Freedom Isn’t Free

There’s a Radiolab episode concerned with the physics of falling cats. If a cat falls out of a high-rise apartment it reconfigures itself mid-flight into a “flying squirrel/parachute” pose to, allowing it to land on its feet with minimal injuries. Cats have been known to survive falling from 30-storey buildings; however, a fall between 5-9 storeys can kill them, because they’re in the process of acceleration & reconfiguration during that time window.

This is a metaphor. I’ll be leaving university with a PhD by December, and right now I feel like a falling cat. I’m hurtling towards the defense date trying to reconfigure myself in mid-air, hoping I can manage before impact.

I’ve had interviews. I’ve had rejections. I’ve had interviews followed by rejections. On the horizon it looks like more of the same. Keeping my own spirits up is hard. I have to balance relentless optimism (don’t worry about the rejections – just keep trying!) with reflection (well, something is going wrong here and you need to fix it). I have to acknowledge my flaws without succumbing to despair about ’em. I have to be flexible in the kinds of opportunities I apply for…but not set myself up for years of misery because I walked into something I knew would be a bad fit.

What I really have in spades is freedom. Honestly, I’m back to early-2013 levels of freedom when I was a “coffeeshop hobo” who lived in an apartment where mushrooms grew in the shower. Back when I had the freedom to waste hours in a coffeeshop writing freelance articles (8am weekdays, whenever), but didn’t necessarily have the freedom to eat more than £2 worth of bread rolls for lunch. Freedom can be a brutal thing.

My finances will be better for the rest of this semester, but oversight and regulation have vanished from my professional life. I’ve basically finished my research (goodbye weekends in lab! I can get home every day in time to hear Marketplace!), there’s isn’t an equivalent timesink to replace it. Nor is there a crazy rush to finish my thesis writing. I have time and income.

I don’t know if it’s too late to add anything meaningful to my CV that could help me change my career trajectory. I have a whole semester of university, and that’s the best place you can go get random snippets of “experience” in new things. I have ideas, and will force myself to act upon them in the next week or two.

The worst-case scenario would be that I’m forced to return to Scotland, unemployed. Visions of the future see me stuck in minimum wage non-science jobs for decades to come, stuck in the small towns I thought I’d grown out of. I feel like I have to accept that as an option, and think about ways I could mitigate that. I’m not just thinking about firing off job applications right now…but how I can prepare myself for returning to the UK with nothing.

Time keeps moving. I keep twisting in the air.

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Heavy Thunder

We’re at the apex of summer on the Eastern Seaboard. Humidity. The air outside seems to press down on you with force, its that hot. Despite that, I can sleep through the night without air conditioning, though sometimes I have to migrate to the cold wooden floor for a couple of hours to make it easier.

I remember my first week in the United States, back when I was doing my Year In Industry in Philadelphia. The heat was surprising…but the first thunderstorm dumbfounded me. Thunder & lightening is so rare in the UK, maybe a couple of murmurs of thunder and flickers of light. I was scared by the noise over in here – how loud, close and relentless the strikes were. How much rain could be voided out of the sky…and then how bright the sun could be shining minutes later. These days the thunderstorms don’t scare me, in fact my ears prick with anticipation when I hear on the radio that one is rolling through. The summer thunderstorms are one of the things I like the most about America.

***

My PhD is almost finished. The number of reactions left to run I can count on my fingers. This past week has seen the dismantling of our lab, ready for its migration South. Chemicals have been expertly boxed by a specialist moving company, our glassware has been laid out in pristine fume hoods according to flask size/type, etc ready for similar treatment. We defrosted the fridges and turned off the instruments.

It feels a little surreal, especially since I’m remaining here on the Eastern Seaboard. Where I can survive at home without A.C. On the one hand it all feels anticlimactic – my research is over, no more stress about obtaining Publishable Data (I’ve 2 papers to wrap up) and getting enough results to defend my PhD. I’ve got all my results…and that’s fine.

The job/postdoc search is a slog. I’m in several holding patterns as potential bosses wait to hear about grants that may or may not appear. A government department has sunk into a hideous backlog and PIs across the country are howling with frustration along with the grad students, postdocs and visiting scientists whose future career step is paused mid-stride. I get polite rejections of “no funding or space left” – could be a diplomatic lie, could be the truth – and have to sit back down at my computer and fire off another round of cheery applications. Like the rejections aren’t hurting me.

