Working with a Chronic Illness: Scientist in Government vs. Academia

As I was getting close to finishing graduate school, I was contemplating many career directions. I liked the flexibility academia offered, but the labor expectations of a postdoctoral appointment made that a difficult option for me with fibromyalgia. So I looked towards private industry (pharmaceuticals, hospitals, genetic testing companies, etc.) as well as science jobs in government. I knew they would be less flexible but also come with a saner work load. And I wrote about my thoughts regarding whether a highly flexible vs. a more routine-oriented job might better for a fibromyalgiac such as I in Part I under this title.

Finally, I chose a job as an environmental health scientist in government. And nearly every day, I thank my lucky stars for getting it! After 3 months of employment, I am absolutely loving my job (except for the hard bits here and there). Like everything, it has its pros and cons over the “standard” post-PhD academic route. And I felt it deserved a fair comparison for other grad students with chronic illnesses who may be considering non-academic options. So here’s my take on “sciencing” in an academic lab vs. on a government computer!

1. I do miss the serious flexibility academia offers.

Working in a relatively respectable position, I actually still have a reasonable degree of flexibility. Nobody would fuss if I came in at 9 one morning, instead of 8.30, or took a slightly longer lunch break, and just made up for it in the evening. But nothing quite offers the extreme flexibility that is unique to academia. It takes time to build up the leave time you need in order to comfortably make doctor’s appointments or other life commitments that may take longer than a couple of hours. Accruing leave at about 1 day per month means having to push through many flares initially, until sufficient leave time is built up.

Academia_0
The sad reality of my flexibility dreams, captured perfectly (as always) by Jorge Cham!

2. I start work earlier, which can be painful (literally and figuratively).

Many of us have our “best hours” later in the day – I certainly do! – and having to start moving too soon before my bones and muscles have had a chance to thaw can be a struggle in the morning. As a senior grad student, I was able to work 10 AM to 6 or 7 PM, because I called my own shots. As a government employee, I feel the earlier hours very sorely on days when it is especially hard for me to get out of bed.

Realistically, however, if I tookΒ  a postdoc position, I would not have been able to exercise a 10-to-6 workday anyhow. Most postdocs are expected to work anywhere from 60-80 hours, under an intense amount of pressure. But on days when I am seriously flaring and desperately needing a bed to lay down on, I really miss the ability to work from home or just lay on the couch for 15 minutes while some test tube is incubating.

3. I really like the shorter hours though!

It is much easier to pace yourself when your body knows what to expect from each day. This job definitely offers that regularity of schedule. However, like with any transition, it is taking me a bit of time to find that new pace. Still, coming from an environment where the trade-off for flexibility is working till 1 AM in the morning, it was an interesting experience to leave every afternoon while there’s still some daylight! And now that my husband is all better, I really appreciate all the rest time.

4. You are actually off on government holidays and weekends!

This was a new experience for me too, as I typically worked through all holidays and many weekends as a graduate student (as most academics do). But here, we get several long weekends a year, and you are expected to NOT work during that time! These extra off-days often come right around the time I really start to need an extra rest day, making them very welcome and much appreciated! And I found out long ago, that weekend rest time is absolutely essential for me to continue working period. So it is really nice to have this guilt-free time off!

Academia_1
Not anymore!

The sum of #3 and #4 is that this job comes with a reduced anxiety factor for me.

While I was in academia, I felt like I was always carrying a huge weight of unfulfilled expectations. I knew what I was expected to do, and that I was not able to do it. I was well on my way to completing the Ph.D. and had a history of being a dedicated worker, so I was not kicked out of grad school. But there was always the latent anxiety from knowing you are not quite the grad student your advisor may have hoped for.

Here, I finally felt that weight lifted off my shoulders. My boss is amazing, and she made it clear that I surpassed her expectations. And she is more than happy with what I am doing at the pace that I am doing it in. This has resulted in much reduced anxiety, and had added to my career satisfaction.

5. There is less physical activity as a data scientist than in the lab.

This could go either way. Sitting too long can cause extra pain and stiffness, so it’s good to move around time to time. But for me, the pain in my legs went down (in general) after I took this job! I imagine I must have been overworking them at the lab, likely by standing or walking more than my body could reasonably muster, and I never realized that until I got out of that environment for a while.

6. Government is more slow-moving and bureaucratic than academia.

Which, again, has its pros and cons. You will not publish a lot of papers very quickly, but the ones you do will be meaningful and thoroughly vetted before it even reaches peer review. Instead of publishing just for the sake of it, the idea is more to publish when you have something important or meaningful to say. While the bureaucracy can be irksome at times, it is the same mechanism that allows you rights to fight your position in case of any disagreement with the boss, or say if you need to negotiate special accommodations. In academia, your boss is your master. So if s/he does not agree with you, then other routes are all but blocked for you. Here, there are clearer rules for such things that both employee and employer must abide by, so there isn’t a ridiculous power imbalance.

