August 27, 2012


I am reading Beth Buelow's e-book Insight: Reflections on the Gifts of Being an Introvert and ran across this quote in chapter 16 talking about vulnerability:

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."- Leonard Cohen

I have also been thinking a bit about how science is like crack, the addictive drug. Both ideas- of a crack letting light in or out to connect an individual to the world and the drug have been floating in my head lately.

With this blog, part of the idea was to let the light out, to be vulnerable and express what's going on inside. It is still terrifying to me to post sometimes- I worry that what I express will come back to bite me, but then I also know that it's hard to make progress from a standpoint of perfectionism.

So with that, I'm going to open up a bit about my addiction to science (I don't think I'm alone in this feeling, either) and how I think it may well be negatively impacting my life and what I am trying to do about it, finally, though I still feel stuck in some ways and am not sure how to get moving forward again.

Current scientists almost always fall in love with science when they're young. And in my generation, anyhow, I got convinced I had to be perfect in everything and never show that I was struggling in any way. That's when 'they' pounce (sometimes 'they' were very real, mostly, I think it was in my head). So perfectionist kid falls in love with science and what I picked up on in the culture of science is that if you are not 100% devoted to it, you're not a 'real scientist'- you don't care enough. I spent grad school being as devoted as I could to work, even when it was apparent that I was burning out and depression was setting in, I coped by exercising more regularly and seeing a therapist (This is an excellent piece on what it's like: "Most people don't see depression in others, and that's by design. We depressives simply spirit ourselves away when we've dimmed so as not to stain those who live in the sun.")- I cut myself off from people, something I'm trying to get over now, but still struggle with.

All the while, I was continually devoted to trying to make a career in science. I am now in my 5th year as a postdoc and see slight positive signs that I'm moving forward, but I look at my friends (scientist and non-scientist alike) who have kids, houses, are married and established in lives and compared to me. I'm single, now 35 and would like to have a life outside the lab and a career that I can actually put down at the end of the day and not have to think about constantly. But then I feel stuck. I have a Ph.D., but still can't figure out what else I would do in the world, besides be an academic- and my depressive side says maybe I can't even be that or anything- but I feel like I need to test the waters some how, devote myself to something else, get off the crack that is science. It may be good for the human race (science, as a process unarguably has been a boon to us humans), but I reject the notion that it has to be done by people who don't have lives (Sorry Mr. Tesla, I know I'm not as smart as you were, but I don't feel that a relationship would be bad for my career). Even in an era when it is clear there are not full time academic jobs for every postdoc out there (academia is a minority employer of Ph.D.'s now), the culture is still very much 'if you leave, you have failed as a human being and are dead to us'. So if I left, it's hard to not feel like I've wasted my 20's and half of my 30's- it would be a blow to my ego, for sure. I wish it was a bit more positive than that, that anyone who is trained at a high level as a scientist is celebrated no matter where they end up. That it isn't insane to think that someone would make a decision for personal reasons rather than purely professional ones. The biggest problem of that mindset is that we're not trained to do broad careers, we're trained to do one specific thing and forget about the rest of the world. So in that sense, science is addictive, like crack. I love the discoveries, the process, the problem-solving, the mental effort it requires, but it feels very confining, not expansive- as science usually is- expanding knowledge built up by previous generations.

Part of my Ian3.0 project I started this month is to make a major life transition. Into a new job in a new place, having healthy social relationships where I see people regularly (with friends, hopefully finding a significant other as well- I want that). I am finally taking control of my own life in a way I haven't before. I still feel fairly stuck, but at least more light is shining through the cracks that were my shell against the outside world, and I'm trying to be more open- to new things, to novelty, to actually shining.    I am working on the specific details, but hopefully, when I'm writing next year, I'll be in an even happier place than I am now. Believe it or not, this is more positive than I was even a year ago. I don't know if this is coherent, but there's a little more light I'm letting out of my shell.

August 14, 2012

Academic anxiety.

Anxiety has been on my mind a lot this week. This essay appeared on Science's website last week reflecting on the state of mental health amongst the academic community. I read this anonymous blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education; A common practice on their site. I listened to a segment on Science Friday about this book about one man's experience with anxiety and I read or listened to something about Impostor Syndrome and how it's prevalent amongst high achievers (I don't count myself as a high achiever- yet) and how it might be adaptive and a good thing in some ways.

