Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part I

In my last post, comparing my experience being a scientist in government vs. academia, I had promised to talk a bit about how I got there. Admittedly, it’s a bit surreal to me, because this time last year, I was practically despairing that I might not have any career at all, forget one in science. Having experienced the pressures of academia first hand, I knew it wouldn’t be conducive to my health to continue in it. But it was immensely daunting to seek a life after academia as a scientist with a chronic illness.

In this series of posts, I will discuss my story — it has been a long, and in many ways, is an ongoing journey to redefine my identity. But before I could do anything else, I first had to assuage my feelings of guilt for wanting something different out of my life in the first place.

Step 1. Overcoming feelings of guilt and loss.

Ever since I joined my lab, it was made clear in no uncertain terms that I was being trained for an academic career. From the boss’ point of view, that’s what a graduate program is designed to do. It’s an apprenticeship model, where your mentor trains you in the arts and crafts of the trade, so you carry their mark forward as you grow in the field. That is your job, and your responsibility.

So when my body couldn’t handle double the full-time workload that is expected of the field (I was probably working under 40 hours at the time trying to get my health back in some sort of order), I was immediately relegated to the side. Once a promising student, I was now a waste of time; a wayward kid; a lost cause. And I internalized some of that at first, and felt guilty for letting my advisor down. I knew he had high hopes of me, and I felt guilty for not being able to live up to it.

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Guilt is a fire that scorches the soul

But there was another kind of guilt at play, one that hit at my core. Academia is still a very male-dominated field; I felt I once had the potential and motivation to add to the roster of successful women in academia. But there are even fewer disabled and chronically ill scientists in the field. We can be ostracized at best and actively discriminated against at worst. So we hide our disabilities, afraid to stand up to those who look down upon us for fear of ruining our future prospects.

I felt like I should try to make it as a successful academic scientist, even more so now that I had fibromyalgia, so no one could doubt our scientific acumen! Once at a stable point in my academic career, I could raise awareness for our cause without fear of retaliation; mentor more students with disabilities; try to change the culture in academia that sees us as lesser mortals. I felt like I had the responsibility to stand up to the establishment that had looked down on me. Walking away from it felt like walking away from a battle, like they had defeated me and my spirit. And I felt guilty for giving up on all the future disabled or chronically ill grad students I might have been able to help.

It took me a long a time to see that these feelings of guilt were misplaced. It is my life and my body, and my first responsibility is always to myself. To keep myself healthy, and active, and in a mental state to be able to enjoy life. It is my responsibility to find a fruitful direction for my own life, one that suits my current needs.

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At the edge of all light

To feel beholden to others’ expectations of me is only a noose I held around my own neck. I realized that is never how I lived my life so far, and it would be a mistake to start now. As far as thinking of my own past dreams or future hopes are concerned, they only serve to make me feel worse. They do no practical good in helping me carve a way forward.

I also realized that advocating career over self-care is hardly being a good role model! Especially with a chronic illness like fibromyalgia! How can I help other people if I cannot even help myself? Perhaps my limited energy is best spent raising a candle to the issues from the outside, rather than burning in the fires on the inside. It was time to let go of my misguided sense of pride.

The first step in any journey is often the hardest to take, but also is the most important for it sets you on a new course. Once I was able to get over the feelings of guilt over leaving the career I strove for for so many years, I felt like a fog had just cleared from my view. By the time I graduated, that was perhaps my single biggest accomplishment; bigger, even, that the Ph.D. And when I finally could see the different directions my career could possibly go in, I felt the glow of a new hope warming a heart grown cold and scared.

In the next post(s), I will talk about the specific steps I used to retrain my brain to think of new possibilities and new directions. I know when I was seeking some of this information, I had none I could turn to. So I hope that this series of posts will reach future grad students and scientists in a similar boat, and I hope they find some value in it.

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

6 thoughts on “Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part I

  1. This was a shorter post than I expected on your carving your personal identity as a scientist and a career in the science field. But it was definitely deep and insightful, and such stories can take time to flesh out and write. What interested me was that you were cast aside when you couldn’t work as hard and keep up with the hours and work. In that sense, there is inevitably a benchmark in any given field we strive to be successful in – others set the benchmark and we follow. That’s not to say we can’t be successful just by following these benchmarks: work hard to meet them, go above and beyond with your own individuality is certainly a possibility.

