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 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!

Where do you want to go?

As most of you are probably aware of, lately I’ve been looking into new job directions. As a true extroverted person, I have been pretty open about it, both online and IRL. And as I’m getting more excited about it, I talk more and more about it (For those who doesn’t know me IRL, I talk… a LOT!). Now people are starting to ask me how my career change is going, and they get surprised and excited to learn about my (small) progresses. But the thing is, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that many of them are not happy with their current professional life. Or with some aspect of their lives.

As my mom used to tell me:El hombre es un animal de costumbres” (Man are creatures of habits). It is easy to get used to things. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. In a way or another, I am pretty sure everybody has been there. Also, one cannot forget the principle of least effort, that postulates that animals, people, even well-designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or “effort”. But many times the reality is, “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” (Thomas Jefferson).

When I left academia, I was pretty much pushed out of it. Our grant was not renewed and I was unemployed for 4 months. During that time, I had the opportunity to look into some of the inumerous paths that a PhD can take besides being in academia. But as the months went by and I was becoming more and more anxious about weather I was going to find a job or not, getting a job became the priority, not exactly choosing one. I was lucky, ended up finding a position that allowed me to be “academic adjacent” and that I sincerely enjoy doing it. However, after two years working on sales, there was no novelty anymore and as a people person, working remotely from home became really painful.

So here I am, again, looking into a second career change. But this time, I am taking the time to reflect, to explore, to discuss. I am far from getting where I wanna be, but now I have a much more clear vision of what I would like my future to look like. It has been taking me much longer than I’ve thought, as you can see in past posts from November, DecemberMarch… I don’t know if I will ever get where I wanna be, and I am not claiming I have all the answers. Things work differently to different people, but I’ve decided to share what has been working for me so far.

  • STOP! Acknowledge the fact that something is not right.

This may be the hardest and the most important part of the process. As I mentioned before, it is so much easier to take the path of least resistance and just “keep going”. There is no such thing as a perfect life. Of course there are little things that bother you here and there, but when those things start to become a burden, then it’s time to do something about it.

  • THINK! Where you wanna go / what you wanna be and how?

In my particular case, I knew I wanted to change my career path, but I wasn’t sure where to look, which way to look. One thing that helped me in the beginning was to create a prototype design of my life. I’ve stolen this idea from the Hidden Brain Podcast and cover it here: Before you do problem solving you have to do problem finding. I came up with the different possibilities for my career life: 1- Continue working in Biotech Sales, 2-Science Outreach, and 3- Come back to academia. And then, I’ve started digging into each one of them. As time went by, my options 1 and 3 faded away, and the more I explored option 2, the more I realized that was the way I wanted to go. I’ve read a bunch of things in the internet. I’ve made a lot of informative interviews. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how much people are willing to help you, if you ask!

  • ACT! Start working towards your goals.

A lot of times, you may need to undergo some internal changes first, in order to achieve bigger changes later on. I think of it as weight loss. Even though I’d absolutely love to lose 20 pounds overnight, I know this is unrealistic and I have to change my daily habits if I want to be in better shape. Baby steps. Changing takes time, and it can be painful. But most importantly, keep yourself on track. Be aware. Be alert. In my case, what I’ve been noticing is that I have waves of intense activity intercalated with waves of passivity. I believe this is part of the process, and it’s okay. Again, changing takes time, and it can be painful. But I truly believe that, with patience, it can be done.

Everybody feels stuck at some point. And most of the time, people don’t really know where they want to go, to begin with. 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.

And I hope that you and me both will find one of those many destinations!

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Breaking up is hard to do

I have been busy lately. Busy times, life-wise and mind-wise. This past weekend, I would have had enough things to do to keep me entertained the whole time, but despite that I decided to go into a short trip. One big meeting was being held nearby and I knew my former PI and my former collaborator were attending to it – I decided it was a good opportunity to catch up. When I was in academia, my collaborator and I used to have weekly lab meetings through Skype. Before (and after) that we were always good friends, but after I left academia our conversations became scarce, and I miss her a lot.

Initially I was not attending to the meeting. I was only going to be there for one whole day, and the registration was far too expensive (I checked). But then the miracle of the multiplication of the badges happened and before I could notice there I was, in the conference. I attended to a couple of talks, what was very interesting at first, but brought me a certain feeling of nostalgia. In the end of the day, even though new data could bring me new ideas, I am not doing in academia anymore and those new ideas could never be put into practice.

Then I went to the poster session. There were only a couple of rows with posters about my previous research, so it was easy to go through all of them. I stopped by a poster that was being presented by a student. I listened to presentation, made comments, asked questions. By the end, the student tried to read my badge (that was strategically hidden) and asked where I was, what my research was about. I froze from a second, told her that I was not in academia anymore, but used to work with that topic. Mentioned the last paper I published as a first author and she immediately recognized it. Bittersweet feeling again, as she suggested a possible follow up to the paper.

While wandering around the poster session, I saw a lot of the researchers I knew there. They were all busy talking to poster presenters, and normally I’d just stay around, until I’d talk to them. Some of them saw me and waved. Some of them I didn’t really wanted them to see me. I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t really understand what was going on at that moment, but I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Someone mentioned an interesting talk was going to happen after the poster session. The topic was delightful, and the speaker was an old friend of mine. But at some point I simply realized that this was not my life anymore, I had no reason for being there. That was part of my past, a past I left behind and that I don’t want to come back. So I just picked up my stuff and walked back to the hotel.

You know how they say that after you break up with someone, you need to meet that person again to see if you’re fully over it? That’s how it felt like. Two years ago I broke up with academia, ending a relationship of almost 20 years. It was tough in the beginning, but after a while you don’t think that much about your ex, and you end up forgetting your feelings about it. This past weekend I met my lover again. I realized that, although I still have feelings for it, breaking up was the right thing to do. But as every long term relationship breakup, it still hurts when you meet.

I feel stronger now. I feel I gave one more step leaving the past where it belongs and looking forward my future. Will we meet again? Certainly. But I know next time it will be different. A lot less painful. And easier.

PS> the lover break up analogy was probably used by several people before. But the first that comes to my mind is this post from Lenny Teytelman “Dear Academia, I loved you, but I’m leaving you. This relationship is hurting me.” It is worth a reading!