Academia_2
There is a WHOLE new vocabulary in the “adult” outside world, that I am now learning!

All in all, this job has really been a great boon for me! I am somebody who is environmentally conscious, and actually care about the topic of environmental health. In fact, what I studied before – epigenetics – is closely linked with how the environment can affect our health! It’s just that now, instead of working on the molecular mechanistics of it, I am working on the human aspect of it. Personally, I find that much more rewarding, knowing that my work is reaching people now, instead of just the hope that it might help somebody decades from now!

So if you are a grad student, or a scientist, who is struggling with a chronic illness and looking out for various options, I would recommend staying open to government jobs. In the future, I might even do a short series on how I was able to expand my horizons regarding career options (basically, getting over the fear that my science career was over if I couldn’t make it in academia), and other potential job options for scientists with chronic illnesses. I know I searched high and low for much of this information when I needed it, and sadly, found little of it. So, it is my hope, that these posts might reach others in a similar boat as I, and help them in at least some little way!

Love,

Fibronacci

14 thoughts on “Working with a Chronic Illness: Scientist in Government vs. Academia

    1. Thank you! ❀ There are difficult days, like there would be any old time I guess. And for a while, when the hubby was sick and I was on my own, I had serious doubts I could keep up with any job at all. But things are feeling a bit smoother now. I reckon it will continue to take me some time to find just the right combo that will help me keep a career and not hop between flares all the time. But I am more than willing to give this a fair go! πŸ™‚

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  1. Good to hear that you feel that your current career path is the one for you. Agree that there are pros and cons to any industry we work, and we just have to roll with the punches. At one point I was considering moving into academia, being a researcher and doing a PhD and then had a change of heart – but that’s not saying I will go down that route at some point. It is interesting to hear that while you were in academia, you felt a huge weight on your shoulders – like you were very pressure to perform up to expectations, to turn papers in on the deadline. I got the feeling that was the case: often behind academic projects there is a source of funding, funding is given for an educational reason so a result must be delivered. With the corporate word, funding sure does make the world go round too but as you said, it is a slower pace but people do recognise that you are human (that said, having worked in the corporate world, many things can be improved…but that is life in general anyway).

    With your chronic illness, you have to put your health first and listen to yourself when you need a break. Glad to hear that while your job does take its toll on you, you still can manage πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It is absolutely true — no industry is perfect, and they all have something that can be improved. I think government, even more so than private industry, respects work life balance in America. While money makes everything go around, the pressure in academia to retain funding is intense, because without that there is nothing. I feel like funding is just a bit more stable in government (unless there’s a ridiculous budget cut affecting your dept — and even so, firing people is hard!) or private industry (unless you work for a start-up). Like you, I haven’t totally ruled out returning to academia at some point. One of my plans is to perhaps return as an instructor some day, because I do love teaching, and it is lower stress than managing your own research lab. I have also not ruled out transition to a clinical lab, or even changing career directions again in the future. For the moment, though, I am taking life at it comes and trying to make the most of it, without making too many future plans. I did that once, and it didn’t really work out, and I learned that I need to enjoy the moment more for just what it is. And for now, that’s exactly what I am intending to practice! πŸ™‚

      If you ever returned for graduate school, what would you like to get a PhD in? Just from a previous grad student’s perspective, I’d say if you really love your subject, it’s very rewarding to spend a few years immersed in it. But it comes with its downsides too (being overeducated and price out of most jobs, lack of work-life balance [in the American academe anyhow], etc.). So do your research, and we can talk in more detail about this too if you like, but don’t be put off to pursue your dreams and interests! πŸ™‚

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      1. As far as funding goes in Australia, academia funding usually goes on for 1-3 years, while government usually spans 3-5 years. So naturally there could be more movement in terms of staff and projects in academia. It is great that you are striving to enjoy the moment and learn about a different environment which almost always comes with new skills πŸ™‚

        If I ever did a PhD, it would be along the lines of cultural identity and audience reception. That was what I enjoyed researching and writing about most when I did my post-grad. Academia is competitive in Australia…but really any industry anywhere is. In the end, most imrportant is we find meaning in whatever we are doing πŸ™‚

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        1. Cultural identity is a fascinating subject! I am sure there would be a lot you could do with that! Your blogs, for one thing, give you a great headstart. You have a unique outlook and a great way of describing things. Always enjoy reading your takes on various things! πŸ™‚ If you do end doing the PhD, do let me know, I’d be super thrilled for you! And you are of course right about finding meaning in your work — that, I feel, should be the ultimate prize in a career, not money or position or power.

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  2. So I’ve only just discovered your blog, but I can already tell we have a lot in common. I started graduate school in 2008. Unfortunately, my journey with chronic illness (ultimately diagnosed as Hashimoto’s, 2011, and Fibromyalgia, 2013) began not long after. I was sure that despite my health issues I would be able to finish my Ph.D. in the biological sciences. However, I was met with quite a bit of resistance from my first PI and program. I ended up switching labs about three years into graduate school and was ultimately able to finish my Ph.D.; however, it was a difficult journey and I realized that a career in academia would not allow me to take care of my health. Luckily, as a graduate student, I had the opportunity to do some blogging and was able to realize that a career in science writing would be a good fit for me. Currently, I work as a technical writer for a biotech company. This position has a lot of the same benefits that you mention for government work (except we don’t get every government holiday off).

    Anyway, this was a wonderful post and I think your idea of writing about expanding your horizons for options outside of academia is wonderful. I know I definitely struggled a lot trying to determine what I would do once I figured out that academia wasn’t a viable option. I was lucky to have had the exposure to science writing.

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    1. Hi! Thank you so much for sharing your story with me. If you read some of my earlier blogs, you would see just how similar our stories are. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia two years into my grad program, after having worked in that lab for a total of 5 years by then (I started as an undergrad). I was lucky that my PI tolerated the way I did things, but none always too happily, as might be expected. This is difficult to explain, but while I didn’t face any direct backlash, there was always this undercurrent of dissatisfaction with me, and here and there I heard some rather hurtful things. None of it was unexpected however, so I gathered up my losses and just tried to look forward. I am lucky to coming out of it alive and kicking at the end of it.

      While I am sorry to hear that you struggled with many of the same things (and worse), I am really thrilled for you that you were able to find a fulfilling career in science writing! When I was diagnosed with FM in grad school, I only found one other blogger (who had 2 blog posts) about being a fibromyalgiac grad student. I contacted her, and she was so wonderful — and she was into science writing too! At the time I was lost, not knowing where to go if not academia, and she encouraged me to look into science writing as an option (and I did). But by then I was too close to graduating, without any real “portfolio” and a few applications into science publishing (as an assistant editor) yielded no responses. But I still love the idea of science writing and dream of getting into it some day, perhaps even through my blog. πŸ™‚

      Anyway, I hope you will stay in touch. I have a facebook page for my blog (called Fibronacci) and if you send me a message there, I’d be more than happy to respond back with my “real” (personal) page. Thanks again for your message — it’s nice to know that I am not alone in this — and I appreciate your kind and encouraging words about my posts/post ideas as well. Take care, my friend! ❀

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  3. I’m a fairly new reader & I’m pretty sure this is my first time commenting. I really enjoy your blog.

    I’m glad that things are working out for you. I did want to mention for the sake of anyone reading that schedule modifications (including flexible schedules) and working from home can sometimes be arranged as reasonable accommodations. There are some government and industry jobs that make those options available to everyone as a way of retaining good employees, but a job or agency need not offer those things by default in order for them to be granted as disability accommodations.

    It comes down to the requirements of the job, your disability, and so on. Some jobs really do require people to be at their desk at a set time, but I work on the computer so I’m allowed to work from home as an accommodation.

    Of course there can be downsides to seeking accommodations. Not every office is truly accommodating in practice and it does require disclosing certain details about one’s disability. It’s a pretty personal decision and there’s no right answer.

    But if you really need that flexibility to be able to do a job, I would encourage people not to assume that government jobs aren’t going to work for them. Apply and then request the accommodations you need if you are offered the job.

    This is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart as I wasted too much time assuming that I wouldn’t be accommodated and not bothering to apply for otherwise awesome jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Em! Thank you for your very thoughtful and important comment. And thanks also for reading along in my fibromyalgia journey; it makes me so happy that you enjoy the blog! πŸ™‚

      You make an excellent point. I know that our state government does have the provision for people to apply for modified schedules/accommodations, but in practice, it all depends on how the agency handles the request. I work largely on a computer too, so while technically it shouldn’t be a problem (except when I work on sensitive data I guess), it all boils down to the attitudes of people responsible for approving your request. I have been burned before when trying to explain my condition, and the negative responses always push the sorest buttons for me. (“But you’re so young” – implication is self-explanatory I believe; “I have back issues too” with the implication that I am working just fine so why can’t you; “But you look fine” – I really am quite good at hiding my issues in public; so on and so forth.) Having felt insulted before for trying to explain why I need help that other people with outward similarities to me may not, and basically been accused of making excuses or being lazy, I am really afraid to try this again. Especially after sharing personal details of my conditions, if I don’t get taken seriously, I feel like that will hurt me even more than pushing through the flares.

