Saturday, March 9, 2019

Guilt: The growing gap

Hi friends, hopefully you’ll humor me as I try something new here - I have an idea I’m just beginning to toss around, and would love to open that up to dialogue.

I had never put words to this, but even when things are going well, I can find myself walking around with a gnawing sense of guilt and growing feeling that I’m just kind of failing at life. Anyone else?

Here’s my idea - what if this is caused by the accumulation of all of the gaps we create when we don’t get to do something as well as we wanted?

Let me explain...

We have so many things we’re responsible for, and so even if we work really hard and are getting everything done, we rarely get to spend all of the time we want on any particular thing (including hobbies and family). So, when we submit that manuscript that might have a typo or don’t fully read that committee report before a meeting or cut a workout short because we’re out of time, we create a gap between what we wanted to do and what we actually did. That gap means guilt and failure. That wouldn’t be so bad if it went away once the manuscript is accepted or the committee wraps up for the year or we hit our goal time at a race. But, if you’re like me, you carry these gaps around with you long after the task is complete. They accumulate and create that diffuse, yet palpable sense of dread. Like somehow we’ll pay for it later.

Am I alone in this?

Okay, if that’s the problem, what do we do about it? I wonder if recognizing this growing gap is half the battle. Now that we know we’re carrying all of this around, what if we made it a daily, weekly, or monthly habit to consciously jettison the gap guilt. Or, what if we did that every time we wrap up a task or project?  Manuscript published, time to let go of any worry over whether it could have been better. It’s published, and that’s better than better.

Okay, your turn - tell me what you think! Is this just my crazy way of processing the busyness of academic life? If this is a shared experience, what can we do to overcome it? How can we support each other in banishing the feelings of guilt and failure? What would it look like if we could do that? Comment below or join the conversation on the twitter thread here.

3/10/19 - Addendum
I love word pictures, and this morning I realized a good one to describe the "gap" accumulation - my dry erase board. I frequently use my dry erase board in conversations with lab members and colleagues, and when the conversation is done, I erase what was written to make space for the next conversation. However, using the eraser only gets rid of about 90% of the ink. There is always a faint shadow left. Over time, these accumulate, and it becomes almost impossible to read what is written on the board because there is so much background. I finally give in, pull out the cleaning solution, and...voila! beautiful completely-wiped-clean surface. It's always surprising just how good it feels to look at a perfectly clean dry erase board. An even better example to follow is my friend Troy, who completely cleans the dry erase board in his office after every single meeting so that the next conversation can start with a fresh slate. What if I learned to do this with my guilt?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Career barriers, part 6: Beef soup and solitude

By Patrick Diep

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I started graduate school at the University of Toronto (UofT) in September 2017. I have since co-hosted two big house parties where I invited over many friends that I had made since high school. The second party in July 2018 was attended by about a hundred people, which included the grad school friends I had made in the chemical engineering department. A few days prior to this party I finished Solitude, a book by Michael Harris that describes the anti-social nature of social media. It left me in a deep contemplation. The party was, to me, an ode to change. I stopped using Quora and Tumblr the next day. I also deactivated Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I deleted Snapchat. I didn’t want to learn about the lives of others anymore.

To make a difference, I believe that I need to be different and think differently. My co-supervisors gave me a lot of freedom when I started my Masters degree, so it placed me in a position where I needed to reflect on what I was going to do differently in my field to make an impact. There are a number of philosophies about what motivations a grad student should have when embarking on a research project. Mine was to apply fundamental science to an industrial scenario – something less philosophical and more practical. This made me confront an existential question: I had been trained in fundamental science, but I wanted to be an applied scientist. What am I doing?

In the midst of this dissonance, I started learning how to design experiments to obtain publication-quality results. This required equipment that no one in the department had used before. I reached out to other departments to find this equipment, and scheduled time for training on my own. This was overwhelming because of the troubleshooting time. Hours could be spent preparing my samples the “right” way, only to yield incoherent results. I overcame a number of these issues, but I involuntarily and repeatedly asked myself “what am I doing?” as I breathed.

