Monday, April 10, 2017

How can you be authentic on the tenure track?

At a recent personal effectiveness workshop I attended I was asked to look up the definitions of "authentic" in different dictionaries to find the definition that would work for me.

- Genuine.
- Worthy of acceptance or belief based on fact.
- True to one's own personality, spirit or character.
- (In existential philosophy) Denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive and responsible mode of human life.

I have been longing to be more true to myself in my life. Despite the fact that I have been able to be authentic to my feelings and experiences in this blog, I have not been the same at work. By not being myself most of the day, I sometimes feel like I turn on the same facade outside of work, even without thinking. This generates a disconnect between who I know I AM and who I am being, which comes off as guarded and detached.

Armour, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection
Being on the tenure track means being thrown without training in a leadership position and being judged about your performance for 5-9 years. I am being guarded with people in my department because even people I do not like will be voting on my tenure and I need to be seen as a helpful team member. I am being guarded with my superiors and admins because when I want to get things done in a somewhat dysfunctional environment I have to say the right words and grease the right wheels. I have to smile and bite my tongue when some days I just want to scream. I am being guarded with most of my peers because I don't want to mention I am considering leaving and because I want to support the new hires, from whom I withheld information through the interview process, as their experience could be different from mine. I am guarded with the people in my lab mostly because one day I may have to fire them if I don't get funding and I hired them on a promise that I am not sure I will be able to fulfill. Also, like with children, you don't want to show you have any favorites.

This is not much different from any other job, apart from one detail: the tenure clock. Similarly to grad school, you are waiting for a group of people to tell you that you have done enough to join their club. This touches different aspects of self-worth that the more impostor syndrome you have, the more results into neuroses and uneasiness. I am not sure that tenure is synonym with job security in academia anymore, but it is certainly still a token of acceptance, of having made enough on an impact. Being passionate and engaged in your career, which is a critical part of doing science, is hindered by constantly having to hide your feelings.

So, how do you reconcile being yourself with being on the tenure track? I wish I knew! The answer may different for different people as everyone may be using different strategies to cope. For me, it is mostly that I am dead tired to be wearing a full set of armor every day and that I will do my best to negotiate being myself with the demands of the job...I know I still cannot express all my frustration, but I may be able to identify new ways to affect change.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

4 years on the tenure-track

The lab is turning 4 today! This year has been a heck of a ride. As I was going through posts from Y1, Y2 and Y3, I realized how far I have come. I think the tenure process puts you on uncertain footing from the very beginning. As things progress and you are given more and more responsibilities, being exhausted and overwhelmed can become a constant. On this respect, my year 4 was particularly bad. I spent 2016 continuously applying for NIH funding without any traction. I have pushed an R01 application all the way to major revisions and resubmission and it went from scored to not discussed. Now I have two more R01s and one R21 in play. Putting something in every four months means I'm spending six months of the year focusing on grants which is terribly draining. I love writing, but the uncertainty of the current funding climate, even before the new budget proposal threatened to cripple the NIH altogether, made writing terrifying. The grant going from scored to ND hit me particularly hard. I thought I had done everything right and they still did not believe me. I was at a loss and sitting down at my laptop to write felt like standing by a precipice with a blindfold.

Multiple key people in my group left in 2016 leaving three major papers stalled on a project that will be critical for my career progression. I had to almost start over, while I was already halfway my tenure track. I had a lot of travel obligations during the Summer-Fall and felt the lab slipping away from my fingers. How do you balance? You have to write grants, you have to give talks, you have to mentor people, you have to do service, and suddenly you have to start doing experiments again. You write the papers, you do revisions, you push and push as hard as you can. It is fair to say that by the end of the year I was not well. The Trump election and this feeling that science had no meaning for society any more contributed to the general malaise. I could not recognize myself: I was angry and bitter and so so tired. I was getting to the brink of burnout and depression, and wondering whether I should go on medication(*). I had to do something. I had to find a way to cope with the job or quit.

I asked for help. I did a personal development workshop recommended by a friend. I found a good therapist through another friend. I found multiple other instruments to cope and feel better through science Twitter. I took the time to go to physical therapy so that I could get out running again. If you follow me, you'll know I'm not one for half measures: when I do something, I do it 150%. One 2,000 year-old quote I encountered in January really resonated with me "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters (Epictetus)"(see a recent Harvard Business Review article about this). I sat down in a quiet spot and took a long hard look at how I react to things and why. I faced some painful stuff, some long-held beliefs that I am not good enough or smart enough. Beliefs that could sneak up in unexpected ways to sabotage my confidence and slowly make me doubt everything I was doing. Through therapy and other tools, I started taking these apart. One exercise I've been doing is writing down good things that happen every day in my Passion Planner, a weekly planner designed to identify and reach your personal and professional goals. On Saturdays I go through the week and at the end of the month I review the month and make a list of everything I have accomplished. It sounds like a corny little trick, but it has been transformative. What makes a day memorable? What makes me happy? Just appreciating what I get done makes me feel better. Even on a crappy day, there will be something, a contact with a friend, a run, a piece of data, a moment I chose to devote to myself, which can be recognized as good.

Nothing has changed for the better in my life and work since November, yet everything has changed. I am stronger that I've been in a very long time mentally and physically. Is it possible that I won't get a grant in 2017 and lose my job? Maybe. Is the world around me going to s--t? I hope not. Is there still a long hard road ahead of me? You bet. Most of this is not within my control. I can only control how I live and how I react to what happens to me. Year 5 in the lab will be about cutting down all the extra noise and getting some awesome science done, and hopefully, having fun with it.

(*) Just a note on the medication so that my suggestions are not taken as an alternative. I have had major depression in the past triggered by life events. I am one of the lucky people for whom SSRIs work like a charm so I wouldn't think twice about going on meds if necessary. Because I know my symptoms very well, I knew things were not as bad and my doctor agreed. If you feel like you're getting sick and need treatment, seek treatment :)

Photo credit: By Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons