Fear and Loathing in Atlanta

“We can’t stop here – this is biscuits and gravy country!”

I’ve been moulded into a product of New Jersey. By which I mean I love diners, drive like  a lunatic and don’t know how to re-fill my petrol tank. I learned to drive in the States, and have done one 4-hr road trip during my time as a PhD student. As you can imagine, driving from NJ to Atlanta sounded like a challenge. It’s over 800 miles (14-hrs according to Google Maps). At one point I was stupid enough to consider making the trek in a U-Haul with my car clipped on the back. After some reflection I realised that was idiotic – I’d overtake a lorry at 80 mph and forget I was towing a car behind me, or something like that.

Therefore. A two-day road trip in Saxon (aka my ‘Wheels of Steel’). I’d been told that the journey was (i) really scenic and iconic, a fun experience you had to try at least once (ii) an awful soul-destroying grind that you’d never want to repeat again. It was the same person who told me those two things, before then after they actually did the trip. I decided to stop over in Burlington NC (just over halfway there). Armed with 4 pages of Google Map printouts and several bottles of water I prepared myself for an early start.

The key to long-distance driving is the radio. “Adult variety” is my first choice, but I’m not too fussy. The Top Hits stations are too repetitive: I must have heard the opening to “Havana” by Camila Cabello at least ten times over 2 days, and I kept switching stations. RnB/Hip-hop is fine, but I cry to 70% of country songs (it’s embarrassing – I was even tearing up at the overblown ones about two alcoholic lovers shooting themselves). Conversely, when I started my engine at 6.30am and heard Solisbury Hill blasting over the speakers it had a better awakening effect than coffee ever could.

Which is just as well, because I was severely under-caffeinated for the whole trip. I bid farewell to NJ with breakfast at a 24-hr diner. I was reminded why I don’t eat breakfast there more often: omelette was greasy, the coffee was brown water. Says a lot that my last hours in NJ were spent eating bad diner-food.

I decided that under-caffeination and mild dehydration was preferable to bladder discomfort and restroom hunting at high speeds. By the time I got to my sleazy motel (if you’re after a proper road trip experience of course you need to stay in sleazy motels) I was too exhausted to drive out and look for food/coffee. When I set out on a walk around the neighbouring strip malls, people in the car parks gave me weird looks (what’s that chick doing walking around HERE?), and after making note of my surroundings I could understand why. Following greasy diner food I was craving a salad or some fresh fruit, but perusing the local southern eateries I could see that wish was impossible. It was all “biscuits” (which as a British person I can assure you aren’t what I’d call biscuits) and waffles. So I crashed asleep at 7pm, vaguely hoping no one would try and break into my room. They probably could, if they wanted to. Only 30% of the electrical sockets in my room worked and despite its Non-Smoking designation…it smelt of smoke.

By Day 2 I was on the home strait. Despite exceeding the speed limit by an average of 20mph I made it into Atlanta without getting pulled over once. There was a steady scattering of busted cars in motorway ditches along the American coast, I suspect left there as a warning to cocky drivers such as myself. Still…faster speed = better fuel efficiency, right?

I made it to Atlanta. As soon as I pulled off I-85 I stumbled into an Ethiopian restaurant only a couple of miles from new apartment. Veggies and strong coffee – I demolished everything. Part of my sadness of leaving NJ involved parting with things I couldn’t replace. Knowing there’s stellar Ethiopian food in the Atlanta metro area had an instantly reassuring effect.

 

Advertisements

Midnight in the Chem Lab of Good and Evil

Back in 2009 I told a friend I’d be spending a year in America, interning at a pharma company. Her response was to insist I read one of her favourite books – “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. She hoped I’d check out Savannah, GA while I was in the US. I did. And in 2018 that book is still on my shelf. Along with American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Devil In The White City (Erik Larson), Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow) and Evicted (Matthew Desmond) it provides me with an atlas for navigating this vast country.

Setting out to that internship, I viewed the American South with the same level of trepidation and beady curiosity as I viewed West Philadelphia. It was unknowable and dangerous. After my first exposure I stopped fretting about the ‘hoods of Philly, but I never got comfortable with the American South. My Scottish East Coast values templated onto American East Coast values to the point where I barely felt a culture shock. This part of the States is viewed as rude and uppity by fellow Americans: I decided that therefore made me rude and uppity…and I was OK with it.

Now I’m moving to Atlanta, GA.

(Which is 3-4 hours drive away from Savannah. I checked that out pretty early in the process.)

I find it easier to move to a new place than back to an old one. I get a kick from re-activating my Meetup account and trawling local interest groups. Going to a place where I know no one forces me to socialise and meet people. I get to re-roll the dice and correct past mistakes. You miss dancing? Well, Google ‘ballroom dance Atlanta’ and start checking out studios! New location – new habits. Any pre-move jitters are soothed by putting events into my Moleskine Calendar to fill up my time.

