Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition Chapter 11: Breaking Free (Almost)

I’ve officially started my job search, catapulted to action by my disgust and anger about the subterfuge. I find it very hard to work with and for people for whom I have minimal respect. I’m searching partly inside–and mostly outside–science I’ve pissed and complained over these many chapters, yet my postdoc has brought about a whole new level of career-related self-awareness. The experiment was to see if I would be motivated to stay in the lab after I had escaped the intellectual and emotional confines of graduate school. My hypothesis–that I would want to escape the lab regardless of where I was–turned out to be correct. So in that sense, the experiment was a success.

In addition, I have learned some things about myself that I might not have learned otherwise. For this I am grateful. I’ve learned, for example, that it doesn’t get any easier to write papers about subjects in which I have little interest apart from my desire to help the team. I know now that good management is possible, even for a scientist, even if the odds are against it (in my experience). I’ve learned that I prefer my team leader to be involved, neither a micromanager nor aloofly hands-off. I appreciate open and honest communication and transparency. And I have learned that collegiality can be lost when you’re isolated by your discipline in an interdisciplinary work environment. Like most things, doing science is a lot more fun when you’re doing cool stuff with the “in” crowd (assuming you can tolerate the “in” crowd).

I’ve also learned that it’s a bad idea to repeat an experiment too many times when the subject of the experiment is yourself. I don’t need to taste dreck again from a different bowl to prove that I still don’t like it.

So now the question is, how do I break free? There will be people who are pissed at me, disappointed in my decision to “turn my back” on them. One of those will probably be my Ph.D. adviser, who becomes passive-aggressive toward people who don’t do what he thinks is in their best interest. Another set will probably be the people for whom I’m working at the moment. Some of my readers might not be too happy with me. And I’m sure that people working to keep people like me (African-American female scientists) in the pipeline aren’t going to be too happy, especially because I’m out here modeling my decision for everyone to see–but it’s hard to live a life that many people say I should want but in which I have found little satisfaction. Whose life is this anyway?

I was talking recently to a friend who found himself in a situation similar to mine. I was able to diagnose, chastise, and motivate someone else–which I found hilariously and ridiculously ironic.

Like me, he is disappointed with his postdoc. Like me, he wants to break into something different but fears being ridiculed by his corner of the scientific community. With luck and experience, he figured out what he liked (as I have) and has found someone to mentor him, possibly (yes, me, too, check). He is looking for jobs in his area of interest (ditto). But he is afraid to reach out to that new potential mentor and to reach back into his old network for someone who would be of use. (This applies to me, too, but not as much.)

So he e-mailed me. Then we talked. We discussed the fear and the desire to kick our current situations to the curb. I chastised him for not calling his former associate. (Use that network!) I detailed all the reasons I had for making a move in my life and told him to buck up. He has found what he wants. It’s time to go for it.

I read somewhere that neuroscientists are working on out-of-body experiences. Where do I sign up?

Maybe I just need to have one–an out-of-body experience–periodically so that I can understand–and act on–my own predicament. All the advice I gave to my friend applies to me also. So why is it so hard for me to take?

Maybe it’s because I’m still having issues respecting and trusting my own choices. Recently, those choices led me into this predicament. So what makes me think my choices can lead me back out? By coaching somebody else, I managed to move myself along to the next phase: motivating, correcting, and holding myself accountable for my actions or lack thereof.

Because I’m ready to take the plunge off the cliff, I’ve started telling my family, friends, and the supportive part of my network about the quest for new goodness in my career life. Yes, dear readers, I’ve told you, but I need people to harass me in person (and over the phone) about my progress (or lack thereof). I need accountability. I’m harnessing my people-pleasing, carrot-liking self to do something useful for me: If someone expects me to do something (apply for a job, write a cover letter, work on the grant application, prepare a book proposal), I’ll move on it sooner rather than later in order to fulfill their expectations. Sometimes we have to set up boundaries to steer us into a new situation. In grad school, as wild and variable as it is, the maze is premade. I’m learning now to manufacture my own maze, with a little help from my friends.

I have to become satisfied with small successes and with completing the little tasks that can lead to big change, given time. I need those little things to pull me along a new path.

It’s like this surreal dream: I’m in my car, driving down the street, and I get to this crazy intersection that I’ve never seen before, with pathways going off into upside-down, unknown Candy Land and signs that are clearly marked but kind of ominous–like the scary used-car salesman yelling on TV, “Come on down!” I could sit at the intersection, but that would piss off the people behind me who have gotten out of their vehicles and started to gawk and poke. So I have to decide whether I want door number one with the scary used-car salesman or the door with the huge question mark on it with roads spinning out into the unknown behind it.

The problem is that I keep blocking out everything around me, everything in me, and I keep going down the same rabbit hole behind door number one, the used-car salesman grinning and rubbing his grubby little hands together the whole time.

I keep going for what everyone else says looks good. I keep convincing myself to try to fulfill my demographic destiny. And I keep banging my head against the wall, trying to break through to satisfaction, blocking out the voice that’s my own, all too aware of the gawkers.

I swear, sometimes it’s as though I’ve been sleepwalking through my life. I’ve been writing about it in this column for so long, but I don’t know that I’ve ever owned up to the fact that I’m free to write my own real life. The decisions I’ve made so far have kept me in graduate school, kept me working on a successful project, got me out of graduate school, got me a few job offers, and got me into the position in which I now find myself–with none of the joy I had before I started down this path. I triangulated and weighed my options and strategized all in the hope of finding a life I enjoyed. Most people would say I’ve made all the correct calls, but I’m still disappointed with how it’s all come out, even if I have learned a lot in the process.

As I move forward (yes, the decision is made!), it’s clear that strategy alone won’t work this time. Tuning in to my own voice, having some accountability partners, keeping an open mind, and staying flexible and patient as I find my way–this is the only way forward.

MPD over and out ([email protected]).

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