It’s hard to balance idealism against rising desperation. Some career steps can do more harm than good. Would a “bad job” be better than no job at all? Have I totally mis-estimated my skills/worth? Right now I’m craving certainty, which is what we all want, I guess.

 

Capricious Gods

It was the week before Christmas when I had to deal with an academic bombshell. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit (as I’ll explain), but it had many of the hallmarks of a bombshell: unsuspecting normality, followed by a metaphorical BOOM! and then a flood of emotions and reactions came roaring in for the aftermath.

All sorts of random shit can happen to an unlucky grad student. Projects fail, successful projects get scooped (sometimes maliciously, sometimes not). Your professional relationships can go tits-up. In this instance, my advisor emailed the group to let us know that they’d accepted a new position in [University of State-at-geographically -the -opposite-end -of -the-country], migrating the lab in Summer ’17. And if we had any questions feel free to come chat.

The BOOM! could have been more unexpected, I admit. I thought they might be on the market – past history and present behaviour (there are only so many reasons a successful faculty member disappears for odd days at a time during the Fall semester without giving specifics). I guess I was expecting an offer – if it were to come – to appear in Spring. But maybe that’s more for assistant professors, not senior poaches.

It took barely 3 minutes for me to compute and triage all the implications. And to be frank, make a decision. This sort of thing happens all the time – professors hop institutions and the stepping stones deal with either those that move or those that stay. As a grad student, you always have a free choice in the matter. Admittedly, sometimes you have to choose of your own free will to leave with a Masters or start over again in a new lab at your current university…but it’s still a choice. My own personal choice equation went something like this:

[Prestige of (prospective) – (current) university] + [Extra time/hassle to get PhD in prospective university] – [Extra time/hassle to get PhD if I stay behind at current university] + [General desirability of (current location) / (prospective location)] =>

==> Stay at current university.

Christmas was decidedly lacking in chill. Although I wasn’t in lab, I was still struggling to get a hold on my new trajectory. I’d been assuming that I would defend my PhD in Summer 2018. Now it could be as early as Summer 2017 (though most likely Fall ’17). If I wanted to aim for a postdoc this academic year I was already behind. There wasn’t an issue of whether I could defend early. I’d hit the bare minimum to defend (in terms of 1st author publications) and my publication pipeline was already in a healthy state. However, I’d need to wrap up several projects in a shorter space of time, and squeeze in another completely new project (which is using well-established chemistry, but still has to be built from scratch) that I’d publish and convert into my final PhD thesis chapter.

Yeah, sure it’s do-able. Whether I can do it without wrecking myself is a separate issue.

A lot of the finer details have not been clarified. Will I have to be fostered in another lab for a semester? Can I really get all these papers out in time? I made lists, sent out long emails, created skeleton Word Document drafts and began to fill them in. I felt the stress lift off me as soon as I created a special Microsoft OneNote file that pulled all my tasks into one e-document (that wasn’t as monstrous as I feared).

The biggest source of stress was “coming out” as staying behind and defending early – both professionally and to my family. I worried that I’d be bombarded with “what are you thinking?!” questions. Such questions if there are being asked, aren’t being asked to my face. As I said, it’s not an outlandish choice (I suspect most grad students in their 4th/5th year would prefer to stay put rather than move so late in the game).

The topic of how I’m going to push my research agenda forward is another, imminent post. It does feel that I’m on the right side of the research gods. I got an unexpected positive result from a reaction I thought was hopeless, which could lead to another paper separate from the ones my advisor predicted for me. My latest paper has been conditionally accepted into a high-ranking journal, subject to some minor edits. I remain guarded about that paper until final confirmation comes through.

2017 will be an interesting, though hopefully productive year.

Thermostat

It’s one of the things I think I like about America. The seasons change quickly and clearly. I think I could point to my calendar and say “That was the day we finished summer and moved into fall.” One week I lay uncovered in my bed at night, coated with a thin layer of sweat. Getting to sleep during summer is an act of exertion in itself: I’d occasionally move onto the cool wooden floor at 1am to re-try. One week later (or so it seems) I’m snuggled deep under my thick duvet. We’re now in autumn.

***

The ACS conference in Philly went well for me. The one thing I didn’t do beforehand – which I really should, and can’t be the only person who should – was cut my toenails. Scientists at conferences have to squeeze into fancy shoes. You then proceed to cover several miles on foot over the course of 4-5 days rushing between sessions at the inter-galactic conference venue. Some of the halls you can barely see the other side of! A single rogue serrated toenail pressing into its neighbour can wreck havoc upon your gait and in fact your whole enjoyment of the conference experience.