Even if the South turns out to be as alien as I once feared…I can make the experience meaningful. I left Basel, Switzerland with a strong feeling of relief, but because I’d thrown myself into the new location I never felt like I’d wasted a year. Quite the opposite!

You can find opportunities for good and evil in the same place, at the same time. That’s what I love about this country.

 

Terminal Star

I inferred he died by stumbling upon a casual Facebook exchange between two acquaintances. They mentioned a first name, and commented upon how touching the funeral was. They were clearly talking about a teacher from Madras College (my secondary school): I had to search through all the teachers I knew who shared his first name – of which there were several – to find an obituary that confirmed we’d lost him.

Damn.

This happened last year. It was night and I was the last one in our office. When I stepped away from my laptop and wandered into the lab, the roar of the air handlers seemed louder and more jarring.

I wouldn’t be HERE. Not without him.

Back in 2003, I’d be 14. The age where you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life; but more importantly, the kind of person you want to be. What do you value? How do you define success? Who are you going to model yourself after?

Back in 2003, I was starting my Standard Grades at Madras. The first set of formal qualifications in the Scottish education system. You start to strategise. What are you good at? What do you enjoy? What are you interested in studying at university?

I was good at everything. The year before Standard Grades we all took “general science” – a mashup course. Our final grade would determine how many science Standard Grades we could take. A-grade? All three (Biology, Chemistry, Physics). B-grade? Two max. Etc. This was an intellectual challenge I gunned for: I wanted all three. It was more about points-scoring than long-term planning.

WK became my Standard Grade Chemistry teacher. What entranced 14-year old me was his array of interesting science facts and anecdotes. Chemistry could be linked to the wholesale retail in chip shops (via acetic acid – vinegar). Chemistry could be linked to Grangemouth. When egged on by other students he applied a distinctively scientific mind towards the French language and its verb tables. Or the democratic voting systems we were learning about in Modern Studies. No one else in my Madras College sphere of influence was that much of a generalist. WK was smart. Crucially, he was smart about a lot of things all at once.

That really impressed me.

From Standard Grade to Highers. To Advanced Highers. To university. I chose a degree in science even though I seemed more adept at English literature. But good textual analysis required a scientific sensibility. I chose a degree in Chemistry because I wanted to situate myself in the middle of Science. Biology on the left, Physics on the right – a chemist could grasp at them both.

I’m not the smartest or most talented Chemistry PhD out there. And that’s fine, because I still think I’d prefer to be a generalist. To have anecdotes and interesting facts.

WK died of pancreatic cancer, I found out. By the time he was ill enough to go to the doctor (maybe a week before the end of the school year) it was far too late. He died a couple of weeks after his diagnosis. While I kept in touch with some of my Madras teachers – had mini catch-up chats with others when I passed through the school buildings – I didn’t keep in touch with him. I’m not sure he knew I went for a Chemistry PhD (he stopped at a Masters degree). He certainly didn’t know I was modelling myself and my concepts of “success” and “intelligence” on him.

Damn.

WK wasn’t one of the cool or popular Madras teachers. He never had trouble keeping control in the classroom – he just had to quietly start talking and the students would silence themselves to listen. I’d argue he was one of the funnier ones. I feel like I was one of the few students listed him as a favourite teacher. But that’s fine.

Thank you, WK. I’ve now got a Chemistry PhD, and as far as I’m concerned I was right to follow you. I know you really liked Bob Dylan, Scottish country music and a bit of Classic FM. I also know you disliked Girls Aloud (“Can’t sing.”). I think maybe you’d like Karine Polwart and her song Terminal Star. It makes me think of you, in any case.

 

 

Curb Your Doctoral Enthusiasm

In early 2007, my secondary school Biology teacher predicted I’d “drop out of my PhD, go into stand-up, and have my own reality TV show.”

Now in December 2017 I can finally – definitively – say that he was totally wrong.

(Part of me wishes he wasn’t. My reality TV show would’ve been a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Big Bang Theory. It would have been excellent.)

Anyway. I defended my PhD this week and was met with approval. I still need to submit my paperwork to the Graduate School – forms, money, photocopies of everything – but the highest energy barrier has been vaulted.

For the rest of the week I’ve been working through the excess refreshments I brought to my defense, namely croissants and non-alcoholic eggnog. I took a day off to go into Manhattan and lounge around Aire Ancient Baths, which was the most decadent thing I could think of doing (Aire Ancient Baths actually featured in ‘John Wick Ch1’ as part of the ‘ultra-decadent nightclub’ scene, which raised my opinion of the locale). Then I returned to business as usual. Having drunk several gallons of eggnog, I still don’t understand its appeal…but I feel closer to understanding America in general.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after defending my PhD. Would I be disillusioned and depressed? Would I be indifferent? I ended up feeling happier than I expected. It definitely felt like I’d achieved something.

