Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Finding new paths

Apologies in advance for the brain-dump here. It certainly is less than eloquent, but I'm hoping that writing will help. Or at help detangle all that is spinning in my brain.

Like many, I spent most of my young adult life building a career that I thought would be sustainable. Starting during my time as an undergrad, I spent a lot of time seeking out training options that would help prepare me for a career in science, both with networking and acquiring skills that would be needed in order to meet that goal. Not long after completing graduate school, I landed a rare position that afforded me an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on teaching experience while putting into practice new techniques I had learned. About a year into that position, more opportunity came in the form of a postdoc at an institution in Boston. Despite infertility and continual failure with fertility treatments, I felt like my career was at least moving forward. That my efforts towards building were at least being rewarded.

All of that came to an end in 2013. Despite applying for five separate fellowships and reviewing a grant by my future postdoctoral mentor, I was unable to secure funding. And without funding, the position I had planned on disappeared. In addition, because the institution assumed I would be starting a postdoc and then later learned I was pregnant, my contract with them was not renewed. Meaning that within a blink of an eye, I was facing unemployment. While most women spend their maternity leave focusing on their new bundle of joy, I was craving out time to apply for jobs and make connections. I've been fortunate to be able to piece together short stints of employment since January, but nothing that is permanent. All of which has left me feeling like a complete failure.

The problem with being a scientist in today's world is there is a severe lack of funding. Particularly for basic scientific research. Though there was a boom in the 1990s, since 2000s there's been continual cuts to funding. The recession has only exacerbated the problem, with deep cuts to both NIH and NSF funding making so that even the most needed research is no longer getting done. Over the last 5 years, I've watched labs close, research buildings become almost vacant and promising young scientists completely abandon the field. Those who have hung on have had to make huge sacrifices, some of which include drastic pay-cuts, delaying family expansion, enduring relocations and playing games just to secure funding. Many of us feel lied to and undervalued. After 5-6 years of graduate training, where we were promised a future, we're finding that not only is the well dry, but there are many fighting for those few remaining cups of water.

Part of this issue has to do with the current way we train scientists. An editorial by Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschnerb, Shirley Tilghmanc, and Harold Varmusd outlined some of the systematic flaws that exist in the field, calling for change at all levels for change. But equally problematic that many of us were promised something that no longer exists. We were told if we worked those long hours, made those connections, made huge sacrifices and just "wanted it enough," we could achieve our dream. What has become evident is that none of this was true. That working one's self to the bone won't resolve the lack of funding or lack of value.

What I realized recently is that since losing that postdoc in Boston I've been grieving. There are moments where I scheme for ways to resurrect the project that I proposed or somehow piece together enough funding to actually do this work. But the problem is that doing so will require sacrificing my family in the process and even if I find a short-term solution, the long-term goal is still nonexistent. So I've been frustrated on my good days. Incredibly angry on my bad ones. All the while feeling like nothing I do matters and internalizing this failure as a personal flaw. The realization that I am grieving shocked me. After all, you're not suppose to grieve for something like this. It's unbecoming and selfish. And yet, after years of infertility and being in the trenches, I know the signs and symptoms all too well.

Last week, I finally allowed myself to internalize all of this and begin to let go. I've slowly been contacting people within my network and reaching out to those who can help provide advice as I try to find a new career path. It's been slow going, particularly with applying for jobs and considering options I never would have before. But, there are meetings on the horizon that show potential. There's people who have already come through in a big way with introductions and opening doors I never knew existed. Still it's scary. It's scary because I don't know what the outcome of all of this will be and my confidence is shaken.

But if I learned nothing else from infertility and loss, the one lesson that still rings true is sometime the scariest part is being willing to try again or try something new. That we can be our own worst enemies with assuming it all has to come out a certain way in order for it to be okay.

Wish me luck for the journey ahead.


  1. Oh Cristy, best of luck. When one door closes, an infinite number of new doors open. Hugs.

  2. Your penultimate paragraph is a wonderful reminder of me and my husband right now.

    But I will remind you that this is not a personal flaw, and grieving the loss of a career you had planned is neither unbecoming or selfish. It's necessary. And only then can you let go. I'm so glad you're coming through that and have opportunities on the horizon. Good luck!

  3. All of it sucks; lack of science funding, maternity affecting career, everything. I'm in a different field and although I have complete job security, I do not have a clear path for the future and it's scary!

    If you need any networking connections in San Diego, let me know...

  4. I have a friend who is a Scientist and I had no idea about the lack of funding (not to mention the muzzling that happens. She's not allowed to say "global warming", she has to say "our changing environment" !!) until she told me about it. We are Canadian, but obviously the reality is similar across the border. It's really sad.

    I am wishing you the best of luck and hoping you will find something great!

  5. I can't speak to the science field, but I made a major career change after spending a lot of time and money on an education in a totally different field. There's some crossover, but I'm mostly not doing what I went to school for. It was hard making the transition (and I know it's tougher in your situation since you WANT to stay in your specific area whereas I didn't) but I'm glad I did. I hope you can find something that makes use of the talents and skills you have, even if it's in a way you didn't expect.

  6. I'm happy to help if I can. I can appreciate the grief, knowing how I felt while I was home with my daughter and not employed, wondering if I'd ever get another job again. Two and a half years after she was born, and two years after my employer and I parted ways, I finally found a home, imperfect as it was. It was like regaining a piece of the identity I'd lost; yes, I wanted to be a parent, but so much of my worth was tied up in what I did. Finally I came to terms with it ... but the letting go was hard.

    Wishing you a good wind for the next leg of the journey, and many kind ships along the way.

  7. As Gypsy Mama has already mentioned, our current government here in Canada is not at all science friendly -- funding has been cut back & scientists who work for government departments & agencies are severely restricted in what they are allowed to say. It's scary stuff. I don't blame you for looking elsewhere, and I'm glad you are getting some encouraging signals. Hope you find something soon that's personally & professionally fulfilling and that makes use of your knowledge & talent!

  8. I don't know much about the scientific field, but because of location I've definitely had to follow an entirely different career path than I originally intended. It's been scary, but it works. Best of luck to you in your new endeavors!


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