Category Archives: career

The long, slow transition process

Transitions, particularly big, life-altering transitions, can be very long, slow processes. We sometimes expect our beliefs, behaviors, and habits to suddenly transform once we decide to initiate the changes. Moreover, big shifts are supposed to start happening at once. Unfortunately, it typically doesn’t work that way and we may become disappointed and disillusioned, often abandoning the transition process. That big shift might not happen simply because of our impatience.

I’m still in the process of making the transition toward retirement. I am, however, growing frustrated that I’m not further along. I’ve made commitments to finish off specific reports and archive the data. It has been a slog and the light at the end of the tunnel is still so faint. The best that I can do is continue to chip away at it, keep on course, and hope for the best down the road. And be willing to accept that some items might not be finished when I finally pull that plug.

I have been asking recently: how terrible would it be if I don’t finish what I had started? With everything going on right now with COVID, an election, and (here) devastating fires, the reports that I’m working on seem of little consequence. And they are standing in the way of what I really want to be doing. Do I keep pounding on this or let it go? Will six more months make a difference?

I just don’t know.

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I did my yearly performance appraisal this past week. This was likely the last time that I will ever go through an annual review. I’m doing a lot of “last times” these days. My last scientific conference. My last field season. The last meeting with other professionals in the area. I find that I go through an initial period of uneasiness with each of these reminiscences and then spend some time dealing with that sense of loss. I playback old memories in my mind and relive how things used to be. And then I understand that those events are in the past, the job has changed, and there is only the way forward.

And then I find that, meh, I’ll be able to live without it.

Photo by author

No end-of-summer blues

I’m so thankful that summer is just about done.

I haven’t been a fan of summer for awhile now. It’s an insane, hectic time where I have to crunch a year’s worth of work into a few months. Hiring and training temporaries. Traveling hours to remote areas. Bringing equipment online. The rush used to excite me, and I felt fortunate to be doing this type of work at some points in my career.

I now hate it.

Financial and logistical support eroded over time, forcing me to spend too much time on the job’s technical aspects. I’m supposed to be writing grants and papers, not programming data loggers, and collecting and processing samples in the lab. Working in the field was fun, but I wasn’t getting my own work done. Plus, I could never enjoy summer events like concerts or fun runs because I was always on call in the field.

I began to resent summer.

So even though we were in the midst of a pandemic and all of our planned activities were canceled, the summer of 2020 gave me a taste of the future in retirement. While I’m still working full-time, I can’t travel because of COVID restrictions. This is the first summer in over 30 years that I’ve done no fieldwork.

It’s delicious.

My tiny taste of retirement has been a break I needed, and I cannot wait for all of this to be finished. I have a feeling I’m going to love being retired. The problem is, I don’t feel like I can act excited about retirement with my colleagues who are still in the dredges. I know how they are feeling and how they continue to be pulled too thin without enough resources. Especially now, when our entire world has been up-ended.

But I can only help them for a few more months. I don’t plan on being emeritus for very long.

Photo by Andrew Bui on Unsplash

If I could go back, what would I tell my younger self about a career in research?

I often get questions from students that I work with, asking if they should pursue a Master’s degree or doctorate. While I believe that the Master’s degree is a significant educational and professional goal, I’ve coached more than one student away from doing a Ph.D. For most of their life goals, a Ph.D. simply wasn’t necessary. In fact, it would have been overly confining and damaging. While they may have had the intellectual capabilities to complete such an undertaking, I was pretty certain that they would have been distressed in the long run.

I’ve been thanked more than once for pointing them away from that career path.

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So I thought I’d write a few things to my former wide-eyed, young self who was about to embark on her career in a research arena. I want to tell her somethings that I wish she could have known and braced for along the way. I want to give her some advantage in a system that would ultimately be stacked against her.

And so here it goes — some advice on weathering that research career.

Research isn’t exactly the noble profession that you thought it might be. The notion of generating knowledge for the sake of improving society isn’t always at the forefront of many scientific endeavors. There is a lot of selfishness amongst scientists, and the competition for increasingly reduced funding will be cut-throat. Not all successful grant proposals are based on merit. Sometimes it IS about who you know and how well the game was played. You will need to network like crazy, and find your way into the good graces of those controlling the monies. This will be one of the more difficult tasks for you, an introvert. But it will be so, so crutial if you are to get ahead.

You will need to do an ungodly amount of fundraising. This will become increasingly critical over time. At some points in your career, you will spend more time on contracts than on research. You will begin to wonder why you are fundraising when the organization that you work for isn’t all that helpful in the process. You will wonder why you are actively fighting your organization to get the job done.

Hamster, meet wheel.