It’s been a weird academic year. Around this time last year my PhD timeline shifted forward by 6-12 months, and I had to adjust to a new reality. I’d be staying on the Eastern Seaboard while the rest of my lab moved South. I got the unusual privilege of a calm, research-lite Fall semester to focus on writing up my thesis. Most people finish their PhDs in a flurry of advancing deadlines and semi-realistic expectations. For the first time in several years I felt an acute absence of stress as I worked through my thesis chapters. It meant the ending was slightly anticlimactic.

With time I’ll reflect upon the PhD and my choices during grad school. Over the Christmas break, however, I’ll simply enjoy the sensation of being finished.

Demons Below The Skin

This blog post belongs to the “Mental Health In Grad School” genre.

Probably. 

Well, see what you think.

Winter 2015 I broke out in hives. It was a confusing experience: I’ve never suffered from hives before, and there’s no history of it in my immediate family. It just seemed like one day my skin turned red and itched like Hell.

They appeared at pressure points/joints, but covered my whole body. Raised welts popped then simmered down – here one hour, faded to a red mark the next. I have pretty good self-control when it comes to scratching, but they still hurt.

It took a while for me to link the symptoms to “hives”, at which point I Googled “anti-histamines” and went hunting in Rite Aid for bottles of pills. In the interim I had trouble sleeping because of the pain. As my bodies natural anti-histamines cycled down for the evening I had to rush out the lab, before my neck and face started to turn reddish purple.

I was given the option of prescription-grade anti-histamines, but settled on 2 brands of over the counter pills (Zyrtec in the daytime, Benadryl overnight). I figured out that really hot baths just before bed got rid of the pain, as did sleeping on the cool wooden floor if I was unlucky enough to wake at 2am. The hives went away in the summer…then came back a little while later. Going off the Zyrtec led to bad flare-ups, but eventually my body’s natural anti-histamines took control.

When first I went to the university health centre they asked me about any lifestyle changes that could have triggered my full-on allergic reaction (diet, laundry detergent, etc). I could only shake my head and smile faintly.

Stress was the blatant cause of my hives.

If I was allergic to anything, it was grad school.

***

I can handle deadlines, criticism and failed experiments. I managed 2 years of my PhD without a major auto-immune malfunction. When stress got too much for my body to handle was when a series of insidious, small problems piled up.

I moved into a new apartment off campus. I needed to live by myself, but the place I chose sucked up huge quantities of my salary. When home-to-lab was no longer a 5 min stroll but required a car journey or 20 minute bike ride, I had to change how I conducted research and structured my day.

Lab mates moved on. The individuals I’d been closest to – who in fact I’d relied on socially –  had to exit the picture; as the group social dynamics shifted they seemed to cut me out. I was now in charge of several big group responsibilities that had once been split across 3 people. It felt like I was doing 95% of the work of keeping the group functioning…but getting no “social rewards” for my effort. A piece of equipment was malfunctioning, the person designated responsible for maintenance pretended it wasn’t. It seemed I was the only person who cared enough to get it fixed. I became angry and resentful.

My project stalled. I’d been lucky to kick off my PhD with a short project that led to a 1st author paper quickly, and had made good progress with tricky projects after that. But when I finally got within the parameters of “publishable data” once more, I was told to go away and make the data even better. I couldn’t. Months passed.

From what friends have told me about their own experiences, when grad school goes wrong it is because of this kind of pile-up. It’s never just that you have a tough project, or are struggling with your home life, or have lab problems. It’s never one big disaster that throws you into misery. You probably don’t even realise how bad things have got for you until the demons force their way out.

***

For what it’s worth, I went for a session with the university’s counselling services shortly after the hives broke out. For me it didn’t work out: I never scheduled any follow-ups. Partly because recognising I could use counselling was simultaneous to (finally) recognising I had a serious problem I needed to address. I also didn’t connect with the counsellor I was assigned to: I wanted to get away from feeling upset and angry, not talk for 60 minutes about it.

[My “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” advice would be to try a second or third counsellor if the first one doesn’t work for you. And you probably aren’t going to solve everything (or even anything) in your first appointment.]

Things got better. I’m not sure I was super-proactive, more that I adjusted to the new circumstances and they stopped stressing me as much. Maybe it’s bad to write a “Mental health in grad school” post that argues “well, y’know, the best way to deal with problems is wait til they fade of their own accord”. But that’s sometimes just what happens.

