I Don’t Mind – Leaving Ivory Tower Land

In late October 2018 I drove from Atlanta to North Carolina for a job interview, setting my alarm for 5:30am. According to Google Maps, the drive was 6 hrs. I didn’t really have money for a hotel – and I kinda like long-distance driving – so attempting this as a one-day excursion became my plan. I drove there in my interview clothes, switching heels for sneakers. NPR on the radio until I crackled out of WABE service area. Then I started scanning for country music stations.

**

My postdoc hadn’t worked out. The first sign things were going wrong came before my official start date, but it wasn’t until ~2 months in I admitted to myself: I made a mistake coming here, this is a bad fit. When I first got the postdoc offer I played ‘Thunder‘ by Imagine Dragons in celebration.

Just a young gun, with a quick fuse,

I was uptight, wanna let loose…

Before long I was giving heavier airtime to another song with equal levels of defiance in its lyrics, but aiming in a different direction:

They don’t tell me nothing, so I find out all I can,

…But I, I don’t mind. No I, I don’t mind.

Later, I would talk about what went wrong, and wave towards a list of minor mismatches and small disappointments. Maybe I could have endured one or two hits from that list and remained a productive scientist. In the end there was too much incremental unhappiness. My research productivity spiralled downwards.

**

By sun-up it was raining heavily. Down to a two-lane highway, I found myself trailing a lorry, caught in the blinding plumes it threw back onto my windshield. I moved onto the inside lane and started to overtake. The lorry was throwing even more water to its sides: the strength of spray made my car shake uncontrollably. I couldn’t see a thing, the steering wheel was loose in my hands. My instinct was to jerk out of the way of this dangerous onslaught – knowing such a motion would cause me to crash off the road. In the rearview mirror I saw a car pull into the lane behind me – I couldn’t slam on the breaks. Shaking, I forced the accelerator down. The wall of water intensified and my car trembled, but I pushed forwards until I’d cleared the lorry.

**

This job interview wasn’t going to be successful. Maybe my energy projected this as I pulled into a quiet Research Triangle suburb – rain still dripping off the glossy coverage of leaves. I was interviewing at a small, local company. LinkedIn trawling suggested they tended to hire PhDs from nearby universities. Sometimes I worry I’m too much of a brash city-slicker, sometimes that I’m too introverted (both of them can’t be right). There’s never been a professional environment where I felt I fit, just some places where they were OK with my being slightly different. Still, I knew I’d never be considered for the job if I didn’t show up for the damn interview. Maybe they wanted different.

**

I can only be induced to listen to country music under certain circumstances. One of those circumstances is ‘long drives around the American Southeast.’ In the privacy of my own car – out in the middle of nowhere – it feels natural, and I don’t worry about others’ scorn.

Wagon Wheel‘ by Darius Rucker came on the air as I flipped through stations and States.

Heading down South to the land of the pines,

Thumbing my way into North Carolina.

I’d heard it on the radio before – though I don’t think I’d be searched for song info afterwards – but today I really listened to the words.

Oh, North country winters keep a-getting me down,
Lost my money playing poker so I had to leave town,
But I ain’t turning back, to live in that old life no more.

**

It isn’t always easy to talk about my postdoc. I knew I had failed. I’d come here straight off a tough PhD: in the lab at 5pm on Sundays, balancing demanding group admin duties and refusing to splinter under the pressure of barely-successful research projects. I didn’t recognise myself in the defeated, miserable postdoc.

Many postdocs feel trapped in their research groups. This can be because they feel under-qualified and unprepared for the “real world” job market; or because they don’t know what they want to do next. This wasn’t something I struggled with. I agreed to leave my postdoc early, knowing I would stare down unemployment, a demoralising job search, and heightened odds of leaving the county. The risks seemed worth it: I just had to amass the strength to push forwards.

