Tag Archives: career struggles

Drunk guy on a plane

This post is different. I wrote it a year or so ago — long before the recent marches and protests over gross societal inequities. I made a few changes to it, in light of the recent happenings in multiple cities in the US. This flight did happen and I wonder if my reaction to the series of events would be the same today.

I’m not certain that this fits on a blog about career/life transition, other than some references to my own career shortcomings. I thought I’d put it out, nonetheless.

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We are waiting to deplane after landing in Seattle. There’s a gray, disheveled man standing in the row behind me. He is insufferable. I’ve listened to his loud, croaky voice the entire trip from Denver. He has been drinking the entire time. It is 11 am.

Many of us on this plane are traveling to the same conference. He is one of the attendees. Although he looks a mess, I’ve learned that, like me, he is a professional researcher. His matted appearance isn’t all that uncommon in our field. I once took classes from a guy who owned only two outfits: black sweater and pants in fall and winter, brown in spring and summer. He slept on a cot in his office and showered at the gym. He was an ABD — All But Dissertation. Meaning he’s completed all the requirements for a Ph.D., just not the capstone dissertation. In other words, he was largely unemployable in the academic world. He survived by teaching introductory classes to undergraduates. I’m pretty sure that he was still there after I graduated.

The conversation between the drunk guy and the two young women seated next to him started nicely enough. Both women were graduate students, and this was their first time traveling to a conference to present their findings. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking! But never once did he ask them about the work that they were doing. I suspect that it didn’t matter to him.

Their conversation turned awkward by the time we reached cruising altitude and he started with personal questions. Did they have boyfriends? Where were they were staying and for how long? Did they want to meet him later for drinks? Questions that he might not have asked without the power of early morning alcohol behind them. I wanted him to ask about their work and to recognize them as beginning researchers. That didn’t happen. The conversation ended when the two plugged into their phones to escape him the best way they could in that tight space. I ached for them, having been in similar spaces over the years.

He ordered a drink and turned to his colleague seated across the aisle. They talked about the research that they were presenting and the upcoming field season. They gossiped about a graduate student and how he was struggling to finish his thesis. He would finish, but there were significant holes that he first needed to address. I wondered if they would have the same confidence in the student if he were female. Maybe — more likely not. They concluded that while his work was less than stellar, the student was a nice guy and had made some decent connections. Even as a marginal candidate, he would do well in his future job search. 

Once the plane landed, the bell rung, and people stood to deplane. Dozens of poster tubes were retrieved from overhead storage for those who were assigned a poster space rather than oral presentations. Most national conferences have grown too large to accommodate all the scientists wanting to present their work. Poster presentations became the workaround to the problem of too many researchers and not enough time on the agenda for all of them.

Personally, being assigned a poster presentation at this stage of my career is kind of a letdown. That may just be me, but I’ve pulled more than one offered paper rather than be relegated to a poster spot. I’m too old for that shit.

As we stood and waited for the procession off the plane, the drunk guy spied a Black family seated in the row catty-corner to mine. Mom, Dad, and toddler. He could not hold back. He had to say something to them — perhaps to show that he was truly woke.

He complimented them on how well they dressed and how the little boy had been so good during the flight. The Dad nodded and said, “Thanks,” trying his best to brush off the drunk and protect his family from what was to follow. The drunk could not be brushed off. He started slurring and repeating himself. Yes, yes, they looked so nice. The boy was so good. And then he said it. “You know, you are some of the good ones.” They weren’t like those other Black people — the ones who were loud and wore their pants to their butts. This family was good, and he wanted them to know it.

The group around us went motionless and silent as the drunk grew louder and more insistent on making his point. He was paying them a compliment, dammit, and people needed to hear this!

I looked at the Dad whose mouth was now agape. I looked at the Mom, who had a protective hand on her son. I looked at the young female researchers who were trapped in the seat beside the drunk, leaning to avoid his touch as his arm flailed and his body swayed. My eyes met the colleague’s eyes, visually pleading with him to stop whatever might come out of the drunk’s mouth next.

The colleague put his hand on the drunk’s shoulder and suggested that he find his luggage and poster since the line of departing passengers was beginning to reach us. The drunk quieted and turned his attention to the overhead bins. It was as if he suddenly forgot about making his point. 

I started to speak but stopped. I could feel my rage building. I wanted to confront him and tell him that he wasn’t one of the “good ones.” He was a complete ass and his behavior that day was sexist and racist. He looked like he slept in a swamp and dared to comment on someone else’s appearance. He hit on his young seatmates, leaving them feeling devalued and sullying their entry to their first professional conference. His comments to the family, that he felt were approving, were derogatory on multiple fronts. His drunken antics had cut all of us. By virtue of his professional stature — being entrusted with the education of future researchers — he should have done better.

Yet, I said nothing. I knew that the few words I could speak to this souse could very well have made the situation worse. He had no clue of his effect on that group of passengers that morning. Would it have mattered if someone had called him on his behaviors?

Perhaps de-escalation of the drunk was the best solution in those tight quarters, however unsatisfying the outcome. But in a world where public behaviors are constantly analyzed, this fool faced no consequence of his actions. Even in his inebriated state, he still basked in privilege. He had the privilege of not being cut off from more drinks. The privilege of not being escorted off the plane with the help of a security officer. The privilege of not being confronted by offended passengers. I can’t imagine that similar behavior from any person who was not white and male would have been so ignored. 