This inward criticism did not stop when I was with others. My parents and a large majority of my extended family work in factories, so they did not understand that the job I desire so much may not even exist yet. A few of my friends attended grad school for a Masters, but seldom for a PhD. “The economics don’t make sense,” some would say. While those related through blood and marriage asked me what I was going to do in the future, those related by chance made me ask myself why I had chosen this path.

Dark thoughts eventually came. Why am I living? I hate this constant self-questioning and I hate myself. Should I kill myself?

I had suggested this to myself one night in grade six when I was being bullied for being “too nerdy” and unable to fit in. That night, I remember my mom walking into my bedroom, unaware of my adolescent angst, with an aged porcelain bowl of warm rice covered in Campbell’s Chunky beef soup. A pair of chopsticks stuck out from the mountain of food with threads of steam you could see rising from under the potato chunks. While the air around me felt frigid, the warmness of every swallow reminded me of when I had been served this same dish on my first day camping with the 6th Meadowvale Scouting group, hosted by the Buddhist temple my mom frequented. That night, I laid in my bed alone cherishing old memories of playing soccer with neighborhood friends, hiking on Algonquin Provincial Park trails with my cousins, and that time I (accidentally) knocked the Christmas tree down onto my younger brother.

What I realize now is that our lives are filled with little moments that compound in significance over time. My memories are saturated with these moments that return me to a period where the future was uncertain – where I did not know what I was doing and why I chose what I did. So, is what I am feeling right now so unfamiliar? Why had I forgotten what it felt like to be twelve years old?

I think part of the answer ties back to the anti-social aspects of social media. I had been electronically immersed in the lives of other people for over a decade, so an increasingly larger portion of my cognitive capacity was occupied and distracted by endless scrolling through the random thoughts and snippets of my friends’ lives. My aspirations to be different from others were juxtaposed with my needlessly excessive concern about their existence. What I needed was solitude.

Simply put, solitude is when you are by yourself, meaning that you are physically and electronically disconnected from others. While the former can be a frequent experience throughout grad school, the latter is not and was what I personally needed to improve my mental health. I think there is stigma associated with being alone because it is assumed that loneliness will ensue, but anyone who is comfortable with their own thoughts knows this is not quite true. Loneliness is a function of how much social interactions you have relative to what you need. You are lonely if there is an unmatched discrepancy here. Everyone needs different levels of social interactions just as much as everyone needs different levels of no social interactions. 

After the second house party, when I unplugged the metaphorical Ethernet cable, I had space to respire and cherish the little moments that lead me to grad school. Without words, they captured why I chose this path. Current obstacles, failures, and successes, no matter how small, constitute little moments that will remind my future-self how much I have grown. I transformed my Masters work into a PhD project in October 2018, and somewhat transformed parts of myself in the process. I want to learn more about other people again, and I want to tell my friends and family about what my PhD experience is like. Whether it’s twenty failed PCR attempts in a row or earning a scholarship, this is who I am and where I am and if I don’t embrace it, others won’t.

Now finishing this post, I must confess that I have a new Twitter account. I do not abhor social media or think that it is evil; I think it has the potential for good, like this series of blog posts that capture so many different voices and perspectives from our scientific community. Hence, those I have followed tend to have more meaningful and insightful content that helps me think about my graduate experience and the world in funny, smart, and different ways. Moderation and balance are key.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Career barriers, part 5: Cross-racial mentorship in a segregated academy

By an anonymous graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I was a junior in college when I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I was hooked on the thrill of working to solve a fascinating biological problem. I spent nights and weekends at the bench without feeling like I was making a sacrifice. I had found my professional home and would work to earn the intellectual freedom of a faculty position. It would take a decade of perseverance, creativity, luck and a supportive network, but I finally knew what I wanted. At the time, I could not see myself aiming for anything else.