      I know that this is all in my head right now, and the reality may be very different . . . and I have a feeling that I will have to ask for those accommodations sooner rather than later . . . I guess I just wished I had some kind of a strategy to ask without feeling ashamed for needing them (I know it’s silly but I can’t help myself), and then not be doubly hurt if I am refused. Since it sounds like you initially struggled with it as well, would you like to share how you went about asking for accommodations at your agency? I would really appreciate any insights you may have to offer. ❀

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      1. Those are all totally valid concerns. I’ve had similar experiences with people not getting it, though that was mostly while I was in school.

        I would be happy to talk about my experience in my current position privately in email (I think you should be able to see my email address), though I understand if you don’t feel comfortable with that. I don’t use facebook, unfortunately.

        In previous jobs I typically didn’t disclose my disability until I had been working for a while. That let me suss out whether the employer was going to be understanding and gave me a chance to prove myself. This worked because at the time I needed pretty minimal accommodation. I could work a typical schedule, I just needed to be able to work from home occasionally.

        I always had good luck when I did that. The risk there is that I could’ve found out too late that they weren’t going to be accommodating. I could have muddled through, so I thought it made sense to do things in that order.

        My health now precludes working without accommodations, so I just don’t have a choice.

        I also think understanding the process and knowing your rights is really, really helpful. Sometimes people say that in a bit of a litigious way and I don’t mean that at all. I think sometimes bosses don’t know how these things work, even though they are supposed to, and they can end up flubbing it as a result.

        For example, if you know what kind of documentation you need and what information your boss can ask for, that’s really helpful. My instinct is to answer every question and over explain to everyone who asks, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m taking advantage of the system. That can backfire, as you’ve seen. Knowing what to do in those situations and realizing that it’s okay to refer someone back to my medical documentation is really helpful.

        In school I had classmates say it was unfair for me to have accommodations and cite their back trouble. I would always respond by telling them how sorry I was for their pain (knowing that we were likely talking about very different things) and giving them the number for disability services so they could also request accommodations. One person thanked me for the information–all the rest blushed and started explaining that they weren’t disabled.

        My coworkers at every job have mostly been great. The few times someone has complained to me, I tell them that I agree with them everyone should be able to work from home. I make a joke about it not being 1980. If they seem at all receptive, I point out that it feels weird being the odd one out and there are costs to being the only remote worker on a face-to-face team. Alternately, I awkwardly say “um” and “ah” and change the subject, because I am very cool.

        Anyway, I know that’s very disjointed, but I hope there’s something in all of that that’s useful!

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        1. That is very useful! In my current job, I did as you used to: Before I accepted the job I told them that I *may* need certain accommodations like an occasional work from home, and I figured I will only do the actual asking after I feel the place out long enough. My initial experience was a mixed one in reference to using a heating pad in the office, so that really made me nervous about asking for more. It’s also complicated by the fact that I am currently “between doctors” and fibromyalgia is not a traditional disability. Neither would I characterize myself as disabled; I recognize there are people struggling with far worse than I. But there are days when the pain is grinding and it feels like it is suffocating me. If I am pushing through an extended phase like that, those accommodations could really help me take care of my health as well as the job, and in the long term, it means the difference between being able to continue working or not. But this situation is really difficult to explain to both doctors and employers sometimes.

          I am sorry to hear that you faced some of the same (and maybe more) insensitive remarks than I did. I wish people would be kinder and more understanding and accepting of people who are different from them. Sounds like you developed some really great tools to deal with that though! Thanks for sharing those with me! I would be very grateful if you wouldn’t mind sharing more of thoughts on this subject privately with me. You can email me at: fibro DOT nacci AT yahoo DOT com. I really appreciate your taking out the time for me, and for sharing your kindness! ❀

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          1. Hi again. I’m sorry for my delay in replying. It has been quite a week!

            I’m not able to see your email address. I don’t know if wordpress redacts email addresses automatically or if you have since removed it. If you would like to post it again (perhaps in a different format if it got caught in an automatic filter), I just turned on email notifications. If my email address is visible to you, it is also okay with me if you get in touch with me that way. No pressure at all, of course!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Hi Em! The delay is not a problem at all. I quite understand weeks that get ahead of ourselves. I spent a rough one myself. I did not remove my address, so I am guessing that was WP’s doing. I can’t see yours either as a matter of fact — cannot click on your name for more info — so I am trying to put my email here in a different format. I hope this works. Please let me know if it doesn’t. It is (ignore the spaces): Fibro DOT Nacci AT yahoo DOT com

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