It is all about publications. Anyone who tells you differently is leading you astray. They may tell you that public outreach and consultation are viewed as equally important outcomes — this means crap when you are up for review. Sadly, you will be writing for maybe a couple of hundred people in your field. No one else will read your papers. It’s a hella lotta work for such a small reach. You can do better than this. Stick to your guns when thinking about what is most important in your work and who your audience should be.

You will need to choose between having a life and doing research. It will be impossible to do both. Your work life is always on — it cannot be turned off. There is no such thing as work-life balance. This is an idea thrown out by administrators to put the blame back on you while you are struggling to do it all. They will tell you that you need to find that balance somehow, while dumping another data call on you as they leave at 5 pm. 

Relatedly, think twice about having a family if you stay in research. You will end up regretting giving your boys the short shrift.

Scientists are human and display common human fragilities. Some scientists you will meet are insecure. Most are socially inept. Some are just plain assholes. There are a lot of them out there, and it will be difficult to avoid them. Be aware and do not trust any aspect of your career to them.

Sexism is very real in research and will cost you a great deal. It is embedded in everything, and it will range from heinous acts to everyday microaggressions that will tear at you. You will be passed over for opportunities and will never see the same level of support as your male colleagues. You will have a few disgusting supervisors, one who will physically threaten you. Take a lot of notes and have witnesses.

The power disparity as a student is immense. But remember that your advisors rely on you to get things done, to expand their publications record, and provide another notch on their scientific belts. They will need you more than you need them.

People will take your stuff and not give you credit. This will come as a shock to you at first, that others in your field would actually do this. Yet it will happen more than once. You will find entire sections of your papers lifted and put into project reports — word for word. You will find your data in other’s papers and realize that it was shared more widely than you had intended. Sharing is important, but so is getting credit for your work.

You have to be able to do it all. In addition to producing new research paths, you will need to understand statistics and mathematics, follow cutting edge technology, write well — and do it all quickly. You will continuously read and evaluate all the other works in a growing and overly broad field. People will expect answers from you that you simply do not have, from parts of your field that you do not directly work with. If you are unable to answer a question from the top of your head or, worse, be wrong, you will forever be seen as incompetent. There is no “do-over.”

Don’t expect to be praised. Ever. Sometimes it will happen and someone will pay you a compliment. But then you can never actually believe that they meant it — there may be something else that they want from you and they are just buttering you up.

Not all criticisms are valid. Some people will have a stake in seeing you fail. Ironically, these same people will later use your data to support their work. They will fail to see the irony. Mainly because they are assholes (see above).

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And most important to my former wide-eyed, young self:

It really would be okay to do something else.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

A self-isolating vacation

I finally took a little time off from work last week. This essentially meant that I didn’t walk into my home office to write on my work computer. Other than that, little changed in my day-to-day activities. Such is the mark of self-isolation.

I was a bit reluctant to take vacation time, seeing that I wasn’t planning to travel during this phase of the pandemic. However, my brain has been screaming for a break as I plow through my report writing — it’s so dry and such a slog. I hope that taking a break might help speed up my thought processes once I return. We will see how that goes tomorrow when I sit down at the computer again.

My plan was to get some work done on our growing list of backlogged home maintenance tasks. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked because I spent more time relaxing than tackling projects. Fingers-crossed that taking a more restful break will produce more productive writing.

I started my staycation with a 30-mile bike ride with a friend last Monday. I got pretty dehydrated with the heat and wind, even in the early part of the day. Under more normal times, we would plan our route around a coffee shop for refreshments. But not this time because coffee shops are much less inviting with a potential virus lurking. Nope, this ride was work the entire time. I didn’t have enough water, and the last 8 miles were pretty sluggish. I had no problem maintaining the requisite 6′ social distancing.

And then, the weather changed abruptly and we ended up with 6″ of wet, heavy snow by Tuesday (June 9th!) morning. The power went out several times during the night and the alarm on my computer battery backup woke us at about 1:30 am. I spent 20 minutes crawling around on the floor in pitch darkness, trying to get things shut down and the alarm silenced. Our big white dog was so distraught, and I had to negotiate with her for space under my desk.

The first day of vacation wasn’t going as planned. 

I had wanted to finish painting the trim on the house this past week, but the cold, wet, and wind following the snowstorm made that problematic. We instead decided to tackle the piles of accumulated stuff in the basement. Kids’ toys, old clothes, books, sports equipment, and tons of tools/boxes/clutter from our parents vacated homes. We didn’t know what to do with all of the stuff from the houses we inherited at the time, so we ended up moving most of it into our unfinished basement. My spouse has the packrat gene and wanted to go through it all — slowly — to get a better idea of what was there. Mind you, this was about 10 years, so the mountain of accumulated junk wasn’t about to move out of the house in a week.

