. Then there's Brother, Brother's wife and Little One, age 2.5 and an absolute darling.
  11. They're expecting another baby in September.
  12. In my current location, I have Cousin, her husband and her daughter, Little Cousin.
  13. I love and enjoy them a great deal.
  14. Also in my current location, I have Friend. I've considered naming her, but as with many important people on the blog, I simply call her what she is.
  15. I lost a friend - one of the women in my research niche I call Winnie on the blog - this summer.
  16. I still miss her very much and think of her every day when I look at her violet.
  17. It took me a long time to get it to bloom, but I finally did.
  18. I've had my dog - Chienne - for about 4 years.
  19. My cat, Sprout, has lived here since September. After a few awful events, he's now an inside cat.
  20. The dog and cat get along fairly well.
  21. The cat has his own room (formerly the guest room).
  22. I get depressed.
  23. The worst episode happened around these posts.
  24. I've been on Celexa since.
  25. I remember it started to work because I spent that day at the zoo.
  26. I see a therapist at work - Dr. Counselor - every other week.
  27. I have named some spots in his office according to a theory he uses. I sometimes refer to those colors.
  28. He tried to set me up with one of his clients once. Said client never called.
  29. My main problem? I badly want to get married.
  30. A lesser problem? I'm often bored.
  31. My birthday is in January.
  32. I'm now 28.
Oddly Enough
  1. I can build a fort. Not a great fort, but a fort nonetheless.
  2. I love aligning little, fuzzy creatures. I'm also quite skilled at such a thing.
  3. Lilacs are my favorite flowers.
  4. Sandpipers are my favorite birds.
  5. Tenderheart is my favorite CareBear.
  6. I come up with lists of weird facts if asked to do so.
  7. I'm undergoing laser hair removal - it's actually working reasonably well.
  8. Art appreciation is hardly a developed skill of mine.
  9. Unless it's obviously wonderful art.
  10. I enjoy watching hockey.
  11. If there are two boys, I'll almost always have a favorite.
  12. Don't know who Peter is? That's OK - it's over. But if you're curious, the whole unpleasant story is here.
  13. Oh, and I'm writing a novel about it. (Picture me ducking my head in embarrassment, please.)
  14. But I do hate the very idea of transitional relationships.
  15. Within the last year, I've visited three Disney parks in a single day.
  16. I still like the Magic Kingdom.
  17. I'm fairly easily confused.
  18. I have trouble letting go.
  19. I can't swallow most pills. I chew them up. (Sick and wrong, I know.)
  20. I talk to myself. I also answer.
  21. Please note the arrows in my Archive sidebar. I worked hard to get those little guys.
  22. I update my header and sidebar pictures relatively often.
  23. I can be oddly focused.
  24. I get migraines (and make graphs about them.)
  25. I'm not the best hiking partner.
  26. I get massages at least once a month.
  27. I love Snippets posts.
  28. I am resourceful - even when doing work.
  29. I'm bad at small talk.
  30. I love weeding.
  31. I wear mint lip gloss - I have tubes everywhere.
  32. My dog hides in the guest bathtub when it storms.
  33. My cat and dog wrestle, despite a great disparity in body size.
  34. I love any medicine that ends in PM.
  35. I don't like dentists, but I still went for my check-up.
  36. I don't like Thanksgiving very much.
  37. I haven't read very much lately. I used to spend about $100/month on books and I haven't come anywhere close lately. I wonder why that is...
Must we speak of work? Fine.
  1. I have a wonderful mentor.
  2. I also have an exceptionally wonderful secretary.
  3. Others at work - according to me - are less than ideal.
  4. Then again, sometimes professional relationships improve.
  5. I submitted a grant (K99/R00 to the NCI) about a year ago, unsuccessfully. I'm halfheartedly revising it.
  6. I was invited to write my first book chapter. I'm thrilled, but my excitement is probably excessive for an event such as this.
  7. I struggled to publish my last graduate paper.
  8. That particular paper was amazingly worth it in the end.
  9. Other times, publishing is not so exciting.
  10. I get painfully nervous before speaking in front of people. But I generally do well.
  11. I tend to work from home too much.
  12. It's because I often want to avoid notice.
  13. When I speak of people at work, they're often given animal names.
  14. The Penguin, for example, is a collaborator.
  15. I'm trying to become stronger, but I mostly want people to like me.
  16. I find myself fascinated by certain academic characters. They're peculiar and funny and delightful.
  17. I continue to make progress.
  18. But leaving academic research sometimes appeals.
  19. If you're interested in my research, I crafted an elaborate (but figure-out-able) analogy.
  20. I really try to keep up with the literature.
  21. Since my own work has been slow to start, I collaborate extensively.
Faith, Religion, etc.
  1. Prayer works for me.
  2. I love, love, love my Pastor.
  3. I started attending a new church.
  4. I really like my new church.
  5. The Great Divorce (CS Lewis) was a great book for me to read.
  6. I also liked The Screwtape Letters very much.
  7. Friend has been attending church with me recently.
  8. There are chairs rather than pews.
  9. And the stained glass doesn't go together.
  10. But I really like the congregation.

