Monday, March 31, 2008

I believe I picked the wrong battle.

I should preface this by saying I love Boss. From the moment we met on my interview, I found him to be nothing short of completely lovely. I’ve grown increasingly fond of the man and his wife and the lines between mentor and beloved friend have blurred. This neither surprises nor disturbs me - I tend to go all or nothing with people and given the choice between loving and ignoring Boss, I’ll go with the former. I’m just emotionally intense like that.

The other important fact is that Boss does not like conflict. He wants it kept as far from him as possible and for everyone is his sphere to be happy. Perhaps with a nice glass of sweet tea! He’s gracious and diplomatic, unfailingly kind.

I actually don’t mind conflict. I’m rather vicious when cornered and brought our grants manager to tears within my first year here. (There’s a chance I said she was terrible at her job and very mean. I don’t know - I think I was provoked.) But it takes energy to piss people off then deal with the fallout and I don’t tend to feel the need to summon it. Since I have such warm feelings toward Boss, however, I never want to see him uncomfortable. I do my best to give him a happy and productive post-doc and when I can’t, I stay home and work from here. And he’s good with that.

As I look over papers and try desperately to frame them into something publishable despite tiny amounts of actual data, I look back on these postdoctoral years not with bitter regret, but with a resigned sense of moderate failure. For the life of me, I can’t remember asking outright for the money to do experiments. This isn’t as outlandish as it may seem to those of you who do real science. If you give me a salary and computer and some data (hell, I can simulate my own if need be), I can do something with a chance of publication. I wanted to do more though and that requires thousands upon thousands of dollars.

I remember starting here. (I had to order lab coats. I said I would never wear lab coats, but Jill insisted. I had to go across town, try on lab coats, select lab coats and have them embroidered. Then I had to go pick up the lab coats and thank Jill for providing the grant money to cover said lab coats. I have worn one of the two coats exactly once when I was very cold in my office.) After ordering my computer and making sure travel money was available for conferences in appealing locations, I then asked where I should acquire cash to run some experiments. Boss looked very uncomfortable, shifting in his chair and staring down at the yellow legal pad he tends to carry. So I asked around and found internal funding through committees and collaborators. I did the work I could pay for and stopped short because I ran out of resources. And now that I’m trying to publish, I’m facing the ‘why is your sample size so small’ questions. And aside from the delightful alliteration, it’s a valid point. (Damn it all.) And the answer is quite clear - I didn’t have what I needed. And the question of why I didn’t battle for the necessary resources seems a valid one.

It’s not that I’m incapable. I fought for a desk. I pushed and nudged and bothered Boss with stubborn determination. I hated where I sat and that I couldn’t have all my files and books and pretty desk items! I railed against it! It was too important to ignore! And I won - I can usually obtain what I want by sheer and articulate force of will. And though it took much patience and pouting reminders, I acquired a space I love. There’s room for my framed journal cover. And my neuron and photos and calendar. The sheep I got in England that holds my business cards. Everything is pretty and comforting and happy. (And, yes, cluttered. It's how I imagine the inside of my brain looks.)

When it was announced at a group meeting that travel funds were running low, I frowned. I didn’t attend the major meeting last year, neatly sacrificing a trip to Europe so I could recruit patients with the precious money I had available. But this year’s meeting is in a city I enjoy. At a hotel that I love so much I have a vintage poster of it in my bedroom. I booked a single room for myself as soon as the housing site opened to ensure my presence in its lavish interior. It’s all gilded elegance and I’ve compared every conference hotel to this one (it was my first). The beds are never as fluffy with mounds of quality linens. The pillows never as plentiful and soft. I wanted to stay there and was disappointed to learn that it may not be possible.

Upon further reflection, I became indignant. (I do that.) I look better on paper than any of the others, I decided. More papers, more talks, more abstracts. Who published a book chapter? Me. Who interviewed for multiple faculty positions? Me. Who is pushing through rejections and revisions and pushing to get papers reviewed? That’s right - it’s me. And given that I’m also the only one who didn’t have big ticket travel last year and who uses virtually none of the grant money for research, I want to go to the meeting! I suppose I could make a shorter trip and skip Niagara Falls and have a roommate, though those are rather big sacrifices. And honestly, who prefers to avoid sacrifices? (Yes. Me. Again.)

Then in a fit of what could be called adolescent angst if I were a decade younger, I decided that since I hadn’t used money for studies, I was going to spend some on myself. I wrote a detailed email to Boss about why I should attend the meeting. It was followed by a couple of notes requesting textbooks I’ve always meant to purchase. And in an elegant example of ‘ask and you shall receive,’ each request was met with approval and I registered for the conference and bought $500 worth of books within a week.

In the couple of hours that felt like a miserable eternity (I am still ill. Pity me, please.) spent on campus today, I stared at the new textbooks neatly aligned with ones I already owned. I sighed. Then coughed. Then moaned with the pain in my ribs. Then I thought of the papers I was trying to write and ones that won’t get written.

Instead of a high-impact paper resolving the issues that marred my dissertation, I wrote something more hopeful and interesting on a new topic. I had extra time since my main project stalled, new opportunities presented themselves and I, desperate for something to do, pounced on the collaborative opportunity. I also took a meeting with Quiet Mentor that initiated a small project that I thought was fascinating and important. I met people and have a stronger grasp of the oncology field in general. In short, because of my boredom, I became a resource for random collaborators. And it was a role I was happy to fill. I like going to meetings and seeing the big picture. I enjoy learning from biologists and clinicians - I think they’re very cool in ways I don’t always see. I also got to present project ideas to funding agencies to fill in my monetary gaps and add some lines to my CV there.