I presented my research in a ~15 min talk early on Sunday morning. Attendance wasn’t too bad, and some folk came up to me later and said they’d enjoyed it. So, thank you to those people: I appreciate your taking the time to tell me (as would most graduate students).

Clearing my schedule of that key obligation first thing left me able to stay busy throughout the rest of the conference. I managed to chat to several folk at the Expo in a bid to tackle my most pressing career questions. I saw a lot of cutting-edge research from the hottest researchers in my field. I fitted in lunches and coffees with my SciFinder Future Leader friends. I attended a feedback panel on an ACS product, which was an always-welcome chance for me to talk at lengths and get paid for voicing a steady stream of opinions. I know that I need to attend a smaller conference next summer. You can’t engineer much low-key intimate networking at these behemoth events: everybody is either rushing around or crashing someplace quiet due to exhaustion.

Still. I came away with fresh enthusiasm and motivation to push on through the next 2 years of the PhD. Seeing other grad students present talks helped me calibrate. What do I admire about their research? What do I feel is missing from my own work when I see theirs? With 2 years I have enough time to make corrections, so it isn’t an exercise in frustration.

Pressure On. Pressure Off.

It was only a few hours on Saturday night. I settled in for the evening with a pot of Cherry Garcia ice cream. The whole cherries buried within are what excites me about this particular flavour – it’s the same reason I like black forest gateau. There was a guy who got to the ice cream section of Target ahead of me, who spent a couple of minutes dithering in front of the Ben & Jerry’s shelves clearly at a loss for which flavour to pick. I never have those kind of dilemmas – the only time I might delay at the ice cream section is if it looks like they are out of Cherry Garcia, at which point I will rummage through all the rows until my hands get uncomfortably cold and I admit defeat. On only one occasion have I had to resort to rum & raisin.

Anyway. I eat Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner. Lots of calcium in ice cream. It’s pretty good for you. I flip on the radio and listen to Garrison Kellior as I colour in one of my “Colour-in Mandalas to Help You De-Stress”. I choose a palate of purples & dark blues this time. Halfway through the show I brew a cup of tea. When I retreat further from the living room into the bedroom I burn a stick of Red Crystal Incense. Candelit bath. Rain comes down heavily. I hope for thunder and lightening. Thunderstorms are a release of summer tension – when the broiling humidity finally cracks. I feel a sense of release within me too, when the thunderstorms come.

***

I’m at a kind of existential point in my research just now. Progress has been good up to this point, but the criteria for “good progress” changes as you advance through the grad school years. I have two more years (out of 5) remaining as a PhD student, and 4th & 5th year is when we’re expected to be at the top of our productive form. Usually somewhen through 3rd year you finally hit upon Your Research Theme. After a lot of flailing around you usually manage to sink into a rich vein of original research that is entirely your own for mining. You tend to publish several papers all concerning Your Research Theme, starting in 3rd year but picking up the rate through 4 and 5. At this point in time I would say I’m squarely average in terms of research productivity. Which is good. Average is good. However, if I want to remain average I need to generate a couple more papers within the next 12 months. If there’s a clear path towards that goal I’m not seeing it right now.

Hence. Longer hours in the lab. I may as well. The heat outside is intolerable. The sun is going to burn my under-pigmented skin if I’m over-exposed to it. Summer pay is lower than term-time pay: go outside the lab and I start buying things. The summer is when I grind out data points – taking random threads of my research and shaking those threads to see if there’s anything at the other end.

The main reason I can tolerate the longer hours and elusiveness of positive data – where Lake Wobegon is my only relaxant – is because it is less than a month until the big American Chemical Society National Meeting. I’ll be presenting some of my (successful) research, and in fact my PowerPoint presentation may come slightly before the results are submitted for publication, which means I’ll be disclosing them to my audience. Which is rather cool. For all my introversion, I find these mega conferences bewitching and energising. I’m studying the wealth of presentations in the online program to decide which ones I want to see. I’m thinking up useful questions to ask the recruiters at the Careers Fair. I’m planning my outfits. I’m hoping to spend at least 2 or 3 nights out late in restaurants and bars. It would be fair to say that my idea of “success as an academic scientist” features these conferences as the culmination of a research cycle (do research -> publish results -> present at conference -> repeat). My motivation creeps up. Last summer I wasn’t in a place to present my results, I’m hoping that next summer I will be.