Carnival!

Thank goodness - something to read while I wait for data to process! Propter Doc once again has gathered some posts written by or for or relevant to the postdoctoral experience. You can find them at What's Up, Postdoc? or go directly to the third edition.

Propter Doc always does a lovely job - I don't know how she finds time to sleep.

Monday, April 23, 2007

OK

I talked to Dr. Counselor this morning. He irritated me in various ways.

I had an appointment to get more Celexa. Doctor said she would have helped me taper off had I called her and that if I decide to try to stop the pills again, to just let her know. But she wrote a prescription for another year and told me to do what I felt worked. I like her. And while I waited in the exam room, I read about young Chinese and Indian consumers in a very old Newsweek. I also learned the avian flu - due to some overreaction of good immune systems - would mostly affect the young and strong. I hadn't known that. Then I read about spas in India. I really need to do more traveling soon. And I don't know that Chicago in the summer counts. I mean, I do love Chicago very much, but I've been there. I want something exotic! Yet deep dish pizza makes up for a lot. So Chicago is lovely - I'm actually quite eager for that trip.

I went back to work where I have data analyzing away. I'm now making every Mac I own run at extremely hot temperatures. I did figure out my problem (yay, I guess) and think things are going well now. I hope.

I got my chapter back with some good comments. I'd like to add another section, so I'm considering how to make that work.

I'm tired. I woke up at 3 last night to start more data - the processing steps are lengthy and it's something I can set up for 30 minutes, then it runs for 5 hours. But I feel myself starting to obsess over work and I don't really want that.

When I do that, I take random comments personally. Someone asked for some descriptive text and figures for some of my work for a section of a website. He made a follow-up comment which could have just been a question or could have been a jab at my progress here. Regardless, my feelings were hurt. He's one of the polar bears and I typically feel unwelcome and inferior around them. Having that reinforced - even if accidentally - is sucky.

I'm reminded of how my session with Dr. Counselor ended this morning. "I'm OK." I said and he nodded in agreement. "I'm not happy, but I'm OK." I concluded firmly. I meant that I'm not unhappy - things are fine, I feel stable, life is reasonably smooth. But looking at the statement now, I find it rather painful. And I'm not sure how I can fix it.

I guess I'll go back to my data so I can focus on being productive. That's something. It's not happiness, but it's something.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Teeter totter or Swings

Growing up, I was usually a bit larger than most girls in my class. I've always tended toward the heavy side, though I wasn't obscenely overweight. But when we'd play on the playground, I preferred the swings or merry-go-round to the teeter totter. My friends - lighter than me - would have an easier time being up than I would. And my legs got tired of having to push really hard to get myself off the ground, the unbalanced system leaving me falling more than rising.

It wasn't that I never had fun. Holly and Mandy and Missy were all, at times, lovely to me. And I can remember giggling and making faces as we took turns going up then down. Once I caught a rhythm, it was rather delightful. But I more often felt bulky, wishing I was more slender and girly.

I didn't have the same problem on the swings. It didn't matter if anyone else played or not - I could hold to the thick, metal chains and pump my legs and drift up toward the sky, then swoop backward toward the huge, green field that sat behind our one-story school. On the swings, I could daydream and smile, enjoying the moments where I lifted off the seat at the peak of arc, then feeling myself pushed into the rubber as I rushed back toward ground covered with tiny gravel pieces, worn smooth over the years from tiny tennis shoes.

I didn't feel heavy or embarrassed on the swings. Everything was smooth and wonderful - if I wanted to work hard, I could go high. There's something magical - a feeling that leaves me feeling powerfully nostalgic - about stretching my feet toward the sky, watching the blue expanse dotted with fluffy clouds beyond the footwear tied with lopsided bows. Other days, I'd brush the ground with my toes, pushing ever so slightly as I rested and thought and waited until the bell rang, demanding we form neat lines at the back door so we could return to our classrooms.

I don't know why it makes me feel good to be better than others. I vaguely put it with the pile of my various character flaws. I've spent a lot of time feeling inferior, so when the chance to feel a bit better comes along, I do revel in it. I do not, however, like to make others feel badly. I'm disappointed that I so eagerly participate in an environment which is so brutal on some people's feelings. (I also, by the way, hate that I feel badly about being "sensitive" when all I really want is a respect I feel is due each person.)

This weekend has been spent doing some work. But rather than watching someone across from me - trying to see how hard she's pushing off the ground, how much fun she's having as we teeter and totter along, if she laughs harder or looks prettier or seems smarter - I've been swinging on my own. It's not the healthiest, honestly. I came in from the kitchen last night - I have a Windows laptop set up on my table - and crowed that I was "so good at my job! So, so, so good at my job!" because I successfully uninstalled the old, installed the new software, and processed some data with beautiful results. I'd been putting it off for weeks, was relatively sure I couldn't do it, and was thrilled with my success. It was that glorious feeling where my bottom left the swing as my legs stretched out as far as they could go while I leaned back and grinned at how much fun swinging could be.