In part due to naiveté, I did not think to look up demographic data on faculty in the biological sciences. Of course, I knew that African-Americans were underrepresented in STEM, but I underestimated the severity of the problem. It was in graduate school that I learned only 0.7% of biology professors nationwide are Black or African-American. Considering the fact that 12% of Americans are Black, it would take a 17-fold increase in the number of Black faculty to reach a number representative of the general population. Surely, diversity officers and enlightened faculty were trying to understand and address this problem? It would take me another year to conclude that, despite paying regular lip service to diversity, faculty and administrators did not seem to consider racial exclusion to be a problem at all.

Academic twitter is full of threads about career barriers based on gender, race and class. STEM faculty, in particular, appear to have woken up to these barriers in recent years. To me, the most revealing aspect of this newfound “wokeness” is the amount of attention given to racial and gender inequities relative to the magnitude of each disparity. Take the life sciences, for instance. Women are underrepresented as PIs, especially at the level of full professors and department chairs. Overall, women make up only 30% of biology professors. This is a serious problem that requires our attention, but it pales in comparison to racial disparities. Progressive-minded faculty who are vocal about gender inequity in STEM are typically silent about race. Most of these faculty likely don't know the numbers, nor are they concerned about not having a single Black or Latinx professor in their departments, professional networks, or seminar series.

While gender inequity in STEM is correctly understood to be an engineered phenomenon that must be actively reversed, racial disparities are seen as part of the natural order, not worth discussing or challenging. From time to time, it becomes necessary to condemn explicit racism like that of James Watson, but good liberal professors who have inherited Watson’s segregated academy must never be asked to look in the mirror. It is acceptable to diversify trainees, but never colleagues. "We don't get qualified minority applicants for job openings," they claim, somehow forgetting that it is their job to help make qualified applicants from all backgrounds.

The structural barriers limiting the educational success of students from marginalized communities, starting as early as pre-school, have been thoroughly documented. Despite these barriers, the near-total absence of Black faculty cannot be explained by unequal representation in the academic pipeline. Underrepresented minorities have made significant gains over the past three decades in earning PhDs in the life sciences. However, this has not translated into a more diverse professoriate. A candid account to explain this phenomenon comes from Dr. MarybethGasman, who stated, “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” The more time I spend around professors, the more I accept Gasman’s assessment. I have come to conclude that White faculty, with rare exceptions, prefer their departments as segregated as their neighborhoods and social circles - not all white mind you (that wouldn’t have the right look), but with just a few “acceptable” minorities, preferably from privileged backgrounds.

Both success and mental health in academia rely heavily on quality of mentorship. The preference for homogenous professional spaces influences mentorship habits, which is where it becomes a problem for aspiring scientists from historically marginalized backgrounds. The literature on mentorship distinguishes between two functions of a mentor: instrumental (skill development, career guidance, etc.) and psychosocial (concern for mentees’ well-being, building confidence, forming relationships, etc.). According to mentorship research, one determinant of an advisor’s investment as a mentor is the degree to which the advisor sees himself or herself in each trainee. This is particularly true with respect to the psychosocial role, which is facilitated by the effortless interpersonal comfort of a homogeneous pair in this deeply segregated society. In the absence of conscious effort to overcome racial biases, faculty help to reproduce the White academy by investing in trainees who look like them, or share other key aspects of their background, while at the same time decrying the dearth of colleagues of color.

The problem I discuss here is enormous and persistent. It will not go away anytime soon. Perhaps that is why so many professors avoid discussing it. Or perhaps avoiding the issue is the easiest way to maintain the status quo. Neither avoidance nor feigning ignorance will lead to a solution. And above all, we need to discard the myth that time will magically heal all inequities. As much as we all love to bash President Trump and James Watson, things have not improved in our corner since the 80’s, and the first step is to acknowledge the possibility that we might not be as innocent as we would like to think. The second step is to figure out how to talk about the problem without instinctively getting defensive. As I have seen in my own university, the few Black PIs out there are in too precarious a position to seriously advocate for racial inclusion, since they have to worry about punishment for offending their White colleagues’ sensibilities. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is an excellent resource, especially if you find yourself offended by anything I have said here. As for improving cross-racial mentorship, the concerned reader can begin diving into the literature here and here. Unless those with power take initiative to change their fields, departments, and mentorship habits, “diversity” will remain a code word for tokenism, and Watson’s vision of a segregated academy will persist in my generation.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Career barriers, part 4: Letting go