I don’t know who the company decided to hire instead of me. Was it a PhD scientist from the Research Triangle? Were they noticeably more extroverted? The interview wasn’t a negative or awkward experience: I just wasn’t wowing anybody or setting the room on fire with mutual chemistry. It wouldn’t have the been the best fit: a geographic compromise between the Deep South and the Eastern Seaboard which wouldn’t have satisfied me on either fronts. Glassdoor reviews didn’t think there was much room for professional advancement, even though they rated the company favourably. I had lunch in a really nice vegetarian/Middle Eastern restaurant down the street, so I can’t call the day a loss.

I got back to Atlanta around midnight: was snarled up in rush-hour traffic near Charlotte NC, had to pause at a South Carolina-Georgia Rest Area for a ~3 minute shuteye. Kept myself awake on the final stretch by counting down exit signs. I couldn’t remember which FM station I’d find WABE on, so settled on late-night jazz until I could turn the engine off for good.

In a couple of months I’d receive a job offer from someone else. “We have to hire her,” my intermediary recruiter was told by a client looking for a very specific hire. This client set out their job specs right before my resume metaphorically landed on their collective desks. The unusual contours of my Resume lined up perfectly to the job description. It ticked enough of my boxes for it to work out happily. But really, my realisation that here was an employer who wanted me was the most powerful facet of the whole experience.

**

And if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free.

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Towards Hope

It went down to the wire.

I woke up on the first day of 2019 not knowing if I could remain in America, or be forced to leave the country. The uncertainty had clogged up my life ever since I left my postdoc position.

Job searches are rarely quick and easy. Staring backwards, 2018 seemed like a snaking path of savvy resume boosts and wince-inducing professional missteps. I was on the hunt for an entry-level position in a field that wasn’t quite what my CV up to this point was leading towards. You could see the contours of self-inflicted wounds on my resume. I had promising callbacks, and moved up plenty of hiring chains…but was never the number 1 candidate for any position. 2018 dragged into winter. I wasn’t moving forwards.

*

I first came to the States aged 20: working an internship as part of my British undergraduate degree requirements. I returned 3 years later for my PhD. You need a certain degree of internal resilience to survive in a foreign country by yourself, no family on your side of the ocean. Over time you forge local support networks…but it always hangs in your mind that when disaster strikes you might be the only person you can rely on.

As I spoke about what was going on in winter 2018 – job search, challenges – listeners sometimes commented that at least I seemed calm in the face of such uncertainty. I prickled at those words: it didn’t feel like I had a choice. The clock kept ticking – if I panicked, went in to meltdown, denial, or gave up searching for work I’d remain unemployed. And then I’d have no choice about leaving.

Oh, I wanted to have a full meltdown. I wanted to wail, give up completely and have somebody (anybody!) sort out all my problems for me. I resented myself for keeping calm. I’d restrained my capacity for fear and despair, but also my capacity for hope.

In the first week of January 2019 a job offer came through. Days before I was researching freight shipping costs and average UK rental prices, bracing for defeat. If the offer had come through a week later it would’ve been too late. Even with a written offer I couldn’t let my guard down: the piles of on-boarding paperwork I rushed through were more than capable of tripping me up. If something was wrong with the paperwork – or something wrong with me – I had no other Stateside backup plan for protection. I’d be out.

The new job’s a medical/science writing gig. It plays to my strengths, allowing me to do the type of gritty, wide-ranging science writing I didn’t think existed within a single job remit. It’s also a job where my Chemistry PhD is an integral part of my employee identity. I didn’t sleepwalk to that PhD – I want to use and derive benefit from the thing I suffered for. I hoped grad school wasn’t a waste of my time. Now that worry is abating.

I don’t know if I can ever break out of emotional lockdown. My instinct tends towards keeping calm and biting down – it always has done. But I can feel hope like shafts of sunlight on a cloudy day – rushing across the fractured sky and occasionally catching my face. I think I’ll enjoy 2019.