Moments later, I realized that most of the day's work had failed miserably. The software glitched on my laptop or I set something up wrong and I didn't have the data I needed. I instead had garbage. I'm growing increasingly frustrated as I continue to try to figure out why I have garbage or how to fix this unidentified problem. "Not good at my job." I reported this morning as I struggled out of a headache that's still nagging me under the protective cover of Excedrin. Friend looked up sympathetically as I noted, "I don't feel good. I slept too long so my muscles are sore. I didn't go to church, so I'll probably go straight to Hell. I can't make my software work, and I should know how. So now instead of asking it 'why can't you read my files?' like I did last weekend, I'll be asking 'why can't you do step 2 of my analysis?' and it won't answer so I'll have to ask for help because I can't figure it out. Not good at my job."

When there's triumph or defeat inherent in the process of research or love or life, I'm not sure why I feel the need to look outside to decide how I'm doing. Even when I know the teeter totter isn't my playground equipment of choice, I get on sometimes. Perhaps I'll try to go toward the swings - and recall that the down is inevitably followed by an up at some point - more often. Either that or find a way to leave the playground altogether. But that's a whole different post.

Now I really want to go swing (like on a playground, not in terms of professional mood).

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lists, comparisons and inferiority complexes

I vividly recall sitting in a stark, white classroom on the fourth floor of the hospital where we met for one of the four first-semester graduate classes. There were about 25 students in the room and having been super-social the summer before, I felt I knew most of them pretty well. We had taken a difficult exam – our first in the program – and were waiting to see how we’d performed. I blinked at the score on my paper – it wasn’t terrible, but was hardly impressive. I looked up to see the grades – organized from highest to lowest – being written on the whiteboard in blue marker. As I waited and waited and waited to see my number appear, I finally realized 22 people – a vast majority – were better than me.

I can therefore pinpoint the moment where I started thinking I wasn’t smart/good/talented enough. I didn’t belong in grad school, let alone research. I should have worked much harder. I was obviously going to fail. People would soon understand they’d made a terrible mistake when they granted me entrance to the program and they’d force me to leave and everyone would know that I wasn’t good at all.

While I’ve had many good and bad days since, that feeling remains familiar. I’m not doing as well as I should be. And it doesn’t come from an assessment of my own work, it comes from a comparison to others. I was fine with staying home parts of this week – I’m not that busy, nobody minded, and it wasn’t that big a deal. But when Friend started to work on her paper, my stomach clenched and I was immediately anxious. If she’s working, I should work. I’ll fall behind! Be embarrassed over my lack of productivity! There won’t be enough stuff on my CV!! Oh, no; oh, no; oh, no; oh, no; oh, no.

"You have to tell me when you're working." I finally said. "So I'll know I should be feeling badly."

I attended a seminar yesterday, more out of hunger than of interest. There’s free lunch beforehand and, eager for a sandwich, I walked over with Boss and Tim, both of whom I love, and stood in line to get pasta salad, a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. After grabbing a soda, I walked in the room and glanced around for anyone I might know. I saw Dawn sitting in the very last row, so I walked toward the back of the room to say hi.

Our exchanges that morning – we share an office – were a bit tense. She teased me a bit excessively for being out part of the week. Talked about how hard she was working and the hours she put in. How her experiment failed and they would have to implement the protocol that was considerably more complicated.

My response? I was outwardly sympathetic, but inwardly wanted her to leave me alone. She was making me feel guilty and therefore I was somewhat pleased her experiment failed. Maybe if she was nicer and more understanding, she’d have better luck. (Which makes no sense, but that’s how I think sometimes.)

Anyway, I sat in the row in front of her, a few seats over, and happily examined my lunch while I opened the soda. I turned, mouth full, when someone greeted me.

“Oh! Hey!” I said after a swallowed, greeting another of the fellows who forms my cohort. He’s an international postdoc, though I can’t remember exactly where in Asia he’s from, and is terribly sweet and funny and soft-spoken. We’ll call him Ken. Mark sat to Ken’s right and I smiled at him as well, dabbing at my lips with a napkin. “How’s it going?”

Ken made a noncommittal sound, then said, “It’s going very good for you.”

I frowned, looked at Mark, who had adopted a serious expression, and cocked my head, confused. “Not really.” I said. “It’s just going.”

Publication list.” Mark said simply and I blinked at him, realizing what was going on. Jill had sent out the publication records for the fellows in our group early this week in an attempt to confirm that everything was correct before it went in the final progress report document. We’re all funded by a training grant and therefore our progress – individually and as a group – is officially monitored. My section dominated the document – I was moderately surprised, of course, but that feeling superiority left me glowing for days.

I nodded at Ken and Mark, unsure as to what to say. They’d each had a single line, I think.

“We were shocked.” Mark continued and I scowled at him. Shocked? Does he think I’m inferior? I am not inferior! Perhaps we should bring out that document right now for proof!

“Impressive.” Corrected Ken. “You’re doing really good.” He diffused my offense and I smiled at him.

