Is it time to stop attending to SfN?

As I was catching up with reading blog posts today, I came across this one from @BabyAttachMode: “I am not going to SfN this year“, where she describes her reasons for not attending to this year’s neuroscience meeting. As I started to write a comment to her blogpost, it started to become too big, so I decided to put all those feelings here instead.

I can relate SO MUCH to this. I’ve left academia (and neuroscience research) to work as a biotech sales person 2.5 years ago.Wow. Time really flies! Although I still work with academics, the instruments that I sell are for analytical analysis, so my readings and research interests changed quite a bit since then. I don’t follow the literature on my research so closely anymore, and more importantly: I don’t plan to come back to academia anymore.

However, it’s this time of the year and here I go, attending to one more SfN. I’ve attended to almost all SfN meetings since 2002, only missing the 2013 one in New Orleans because I had visa problems and could not come to the United States. For some people, SfN is ‘too big’, ‘too overwhelming’, ‘too everything’. For a social person like me, it’s HEAVEN. I love having the opportunity to be around so many peers (for those of you who never attended to SfN, its attendance is about 30000 people). I always come back fully energized. When I was in academia, I’ll come back full of research ideas and projects. Now that I’ve left academia, I don’t normally go to poster session or talks, but still, only the feeling of spending a couple of days frantically talking and interacting with people still feels like a blast.

Part of me finds all sort of excuses for that. Having worked in neuroscience research for 20 years of my life, it seems to me way easier (and cheaper) to fly to one place and be able to meet all friends I’ve made all along those years. My PhD advisor and graduate school colleagues that are all over the world. My friends from when I was a visiting student at Rockefeller University. My dear collaborator that lives far north and I never have the chance to visit. And there’s Banter! This next one is going to be my 4th SFNBanter and it is incredible to put faces into handles. Each Banter I have the opportunity to meet old Twitter friends, but also to make new ones!

But there is also a part of me that questions my choices. As IBAM says on her post: “It makes me realize that it is impossible to have everything and that moving towards one thing, means saying goodbye to another“. Earlier this year I wrote a blogpost along about breaking up with academia and how I felt I was going in the right direction. But I feel that, although I made a clean cut with working in academia, I am having a really hard time breaking up with science and research in general. I’ve attended to the AAAS meeting this year and had a blast discussing topics on how to make research better. I am really passionate about those issues, and would love to get a job that would allow me to attend to those conferences and improve knowledge research and sharing.

However, getting this ‘dream job’ seems more and more like a remote possibility. Lately, I feel I could do much better in my current job if I could just let this other life behind. Maybe one day, I finally will.

 

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I’m going through changes…

It’s been a very long time since I don’t use my blog as a diary, a venting tool to share my struggles and uncertainties. It is not because I didn’t want to, but because things have been different lately. My pseudo has become thiner and thiner – and although I really don’t care about my pocket friends to know my IRL identity, things become really different when is the other way around.

I recently applied for a job at my company where I added all my online credentials to my resume. Also, with our Recovering Academic piece being published at Science Magazine, more and more people I know IRL knows about my (not so secret anymore) Doctor_PMS identity. And as amazing as it may seem, I am way more comfortable sharing my struggles with my online friends… I can cite facts and situations to create a context and nobody will have a clue who I am talking about. That is very different when you live in a tiny city and everybody knows everybody. Regardless, I have been struggling with internal conflicts and it is starting to reflect on my physical health. Anxiety and stress prompted me to tense my back muscles and now the pain has extended all the way to my lower back. I need to get things out of my chest.

About one year ago I made a conscious decision that, even though I was quite comfortable and happy with my current *new* life outside academia, I felt I could be happiER and more useful if I tried to move into a position that brought me closer to making science a better place. I realized every time I put down the sales rep hat to wear my PMS one, I was happier, and even though most of my outreach activities are accomplished after hours – it was never a burden. It was my time to do what I am really passionate to do!

I’ve spent the whole year trying to get there. I applied to a number of jobs, I did several informative (networking) interviews. I focused my energy into that goal. But in order to do that, as a passionate person, I knew I had to put my life *on hold*. I would make sure no situation will come out of hand in a way that I’d feel “too comfortable”. I know myself well enough to be sure that “comfort” would mean “be satisfied”, and this satisfaction would likely be temporary – and followed by feelings of regret.

On our Recovering Academic podcast we always say “your next job doesn’t have to be your last job – and it probably won’t. And that’s okay“. But on the other hand, it is not easy to drastically switch fields. The type of job I was looking for would most likely require me to move to a larger (and more expensive) city. Entry level positions usually pay very little, and I know it would be struggle to leave all comfort I current have here. That’s why I had high hopes when that position at my company showed up. Still not the science job I was looking for, but it would require me to move to a larger city, with a nice salary. I would interact with more people (that is currently the number one struggle with my current job, working by myself at home). But also, I could probably expand my PMS science outreach activities in a more active and useful way – still as a side job at first, but expanding possibilities? So when that didn’t work either, it was… very frustrating.