It has not been all bad. Nor was it Boss’s fault that I didn’t have the right amounts of money at the perfect times. Instead of asking, I pouted. Instead of demanding, I found other things to do. When he asked what was up, I had answers - collaborations and book chapters written from graduate data and papers we were finishing up from my thesis work. Then there was about a year of work - recruiting patients and analyzing data and making presentations. Then we’ve moved neatly into interview travel and more writing of stuff that isn’t all that important because I haven’t done all that much.

I think the moral of the story might be that I didn’t do much because I didn’t want to. I’m capable of getting what I need and selected an environment that is undeniably warm and supportive. Yet it seemed easiest to shrug and say, “oops, no money!” when faced with those funding battles. So when I look at job opportunities - marketing and development roles in industry or support positions in academic research - I think that sounds more in line with what I should do. This was my shot at independent research and while I did enough to argue that my time here was worthwhile, I’m fully cognizant of every single failure. And they seem to be very, very large to me.

“Now, Katie,” someone might say, “did you not fight and fight and fight for funding recently?” And I would hurry about to fetch you some sweet tea to enjoy while you opened the presents I bought you because you’re my favorite-est person ever. That particular experiment mattered to me and I wanted to do the work and tried desperately - with great effort and at great length - to get the necessary resources. And I failed. And then I was very, very sad and disappointed and otherwise upset.

So when Friend offers that I might be giving up too soon, I shake my head. It does make me sad to think of leaving this world - the stunning freedom and exhilaration of discovery. The exchange of ideas and the glory of good collaborations. It’s wonderful, really. But it’s also very difficult and the current funding climate makes it even more so. And whatever it is that enables people to bounce back after rejections and criticisms, that keeps that battling for resources and demanding the ability to do the work they love - I don’t think I have it.

And, so, given the opportunity, I will sell out and step away from the research. I wonder if I’ll miss it. But then I think of my grant that sits mostly unrevised. Of the papers that are slowly killing me because I want to publish something - for the sake of Boss and the training grant and my lovely collaborators - and don’t quite know how to make this seem good enough. I love the curiosity, but hate the sense of despair when I realize I won’t be able to answer some of these questions. It’s just too hard to make the projects come together and the difficulties inherent in funding and approvals and documentation mean that my research doesn’t always happen. So the idea of having money and support to aid forward progress rather than impede it appeals to me. And I hope I’m able to obtain a job that encourages that in some role.

I also hope they give me a pretty desk when I get there.


Psychgrad said...

Sounds like one long frustrating process. It seems like the institution sends a mixed message. Be productive, but do it without the means to get anything done. It's good that you've had this opportunity to get your work published. Would you have data to work with if you started a faculty job this summer? Do you feel you're ready to leave the the research side of things?

I really hate the funding process. It just seems like the rich keep getting richer. They have the money to get work done, hence have a better cv/application and get more money.

PhysioProf said...

Where the rubber hits the road, your mentor fucked you over. Smiles and a supportive friendly attitude and money to go to a conference once a year and buy a few textbooks don't mean jack shit.

You needed substantial resources to do experiments and your mentor didn't obtain and provide them for you. That was his failure and should be his shameful burden.

Please don't quit. Do another academic post-doc, but make sure that your next mentor has the resources and the willingness to deploy them so that you have a fighting chance to succeed. In your current situation, the game was over before it even started.

I'm sorry to say this, but your mentor does not sound nice at all, but rather like a weak people-pleaser whose life is focused on not making people mad. Well, you should be mad, because he fucked you over, and wasted your time: what should have been the most experimentally productive years of your life. The fact that he may have been friendly and smiling as he did it is irrelevant.

Veo Claramente said...

I think people can take many things away from failures: frustration, self-doubt, anger bitterness paranoia. I think you're doing an exceptional job of analyzing your role in what happened, and trying to be constructive. I can also understand what it must have felt like to like and be liked by your boss especially after your Ph.D experience. If, after all this, you feel like you want to leave academia, my very best wishes.

And, finally my honest opinion is that Boss could have, and should have, done more. He does get to be senior author on the papers right? Its part of the job description. But, hey, its great you did all you did without his active financial support.

The bean-mom said...

You sound exceptionallly clear-eyed in your analysis of what you want and who you are. That's a difficult thing to be.

A while ago, I, too was forced to similar conclusions about my career interests. I, too, would prefer some type of academic support position (staff scientist/perma-postdoc), or maybe communication-science writer/editor position. (Industry options in my city are practically nil, and I'm also restricted by the two-body problem).

And yeah, I agree with the other commenters--your PI should have supported you where it counts, and he let you down. But none of us can turn back time.

At least you've been able to reflect thoughtfully on the experience, and learn some things about yourself (as well as do some science!) Best of luck in reaching your goals.

Anonymous said...

whatever way you decide to go, know you are not selling out, but doing what's best for you. good luck with it all. and btw, your desk is very cute, i love the sheep! and is that really your phone? say it ain't so!

Psycgirl said...

Katie, I think you're probably a much better researcher than you think. I'm beginning to also think that it is a very rare person who bounces back easily from the rejection of working in academia. I know my professors tell me to not take it personally, etc etc., but it seems like most of them do feel the same way that I do. I think it can be very difficult to advocate for yourself, even more so when you have a mentor who is so nice and sweet and accomodating. In fact, I bet its harder to advocate for yourself in that situation than if he had been a jerk.

Whatever you do decide, I hope you have a great time :) Whatever job you end up doing, you deserve to find something you love.

post-doc said...

The comments were thoughtful and important and are going to require another post for me to address them appropriately. But my head hurts tonight. So I'll use them as a starting point when I'm trying to draft a post tomorrow. Unless all I can do is think about how much I miss Nick. Then we'll talk about these comments the next day.

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