“Thanks, but it’s really not all that impressive under closer examination.” Realizing that they’d both probably looked closely at what was there, I sought to explain. “I have friends – a few good friends – and can contribute a bit to their work so I end up listed on papers and abstracts. So you just need to get some good friends – that’s all.”

Ken nodded while smiling and Mark attempted a more friendly expression as well. “You had papers.” He noted and I nodded in acknowledgment. “All from grad school.” I explained. “It took me this long to get them all out. It wasn’t work that was done here.”

“The rest of us looked bad.” He said, and I shook my head.

“Not at all!” I protested. “Mine was just a mixture of finishing stuff up and having a network of people who are presenting their work.”

“You should have told them to just wait for next year when you didn’t have much to report.” Friend offered when I was telling her the story on the way home. And though I know I’d given her that information – that publications are going to be difficult to come by for this next year – I was moderately offended.

“I could,” I said, thinking quickly over what’s in the pipeline – what can go as abstracts, when the meetings are, how much I could have ready… - “get a list of the same size next year.” The chapter wasn’t on that list, nor was this current project that’s analyzing even as I type this. There were a couple of papers in preparation that can go on next year’s list if they get published. And there are like 10 meetings to which I could submit abstracts (we, um, like meetings in my field) so if I wanted to travel constantly and write a whole lot, I could continue to look good on paper!

The flip side – and likely the reason I got so defensive with Friend – is that once the seminar started, I was put neatly in my place. Speaker was young and he works in a different section of a niche that’s familiar to me. So I followed what he was saying pretty easily – he spoke well and I’ve read relevant literature and actually published a piece myself – and noted that he was truly impressive.

As the talk went on, I noted that he was taking figures from all the papers on which he was first author. The citation information was placed discretely in the corner of each slide. All excellent journals, I noted, and a plethora of publications. The guy was good at what he did. Then I saw the Science paper from what I assumed was the end of his graduate career. I’ve never met anyone with a Science paper, so I was impressed despite myself.

I internally coached that it wasn’t helpful to compete with people. Just assess your progress, note your goals, and see where to relax and where to improve. Like Propter Doc rightfully notes. (She, by the way, makes me feel inferior with all her service accomplishments. I probably have a reason all of you make me feel badly too. I have a problem.)

And yet I still sighed a bit over Speaker. But it wasn’t as though he had a Nature paper, I decided. But then it showed up – one from last year. Science and Nature and all the top level field-specific journals. He’s completing his first postdoc and, I assume, touring the country interviewing for faculty positions. He won’t struggle – he looks too good on paper, seemed approachable and knowledgeable during the question portion, and complements rather than duplicates what we do here. Plus, I know something about his field – he wasn’t faking it. And when Leo tried to attack one of his figures, I internally scoffed. It appeared in Nature, I thought with a sneer at the big meanie. You’re not likely to find a gross error with work he published in Nature.

I don’t feel particularly badly about myself in comparison to him though. I quite simply don’t want to work that hard. I’d rather leave early on Friday, go to Friend’s apartment to pet cats and be fed dinner and watch Nanny McPhee. I didn’t have my laptop so I could process the data I’d transferred to my USB drive (though it is running now - that's the second time I mentioned I was working on a Saturday morning, by the way), I didn’t feel the need to be writing or reading or making plans. I’ll need to run in on Sunday for an hour or so, but that’s OK. I don’t need to be outstanding. Honestly, people, I built a fort in my living room on Thursday! I don’t think they give Nobel prizes for that.

What continues to tug at my conscience is that I made other people feel badly. It was inadvertent. When asked for publications, I just copied and pasted from my CV, which I faithfully update when anything new appears. I noted that I was surprised that I had a larger list than anyone else, but it really is due to collaborations, in which I excel. It does bulk up a CV when you contribute slightly to a number of projects. But when it comes down to first author – I was responsible and in charge and did this work – stuff, I’m going to be very light in the next year. I’m figuring out ways around it – I’m also resourceful because I don’t work as hard as I should – but it’s going to be evident.

That my way of working made people feel shocked or impressed or inferior bugs me. My own inferiority complex tells me that Ken and Mark are absolutely smarter and more productive and harder working – they just don’t have the luck or collaborative network that I do. So I wonder if I wouldn’t wave off any congratulations. The cover? Oh, Boss did that – he worked and worked and worked on that paper. The graduate publications? Well, Advisor is very hands off, so I had control over where and when the papers went. Not everyone has that luxury.

My point is that comparisons aren’t fair or healthy or good. I’m a terrible offender though, constantly picking someone to whom I don’t measure up, then getting too depressed to do any work at all. I think Friend is a lot smarter than I am, and given a lab that was even slightly less dysfunctional, we wouldn’t even know each other since she’d probably work all the time. I have a truly outstanding mentor and environment and can barely get to work some days. Let’s be honest – some days I don’t even try.

I wonder – a lot – what’s wrong with me. And I think part of the problem is that I’m a competitive person in an environment that rewards such behavior. And punishes – somehow creates this internal system of self-loathing – when one can’t score near the top of that list being written on a whiteboard in blue ink.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

On Productivity

"Now I have a headache." I said, flopping on my loveseat. "Building a fort is hard."

