My summer vacation

First of all, the concept of summer vacation in grad school is a joke. Just because I’m in school doesn’t mean I get the summers off (here’s a horrifying thought: how long would it take a person to complete a PhD if they had summers off? I don’t even want to think about it). And whether or not you get any sort of vacation at all is really up to your advisor. I mean, sure they say we’re entitled to two weeks vacation or whatever it is but the reality is that if your advisor doesn’t want you to take a vacation, then you are not taking a vacation.

Fortunately, my advisor is of the “vacations are good for the brain” mentality and, as such, rarely complains when we want to take one (within reason, of course). I thought he might make an exception in my case since I am supposedly close to graduating and the sooner I get out of there the sooner he can stop paying me. However, when I sat down in his office and said, in a perfectly serious tone of voice, “I need to take a break or I’m going to shoot someone,” he simply said, “Okay.” I must have the look of a woman on the edge.

Having not done anything summery whatsoever this entire season, I’ve decided to cram it all into a 10-day period. First stop was Iowa where we celebrated my nephew’s first birthday at a park with a pond (cookout? check. Searching for frogs with young children? check). My sister baked him his very own little birthday cake and then stripped him down and let him go to town with the cake. He did a pretty good job of it, too. Unfortunately, my sister forgot to coordinate her own clothing appropriately and wore light colored clothes and the frosting was chocolate. Ooops.

Next stop, the Iowa State Fair. It is the grand-daddy of state fairs. It’s listed in 1000 Places to See Before You Die, it’s that good. There, I indulged in the summer tradition of wandering around a fair in the heat while eating the unhealthiest food you can find. I had a foot-long corn dog, a funnel cake, real lemonade, a stick of honey, a hard-boiled egg on a stick (free at the egg producers booth) and a strawberry smoothie. Yum. The only thing I missed was a shredded pork sandwich. Maybe next year. Then, we pet lots of farm animals (does anyone know why they shave llamas to look like poodles?), saw a disgustingly huge hog, and looked at prize-winning dahlias and tomatoes and ears of corn. And, we watched an ice sculpting demonstration which was pretty awesome. Also we saw the butter cow (a life-sized sculpture of a cow done in butter; I don’t know why they do this, it’s just a tradition) and the butter Shawn Johnson (‘cuz she’s from Iowa, ya’ know). It was a hoot.

Then, I drove home and the very next day, I went to California to see my husband. It’s summer almost all of the time in Cali so it’s kind of cheating to go there. It was relaxing and revitalizing, it’s exactly what I needed. I swam in the pool, I went for walks with my husband, I knit on a shrug while sitting outside on the balcony. It was awesome. The only thing we didn’t do was go to the beach. Maybe next time….

I didn’t truly realize how much I needed a vacation until I actually went on vacation and came back to lab. Lab doesn’t seem as oppressive as it used to. I can actually look at my lab bench and not want to vomit (always important when trying to finish your experiments). In fact, I feel like I might be able to do this thing. It helps that the yeast are finally starting to cooperate. Maybe they just needed a break, too.

Impostor Syndrome sighting

The most popular posts on this blog have been the ones I did on impostor syndrome. When I wrote them, I never thought they would be so popular, would be linked to by so many different sources or that they would lead to an interview. I wrote them because impostor syndrome was something that I was dealing with at that time and I thought I might not be alone in that.

Impostor syndrome, for those who might not know, is the feeling that you are a fraud, that, despite any evidence to the contrary, you feel as though you have somehow fooled everyone into thinking that you are smart and competent when in fact you are anything but. I bring it up today because I recently had a meeting with a tenured professor here at my school and she said something that reminded me of those posts.

When I first came to grad school, I was funded on a training grant. The meeting I mentioned above was with the co-director of the training grant (something they do in an effort to keep track of all former trainees). At the meeting, Professor X asked me if I had any ideas on improving the training grant program. I suggested that the students could benefit from more peer-to-peer mentoring because most students (at least in my program) don’t believe that the faculty remember what it was like to be a student and therefore don’t take advice from them about how to be a good student as seriously as they take advice from other students. Professor X’s response was that faculty remember that it was miserable (!) and then she said that it doesn’t necessarily get better as faculty. It really sucks when a grant is rejected, she said, and then, “you start thinking ‘Am I phony? Have I been fooling everyone into thinking I’m a good scientist when I’m not?'” It was classic impostor syndrome-speak.

And as I sat there across from this obviously intelligent, successful woman, I was reminded that everyone has self-doubt. That it is possible to be successful and still doubt whether you are good enough. It made me feel a little bit better about where I am in dealing with my own impostor syndrome issues.

Work/life balance

I feel slightly better than before.  Not because anything is going better in lab (it’s really not) but because I took most of the day off on Saturday and the whole day off on Sunday.  It’s amazing what a little time away from lab can do to your perspective.  Which is why I will be taking an entire week off soon.

In college, I took an intro psych course and in it we learned about cognitive dissonance.  Cognitive dissonance is essentially the uneasy feeling you have when you hold two opposite ideas in your head.  My two opposite feelings are these:

  1. I want to graduate as soon as possible and to do that I must spend as much time in the lab as possible.
  2. If I don’t take some significant time off soon I will go bonkers.