Last week I had a very deep conversation with a friend that triggered a thunderstorm of feelings:

That whole conversation made me take a look at my life through an outside perspective. It made me question how I perceive the world around me and wonder if I should not be happy with what I have. Sometimes I envy those who can be happy with their little lives. I was raised to believe in my potential, with some sort of inverse imposter syndrome – I always feel I can be bigger and better! Up to this day, my parents still support and encourage me to follow my dreams. On a way those feelings can be very useful, but on the other hand where is the limit? Would that be a time where I’ll be able to finally say “I am happy” and stop pursuing something else? Probably not. Is this a good or a bad thing? I don’t know.

Deep inside I know I should not give up. I still feel I can find a position where I will be happier, and I should keep fighting for this to happen. But on the other hand, I know that I can’t keep putting my life *on hold* until that happens. I should be able to live the moment, but still work for better things to come. Way easier said than done, but acknowledging it is already a huge part of the process.

 

Do you really want to burst your bubble?

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We all live in our bubbles. Our family bubble, our friends bubble, our work bubble. It is interesting to think how much of our life is organized around preferences. We tend to go to certain places, and we tend to meet and interact people that have the share the same preferences than we do. It is easy to get trapped on your own little bubble and not realize there is a whole world outside of it.

One of the past episodes of Invisibilia was about reality bubbles and it told the story of a young man from California that suddenly became aware of the constraints of his life and built an app to do “bubble-hopping” – and get out of his bubble (you can read/listen to it here). Although I think it is an interesting idea, I believe there are more “conventional” ways to try to break out your bubble.

So when it comes to Twitter, things are not different. Even though *in theory* all tweets are public and easily found in the internet, what you are writing is being read only by your own Twitter bubble. Basically, an echo chamber. When it comes to political views, there are basically two very separate Twitter “wings”. And both blue and red Twitter rarely talk to each other. This was the subject from a recent study published in PNAS and you can read a description of its results on this article.

political bubbles
The graph represents a depiction of messages containing moral and emotional language, and their retweet activity, across all political topics (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change). Nodes represent a user who sent a message, and edges (lines) represent a user retweeting another user. The two large communities were shaded based on the mean ideology of each respective community (blue represents a liberal mean, red represents a conservative mean).
Brady et. al, 2017. Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. PNAS 114:7313-7318.

On the paper, the authors state that emotions tend to be highly associated with moral judgments. They propose that moral and political messages with a stronger combination of moral and emotional contents would reach more people than messages with a weaker combination of moral and emotional contents. A phenomenon they called “moral contagion“. What they found in the end was that although tweets containing at least one moral-emotional word were largely retweeted, rarely those tweets made to “the other side” of the political bubble.

After I read this, I went to the list of people I follow on Twitter. It’s not as intuitive as it is on Facebook (where you can easily see how many friend in common you have with your contacts), but yes, most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are followed by a great number of “people you know”. So there I am, living in my giant Twitter liberal bubble. Although I agree that one step towards getting out of your bubble would be unfollow people that everyone else follows, the great improvement would be to follow (and engage) with people “from the other side”.

Problem is I have seen how nasty those political discussions can get on Twitter and Facebook. I am not a confrontational person. I even avoid reading convos from others when they start to fight about certain topics. I am also a very passionate person, so engaging in those types of convos would take an enormous emotional effort from my part. In order to try to be aware of my political bias, I started to include conservative news to my daily routine (yes, I read Fox News now…). I am not entirely sure if this helps anyhow, as I am constantly mesmerized by how obnoxious they are.

What I have been trying to do is to engage to the (very few) conservative people I know. I enjoy to hear their arguments and although our debates can become somewhat heated, the friendship that we have makes things easier, and I am more free to simply say “you don’t wanna go there” or simply walk away from a discussion. Yes, I know you can also create friendships on Twitter, but this is much difficult to happen if you’re not alike the other person to begin with.

Despite the fact I truly believe that communication between political bubbles is necessary if we want to live in a better world, I am not sure if I can do it. A compromise I’ve chosen is to create a (private) Twitter list of conservative accounts and read their tweets without following them. To engage with them is a totally different story, though…

What about you, dear reader, do you live in a bubble? You can determine how thick is your bubble by taking this quiz. In the meantime, let me share this post on my Twitter bubble!

Do you know what’s your dream job? Try the Flower Exercise!