Word Play. Part 3: Word Harder

When I moved from New Jersey to Atlanta in January I taped up all but 2 books in boxes for the moving company. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ by Ron Chernow was placed directly in my car. For the first week or so in Atlanta it lay on the floor next to my sleeping bag – for I had no bed yet – and I’d bump against it in the night.

Why did I value the biography of Hamilton so highly? Why did it serve as my emotional support book in an unfamiliar city?

Hamilton inspired me because of his skill with words. He wrote with fervour. When he needed to hit back against the world – whether against injustice, stupidity or ignorance – he wrote.

I wish I had the intellectual and literary power Hamilton did.

***

It’s been tough-going these past few months. A lot of rejections, dead ends and worry about 2019. It’s not clear if I’ll get to stay in Atlanta…or even in America. I know I’m struggling to balance everything career-related in my life, and I can clearly see all the ways I’ve made life harder for myself recently. But if I want to live 2019 on my own terms…I need to persist. So I figured I may as well summarise some of my achievements from 2018. I could do with the self-encouragement.

First paid ($$$) pieces of science writing

Thanks to a call-out on Twitter I learned that Chemistry World magazine was looking for writers for its Last Retort column (lighthearted, humorous opinion pieces connected to life as a scientist). I’d spent the latter half of 2017 writing science features article for Rutgers Daily Targum, and was surprised that my (unpaid & amateur) contributions to a student newspaper counted as sufficient leverage to get into a print magazine with 50,000 international subscribers. But it did. And I got repeat commissions.

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There is an ego boost that comes from seeing others share and quote lines from your articles. Especially since I was trying to be funny and memorable.

Editor role at Emory Postdoc Science Writers Magazine

Emory Postdoc Science Writers is one of those official university organisations that floats in and out of existence. It was very active a couple of years back, but then its leadership got jobs and left. Having already got those science writing clips from Rutgers (seriously, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of my student newspaper work) I was asked to take charge of the Science Writers Magazine. Several years had passed since the last issue, and I was re-starting the enterprise from scratch.

We got 2 magazine issues out the door: one per semester. I got enough people on board (~10 writers and a few editors) to create something you could define as a magazine. The postdocs enjoyed the opportunity to practice their non-academic science writing. I got to learn about some new areas of research.

Communications Pro. Communications Promotion

I joined Women In Bio-Atlanta mid-way through the year and offered to help out on the Communications Committee. More words and writing! Having an identity as a scientist/white collar professional outside my academic ecosystem wasn’t something I really had during my PhD (though I could have searched for one), so it’s nice to be around a mix of scientists and science-adjacent professionals who happen to work in my city.

Following the winter leadership rollover I was asked to become Co-Chair of the Communications committee. So I know I’ve been doing something at least partially right.

I helped someone else double their income ($$$ x2)

The Postdoc Science Writers (see above) invited a communications coach to come and give a science writing workshop at Emory, which I helped organise. She was flying in from the Midwest and wanted to extend her stay, so asked us if we had any contacts at the other universities in town who might be interested in hosting her. Well, I had access to an Excel spreadsheet of Atlanta university administrators thanks to my Communications role in Women In Bio (see above). I sent out emails. One of my contacts was interested in hosting a workshop.

People often ask themselves “What am I worth [to this person]?” I’m now able to point to someone and say, “Well, to that person I’m worth several thousand dollars.”

I made *more* money off my writing ($$$)

In addition to my humour/opinion pieces, I started pitching ideas for other articles to online science publications. These were serious science writing venues, where I had to pitch against a crowd. One of my science article ideas was accepted. Then after a couple of editorial revisions it was killed. My pride was wounded, but they paid me a 50% ‘kill fee.’ Another feature article is under editorial revisions right now – I’m not past the Editorial Kill-zone yet, but there’s less to worry about since the topic was a little less ambitious, so less subject to change/disappointment. That one will also be a paid, serious, journalistic piece.