    Have to agree that academia is mainly male-dominated, at least in Australia. When I was thinking about pursuing post-grad studies in science and arts, I noticed this was more so in the science (maths) field. It is just the way it is currently at the moment – but if me and you are dedicated to making it work, then we are paving the way for others to follow our lead 🙂

    Self care is so important and in the chase we often forget to take care of ourselves. It does come from re-training your brain, and I look forward to reading your next post on that 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much for always sharing such kind and thoughtful words Mabel! 🙂 The entire “post” is actually really long, so I decided to break it up into pieces. This one is Part I. In the next ones, I’ll talk a bit more about how I was able to open up my mind to other job options while continuing to do things in the realm of what I enjoy. They have a different “feel” than this first step, which is getting over a major internal hurdle, before you can even engage in the next steps. So this just worked as a natural breaking point so the posts stay a manageable size.

      You are absolutely right; every field has its own culture and its own set of benchmarks. What, in part, made it doubly hard for me to stick it out in academia was my own personality which aims to go over and above the initial expectations. But here, the initial expectations were so high that I was falling well below the mark, and that felt humiliating even to myself. And that is largely a cultural problem, a culture that even we end up imbibing and internalizing against our own best interests and judgements. I feel like science would be losing some potentially really good people by not opening up the field to people who perhaps needs modified hours or accommodations, or just want to take it slow but still contribute to their field of interest. This is where that strict “weed out” culture fails itself I think.

      I do think academia is probably very male-dominated in most places right now, especially in science and engineering. Even in the first world, the generation of women before us often did not have the kind of encouragement to pursue science like we do now. In fact, they were the ones who started many of the encouragement campaigns that we see in schools now! Considering that even now so many women drop out of engineering in higher-ed because of the prevailing sexist attitudes, I have a lot of respect for the women who pushed through and paved the way for us. 🙂

      Thanks for staying tuned to this series of posts! These are written very much from the grad student’s point of view, ones who wonder “what after academia?”. But I do hope you enjoy them, and that they have broader applications than just the little world I have direct experience with.

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      1. Definitely looking forward to your ‘what’s after academia posts’. You already raise a lot of good questions in your response to me 😛 The first step can be the hardest because it could be the decision that decides a considerable part of the rest of your life. It is great that you pushed past the cultural problem and learnt to deal with it to a degree, but sometimes the situation will remain the same – as it has been for years in these kinds of fields. Hopefully things will change at some point 🙂

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        1. Agreed! I pushed against the culture and dealt with it best I could, but I was also very lucky in some ways. Many are not. In other ways, I was in a tougher spot, in other ways, however, because I was in a fast-moving, cut-throat field. In slower-moving fields, a slow work-day may be less of an issue. But at some point, I just kind of decided I am done pushing against the prevailing mindset and ruining my own health in the process. That’s where it “clicked” about self-care I guess, LOL! If I already had more limited energy, then I had better learn to prioritize where and how I use it more! 🙂

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  2. Eh, post docs make zero dollars, and two or more before tenure seems the norm. In the end, with tenure being a bit of a pyramid scheme, adjuncts and post docs being legitimately unable to live on their salaries, I’d day in hindsight you might have dodged a bullet. You earn a (presumably) decent salary right out of PhD, and you have some semblance of job security. I think your experiences suggest I should consider government jobs in the future. I was runner up to one last time I looked for a job, but alas lost on straight points to someone with more years of directly relevant experience. Wishes aren’t horses, so no sense bemoaning being second. But, knowing what I know about other non-academic options, I will definitely put in again if another job option opens in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes you’re very right – postdocs have zero job security, have to hop around quite a bit (which, with a family, is awkward), and don’t make nearly enough money (especially if you’re living in areas where the cost of living is really high, which is also where most jobs are). And even if you get an academic position, there is no guarantee you will make tenure with funding getting tougher and tougher. Here, I do have good job security, making slightly more than a starting postdoc would but not by much (state govts are not exactly known for their high salaries), but I do have a pension line in my name. If you’re considering potential govt jobs, I wrote my last article on my first few-months’ impressions of working in academia vs. government. You might find that interesting. 🙂

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