This is a blog post that’s been among my drafts for a long time, and I never got the time to finish writing it. But recently IBAM reminded me of this topic with a tweet, followed up by a poll:

YES! So much this. When you are in academia, you are deeply immersed in that environment and it is easier to see and understand what are the tasks and duties of most of the people working there. Once you decide to leave, there is a wide open world full of possibilities to explore. You can do so many things but it is super hard to decide for anything. There is also the feeling of failure, so of course, if you are leaving academia, it must be for a BETTER job, a job that makes you HAPPIER. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself!

Networking is important. The more you talk to several people, the more you understand the options that are out there. Most importantly, you start to quickly realize what you DON’T want to do. But sometimes the more you talk to people, the more confused you feel about what is what you really want for your next job. Keeping an open mind is crucial, but there’s a time when you need to stop and take a deep look at yourself. To help out with that, there were a couple of good suggestions among the replies to IBAM’s tweet, you should check them out. However, that reminded me of the flower exercise, suggested to me by my friend Aidan Budd a couple of months ago.

This exercise is described in the book What color is your parachute and it is a self-assessment exercise intended to help you know yourself, your strengths, and your preferences. Each petal is an aspect of your life that you should consider carefully:

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I am not going to details about what to consider in order to fill up each petal, but you can easily get this information on Google (or ideally read the book!). I haven’t read the book yet, but decided to try to make my flower before reading it, and see if it changes afterwards. It was hard! Even though I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where I want to go, filling my flower was much harder than I thought it would be. It required a lot of soul-searching and prioritization to come up with a reasonable result. Here is what I came up with:

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Now that I have a pretty good idea of what I want, it’s *just* a matter of finding, applying, and getting the dream job! Of course, if life would be that easy. But knowing what you want is a very important part of the process. But keep in mind that it is easy to feel stuck and hope that magically the *right* opportunity will come to you. That reminds me of a podcast episode from the Hidden Brain, and a blog post I’ve wrote about it.

People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many.

Don’t wait for the dream job to start applying. Especially if you are in the process of leaving academia, the actual tasks of a given job may be way different that the add description. Some jobs allow some flexibility and may be adapted according to your skills. So maybe you can transform that position into your dream job along the way. Or use it as experience for the next one!

And don’t forget, as we always say in our Recovering Academic Podcast “your next job doesn’t have to be your last job. And it probably won’t. And that’s okay“. Good luck!

 

Who am I on Twitter now? (Part 2)

One of the (many) good things about blogging is that every once in awhile you see something on Twitter that reminds you of something you’ve wrote about in the past. That happened today, with @katiesci:

As a recovering academic myself, I relate so much to this. When I left academia two years ago I also felt somewhat lost in the twitterverse. And I wrote about it – you can read my post “Who am I on Twitter now?“. And because of today’s Twitter convo, I felt it would be good to address it again, more than one year after I wrote that post.

Yes, there was a period where I slowed down my twitter time, and felt like I had nothing to contribute to the conversations I’d see there. I’ve also considerably slowed down blogging during that period (in 2015 I wrote only 4 posts for the whole year!). But I believe this was part of the big changes that one undergo as we leave academia. You’ve been in that environment for so long, put so much effort and time into that, it’s tough to live a life that doesn’t involve this anymore.

But Twitter, as life, is not just about work, we build real relationships there! And those are too valuable to be lost. You might lose a couple of acquaintances here and there, but still, you are part of a community! And the thing is, everything changes. I am not the same person I was when I started using twitter, and neither is the sci community out there. Even if you stay in academia, you might start tweeting as a grad student, then you move to a postdoc, or a junior PI and your view of things change! And even if you don’t change, people out there do. I miss when we would set up google hangouts with tweeps and just chat about lab life while drinking wine. Or the youtube pubscience when some researchers would discuss science live on camera – mostly pseudos wearing masks to protect their IRL identity. It was fun! That doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s not because I left academia (or at least I hope I’m not being left out of those…).

Because those changes happen over a long period of time, you fail to notice them. The process of leaving academia can be long, but when it actually happens it is something abrupt, so it may take some time for you to adjust to it. Personally, I don’t really know when or how I started to feel comfortable on Twitter again. I think it was just another change that happened slowly and I wasn’t really aware of it. I know I follow more “alternative” accounts now that I did in the past. Still mostly scientists, but having a diverse TL helps.

In the end it’s mainly about sharing your thoughts, your ideas and your passion. Or to vent. And to incite discussion! Twitter is awesome (minus the trolls, of course), and I am so glad I didn’t quit. I might have lost a couple of followers in the process, but I am happy to say that I believe I’ve found my new niche and made new friends.

Life is a dynamical system, and just like math, can be affected by many variables. And if you look at life’s bifurcation diagram you’ll notice there is more than one possible steady-state in there. You may oscillate a bit transitioning from one to the other, but eventually the system (your life) will find its way to the next steady-state!