I also launched into healthcare marketing and a couple of freelance writing project there: white papers, press releases, etc. I also drew repeat commissions with my work for legit healthcare companies, which I found hard to believe. One person this year offered me “exposure” as compensation for writing some blog posts for them. Now I’m at the point where people are offering me CASH for my writing…and I’m fine with that.

You need experience to get experience. This year I started getting that experience. In 2019 I should build momentum (and savings).

Four belt promotions in martial arts

I’ve done over 200 hours of karate & jujitsu this year. I’ve gone from a total beginner/white belt to yellow then blue belt in both disciplines. I’m not the fittest, strongest, most coordinated, flexible or skilled martial artist – in fact my natural ability in most of those categories is low. But I’m persisting. And I can see the persistence slowly paying off.

TMAC Balance

Learning something about balance…maybe | Courtesy of The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Atlanta and The Diner

On my first ever morning in Atlanta I knotted myself into a ball on a park bench. It was a pitch black winter morning, the bench was cold and wet, and my clothes weren’t wintery enough. I was waiting for the breakfast diner across the street to open.

A sense of belonging comes in many forms. I can point my finger and say: “Women In Bio (well-educated urban professionals operating in the sciences – like myself) are my people.” I can point my finger again and say: “The fellow martial artists at my dojo (whole spectrum of educational & lifestyle backgrounds, but we’re all intensely dedicated to the same thing, and I can make them laugh) are my people.” I can also walk into a diner once per week for a whole year, be nodded to My Seat(TM) and asked if I want my usual(s), sip my endlessly refilled mug of coffee and say: “This diner is my place, and these are my people too.”

I’ve moved to many new places. None of them come with a guarantee of happiness and belonging. It’s never guaranteed that I will fit in. Belonging takes time and effort. Belonging is an achievement. But even if you only get 1 year in a city, you’ll never regret finding your people there.

***

I wish things were easier and I didn’t have to shrug off so many rejections, uncertainties and setbacks.

At least I don’t have to waste much time thinking to myself “Well, what would Alexander Hamilton do, if he were in my position?” 

I know the answer to that one already.

He’d write.

Like a fire needs flame

I couldn’t sleep, it felt like my whole body was burning. Except this wasn’t me at the lowest point of my PhD. I was in early Spring 2018, long after the emotional immediacy of grad school had blurred into a memory chained to someplace else. I was in Atlanta, lying in a bed where I could no longer hear Amtrak trains hurtle by in the darkness. Why was my skin on fire?

The answer was perhaps more wrenching second time around. In grad school I’d become so stressed that my immune system lost control, causing hives to erupt over my body. This time I’d come home from my first jiu-jitsu class where I was introduced to the new martial art and practiced some throws, joint locks and grapples.

My skin was burning because it had forgotten what it felt like to be touched.

***

I asked this question before my PhD, during, and in its fading days. Could I recover from this? I’d seen too many broken and bitter grad students – even among those who made it to the end. I’d reconfigured my life so all my energy and hours went into the lab, I didn’t know if I’d remember how to twist it back.

That’s the question I came to Atlanta with: Was the PhD a blip in my trajectory, or was it the new direction? Could I re-access the person I was before – diverse hobbies, useful volunteer roles, high physical fitness – the person I saw as productive and happy? Would I know how to have an existence that didn’t orbit my research?

My burning skin answered my question.

You can starve yourself of something for years at a time, until you lose the memory of it.

But your body can always remember.

TMAC Promotion Sept

Belt Testing Sept ’18 | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

I’m not one for excessively sentimentality – that’s still too American for me. But martial arts – here, in this city – is important to me in general and specific ways.

It’s important to be physically active. It’s important to have hobbies. It’s important to try new things. It’s important to get out of the house and meet people.

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Courtesy of TMAC (Apologies. I don’t have any footage of me kicking ass. If/when I do, I’ll share it.)