I was digging through my backpack a couple of weeks ago looking for a snack, and I came across the finishers medal from a Spartan race I had run…in October. Without realizing it, I had been carrying that medal around everywhere I went for the past two months. To work and back every day. Through numerous airports (surprisingly without ever getting flagged at TSA) and across over 10,000 miles of travel. It’s a pretty big medal and weighs over a pound, so definitely enough to be a burden. The funny thing I realized is that it would have actually been less of a burden if it had weighed something like 10 pounds. If that were the case, I would have noticed the weight immediately and taken it out of my backpack before going to work the next day.

One obvious and embarrassing takeaway of this story is that I need to clean out my backpack more often. However, there’s a bigger lesson here. In our careers, we often carry around burdens that slow us down, but we keep carrying them because they’re not quite heavy enough to get our attention. And, one of the best things that can happen is when the burden gets big enough to make us realize that we need to let it go. A few examples of this that I’ve experienced throughout my career include:

Fear of failed experiments. As an undergraduate new to research, I thought it would be just like the lab classes I took. Follow the directions, be efficient and you can finish in half the time, and everyone gets a pretty yellow crystalline solid. If you’ve worked in a research lab for more than one day, you know just how wrong this is. However, as an undergraduate working in lab part time and without too much at stake, the fear and frustration of failure was like that one pound weight. It slowed me down, but was bearable. This changed when I got to grad school. Research became my all-day, every-day life and the stakes became much higher – my future career was riding on successful experiments leading to research articles. The weight of my fear became crippling and I was forced to acknowledge that if I didn’t let go, it would stop me from moving completely. It was the best thing that could have happened.

Decision obsession. As a student and postdoc, my day involved making quite a few decisions: what solvent will I use for that reaction? which experiment is most important to do first? is that article worth reading? However, the number of decisions was still small enough that I could obsess over every one of them. As a new faculty member, the number of decisions I had to make every day changed by orders of magnitude. My days were consumed with things like: do I order these graduated cylinders or those ones? do we hire this postdoc or that one? do I say yes to that opportunity or not? Within the first month, I realized that if I stopped to obsess over finding the-one-absolutely-best answer to every question, my lab would never get anywhere. Instead, I had to let go and lean into the knowledge that I would make some good decisions and some bad ones, and that was unavoidable. The best I could do was to try to be wise with each choice, keep moving forward, and learn from the things that didn’t go so well.  Even though my average day still involves a tremendous number of decisions, I actually have less stress from this than when I was a grad student.

People pleasing. I’m a people pleaser by nature. That may not seem like a bad thing, but it was causing me anxiety and creating a lot of extra work. However, I could get away with trying for a long time. What finally changed this? Twitter. As I’ve become more active on social media over the past year, one thing has become evident – no matter what I say, there will always be someone who disagrees with me or tells me that I need to do more. But, twitter is not my job. It’s arguably not even part of my job. It’s something I do for fun in the spare corners of my time because I enjoy connecting with, learning from, and encouraging others and engaging in dialogue over what academic culture could look like. What started out as a mild burden of trying to respond to every critic quickly became unmanageable. I had to let go or it would start to eat away the time that I spend on my actual job of teaching and mentoring students and managing a lab. Again, this turned out to be awesome. It has forced me to learn how to see or hear someone’s problem or criticism and try to understand, but without feeling like I need to be the one to intervene. I've now brought this same attitude into my other relationships. It has turned out to be transformative to how I interact with my coworkers and family, and I’m actually a more empathetic person because of it.

As you read this, you may be starting to recognize the things that are becoming huge weights in your life or career that you need to let go of right now. That’s great. Even more so, I want to encourage you to do the hard work of “cleaning out the backpack.” What are you carrying around that’s slowing you down and you don’t even realize it? Think about how great it would feel to get rid of that burden now before you carry it through another year.