Choices

You are more powerful than you think. I am a truly believer of this, and of the phrase “be careful with what you wish”

One of the most difficult things for me when I left academia was to work from home, by myself. As a 100% extroverted person, the lack of human interaction hurts. Everyday by 4pm or so I felt like a wild animal in a cage and simply HAD to go out from my house to do ANYTHING that involved people around me. Yeah, being extroverted sometimes is not as easy as you may think it is!

That’s the reason I’ve applied for a part time job at the hospital with a friend. Now I screen newborn babies for hearing loss and I am pretty happy about it. It is a ‘casual’ part-time – I usually work 2x/week, about 5h per day, and sometimes during weekends. It doesn’t pay much, but it serves my purpose of a nice distraction from my main job. And it feels good to help!

Occasionally, I also used to serve as a local interpreter, helping Spanish speaking people that need medical attention and cannot communicate in English. It turns out that now there is a person from Guatemala that is doing physical therapy 2x/week and I’ve been constantly on call for this last month. And that happened more unless at the same time when I started my 2nd job. So from one slow job, it suddenly turned into 3 jobs!

Now my life is a big huge and busy mess. I’ve learned to be more focused on my primary job, and it is easier to wait for email responses. But I feel I have been neglecting a bit of my PMS personna. Haven’t been able to be on Twitter that much, haven’t been blogging, and my job applications have slowed down. Luckily, I’ve been finding the time to keep up with our #DiversityJC and the Recovering Academic podcast (season 2 coming soon!) – thanks to my dear friends, co-moderators, and co-hosts @DrEmilySKlein, @IHStreet, and @ladyscientist 🙂

Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choices, filling all my life with extra work instead of focusing on finding a new job that would fulfil my science and people needs. But I am happy with the amount of human interaction I have now. And having more idle time would not make me work harder, because I’d just spend more time away from the computer trying to fill the need to be around people. I’m starting to adjust to this new rhythm of life. I just wished my day would have more than 24hs lately!

How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

It is no news to any of us that science is currently under attack with the current administration – with EPA dismantling, proposed funding cuts to the NIH, but also with erroneous views about climate change and vaccines causing autism. But more importantly, this seems to me to be a consequence of how the general public view science, overall. They tend not to trust scientists because they cannot relate to us. They don’t understand what we do, and also they don’t believe to know any scientist. The #ActualLivingScientist hashtag was a great response to this, but we still need to fix the fact that the general public don’t really understand what we do.

The scientific community as a whole does not think about the public as being an audience of what we do as scientists. When we get a grant, we should be thinking about how to explain to the public why we are doing this, to get their engagement in the science (@SenatorPhD, heard on the ScienceDisrupt podcast)

During the last #AAASmtg there was a lot of discussion about #SciComm and public engagement (you can read more about this on a previous blog post). Yes, most scientists agree that they should do science outreach,  but do we really know how to do it? Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we are talking about?

Last month I published a guest blogpost at the PLOS Neuro community discussing a very interesting paper on neuroendocrinology of female reproduction. I was very happy with the final result, but IT WAS EXTREMELY HARD TO WRITE IT! First, because it was my former area of research, and I wasn’t sure how simple I should get. But also, having read so much about this particular topic made it harder to actually make it more simple and appealing to non-experts. Writing to a general audience is not an easy task, and it requires a lot of practice and attention to the language (passive voice and jargons, anyone?)

It is important to properly communicate our results to the general public – not only to gain their trust, but also to avoid misinterpretation of results. We discussed this topic during our last #DiversityJC and how this can harm science and society in general. One of the main critics to the #OpenAccess movement is – “why should science be open to the general audience if no one is going to be able to understand the research?”. In fact, science needs to be more open, but also more accessible!

Apparently there are a couple of journals that already started including ‘plain-language summaries’ to their research articles. eLife published a nice guide explaining its summary (called e-Life digests) and the importance of doing so. But if the journal where you published your research is not among those, there are still several ways you can increase the visibility of your research, and among all those suggestions, I totally encourage you to blog your own research. It’s great practice to “explain or expand upon your research for non-specialist audiences, and to provide additional information and background that perhaps didn’t make it into the final version of a paper.”, as @protohedgehog suggests.

You may say why should I bother if there are already science journalists and communicators that are trained to do this job? The problem is that only super hot-topic research ends up being presented and discussed to the general audience. Others may also argument that no one reads science blogs anymore. I can tell you by experience that the general audience will not follow your blog, but it will sure find your blog post using google. My post about Prolactin secretion and miscarriage was published back in 2013 and since then it hasn’t had a single month without a reading.

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As Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And we all should start practicing to be able to explain it simply. To share your knowledge and to fight for science!