Because, see to keep from going crazy, I need to not spend so much time in the lab, but in order to graduate I need to spend lots of time in the lab.  Now, I realize going crazy is not conducive to finishing labwork and writing a thesis and graduating.  And, after a chat with my psychiatrist, it seems pretty clear that I’m heading for a meltdown.

But, the fact is that I can’t get my work done if I am not physically in lab.  Therefore, whenever I spend time outside of the lab, I feel guilty.  I think, “I should really be in lab.  How am I ever going to graduate if I don’t spend every waking moment in lab?”  So, I end up not relaxing so much when I’m not in lab.  Which sort of defeats the purpose when you think about it.

So, I was reluctant to plan a week off.  I hemmed and hawwed and talked it over with R until I’m sure she was quite sick of hearing about it.  I worried what Advisor would say and how I could justify taking time off when both of us are eager for me to finish and get the hell out of here.  Finally, I bit the bullet, went in to talk to Advisor and said, “I need to take some time off or I’m going to shoot someone.”  To which he said, “Okay.”  I must really look like a woman on the edge because in the past he’s said things like, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Or, “Well, if you really feel you have to.”  This time, it was just, “Okay.”

I still feel guilty, though.  This is part of the struggle to have a life outside of the lab.  On the one hand, I feel that it is healthy to do so.  In fact, I know it’s healthy to do so.  I used to have a life outside of lab and at that time I was a very mentally healthy person.  Then, I started cutting out things so I could spend more time in lab.  One by one, I got rid of the things I did that gave me a sense of happiness until all that was left was lab and since everything in lab is going so horribly wrong right now, I have nothing to balance out the bad lab stuff.

On the other hand, we’re not so much encouraged to have a life outside of lab.  People don’t come right out and tell you that lab needs to be the be all end all of your existence.  But, there is this sense that we need to hide our extracurricular activities from the faculty.  Let’s not mention the book club we go to or the knitting group or horseback riding or whatever.  Nobody says that you need to be chained to your lab bench, but it’s certainly implied.  Why is that?  Is that level of dedication what it truly takes to make it in science?

Despite feeling massive amounts of vacation guilt, I have bought my tickets and I’m going to CA to spend some time with my husband.  And just before that, I’m going home for the weekend for my nephew’s first birthday.  And I will try not to feel guilty while I’m gone.

It’s gonna get better, right?

There are times (usually when everything is working right and the data all make sense) when I think to myself, “You know, doing a post-doc wouldn’t be that bad.  And then I can go on to have a nice little research lab at an undergrad institution and I think I might really enjoy that.”

This is not one of those times.

I swear to you just about everything I’m doing right now is going horribly awry and I can’t find a way to make it better.  Right now just about the only thing that seems to be going okay is my cloning.  This is a miracle in and of itself because usually cloning is the thing that messes me up time and again and makes me want to beat my head into a wall in frustration.

But, it’s not the cloning this time, it’s the actual experiments.  I’m still having trouble with my IFs.  Zymolyase seems to kill the antigen I’m staining for so I’m back to lyticase.  I’m getting partial permeablization of the cells but it’s less than 20% of the cells.  This does not fill me or my advisor with confidence.  And so I continue to troubleshoot this experiment, doing it over and over and over again and nothing seems to help.  As far as we can tell, the problem cropped up because we switched from growing the cells in a warm room to an incubator.  Can’t go back to the warm room–it’s been destroyed to make an office or something.  So, I keep playing with conditions in the incubator, hoping something, anything will help.

My advisor has very little advice for me.  Mostly, I go in, tell him the results of the experiment (it failed, again), tell him what I plan on trying next and he agrees with it and tells me he’s sorry I’m having these problems and I go and do the experiment over.  Rinse and repeat.  You know, I realize that ideally, as a student, you should get to a point where you are going into your advisor’s office and telling him what you plan to do and he agrees with it and doesn’t have anything further to add.  And, I should be happy that I’ve reached that level of scientific maturity.  But, I’m not.  I’m like a small child that just wants her parents to fix everything and make it alright.  I want him to fix it.  I want him to have a brilliant solution that will make the experiments work again and I can go on and finish this degree.  But, that isn’t going to happen.

I’ve spent weeks troubleshooting this experiment.  And it’s a long-ass experiment so everytime I do it I’m setting myself up for a 12-hour day (at least).  And it’s a critical experiment.  I have to have it.  There is no getting out of here without it.  And that’s the thing that’s got me so depressed.  Until I have this experiment working again, there is no end in sight.  It feels like three months from now I will still be trying to make this damn thing work.

And so, I’m reminded why I decided a career in research is not for me.  The constant failure depresses me.  I mean like change-in-medication depressed.  Some people get angry when faced with failure and I think that fires them up.  But failure just runs me down.  And I’ve experienced so much of it since coming to grad school.  I honestly think I’ve experienced more failure in grad school than I had in my entire life before it.  I just don’t know how to pick myself up anymore.  I am dead tired.  Physically, mentally, emotionally tired.  Truly, there is nothing left in me to give and it’s getting harder and harder to come in every day and do an experiment that I fully expect to fail.