Sunday, February 14, 2016

protect me from what I want

(this turned out to be a blog post like from the old days. The introspective, thinking and emotional one. New normal, as in work and science, will resume shortly. I wanted to get this out first though.)

The band Placebo made a nice song in the 90ies called “Protect me from what I want”. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit. A while back I went to visit an old friend of mine. it was a nice visit. although my ulterior motive was that they would tell me what to do, I’m having a little bit of a thinking-doing issue, life wise. And over thinking. Of course, as a nice good friend they spelled it out for me. I need to decide what I want and then do it. Not care about what other people think or what I think they expect me to do.

It all sounds so easy. A few times I think about my upbringing and the consequences that it has had for the adult me. I’m not the person who goes “it’s due to my upbringing” as a blame, and it took quite some time in therapy to accept that “upbringing explains a lot of your present day choices” without having a blame connotation. Nor am I the person to complain and say I had it bad. I didn’t. And most of all, I don’t want to go into it in too much detail in a blog post since I’m still working on the “personal but not private”. I will make it more about the saying from Al-Anon “it’s hard when you grow up/have lived as a co-dependent to sort out what you want”, since your feelings haven’t really been the focus. It’s all about someone else primarily.

One of the best things I’ve done in my life was to work on a support phone line while at uni. I worked Friday nights and Sunday nights. These were the nights when people called in. Fridays when they were feeling alone and not going out with friends (“I have no one to go out with and nothing to do”). Sundays when they were regretting things that had happened over the weekend and having to face them Mondays (“I think I hooked up with that guy/girl and people know about it”).  Like today, Sunday that is Valentine's day - It would've been a phone fest from all the people who didn't have a valentine's date, didn't have the perfect weekend, didn't know what to say tomorrow and most of all, trying to deal with all the emotions of being good enough and fitting in 

It ties in to a conversation I had before the holidays. I mentioned then that my memory of the phone line was that a lot of people called in before holidays stating their concerns about going back home to their parents. Why? Because they weren’t doing what their parents have told them to do, what was expected of them. (it’s extra interesting to me nowadays since we didn’t have tuition fees when I went to uni - only having to get money to “live and buy books” and we had farely good deal on governmental loans. It wasn’t about the money per se, it was the dreams and hopes of the family that hung around.) They had dropped out from engineering or medical school since they wanted to study art history/anthropology/something else that didn’t fit with the planned idea and now they were scared what their family would say when they found out.

The idea that “do what you want” is not as easy as one would want it to be. Even if you have the financial means to do it. Or the thought that you are “free” to do it. A lot of us are carrying the aspirations and wants of our families. I’m not using it as an excuse, I’m mainly trying to explain. (Funny that I find myself defending myself, even thought I am not from a traditional “keep with your family wishes”.) A lot of wealthy people (upper class) as well as people from  middle class with a family business or solid working class train their children to know what’s expected from them when they grow up. No funny business.

This all factors into my, and my friend’s, life. It’s not as easy to know what I want, and what I’ve been taught what I should want. At the same time these other expectations have been spelled out since we were small and half of the time, maybe you don’t think about it too much. You just do it. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

not placing eggs in one basket - have outside connections

Last month has been the final straw for one of my friends. They are leaving the lab, finally deciding and getting out. The abusive environment in the lab has finally taken its toll and they are done with science overall*.

It's hard. It's extremely frustrating for me, partly because I couldn't help then, and I can't help now - apart from being there and trying to make the exit plan the best one. (I think I've said this before, but I'll say this again - exit strategy and future planning is very important.)

Let me run down some points that I have learned over the years - and from watching both myself and others end up in less than great situations.

First and foremost, go with gut feeling. If something is starting to ping your tummy - listen to it and start collecting facts, then take a look and see if the feeling is warranted. If spider sense is warranted, get out as soon as you can. If you start in a lab as a post-doc and after less than 6 months things seem to be weird. Maybe the PI is screaming at people. Maybe the atmosphere is "not to have any outside contact outside the lab". Maybe something else that sounded weird when you started but you adapted, shrugged it off and then now it doesn't seem as bad.... Take another look. You might be like the frog in hot water - or the Stockholm syndrome. Get out ASAP. Moving labs within the first year can be salvaged. "It wasn't the right fit", "the project didn't turn out to be what was told at the interview" etc. It's not a great thing, but leaving earlier is better than adding another two years in a bad situation.

Second, which ties into the first, HR works for the employer. Not you as the employee. If you want them to help you, its probably going to include you having leverage and a solution planned so it's the least messy situation and solution for them to choose. But again, they don't work for you.

Third, have contacts outside your lab. Another mentor, another connection apart from your PI. Keep your old job connections and grad advisors in the loop. It's nothing strange to have another angle on your career and research. It doesn't mean that you tell all about the research from the lab, it means that you have another person who can be a support person to you. If you aren't a post-doc (like a research scientist or lab manager), definitely have outside connections for future career planning or options in case your PI loses funding or gets a new offer to another institute.

Fourth, if you find yourself in a bad situation - device an exit plan. Talk to some people outside of the situation since you will most likely be a little biased, scared and not thinking really straight. There might be some salvageable ideas and efforts. Perhaps even a solution that you have missed when being caught up in a bad situation. Don't just quit cold turkey. It could be that it happens that way but most often there are other solutions. Mainly because there is less hard to find a new job if you already have a job... and if you are on a visa... see next point.

Fifth, if you are on a visa - like I was on my post-doc - you need to be very diligent and know your requirements very well. How long can you stay in the country when your contract is up? If you are terminated, how long can you stay? (I had a 30 day stay in the country after the contract was ending. Not really super great for long term planning but the reality at the time.) How are things affecting your future visa status and applications? Do you have a possibility of applying for permanent residency for example? Is it possible to shift jobs within the institution or could you shift between places etc.

This post wasn't meant to be a negative one - but considering what I see now and have seen a few times, not to mention went through myself for a bit in my post-doc - it is a reality that one should look into. Like the saying goes: Si vis pacem, para bellum ("if wanting peace, prepare for war"). I interpret that it is better being prepared and having options. It's easier to take on challenges that way.

*they don't think they can get another job within science anymore. But mainly they don't think they have it in them for now to risk another lab. I'm not sure what will happen, I have my own hopes here, but I'm hanging in there providing support and alternatives.