And this week I've had a lot dumped on me that I wasn't expecting as well. I've got to present in lab meeting next week, the day before I head off for vacation and I have to finish, I have a paper to put together, my fellowship is officially ending and I need to get my final report into them and that makes me anxious because I feel I haven't done enough. I'm always nervous to go on vacation. I was worried on Monday that my car wouldn't pass inspection (it did!). I'm worried about finding the time to get my job search going when everything I read about carrying out a successful job search requires putting forth what seems to be Herculean efforts just for one application (I know, stop blogging...).

I know the solution is something along these lines of getting to work on something and just doing all the little things to achieve things. And I'm not as anxious as I used to be, though I still get paralyzed by it. I get paralyzed in place all too easily still. I'm trying to flip the switch to being excited and energized when I feel the anxiety coming on, but I'm not there yet. And my old friend depressive thinking also comes into this and still makes me think that anything I do is pointless. Catastrophic + depressive thinking is not a good recipe in my head. I can go to the gym to alleviate it a little bit, but anything I do is kind of a stop gap measure.

How does this relate to academia more broadly? I had the thought today in reading the anonymous essay- the author is writing about the start of the job search season and the feelings it provokes- that there is something odd about academia and anonymity that breeds anxiety. I read a lot about mental health issues- it's a subject of personal interest to me and in a lot of places the author is listed. But in both the Science and Chronicle pieces, the authors use pseudonyms which is common in academia whenever career/personal life issues are discussed. I'll say here it is the right of these authors to remain anonymous and I can understand why they would choose to do so, but the anonymity also sends the message that if you're you, you won't have a career, no one will listen to you and that it's not OK to be yourself.

I may be reading too much into this, but it does seem endemic in academia to keep things quiet and to suffer in silence all too often. I started this blog in part to voice my challenges (and hopefully some triumphs too!) since the culture of academia ironically is not as open and sharing as it might seem from the outside. It might well be true of ideas in science, but the people are often seen as secondary to the actual lab work. Am I hurting my career by being open about my thoughts/feelings/experiences? I hope not. But it makes me anxious that that's the case due to anonymous essays about the experiences of people in science. I realize there are plenty of non-anonymous stories too, but they always tend to be about the successful people, not those of us still struggling.

August 7, 2012

Ian 2.9 → Ian 3.0.

I feel comfortable saying I'm going from version Ian 2.8 to Ian 2.9 today. And with Ian 2.9, I can work towards Ian 3.0 in earnest- while having fun along the way.

To start the transition, this sentence from Sarah Kathleen Peck's blog is what I am going to keep in mind:

"The irony is that you’ll learn more from tripping and stumbling and iterating than by circling through your brain any longer. You’ve got to get out and do."

It's one of my current favorite blogs that takes into account both the positive and the negatives of life and not all one or the other, but has a positive tone which is exactly the head space I want to occupy. This op-ed in the New York Times is also in the same vein.

Ian 2.0 was about getting my own internal dialogue under control and getting to the point of being OK wanting things for myself. I feel that I've gotten there this last few months and can say that being clinically depressed is mostly behind me. I've embraced my introverted nature (extremely introverted), my geekiness, and my love of technology & science that I haven't had the easiest relationship with over the last few years. But I think it will be a part of my life no matter what the next step is for me. I love science and talking about it's discoveries and insights with others. I've had several experiences conveying information to people today- about science and it is something that gets endorphins in my brain to release.

To get to Ian 3.0, I think requires a big transition in life. A new career is top of the list. As a postdoc, I think the point is to find your place in the world- and I still haven't found mine yet. I still think a primarily undergraduate institution is where I would like to end up as a faculty member. That said, I am not opposed to ending up doing something else either. Ian 3.0 will have a career. I will do my job  Hopefully I will be able to incorporate science into that somehow.

On a personal note, I turn 35 in a few weeks (as I think I noted in a previous post). In thinking about that fact, I do still want a personal life that I've put off for too long- possibly more than a career, though I think a career is necessary for me as well. A balance would be nice. Regardless, to take care of myself, I feel first, I need a job and then a life can flow from there. Spoken like a true postdoc I think.

To get to Ian 3.0, I know I'll need help along the way. Part of getting comfortable with myself and having a bit more belief in myself is that I am more willing to admit that I don't know everything (in fact , I probably I know very little) and am willing to ask for help when I need it as well as help people whenever I can.

My brain has played these 7 tricks on me for a long time now. With that and the rest of this post in mind, let the work towards the release of Ian 3.0 (coming sometime next year) begin!