Martial arts is a great sink for my energy and focus. I’m not a natural fighter, same way I wasn’t a natural dancer. So I train, practice, adapt and try again. I hold a million technical reminders in my head with every pattern: hands here, weight here, feet here, knees here, fingers here, elbows here, neck here, left leg here. Everything must be accounted for. I know I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll always be making progress. That’s the balm to research uncertainty right there!

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Right down the line | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Traditional Far Eastern martial arts like karate & jiu-jitsu do have strong honour codes, dojo etiquette, and emphasis on obedience/self-discipline. Sure, yeah. By the time we get to adulthood most of us have already wrapped ourselves in too many honour codes, veering into self-denial instead of self-discipline. Martial arts is also the space where you can be playful and have fun. We spent one karate class wrestling each other off a large mat. Know when I last did anything like that? When I was 8 and trying to wrestle my brother off his bed. I’d spent the intervening years pretending like I was too old for those dumb games…when of course I wasn’t. Why would I deliberately choke off my sense of play, when it’s so fundamental to what we are as humans, as animals?

TMAC Iron Warriors 2018

Special guest seminar Sept ’18 | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Let me put my own basic needs first. It’s never too late.

I bless the rains down in Atlanta

Don’t bother with waterproofs in Georgia. Get caught in a summer thunderstorm and you’re getting soaked. Waterproofs just leave you at the uncomfortable ‘partially-damp & itchy’ level of wetness. Let the rain soak you instead: it’s less like being under a warm shower; more like floating in a warm bath. I’ve been caught in those thunderstorms when I was out walking. The sidewalks turned to rivers – I splashed along up to my ankles in lukewarm water. Atlanta drivers – oblivious at the best of times – sent plumes of water breaking over me as they passed. By the time I got home to towel down the rain had stopped, the sun was pounding down, and half the deluge had already evaporated.

Southern thunderstorms are quite something. I love them.

***

I’m dealing with a professional upheaval right now. I’m not in a place where I can talk about it (yet) because (i) I don’t want to jinx the good stuff (ii) hindsight makes it easier to write an intelligible account that people would actually want to read.

Anyway. Here’s a bullet point summary of the things I’m balancing that I can talk about:

  • Communication & Marketing for Women in Bio-ATL. They’re a professional organisation bringing together all “bio” and “bio-related” folk for networking/professional development. I’m creating event flyers & email promo.
  •  Emory Postdoc Science Writers Fall 2018 magazine. I’m reprising my role as Editor for a “microbiome”-themed issue. It’s great to see the postdoc team grow in confidence with their science writing: tackling unfamiliar topics, longer article forms, letting their personalities come through (we’re often taught to repress personality in our academic writing).
  • Wikipedia Fellows Women in Science cohort. There are several programs trying to boost the representation of female scientists on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Fellows program is being rolled out by WikiEdu, targeting scientists who belong to professional organisations (e.g. the American Chemical Society). So I’ve been part of a summer program learning how to edit Wikipedia – something I’ve never thought much about, but is easier than I imagined. I’ve expanded several “stub” articles, and created a brand new Wikipedia entry for a scientist in my field whose omission from the platform was suitably glaring.
  • Freelance science writing. I had an article idea I felt inspired to pitch to an online science magazine. Much to my surprise I received a reply several days later encouraging me to submit the full thing. It’s a beast: I’m chasing down scientists in 4 countries for interviews, and collecting lots of crunchy numbers to back up the point(s) I’m trying to make (not all of the information is displayed to the public). This kind of science writing exercise gives me a massive kick – it’s stressful, but it activates so many regions of my brain at once. I can only hope the article inside my head eventually matches what I commit to writing.

***

It’s a busy time. Evidently I like being busy. You’d hope I would.

Beneath the bubble and frenzy is an undercurrent of fear and anxiety. I’m trying to reposition myself into a new professional lane, aware that I don’t have the luxury of unlimited funds or time. I’ve also got plenty of handicaps that make getting what I want harder than it would be for others. The stakes are higher in some of the projects than others. If my freelance article gets accepted it’ll make it easier for me to successfully pitch future stories (editors always look for previous published work).  If the article is killed it brings me back to where I was before, with an additional dent in my self-confidence. It’ll also decelerate my income flow, which is I need to keep a tight watch over.