None of it sparks joy for me. At this point, I’d prefer to get a dumpster and be done with it. If we haven’t needed it in 10 years, can’t we just get rid of it? 

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On the plus side, I did manage to get in some decent workouts during my staycation. A couple of bike rides, plus 3 swimming sessions. Not that I’m training for anything in particular — at least not for this year. We already have re-signed-up for several postponed events, and I’m hoping that the baseline workouts that I’m doing now will pay off in the future. I’m putting more effort into swimming these days because it’s one place that is likely safe from the coronavirus with all the disinfectants that they use. Unfortunately, the push to open businesses continues, and the facility is seeing increased use. That means more potential exposure to the virus.

Even though I continue to use the community rec center, I still think that some of the re-openings are premature and that there will be continued waves of COVID-19 as a result. I recently read about a survey of epidemiologists where over 80% would not use a fitness facility for at least 3 more months — and half of those responding wouldn’t use a facility for a year or more. That certainly gives me pause. These are people who study the spread of infectious disease, and they wouldn’t risk exposure over the short term.

I still question if it is really safe to go back to the pools.

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And now it’s Sunday and my precious break is nearly over. I don’t think it was long enough, but I should probably get back to finishing off the tasks at hand. I’ve written in previous posts that my planned fieldwork for this summer has been canceled with the travel restrictions. I’m in total wrap up mode from now until the final day before retirement.

I don’t know if I want it to go really fast or really slow.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Perspectives while barreling toward retirement

Wow, is it ever hard to keep my writing on track these days. I often blog about something I see that jogs a memory. It’s hard to see something new when you face the same walls day in and day out. And now, everything in the news is so disheartening: pandemic, race-baiting, protests, and riots, all on top of the day-to-day natural disasters. The world seems on fire, and I write largely about my career past and transition toward a new phase of life in retirement. It seems a little mundane and soft by comparison.

I have a nagging sense that my writing has become irrelevant. But it’s what I have to work with, so here we are.

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Sage advice from me?: I started my workday reading a couple of e-mail messages from students asking for my advice. I hesitated in my response. Situations keep changing and any answer I might give today could be wrong in less than 24-hours. And yet, I have to offer up suggestions to those who still depend on me. We still need to make progress, even if in fits and starts.

One message was from a student asking if I had gotten a request for a reference for a post-doctoral position that she had applied to. I had to tell her no, but the search might be delayed due to coronavirus and workplace disruptions. I didn’t tell her that it is unlikely that the position would be filled any time soon. And that she was probably competing against at least 50 candidates and may never hear back from them at all. This is a horrible time to be entering the workforce with an advanced degree. She probably already knows this, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her how badly her reality sucks.

Or how all of our realities suck right now. The threads in our collective tapestry have been severed and pulled apart. Our social fabric needs to be re-woven in a way that supports people. But until we are willing to address grotesque inequities and face the real perpetrators of these disparities, we are just diddling at the edges. 

But that’s a post for another time. 

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Reliving old times and not-so-fond memories: I recently started clearing some old folders on my hard drive in anticipation of my retirement. These are folders for projects that went nowhere. I had tried to flesh out these studies, spending much effort to get buy-in and funding — sometimes for years, but all for naught. I saved these proposals in case they could be re-ignited, but they are useless thought exercises at this point. I might as well get rid of the unnecessary files now before it all becomes too much.

I start to tear up as I do this. So many gut-wrenching memories of failures and shortfalls. One reason that I’m retiring now is that I’ve grown tired of fighting my own workplace to move things forward. I no longer know how to make things work. I came across one recent project that went unfunded, only to be picked up and initiated by a potential collaborator without me. This study plan is on the ground, but I’m nowhere to be seen in it because I wasn’t able to get buy-in. On the one hand, I feel encouraged that the work is being done, and that somebody saw value in the study. I would have appreciated a little credit though.

This transition is hard — so much harder than I ever imagined. I feel like I’m in mourning at a year-long funeral. I know that I need to let all of this go, but I’m stuck on what I could have done without the imposed limitations. I shouldn’t take this personally, but it’s tough not to. 

I think about leaving on my last workday with two middle fingers fully extended as I walk out the door. While I chuckle at that vision, I know that I won’t do that. I will continue to silently internalize my frustrations. 

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Retrospectives: I’m planning to start a series of posts that are a bit retrospective as a means of coping with all of these feelings. These are things that I wished I knew when I was young and just starting out. Perhaps this might make me feel a bit more relevant as if I’m giving sage advice to the students who contacted me earlier.

Something positive has to come from this internal and external turmoil.

Photo by Clément Gerbaud on Unsplash