…Well, a better way of saying that could be: “It’s not the circumstances, but how you react to them that matters”. I could focus on doing my group jobs as professionally as I could and decide that others dereliction of duty wasn’t my problem. When I fixed that piece of equipment I made it clear to my boss that I’d used my initiative to solve the problem, so got credit for that. Understanding that circumstantial set-backs weren’t permanent or a reflection of my personal qualities helped too.

Quitting is a valid choice if you experience this kind of mental/physical health misery. The friends who told me their stories left grad school (all of them, I believe) and were telling me about it 5-10 years down the line. They’re all successful adults whose professional trajectories and lives I admire. A PhD is never worth wrecking yourself over.

***

My hives are still there. They haven’t erupted in a long time, but they remain under my skin, waiting for the opportunity to flare back up. Next time though I’ll be ready.

Mental Gymnastics

It took a long time to line up post-PhD employment. The advice I enacted is to start looking for postdoctoral positions 12 months before you are due to defend. I learned that could be a conservative estimate.

Damn, so much rejection and failure.

I’m not a perfect applicant. Some of my flaws I’ve tried to erase or conceal. Others I feel resigned to. I tried to evolve over the search – not taking anything for granted. Oh, I thought I’d got a good CV final draft? Maybe look at it again next month, compare it to the one that hotshot Assistant Professor uploaded. See if I can emulate their crisp format.

I tried to be aspirational. Wherever the line between aspirational and delusional is…I must have swerved across it multiple times. Some of the professors I assumed would never read a postdoc app from the likes of me came back with a profession of interest. Some of the professors who I thought I had a good shot with apologised for the lack of funding and space. You don’t know until you try. And you don’t always know what these competitive labs are looking for in terms of skills/personal qualities with their postdocs.

Some top groups were booked up with postdocs for the next 2-3 years. If you want to network my way into a Top 10 Chemistry lab at a Top 10 University, you probably have to start in your first year of grad school. I found myself annoyed that I hadn’t attended a Gordon Conference during my PhD – it would have helped.

Close to 50% of my rejections were implicit. An email application was fired off…and nothing ever came back. I know one colleague who got a response after maybe 3 months (“Hey sorry for the delay, are you still interested in my lab? Want to come for an interview?”), long after hope must have died. Kinda wish I hadn’t heard that story. Many professors replied to my email and explained that they’d love to take me on…if only they had funding. It’s the most diplomatic way to reject an applicant – nothing personal, only financial – although with NIH grant proposals simmering around the 10% acceptance rate it is often true.

Good timing helps. If your application is near the top of the pile when a grant is approved/re-approved you have a good chance of a callback. But since federal funding is an endless gnashing cycle of submissions and proposal review dates you might never get a formal rejection when a PI is chasing cash. “The grant I was hoping for didn’t come through last week…but if you’re willing to wait there’s another one I’m trying for in a couple of months.” And you’ve no idea how likely it is the grant will come through. Maybe you’ll still be on top of the pile if it does…maybe a better applicant will have come along.

I have sympathy for the professors. They get a lot of postdoc applications. Many of them took the time to reply to my cold call with a couple of apologetic sentences. I could cross them off my list – thick red lines of ink – and move on.

I have very little sympathy for the post-interview ghosters. After a Skype (or even one campus) interview…nothing. That stings. My suspicion is that it’s an American cultural-linguistic thing. British academics are cagey and stick to formulaic script: “If I were to make you an offer, when would you be able to start?” You know everything is provisional, nothing is guaranteed, and they can email you later to say they’ve decided not to make you an offer and you don’t feel blindsided.

In several instances, American academics don’t seem to know about this useful qualifying language. They talk to you like they’re seriously wanting to make you an offer but just need a few days to mull and double-check. They go as far as to tell you “Let’s email early next week and take it from there.” And like a chump I emailed them when I thought they wanted me to email…and never received a reply. They got a polite follow-up ~7 days later…but at that point I’d taken the hint.

American academics: don’t ghost people you’ve interviewed. It’s cowardly and unhelpful.   By the interview stage I’m already performing mental gymnastics to see if I could imagine myself in this new lab, in this new city. Could I make this work? I start taking the prospect of joining a lab seriously, planning ahead so I know what questions to ask and what signs to look for. A simple lie about “research interests not aligning” would be acceptable. I hate being stressed out in a post-interview limbo. I hate realising I misread major social cues and chased after a PI who didn’t want to be chased. Why did you invite me to email you back?!

Anyway. I’m sorted.

I’m happy and relieved that I’m sorted.

I don’t feel like I “settled for something less” or was forced into a postdoctoral position out of desperation. An application aligned with funding and availability.

I got something I really wanted. A postdoc position in a big city. I admit it wasn’t a big city on my initial list of Big Cities I Want to Live In…but if anything it could be a better fit than my earlier choices.

My PhD defence date is in early December. I start the postdoc in late January. Stay tuned.

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.