***

I wouldn’t classify it as easy being an academic chemist. However. The rewards are worth it to me.

 

 

Near Yon Clear Crystal Fountain

Overnight journeys. I contort my body in the upright seat, wedged between other people and trying not to intrude upon their personal space. There is the rattle, roar and shudders of the engines. I slid in and out of sleep. In a scant few hours I will wake up in a new place.

My annual UK holiday was more ambitious in scope than this time last year. I was going to fly in to London (Heathrow) and fly out of there two weeks later. Now I had access to London, Oxford & Yorkshire in addition to Scotland. Last year I’d felt vaguely aimless – this year I tried to fill up my social calendar a bit more comprehensively. I sent messages to folk I hadn’t seen in years. Why not catch up and check in?

There was a time when I assumed I’d kinda always stick around Edinburgh. I was warmly happy in the gorgeous, stately city – I thought I could see myself having some kind of professional career in the Scottish capital once I graduated. The details were vague, but it all sorta…fitted.

Then came the email , which I opened and started to read as if I were reading an apologetic rejection, only to realise by the second paragraph that I was being made an offer of an internship in a place I’d never heard of (King of Prussia, PA), but near to a tantalising big city called Philadelphia. I would be spending a year of my undergraduate degree in a foreign country for the first time in my life.

I returned to Edinburgh with a sense of loss and heartbreak. Leaving Philly there was no way I could perfectly get it back. Whatever spirit or perfect alignment of circumstances I had been exposed to over those 12 months, I could never return and just pick them up again like nothing had changed. I realised that to leave one place was to give it up: you can’t get it back. I was no longer thinking about a life in Edinburgh: I wanted an American PhD, I applied for further internships in places I had never considered before (…sure, um, why not Switzerland?!).

This time it was clear that a tangible essence had finally drained away from Edinburgh. I was looking at the same sights, sitting in Black Med watching people walk by, curling into a protective ball on the windy edge of Salisbury Crags…but I was no longer seeing my future self here. Social groups had unknotted themselves and dispersed. I couldn’t replicate the experiences I had deeply enjoyed as an undergrad in my first 2 years at university.

At the same time, everybody I’ve met with has asked me the same question: where do you see yourself ending up?

It sounds blasé to say that I don’t care. Rather, the process of moving to a new place requires actively making it work. I feel sporting enough to apply broadly and put in a bit of effort at any location I’m given. There is also the question of visas: my urge to work in the USA is held in check by the acceptance that I count as a foreigner here and that companies are variable in their recruitment of foreigners. It’s OK not to know. Keeping an open mind is advantageous.

 

 

On the Downtown Line…

After a winter of discontent, I’m back on the bike. Commuting through woodland on sleepy backroads to and from work. Fitness, fresh air, petrol consumption down, yada yada. Honestly, that stuff is a given. What surprised me was the realisation of what cycling those precious 10 minutes per day does to my brain.

When I’m in the car I have to focus quite intently. I’m listening to the radio, but even when I’m on those same backroads most of my brainpower remains on steering, speed control and keeping concentrated. As you’d expect, right? When I’m on the bike I found that I can phase out. The bike steers itself, speed is a non-issue. I can take in the forest noises, look out for deer. And think. When I’m pedalling to and fro, my brain is processing stuff. It unpacks the day, it shuffles up random memories, it role-plays and pretends.

My brain needs process time. At times it has felt like grad school has dulled me. My imagination quietened, I struggled to stay on task and remain sharp throughout the day. Some of that is just the monotony of a long project with lots of in-built repetition.

But there’s also the reality that I can wake up in the morning, spend some time drinking Nespresso coffee and pouring over my diary. Then I’m at the gym or work. Then I’m coming home between 8 and 9pm and knocking up dinner. Maybe I’ll pull out a book or flick on the radio for a specific NPR program, but at this stage I’m usually running a bath and readying for bed. There’s a lot of action in my day, but there’s nothing that fosters brain processing. Scientists describe sleep (the dreaming phases) as being important for cognitive housekeeping: I suspect that we need some of that time when we’re awake, too.

The cycling helps. Exercise makes you feel more alert, but getting on a bike during the week is doing more for me than the gym could.