I still think about this drunk guy on the plane and wonder how the situation could have been different. How wrongs could have been righted. I’m still displeased with myself for not facing him. Was I an enabler by not calling him out?

Photo by Annie Theby 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

On being fat: the endless diet years (part 2)

The vegetarian years: I worked as a technician for a few years after college, before starting graduate school. I began dating the man who I would later marry. My job and my relationship were both pretty relaxed. I maintained my weight, although I still felt that I was too heavy. In hindsight, this was probably my most normal eating period. Our jobs were physical, involving a lot of hiking and packing equipment to remote locations. We’d then go running after work and hiking or skiing on the weekends. I followed a strict vegetarian diet because of ethical concerns over eating animals — and also because of “fewer calories.” I still binge-purged, but with far less frequency.

So why did this magical time end? Probably because this approach took an ungodly amount of time and effort. My job would soon become less physical and more desk-bound. Life began to interfere with my constant vigilance with my weight.

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Graduate school years: Wow, did things go downhill rapidly once I started graduate school, both with my weight and my psyche. I felt so out of my league, in over my head, and out of control throughout most of my graduate school years. I never figured out how to traverse this intensely competitive environment. Being a woman in a male-dominated field in the late ’80’s and not feeling particularly welcome didn’t help. My old ED habits resurfaced. Only this time, it was far more difficult to restrict. The less I tried to eat, the more I ended up bingeing. I gained so much so fast and was extremely embarrassed about my rapidly expanding body. I may have tried to stay active, but that proved difficult with my massive workload – a theme that kept repeating over the next years.

Looking back, all the signs were there that I was not cut out for this career. Perhaps the panic attacks were a clue. One reason I went into the field was that I felt challenged. But there’s a difference between being challenged and “left in the dust, limping just to keep up.” There is no winning with the latter. I kept at it, hoping things would get easier, but I would never really feel competent and accepted here. Perhaps that’s by design, and many scientists feel this way. Most aren’t eating themselves into oblivion though.

I did much weight cycling between getting my Masters and Ph.D., but I never got back to my lower weight. I always felt judged for being too fat — who wants to work with a fat field scientist? I was a “moderate fat” when I started my post-graduate position in a science agency, taking on more responsibilities, and feeling further out of place. I continued to eat to combat the stress, which led to additional weight gain. At one point in my mid 30’s, I estimate that I was about 300 lbs. I never got on a scale to know that for certain, but I was substantially heavier than my highest known weight (260). I wore men’s XXL shirts and sport leggings nearly all the time. I remember ordering some new clothes to wear to a conference — they were a size 22 and didn’t come close to fitting. So I was at least a size 24 or 26. I remember standing in front of the mirror in those clothes, buttons unfastened, feeling aghast at how large I had gotten.

I had to fix this. But how?

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The commercial diet years: I spent most of the next 20 years trying various ways to reduce and control my weight. Like most dieters, I’ve done the usual suspects: Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Atkins, and some less well-known plans in between, some of my own creation. They worked at first. I’d lose 30 lbs or so and go on a clothes buying spree. The joy weight loss brought me was unmeasurable.

Inevitably, I’d go off the plan because I got so hungry or felt terrible. I’d promise to “start again” the next morning, the next week, or the next month. I’d “be good” in the future if only I could have some food now. As people who study weight loss have begun to understand, such diets simply aren’t sustainable in the long-run and have been shown to wreak havoc with one’s metabolism (looking at you, Biggest Loser). In my case, nearly all of the diets exacerbated my tendency toward disordered eating — because they really are forms of disordered eating themselves.

Perhaps the worst example was a period of years in my mid-40’s when I did a high protein “shake” diet — 5 packets of chemical conglomeration a day along with one small meal. If one followed this correctly, the total calories were about 1000-1200/day. The pitch was that the body would go into ketosis, and hunger would just fall away. I’ve been in ketosis. It did nothing magical for me. I was still flipping hungry.

I did lose a lot of weight though and got to about 160 at the lowest. I was also barely functional. I remember sitting in my office and staring at my computer screen, unable to form words on the page while trying to write my papers. My brain had stopped working. Don’t get me started me on the GI issues that accompanied this approach. I was also prone to binges where I’d snarf carbs until I almost exploded, thinking that I could never have them again. Still, I got thinner, at least for a while.

As I started the inevitable regain, I tried even harder to follow this ridiculous plan that had brought me some weight loss success. I was dropping $300 a month on those dreaded packets, but it was getting more onerous to consume them. The taste was making me gag and I’d try to find ways to make them more palatable. I’d read the social media boards set up by the company, searching for ideas and inspiration. They were there, along with the requisite before and after pictures. Lots of people having lots of success. What was wrong with me?

What I didn’t realize was that the company shilling these products took down unfavorable comments and banned negative users. I discovered off-site boards that reviewed this diet and found people who were having the same struggles that I was. I began to realize that the problem wasn’t me, it was this dumbass approach to weight loss.

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A few years later, when we moved out of that house, I found boxes of expired packets in our basement and briefly thought about restarting that diet. I decided that I’d rather stay fat than do that again.

To be continued…….

Photo by Jennifer Burk on Unsplash