April 29, 2014

Figuring Out the Perfect Project

I have spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, in a sense.  At my fancy new post doctoral institution, I have a couple projects going, but they don’t feel like “mine.”  I didn’t come up with the ideas to get them started, and I feel like they’re not my “babies.”  Still, no need to complain about some great work that I can do while I figure out my own project.

And that’s where I’m stuck right now.  Because I’ve switched fields (somewhat radically, albeit not that much), cracking into the literature has been tough.  Sure, I understand the basics, but every field has its nuances, and I have yet to master these.  The depth of the literature (and my lack of complete understanding) has been holding me back at figuring out where I can carve out my niche.  Thus, I have a lot of reading in front of me, and it’s rather intimidating. 

Being a rather linear person, I like when things fall into line:  I read this paper, then that paper, and then that paper.  This type of thinking doesn’t work very well when diving into the literature:  I’ve got to jump in and start reading, find some references, read some other papers, and at the end of the day, understand all of it.  I envision this as a big cloud filled with information with connections between all the points, and I prefer lines, rather than clouds.  Nonetheless, I’ve done this before, and I’ll do it again.

I can search for some topics that interest me, but I’ve found that either the experiments have been done before or I end up looking at irrelevant things (like a dog trainer looking up how to grow carrots… terrible metaphor, but you get what I’m saying).  While I think that I may have come up with some really great ideas, I’ve got to verify them, which requires a lot of reading through the literature.  This is a great situation because it introduces me to a lot of great topics, and I’m learning a lot very rapidly.  I become excited when I’m reading the literature and I find that someone has already answered the question that I wanted to study… for a couple different reasons.  First, that sucks because I wanted to do it.  Second, it’s great because I’m thinking along the right lines for asking the pertinent questions in my field.  Regardless, I’m learning a lot of new things.

In reality, the main thing that I’m looking for is that “wow” factor – that sexy project.  Something unexpected and exciting sounds perfect (as I’m sure it does to everyone), and I’d like to do something that stimulates my creativity.  Naturally, everyone is going for those tantalizing topics – reading the literature, one can see that there are certain molecules or processes that are in vogue.  Finding that next big topic would be even better.  After all, I would like to establish a career based on this mystery topic.

Here’s to hoping that my ideas fly and don’t fall flat on the ground.  Even though the latter is more likely, scientists can’t help but try.

April 25, 2014

Changing Institutions

While I always knew that I would have to eventually move on from graduate school, I never really considered how many options there were, even when specifically aiming toward an academic career.  The vast number of disciplines and the number of people working on truly fascinating questions is astonishing.  At the same time, finding that perfect match is difficult.

Being in a long-term, committed relationship with a geographically-restrained partner made me think that I was going to be left to find a post doctoral fellowship near my graduate school, which left me with very few options.  Having weighed those options, applied to those jobs, and realized that they weren’t the right fit, I found myself in a very difficult situation:  stay “local” with the okay job with the terrible pay or go far, far away for the pretty cool job with equally terrible pay but much better career prospects.

I chose the far-away land, where I basically had to pack up a subset of my life, leaving the vast majority back at home, where my partner remains.  I’ve made a short-term commitment, and I plan on adhering to my (rather self-imposed) deadlines for finishing.  At the end, I hope that my job prospects upon returning are absolutely amazing.

Adjusting to life in far-away land has been one of the most draining experiences in my life.  It’s not that it’s different:  it’s that everything is different.  I chose to switch fields entirely, which was jarring: all of the lingo, methods, people were new.  While that’s exciting, the vanity wears after a week, when one realizes that this situation is very real.  The city has been difficult as well.  Moving has never been my forte, and I tend to be very insecure when alone.  Needless to say, I haven’t adjusted very well.  All-in-all, I’ve found myself making constant tiny mistakes that really play with my emotions.  I feel like I can’t do anything right and that I’m failing not only at working in a new lab, but also with life in general.  This experience has had a very steep learning curve.

When I left my graduate school to become a post doc at a prestigious school, many people said that it would be straight-forward:  you do this and this and this and this, and then bam – employment opportunities abound! It’s just not quite that simple.  I tried to prepare myself for this scenario, but I still get down on myself. 

At the same time, I still feel that I made the right decision.  Moving away to a prestigious school and really pursuing work that I enjoy is something that I need in order to feel good about myself.  My work is strongly attached to my well-being, so I needed to do something big.  I’m hoping that this grand experience does turn out well in the end, but it has been a rough road so far.  Plus, I imagine that I will be even more stressed if (when?) I am able to secure an academic position (if they still exist in a few years).

I’ll keep working on figuring everything out.