The box from the mini trampoline on which I bounce (for stress relief - it's...odd, I know.) has been in my living room for several days now.

"It's going out in a blaze of glory."

"In your fireplace?" Friend asked. Neither of us went to work today, which was likely not wise. But stay home I did, taking a nap and halfheartedly working and craving chips and salsa. After returning from satisfying said craving, I decided to pick up my box.

"No." I said, looking at the fireplace that's never been used. It now holds candles. "I shall build a fort."

There are two entrances to my fort. You can slide down from the ottoman in front of the chair (which I did) or you can enter the door (which Sprout and Chienne tend to do). The former is a bit more challenging.

You'll notice the fort is reinforced with couch cushions, roofed with a king-sized sheet (which, yes, sags a bit. I'm out of practice with fort building) and is decorated with flowers. Oh, and guarded by a stuffed dog. Chienne embraced the fort in the beginning, pleased that I was on the floor to cuddle. Then I got a bit warm in the fort - the air doesn't move so freely in there - so we came out. She quickly became bored with whole idea.

Sprout initially ran away, but returned to play with the odd structure I built. I had my finger coming out the hole at one point, though I couldn't tell I was being stalked. (Oh, yes, I'm in the fort.)

As time went on, Sprout removed more and more of the flowers from their holes. But though the fort is swaying a bit in the breeze, it still stands.

But if I'm ever to have children, I really should start building better forts. The ones in my childhood seemed a lot cooler somehow.

(I'll really try to go to work tomorrow. Promise.)

ETA: The kids who live behind me lost a ball in my yard. I was bouncing with my headphones on so Friend was left to answer the door.

"I almost made you do it." She said when I returned from my bedroom. I cocked my head at her, wondering if small children frightened her and she sighed at me.

"You have a fort. In your living room. Decorated with flowers."

"Oh." I said, starting to smile.

"I decided to just crack the door open and hope they couldn't see it."

So I giggled. It's like she's embarrassed by the fort or something. (Though she did just remind me that it was her idea to use a sheet for the roof. So it's not as if she's totally anti-fort.)

I later looked at the fort, all happy in the corner, and noted that I really have to go to work today.

"Why?" She asked.

"Because I built a fort in my living room. And decorated it with flowers. Posted it on my blog."

And she agreed.

So the fort is no more, though Sprout did seem to enjoy it most of all. I took it apart, threw the box away and all that's left is the sheet that needs to be folded. I have walked the dog and am about to go dress for the office. But I was charmed by your enthusiasm over the fort. Thank you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I don’t know much.

I’m struggling a bit lately – it’s not excruciating to get to work, but it’s harder than I wish it were. I’m not getting much done, which is OK, I suppose since my recruiting physicians are all out of town. But still. Disappointing.

I think part of the problem is I’m facing a publishing lull. I haven’t done significant work in the past year (well, more than a year) and so publications will be a long time coming. I’ve grown fond of adding lines to my CV and while abstracts will be forthcoming, it’ll be quite some time before I’m truly writing again. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attached to my chapter – it’s all that’s getting written in the near future.

I came home early today. Friend had to come out to my house as well. Though I thought I could administer Chienne’s allergy injection, I, in reality, could not. I could ready the syringe, pinch the skin on her shoulder, and poke. I could not pierce the skin though. The sweet canine waited patiently until I poked several times, then sighed, offered me a resigned look, then walked to her water bowl to take a drink. She returned, faced away from me and let me poke several more times, all the while informing her I just couldn’t do it. I finally gave up, offered her copious treats and told Friend it was her or the vet. I just have a mental block here.

At home, I battled software and lost. The program opens but cannot open files. Even its own files! So something is wrong. I just don’t know what it is. My continued efforts have failed to fix or identify the problem. This frustrates me. A lot.

So I’m switching to a Windows laptop and currently moving files over to install a different software package. I very much want it to work. I fear it won’t.

I folded two loads of laundry while two loads of towels are still being cleaned. In the neat piles I formed, there were very few work clothes and mounds of sleepy clothes. A vast majority were gray – pants and shirts. Most the shirts formerly had some grease stain in the front from absently eating bad-for-me food while watching TV. It’s not a good sign, I know. It’s also not positive that I was thrilled at the sight of all my favorite t-shirts that were now clean.

Publix is a magical place. I adore the bright cleanliness, the wide aisles, the pretty décor. They have delicious baked goods – the slice of red velvet cake was nothing short of blissful. The shrimp were fantastic. I didn’t have to wait at all to check out. I love that place. While I typically find grocery shopping a chore, I believe that Publix will make it more pleasant.

I’m currently re-downloading the software package. It’s not off to a good start. But things tend to get better.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Boss, the paper and well-deserved awards

Boss won an award for mentoring, which is truly appropriate as I work for a truly outstanding individual. In lieu of posting about how I did nothing today – ate and slept and was basically the epitome of laziness, I’ll remind myself of how the academic world can be. This also ties up the story of my last graduate publication.