I know the point I lose confidence and momentum is when I’ll fall. So I’m pushing forward and filling up my Moleskine planner with reminders, deadlines & To Do lists. It’s been several years since I wanted to fight for a city with the ferocity I’m fighting for Atlanta. That alone tells me I should fight harder.

Chemist in the White City

“When I came to Georgia State from Georgia Tech I was so surprised. People would talk to each other in the elevators – it was so friendly here! The atmosphere was really different. And of course, at Emory they’re snobs towards everyone else.”

At least five pairs of eyes – all belonging to academics from the two “Georgia X”s – turned to look at me. [Emory University] it said on my name tag. On my behalf of all employees of the second-biggest employer in the metro Atlanta area, I shrug-nodded diplomatically.

“With reason, I guess,” the Georgia State employer added.

I’m not here to discuss university rankings in the metro Atlanta region – beyond saying there isn’t that much difference in rankings between Emory and Gatech. What I’m here to say instead is that my first reaction to seeing Emory was “Damn, this is a nice campus”.

They’ve got a tasteful white marble theme going on. There are unifying architectural principles that link old and new buildings. It feels…refined. You can understand why hanging out on Emory campus brings out the inner snobs in people.

True story – I went to Georgia Tech campus to interview a scientist. Google Maps pointed me to the wrong cluster of buildings, so I had to ask for directions. “Just head out that way. You’ll see a kinda ugly brown brick building looming in front of you. That’s where the Center is.” I proceeded to get even more lost after those words of wisdom…because every Gatech building is an ugly, looming, brown brick building. Lady, you didn’t narrow it down!

Sorry. I didn’t set out with this blog post to trash the “Georgia X” universities. Instead I wanted to show photos of my favourite Emory campus views.

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Emory School of Medicine

My favourite building is probably the Emory School of Medicine. It’s grandiose; its two wings tower over you and sweep you in as you approach. It feels like an important building, even before you know what exactly it contains.

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Brumley Bridge

I made a point of taking these photos early in the morning, because sunrise makes Emory campus look great. They’ve got several large bridges on campus, this one is the prettiest.

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View from the Chemistry Department

Emory campus is crammed onto its Druid Hills perch – a swanky North Atlanta suburb. This hidden hill gives lots of these cool level changes and perspectives.

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Emory’s Main Quad

This is what I mean by architectural unity and thematic marble. Lots of white and peach.

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Lullwater Preserve

Emory also owns the expansive Lullwater Preserve, a chunk of woodland surrounding a lake and river. This is one of my favourite spots within the Preserve. Atlanta doesn’t go for waterways. Rutgers has the Raritan, Philadelphia the Schuylkill. I grew up on the coast with a garden that almost reached the sea – I need some proximity to water in my life. Here it is, in the middle of Georgia.

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Lullwater Preserve

You can cross the river via a Temple of Doom-esque swinging rope bridge and get to the abandoned tower across from the waterfall. It has its charm. I once saw a fashion shoot take place here: it featured a smoke machine and a tattooed girl holding a >2 metre yellow snake. That’s the sort of gritty vibes this place gives off.

 

The PhD Legacy: Some Nights

If I could distil 4.5 years of a PhD into a 4.5 minute song, it would be a tune I half-heard one morning at the gym. I hadn’t heard it before, and I was sufficiently intrigued by caught lyrics to hunt it down. When I heard the whole song – direct from my laptop to ears – there was a deep resonance.

“Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck,

Some nights I call it a draw.

Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle,

Some nights I wish they’d just fall off.

There were many nights during my PhD I’d stumble home late. My last reserves of energy had sputtered towards cleaning my glassware for tomorrow. I would either feel the glow of satisfaction from a completed task and encouraging result, or a dull pulse of despair knowing I’d stayed late for the sake of reactions that failed.

