Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A leap back in?

Before I moved on from Old College Town, I had a talk with a woman professor I greatly admire, the chairperson of the department where I had done some adjunct teaching. She was cheerily supportive of my family’s move across the state to New Midwestern City. “There’s so much great opportunity for you there!” she enthused, referring to the growth of Up-and-Coming-Research Institute in that city. I demurred, and gently pointed out that my decision to take a year off from the research bench (on top of the time already lost in the wake of a layoff) probably meant that I would never be able to get back into the lab—not even at an up-and-coming institute that needed people. To which the professor said, in so many words: Nonsense. Maybe that was true for women of my generation. But I think now we’re seeing many women take time off, and then going back to work at a later time. Everything is much more fluid now. To which I thought, polite and nodding in her office, Bullshit. My career is over. No one will ever hire me again.

Or maybe not.

Maybe things really are more fluid than I had believed. I am finding hints of that fluidity in other womens’ stories in the blogosphere—stories of careers that did not proceed in straight lines, but by circuitous routes and even interruptions like my own. Scientistmother and drdrA hint at this in their blogs. And Jennifer Rohn, of Mind the Gap, actually went back to academic research—starting all over again in the lab, with a second postdoc—after establishing a successful career in scientific publishing. I admire her courage, and also can’t help wonder if she might be just a bit daft.

In which case, of course, I am daft as well. Because I am also considering a leap back in.

After nearly two years off the bench, I’m preparing my job talk for a postdoctoral job interview. If I get it (and take it) it will be my second postdoc. My first ended in disappointment and bitterness that should have been enough to drive me out of research forever. Maybe I need to be burned repeatedly for a lesson to take hold.

I am also still waiting for a firm interview date on my second job application—that of full-time science writer for a large and very well-funded lab with numerous international collaborations. A different position entirely. Perhaps one with more security (or perhaps not). A job that would lead to a completely different path and lifestyle, and one that would probably, finally and forever, close the door on that old dream of a life in academic research.

I could sit here now and spout off on the pros and cons of either path. But after a point, such speculation becomes useless. Back when I was in the lab, prepping for a big new experiment with unfamiliar techniques, I would spend a lot of time planning, anticipating complications and troubleshooting said hypothetical complications; and dreaming about the big results and what they might mean. And that’s all fun, but after a certain point you just need to sit down and do the damn experiment. After a point, all your hypotheses and speculations are meaningless until you collect the damn data. And in this case now, collecting data means going on these interviews, meeting these people, and learning exactly what is involved with each position.

I feel lucky to be getting these interviews. Maybe that professor was right after all, and there is indeed opportunity here.

And maybe life, as well as science, is more fluid than I had thought.

14 comments:

ScientistMother said...

I am so excited for you! And it is so great to hear that things are becoming more fluid, the pace of the change may be slow but at least there is a pace. It will be a hard slog trying to co-ordinate family and benchwork, if that is the route you choose, but with planning it can be done. The fact that you're jumping back in may mean, for you as well me, that it was the environment, not the job that you disliked in your last post-doc. One Q to ask in the post-doc interview is how many of the advisors grad students / post-docs have become PI? It may give you a hint in their ability to provide effective mentorship for that route. Or that may just be assvice :)

CAE said...

Exciting times - keep us posted!

Life As I Know It said...

I think you are right - that life is fluid. That even when we think we chose one path it has a way of meandering in directions we hadn't thought about.
It's fun and exciting to find out what's next...good luck to you and congrats on the interviews!

arduous said...

Wow, exciting news! I think you're right that there are more opportunities these days for women and men too to take time off and then come back into their careers. Can't wait to hear what happens!

hypoglycemiagirl said...

excellent! and yes, it's possible to come back!

post-doc said...

I'm all for exploring options (though it can get stressful, I suppose), so I'm thrilled you're giving a talk and learning more about opportunities. I can't wait to hear what you think!

drdrA said...

The most interesting and fulfilled people that I know have not had career paths that were a straight line, and there is no magic scorecard anywhere that says it has to be the same path for everyone.

Do what you enjoy, do what it takes to be able to do what you enjoy...

And good luck!!

science cog said...

I took time off after the birth of each of my children. I can say with certainity you can get back on the tenure-track. Please don't let one bad postdoc experience take you away from science. Many women, myself included, have had bad experiences. All you need is a few people to support you (your reference writers, a coauthor or two, anonymous friends from the internet :) Worked for me!

Candid Engineer said...

Glad to have found your blog. As I contemplate having kids, I also contemplate leaving science for a few years and wondering whether or not its possible to get back in. I'll be coming back to peruse your archives, I'm sure.

ScienceMama said...

I'm so excited for you. I think you and I both tend to overanalyze. I can't wait to see what happens... and thanks for offering some hope to the rest of us!

The bean-mom said...

Wow, thank you for all the supportive comments, everyone! Sciencecog, that's great that you were able to take time off for your kids, and still get back on the tenure-track! It's great to get supportive comments from others who haven't taken "the straight line" through their careers. And great to hear from everyone else, too =) This women-in-science blogosphere is a support system I could never have imagined a year ago.

Mad Hatter said...

Congratulations and good luck on your interviews! I'm really happy for you. :-)

I definitely do think some progress has been made in helping women return to academic research after taking some time off to take care of their kids. There are even NIH fellowships/grants specifically for such women.

I'll also second what Science Cog said. A lot of people have bad postdoc experiences...both men and women. If you love science, don't let that one bad experience turn you off or destroy your confidence.

PA said...

Wow - that is so wonderful! I have been following your blog closely because you sentiments so often match mine. I am exhilarated and terrified to be both about to graduate and about to become a mom. I have never not had a set path before.

I know I don't want to do this research thing anymore and am really interested in science writing. I really wish I had gotten into it earlier. Keep us updated on your progress, and let me know how you got your name on the list for that writing job.

Good luck!

The bean-mom said...

pa

Double congratulations on graduating and becoming a new mother! That's wonderful!

I'm really lucky that this science writer position opened up at Local Institute. I don't think they're very common. I just saw the position advertised on the website and applied. (I do have some experience with freelance science writing, mostly from personal contacts)