Shutting the Research Door (Gently) Behind You

Regular readers may have sensed an increasing unhappiness and dissatisfaction permeating my musings over the past year. If you were concerned about my mental welfare and wondering why I was still working as a postdoc in the first place, here is the good news: The escape hatch has finally opened. In the very near future I’ll be hanging up my lab coat for good and heading out into the wide world, communicating science to the masses–a job that doesn’t involve quite so much acrylamide. To those of you who might be about to shut the door on a research career too, let me share my personal tips for a smoother and more harmonious farewell. And to the rest of you before you ask–no, you can’t have my pipettes.

DO … remember to discuss your plans with your boss first. Dancing about shrieking “Hooray! I’m outta here!” when you discover you’ve got a new job is not the kindest way to alert them to an imminent career change. I recommend consulting your group head about a convenient leaving date and thrashing out an action plan for finishing up or handing over projects. You may want to rehearse how you are going to broach the subject as it may be tricky to talk about leaving someone’s lab prematurely without making it sound like there is something wrong with them, their employees, or their research.

RESIST … the temptation to skip merrily round the lab once it´s all sorted with your boss. Be prepared to see your relationship with your co-workers changing dramatically once you’ve shared with them your decision to leave. Most of my colleagues are happy that I’ve found a new career doing what I do best, and won’t be moping about the lab in a misery anymore. Others are deeply relieved, and have already earmarked my bench for a prompt takeover. A few of them have a slight air of pity. “You’re leaving science? A life without research, that’s so sad!” they cry, tugging at my sleeve in a last attempt to change my mind. Whether they are genuinely saddened to see my embryonic research career bite the dust, or desperate to keep another poor soul trapped in the ivory tower with them is unclear. And then, I would say a few are intensely jealous, wishing that they had the guts and opportunity to make the move.

DO … leave your project in safe hands. If you’ve been unable to follow your scientific vision through to completion because it was an ill-conceived project scribbled on beer mats, then it may be best to quietly let it die in peace. However, if it has a fighting chance of making it to publication, it is essential you find a trustworthy student willing to carry the torch onwards. Of course this is if your lab book is easy to follow and raw data clearly identifiable. If, like me, your scientific oeuvre consists of a stack of scrawled Post-it notes and unlabelled photographs, you may have to skip this step, cut everyone’s loses, and deny all knowledge of having done any of this research.

DO … remember to clear up before you go. Tempting as it may be, you can’t just sweep off all the mess that has accumulated on your bench into the bin and waltz off into the sunset. Certain points of etiquette must be obeyed. Yes, this includes going through all those abandoned boxes tucked in the back of the freezer that are labelled in a way only yours truly can understand. Don’t forget to chuck the vintage bottles of festering liquid on your shelves–making sure you dispose of any hazardous materials correctly, ideally by getting the local safety officer to clean up for you. Finally, it’s only polite to offer “still usable” reagents to new students. You’ll be long gone by the time they discover your dodgy buffer is responsible for the dismal failure of their intricate purification method.

DON’T … clear up too well. A little piece of you stays in every lab you’ve ever been in. From my scrawled notes (“If you use the last aliquot PLEASE tell me or I’ll break your legs!”) to the dubious stains on the bench, I’d like to think I’ve made an indelible mark on the world of science. To make sure, I’ve donated to the lab unique mementoes of my passage such as the giant fungus grown in a jar for the entire duration of my PhD. In the absence of proper publications, I hope my colleagues will look upon these endearing treasures as my lasting contribution to the great body of science.

DO … back up your computer files. Not necessarily to preserve scientific data, but to save all those hysterically funny e-mails you’ve received. Also, it’s guaranteed that you’ll be pestered for months (if not years) by e-mails requesting protocols, references, and wanting to know where those crucial antibodies are.

DO … have a huge leaving party. Everyone buys you drinks, and if you’re really lucky you get presents. In the best-case scenario, these are chosen by your closest friend in the lab. Alternatively, you’ll have to fix a smile on your face and curse the poor taste of the hapless department secretary. Importantly, your leaving-do is also the ultimate excuse to behave as badly as you like–assuming, of course, your boss has already written you a glowing reference (otherwise just don’t invite them). You can tell the weird guy in the lab next door that his halitosis could paralyse goats, and finally confess to accidentally killing off the pot-plants with potassium chloride.

DON’T … expect life to ever be the same again. Although I have little experience of life on the “outside,” I’m sure I’ll never work in an environment quite like this again … and that’s not just because of the chloroform fumes. International football tournaments are much more fun in the multicultural arena of academia, and I have certainly enjoyed the wide variety of foreign foods donated by visiting researchers. Traditional Swedish glog, a vodka-spiked mulled wine served over dried fruit and nuts with spiced biscuits, was a notable highlight.

And while my new career seems very exciting, I am somewhat apprehensive of having to wear “smart but casual” clothes to work, having grown very attached to my “scruffy but comfortable” science-wear. Well, I suppose it’s a good excuse to go shopping–a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!

Kat Arney is currently dancing on the bar singing “I will survive”…

Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyseChapter 29: Communication, Part 3

Chapter 29: Communication, Part 3Shining the Light on Ourselves