Nights were never my biggest PhD problem. I slept well, never built up a sleep deficit. In the first two years I lived on campus, a safe 5 minute walk from work. Cook dinner, nip back to lab, knowing I’d spend the evening with company.

“Some nights I wish that this all would end, ‘cause I could use some friends for a change.”

I knew what I was getting in to with an American Synthetic Organic Chemistry PhD. I was warned about The Hours. I was warned about The Hours in this particular lab. I was quick to give up my evenings and Saturdays. After a while I gave up my Sundays too. If you only have one free day per week then you can’t go anywhere or do anything. You’ve killed your extracurriculars, you’ve choked off your social circles. You may as well go back to lab.

Philadelphia was only 90 minutes down the road. That city and its people was the reason I came back to the Eastern Seaboard. I wanted the magic of 2009-10 back. Couldn’t have it. If I’d done my PhD in the UK and scheduled US summer trips I’d probably have spent more time in Philly than I did living in New Jersey.

“But I still wake up…”

The only thing in my life for 4 years was that PhD. And I wanted it to consume me. It was easy to find purpose: I understood the justification for our research, I saw we were going after hard challenges. I joined in, beating other research groups to the punch with my keynote project. Our group won several races to the press and improved upon concepts more elite labs had already disclosed. We were scrappy and smart. The group coped with stress by evolving in-jokes and delicious dark humour. When talking amongst ourselves about our boss we’d always title him “your boss”. Lines of dialogue from our PI or former group members would be quoted for years as punchlines or linguistic shorthand. We built our own language of references, riffs, Mandarin or Hindu interjections, and comprehensive verbal takedowns.

Getting my research moulded into a publication was a thrill. Three first-author papers (2 submitted during my PhD) is not a large number…but Goddamn they all felt delicious. I savoured condensing years of work into a concise table; when I looked at the NMRs of my products I pored over the clean beauty of their flat baselines. When I think back to the conferences I attended off the back of publications, the memories have a dreamlike filter, like the lighting of Midnight In Paris. Late nights laughing in bars, the adrenalin of personal connections running through my veins as I grinned myself to sleep. The PhD hits & highs were addictive.

I’ve already spoken about the lows. I went down far enough into Hell that I emerged blinking out the bottom. Worse things happened to others. Some were in my department. Some in my lab. I wasn’t always happy, but I wasn’t always miserable. The lows of mid-grad school faded from my present state – my emotions ended up more positive than negative.

“So this is it – I sold my soul for this?”

When I transitioned into my end game the come-down was brutal. The rest of my lab had moved to another university over the summer. I was left in an empty lab, an empty office. I’d proved the points I needed proving. Whatever force of nature that had carried me for 4 years faded away. No need for late nights or weekend work. No rush to generate large quantities of data. No pressures. I could breathe and look at my life.

Was the PhD worth it?

I’d systematically destroyed what had given my pre-PhD decades their meaning. Diverse, separate friendship circles. Challenging extracurricular activities. Culture. I’d cut back on blogging during my PhD not because I didn’t have time to write, but because I’d lost my voice. The words wouldn’t come. My voice has always been strongest on paper, and I’d silenced myself. Over the years I’d met people whose PhDs had hollowed them out, who seemed broken. Was that now my existence? Would this particular PhD even get me the lifestyle I craved? Had it been worth it?

“When I hear a song, it sounds like this one”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have doubted my ability to bounce back and revert my life to its pre-PhD patterns and values. But if I won my PhD, crossed 9 state lines, then immediately attempted to scrub the experience from my mind…was it something I should have pursued at all? Can my PhD benefit me when I half-pretend it didn’t happen?

I don’t know. New experiences reframe old ones. Wounds heal. Scars look cool. I don’t need to package myself, my identity or my emotions into neat labelled boxes. Stuff just is. Perspectives are built to move.

“Some nights I always win.”