Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Rekindling the fire

After I finished my master's degree, about nine years ago, I was at a loss as to what to do next. A Ph.D. seemed too much of a commitment at that age. I wanted to get a proper job, and see what the real world had to offer and if I could be content there. Problem was, I had no idea what one did in the real world.
I had almost no professional experience. I wrote amateurish, over eager cover letters and sent my woefully short CVs out to scientific publishing houses. I wrote clumsy mock articles for science journalist internships. I was basically directionless. I eventually took a job as a website content editor and translator for a half arsed start up animation and comic book company based in London county hall. I learnt a lot on that job, mostly that anything that looks too good to be true on paper probably is, and that throwing everything  at the wall to see what sticks can work great for management, but is a great way to fuck over enthusiastic young people.
The job offered no guidance. I had no idea what I was doing, how well I was doing, and what was expected of me. I felt out of my depth, frustrated, and unhappy. That's when I found the web forum fo a popular webcomic dedicated to graduate students. I leapt in. I checked threads at all hours of the day, and late into the night. Within a few months, my posting was through the roof. I have a lot to thank that forum for. It gave me a community when I felt isolated professionally, encouraged me to overcome my fear of graduate school, and taught me a lot about passionate and intelligent people. It was also an emotional minefield, that would at roughly three to six month interludes erupt into belligerent arguing. Those forum fights were emotionally exhausting to those involved, and seemed difficult to contextualise to those outside the forums. Sound familiar? The forum became a crutch to escape my dissatisfaction with my professional life. The six month I spent unemployed, and the nine months I spent in that job with no clear direction and no idea what was going to happen the next day, let alone in a month, destroyed what had up to then been a pretty solid work ethic and discipline that had successfully carried me through high school, college and my master's degree.
Eventually, I realised that the job was bad for me, so I didn't even wait to hear whether or not I got into graduate school. I found another job, one that was more focused and more serious, with a much better boss. I rediscovered some (though not all) my work ethic. And eventually, I was accepted into graduate school in the US and left. The forum faded and was eventually disbanded, though I found I had lost interest sometime shortly after starting my PhD. During my PhD, I was stressd, but overall happy. I almost never had trouble motivating myself to do what needed to be done. I was an independent adult for the first time, and it felt great. Seriously, balancing my own budget at the end of every month made me feel like a kid imagines being a grown up feels like.
Five years later, I was back where I had been after my masters. I had finished the PhD, and was looking into a gaping unknown. My visa had expired and in focusing on finishing my dissertation I found myself without publications and without a job. I had to move back to the UK, leaving behind a life I had spent five years building, including a four year relationship. My partner and I agreed to go long distance, but it was terrifying to do that with no set end date, and no idea under what circumstances we could be back together.
So, at 29, I moved back in to my mother's house in London. After five heavily goal directed years, in which I had grown as a person and a scientist, in which I had begun to achieve some degree of professional recognition, suddenly nothing. The result was a return to that feeling I had had in my first job of frustrated aimlessness, combined with a fair dose of humiliation. Amid that frustration and isolation, a good friend and fellow scientist introduced me to science twitter. It was great. I found colleagues and scientists I could chat to in almost real time. I kept abreast of developments in my field. I found out about job opportunities. I commiserated about the job market. And I got involved in many large twitter spats that were emotionally draining. I found a voice yes, but man I used it a lot.
That year of my life was not, in many ways, a good one for me. It contained many good things (the birth of my nephews and niece, time with my family, time to rediscover my home town), but professionally, despite submitting my first two papers (and getting one accepted), giving several invited seminars and getting four postdoc interviews, it felt like stagnation, if not regression. And, as before, my work ethic went to pot. I was listless and unmotivated. I drank too much. And I spent a lot of time on twitter. It was clear to me that I was angry, and burned out. Yet I couldn't muster the willpower to change my slew of bad behaviors. I was in licking my wounds mode. This scared me: I've always prided myself on my willpower. Yet suddenly, I couldn't stop myself from tweeting when I should be working, from not wasting my days playing Skyrim, and from not engaging in alarmingly regular drinking. Don't get me wrong, I love twitter, love video games and enjoy a good beer, but even I could tell this was no longer quite healthy.
Eventually, through networking, good luck and some people willing to go to bat for me in a big way, I landed my current postdoc. And as soon as I started, things started to change. The first three  months, I was in the office at 8 every day and staying til six. I probably achieved more in those first few months than I had in the entire previous year. In January, my now fiance came to join me out here. Suddenly we had our life back.
But my bad habits hadn't left. I had the energy for work again, but everything else was still off kilter. I'm one of those people who's always on top of his paper work (taxes filed a month before the deadline, paperwork submitted with weeks to spare), but things were still slipping through my fingers. I missed bills (something I NEVER do). I also had almost zero energy to do anything outside of work. I've always been a voracious reader, but I suspect this year I've read fewer books that at any other time in my life. And limiting my drinking has proved harder than I had wanted.
And then there's twitter. Its use as a crutch in that year in the wilderness made it difficult to shake the habit, but there's no denying that I tweet more than is sensible, given all the other things I need to do.
A year in I finally feel myself returning to a better version of me. As the winter is settling in, I'm looking forward to making my way through a backlog of books. I'm exercising regularly again. I'm making a concerted effort to be more disciplined about non work tasks, and the drinking is finally getting under control. And then last week, after the turmoil of shirstorm, and the wonderful response to my post, I realised I was also ready to reboot my relationship with twitter. So I'm taking a twitter break (I'm still lurking, so no saying mean things about me thinking I won't find out). I need to devote this new energy to tasks closer to hand: my research, my papers, my impending wedding.
A friend of mine told me, as I was entering my final year of graduate school, that six months to a year of unemployment was getting increasingly common between completing a PhD and starting a postdoc in palaeontology. Even if we disregard the economic lunacy and unsustainability of this arrangement, the psychological and emotional toll it takes on young researchers is huge. If you are in this situation, be honest with yourself about how exhausted you are, and be aware of any bad behaviors you may have accumulated as coping mechanism. Give yourself time, and be gentle, and you will find your way back to a version of you you prefer. It's taken me a year. And that means next year can only be better.

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