To set up the publication part of the story, this particular paper was my favorite of the various manuscripts I’d written. I therefore sent it to Excellent Scientific-Field-Specific Journal. There are two – one for theory, one for experiments. I went experimental, and they said no. Offered some comments from a single reviewer, but opted out, clearly unimpressed.

Disappointed but undeterred, I decided on Good Medical-Field-Specific Journal. They publish crap all the time and, under pressure to publish before graduating to the point of being denied a defense date, I wanted the certainty of getting in. An initial review indicated they liked the work, but thought it was more appropriate as a case study than a full report. Happy to oblige, I reformatted and edited and resubmitted. They were again encouraging, but indicated the fatal flaw of the work. Should I obtain data that fixed that specific problem, they would love to see the work again. I couldn't obtain said data.

Faced with the increasingly sad prospect of a submission website with two listings marked Reject, I asked advice. “Send it to Eh Scientific-Field-Specific Journal.” People said as I desperately wanted to defend, but was facing last-minute but firm resistance from one member of my committee. So I included responses to the reviewer comments thus far, trying to avoid future criticisms, then sent it along.

I was on a lengthy interview trip and arrived at one airport to find my ride was not waiting. Content to wait with wireless internet available, I checked my email, thrilling to find a note from Eh Journal. I felt my mouth drop open when they rejected my poor paper, leaving me with the harshest criticisms I’d received thus far. So I gave up – couldn’t bring myself to read what the reviewers said or what I had written, the paragraphs now scarred where they’d been rent to include responses to reviewers that didn’t want to see the paper again regardless.

I took the job here, started and began to settle in. I looked at my CV – at the line that indicated the paper was under review when it was, in fact, waiting patiently in a folder for its next foray into the world of criticism and rejection. But I was scared – I didn’t want to hear that the work was awful again. Having tentatively decided to give up, I sighed over the thought – there was valid information in that manuscript! Why did people hate it so?! Advisor returned it with a typical “Looks good!” each time it was offered, and my co-authors, all young scientists themselves, had no ideas on why it was doing so badly out in the scary world of publications. And so begins my letter.

April 3, 2007

More than a year ago, painfully discouraged, I took a copy of the final paper describing my graduate work to Boss. After knocking on the always-open door, I waited until he looked up and motioned me inside. I offered him the pages and explained the outright rejections I’d received from three journals. I didn’t know how to fix the problems they identified and was ready to move on to the work we planned at Current Institution.

“I want to give up on this paper.” I concluded. “But could you look at it before I do that? Just confirm that there’s nothing worthwhile there?”

Boss doesn’t tend abandon projects without a compelling reason. I wasn’t surprised when he said that he would take a look and see what we could do with the manuscript. He has developed an environment where I feel help is freely available, yet independent research is strongly encouraged. I have taken many meetings, set up collaborative relationships, written protocols and arranged for projects I find fascinating and challenging. Yet when I need help, I immediately call upon Boss for guidance and unfailingly receive it.

I view my postdoctoral fellowship a bit like a view the paper I struggled to get published. There’s a tremendous amount of possibility – graduate work completed, skills acquired, ideas that are beginning to develop. Additional training is required and so I’ve studied, read a lot, tried to establish collaborative relationships and navigated the appropriate channels to do research in humans. Boss has been invaluable in all of these steps – reading IRB protocols, introducing me to colleagues he feels could help my work, attending meetings and seminars to provide support, passing along papers, providing a bi-weekly opportunity to interact with major faculty inside the department during our fellows meeting, and encouraging work on certain projects that are relevant. He is an excellent mentor in all the areas I can consider.

The truly exceptional quality is that he goes beyond what could reasonably be expected. Finishing graduate publications should not fall in the realm of his responsibility, yet he read my paper more than twenty times – changing wording, suggesting organizational solutions, and teaching me where I could improve to create a stronger manuscript. It was tentatively accepted to the first journal Boss suggested and we completed three rounds of revisions thereafter. He continued to work with me diligently – suggesting different wording for our title and noting the sources of reviewer concerns as we continued to trade paper copies scrawled with notes in black ink so that I could move slowly closer to publication.

In a gesture that was a lovely surprise, a figure from the paper that took upwards of three years to publish – one I would have abandoned without Boss’s help and encouragement – appeared on the cover of the March issue of Very Good General Field Journal. We smiled over the framed copy of the cover that I received from the journal, then Boss went around the department to collect copies from subscribing faculty since he’d already given me his journal and wanted me to be able to take one to my family.

I’ve never doubted how deeply he cares for each of his fellows and how much he wants us to succeed. The research is important and the time he spends editing text, showing up for imaging sessions in the early mornings or on weekends and consideration paid to making the right connections with faculty outside Department prove his interest in our careers. He has also offered quiet support in moments of personal problems, tends to suggest rather than demand, encourages rather than becoming frustrated with slow progress, and offers a constant confidence that we have the necessary talent and skill to do some truly important work in My Field.

From a pre-interview dinner in a downpour two years ago (he gave me his umbrella and walked through the rain unprotected), I have thought incredibly highly of Boss. Soon after meeting him, I decided I’d love to work in his group and have been consistently grateful for the opportunity to know such a wonderful man. I’m learning a tremendous amount from him – about science and about how I want to treat those people with whom I work. I have an excellent example to follow in doing that and can’t imagine a better candidate for mentor of the year.

Sincerely,

Katie


He ducked his head at my congratulations yesterday, saying it was due to his wonderful fellows more than his mentoring ability. He's wonderful and I'm exceedingly lucky to know him, let alone work for him. It's a good thing to remember.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Violent ignorance

Brother bought a gun from a friend when he was young. I was still in high school, he in junior high, Mom in furious horror. I went with her to return the weapon to the Brother’s friend with stern warnings that guns were not allowed in our house. She handed it to me as I sat in the passenger seat and I shied away. We were almost to our destination when I picked it up.

“It’s heavy.” I said, surprised.

Mom looked at me, exasperated over my ignorance. But I was surprised – the roughness of the handle, the heft of the instrument, the power contained within. I don’t like guns, though that’s been my only experience with one. We don’t hunt, though I guess Dad does have a rifle somewhere in the house. I haven’t ever touched it either.

Likewise, I have no experience with losing someone to violence. Accidents, health problems, yes. Those are awful events and I can offer my deepest sympathies to others with some understanding of the depth of pain and loss that accompanies such a situation. But with violent acts, I find I’m a bit confused. It does not make sense to me that such a thing could happen. And so while I’m profoundly sorry for those who suffered losses at Virginia Tech today, and my thoughts and prayers are certainly with them, I don’t think I fully comprehend the horror of the day.

On September 11, I felt sad and horrified, yet safe. I was nestled in a large campus in the upper Midwest, and had no worry that we would be attacked. Likewise, upon hearing the news this morning – which at first seemed to have a lesser scope – I didn’t spare a moment’s worry for my personal safety. Though I work at a rather elite university, I’m on the medical campus and rarely take the path that leads away from the tall structures with lots of windows into the more elegant brick buildings that surround graceful quads.

When I do venture into the section of campus that contains the largest of the student populations, I smile at them. From my own college experience I recall being told – at the very beginning – that we were in a protected bubble. If we broke a law, campus police would handle us differently than the city variety. If we had emotional problems, there was an office in the namesake hall that offered counselors. I went to the career center on multiple occasions to fill out internship paperwork. Professors worked homework problems with me. I was nurtured and grew easily in such a sheltered environment. My problems were minor, but I was allowed to devote all my resources to solving them. I giggled with friends and fell in love for the first time and started to define my future. It was a wonderful time – I often talk with Elle and Rachel about how we miss it. I feel a twinge of envy when I wander through the younger students, but it also makes me happy that they can be silly, then serious. Read poetry with such depth of concentration and idealism that life can be that exquisite. Work homework problems for hours while guzzling coffee or beer.

What breaks my heart are these students I see on television. They no longer share my blissful ignorance. My easy belief that I am safe is becoming more unique. For that – for the knowledge that the world can be senselessly violent and overwhelmingly wrong – I feel a sharp and enduring sense of regret. As universities implement new warning systems and emergency policies, as families start what seems to me an impossible process of grieving and healing, as students might start to half-listen for gunshots so they can hide under desks or jump out windows, I feel tremendous sorrow.

I can’t claim to fully understand it. But I am very, very sorry.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Doubt and perceptual problems

“It is hard to live as an Easter people in what feels like a Good Friday world.” Pastor said in a sermon that held fond sympathy for dear Thomas. That particular disciple is known for his doubt more than his faith, I suppose. That people – their full, complex lives – are often reduced to a single lesson is sad. I’m sure there were all sorts of reasons Thomas refused to believe without seeing. I know not what they were, but I found myself feeling badly for him too.

It is difficult – when faced with a reality that is often characterized by sheer misery – to hope and expect good things and understand your worth. To live as a grateful and joyful people is freaking hard. But I do appreciate the chance to try. And found that today was a lot easier than yesterday. The relief that the tiny pill would ease some of the suffering made me feel lighter today. I’m more stable, less sad, more like me.

Friend and I entered the service after the sounding of the hour. When we walked in, we were greeted and Jackie – the woman who gave me my welcome gift weeks ago – said that I should have my picture taken for the new directory under the heading of 'regular attenders.'

“Oh.” I said, thinking it was a nice offer. “I guess I could do that.” I don’t want to nudge my way in, I thought further. It’s rather mortifying to hear that you’re not so wanted, so it’s better if you just hang around the edges and hope nobody notices you.

“Do you mind?” She said, hand on her arm as she nudged me toward the 2 chairs in the hall – currently filled by a young couple who were very concerned that their picture reflect their true beauty. Jackie walked away, having instructed me to wait a moment.

“I could do this later.” I said to Friend, feeling uncomfortable standing in the lobby when I could hear the music starting. She shrugged, looking much more at ease than I, and I looked around. The couple rose and I was preparing to flee when Jackie came up again and nudged me forward.

“Right over here.” She insisted. “This is Jennifer. Jennifer, this is Katie. We need a picture of her.” I shook Jennifer’s hand and felt a pang when the twin chair was moved aside. There won’t be a companion in my photo – not for a pretty long time, if ever, I think.

She took two and I thanked her as she showed me both. “You don’t care which we use?” She asked, her youthful face expressing confusion over my attitude. I, my friends, am not particularly pretty of late. I’ve gained some weight, am wearing baggy clothes because the pretty ones are a bit tight, don’t take much care with my makeup, just plucked my eyebrows before church for the first time in several weeks. I look how I look though – changing a camera angle isn’t going to make that big of a difference. But peering into the small screen, I thought I looked friendly. I had smiled and my eyes squinted behind my glasses. The yellow sweater looked happy rather than dull, and I wasn’t altogether horrified by the image that confronted me.

I very much appreciated the sense of belonging that someone wanted me in their directory. I’m profoundly grateful for that place and those people, most of whom I do not know. I’m also glad that Friend happens to be here most Sunday mornings, giving me a touch of motivation to get ready and make it to 10:00 services.

Though the church was relatively empty (“Low Sunday.” Pastor reported of the drastic drop in attendance from the week before.), I chose seats in the second row of the back section. I sang and affirmed and prayed and listened, and while Pastor was in the middle of her sermon, a man took a seat in the row ahead of me. He blocked my view of Pastor and I tend to be more attentive when I can see the person speaking, so I leaned a bit to the side so I could see her.

When I did, my line of sight was such that my right eye could see her and my left eye could not. The disparity in their images left them a bit confused and my brain decided to process the result so that it looked as though Pastor was speaking from the middle of a man’s shaved head. Confused? I’ll elaborate. So there was the head that the right eye saw – a curve of skull and skin and a bit of stubble. Then the left eye – blocked from focusing as far away as the right eye could – thought that his head was farther over. So it superimposed its version of his stubbly skin in the position where right eye believed Pastor should be. (That made it more confusing, didn't it?)

There’s some Physicsy explanation for this that I certainly learned in Optics, but don’t feel like looking up. The point is that it looked as though she was speaking from inside his head. I was aware that my perception was off, but couldn’t fix it. If I wanted to see her, I had to deal with this view. It didn’t freak me out – I was distracted by it, of course, trying to open and close each eye individually to change how things looked. I’m rather fascinated by the visual system. But I was paying attention for most of the sermon and started to wonder about Thomas.

I am stuck with what I perceive to be true. I tend to think badly of myself – it seems safer when someone might be less than impressed with me. I also cling to people and situations to a strong degree. I continue to wear Grandma’s engagement ring on the middle finger of my right hand. She died when I was in high school. Her picture is also up in several places in my house. When I encounter items that belonged to Winnie, I store them. I don’t know why, but getting rid of all of it upsets me a great deal, so I just put stuff away. I still have a couple of toys and a treat tin from my childhood dog. She died 3 years ago. I don’t like moving on. I’m not even sure I know how. Of course it gets easier to not have someone around, but… I don’t know what my point is. Other than I suck at letting people go.

The other part of the problem is the depression, of course. I understand that my view becomes painfully skewed. That I can’t see out of the pain and sadness and misery. I don’t want to be depressed. I don’t want to take pills or go to therapy or require these things to be functional. It’s not that I think they are bad or speak badly of me – I’d just rather not deal with it. Likewise, I wish I never got headaches. It’d be easier and less painful without them. But I do have both afflictions. I get depressed. And headachey. Refusing to treat those problems is not a good option at this point. And that’s OK.

There are times when it is hard. Whether Thomas was scared or grieving or just freaking tired from all the turmoil he faced, he wasn’t able to believe without seeing. It’s a different problem to see and wonder if the resulting belief is accurate. The comfort is that Jesus presented himself to Thomas. I’ve always thought he must be a bit annoyed to have to go out of his way to let someone poke at his wounds, but that might be doing Christ a disservice. What we need somehow arrives.

The fact is that when I’m medicated, I seem to see things more clearly. Life doesn’t seem to miserably hard or frustrating and sad. Bad things still happen and I’m still bothered, but it’s less impossible to cope. I thought that if I was aware of the problem – if I knew I wasn’t seeing things clearly – I could talk myself out of the worst of the moods. And I did – for most days, I was doing reasonably well. But I was starting to sleep too much, withdraw from people whenever possible and I really did feel physically awful for a lot of those days. I don’t want to be dependent on Celexa to function normally. But it seems that I am for now.

Church was good. I didn’t go to work, but I have ideas on how to fix the last of the problems with the work I brought home. I don’t want to update Matlab, but I’ll do it tomorrow. I very much appreciate the support, especially as I put myself in a vulnerable situation by ceasing medication without any reasonable plan. I can’t say I feel chipper and wonderful, but I do feel more stable and settled. Control of my moods is more easily achieved when I have a bit of help. That’s OK for now, I suppose. And as far as whining goes, I'm glad it doesn't bother some of you. I'm sure I'll continue to do it.