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

First, let me start by apologizing for dropping the ball on Part III of this series. I haven’t been doing very well this last month amid high levels of exertion and stress, which inevitably led to higher levels of pain, fatigue, brain fog and malaise. None of that was conducive to sensible writing, so I decided to try and wait it out. Irony of ironies, I finally write the final segment today, when I feel largely bed-bound from a crash! Such is life I suppose.

To recap just a bit (since it’s been a while), this series has been about sharing a roadmap that helped me reimagine where I can take my career after I realized academia might not work out for me. It led me to do some serious introspection about why I loved doing what I did, and how I could continue, albeit in a different fashion, so I can have the same job satisfaction while doing something different.

In Part I, I shared my story of how I had to first get over the guilt of letting so many people down (including myself in some ways), and leaving so many unfulfilled expectations in my wake (including my own). This process made me realize that before you can dream of something different, you have to first allow yourself to dream that dream, and be OK with all the uncertainties that come with major change. That was Step #1.

IMG_1602
Allow yourself to fly free

Once I was OK within myself with making a major career change, I had to somehow figure out where to go with that. Which direction should I go in if I walk away from the ivory tower?

In Part II, I discussed the 3 core steps (Steps #2-4) designed to help me figure out:

  1. What is it exactly about my current job that I love doing?
  2. What are the skills from my current job that I can apply elsewhere?
  3. What do my interests (#1) and choice of skills I chose to master (#2) tell me about my personality?

From here on, then, it was about figuring out the directions I could take my skills in, based on my interests and general personality traits, so I can continue to feel the same core enjoyment in my work.

Step 5. Choosing potential career paths

I would recommend thinking as wildly and broadly as possible at first. Think of every potentially related field that strikes your fancy, and where you think you can use at least some of your skills (even if the job requires other skills you don’t have yet). And then limit those options later if they fail the “reality check” (Step #6).

053
Let the sky be your limit

Being one who loves the intellectual, human and communication aspects of science, as well as playing with cool science equipment (“bench work”), my list looked something like this:

  • science writing & communication — I always enjoyed giving science talks and am pretty good with presentations, and enjoy the challenge of simplifying complex materials for easy understanding.
  • science publishing — Slightly different from science writing, in that I was aiming for more assistant-editor or editorial internship type of positions.
  • genetic counseling — I certainly know enough genetics and liked the other idea of working with people to help them. The largely autonomous nature of the position also appealed to me.
  • genetic testing (clinical laboratories) — I could do all kinds of fun “bench work” as a lab personnel, and could eventually work my way up to having my own lab.
  • teaching — I love working with students, and thinking of new ideas on how to teach better.
  • working in pharmaceuticals or biotech firms The idea of doing biomedical research but on a shorter schedule was the main appeal here.
  • crime lab — Another clinical laboratory job, like genetic testing. Fun fact: it was my interest in forensic science that first drove me towards a college degree in Biology!
  • other health-related professions — This is where I was toying with, oh you know, environmental health, where I could use some of skills and interests to directly impact peoples’ lives.

Funny thing, the environmental health/epidemiology job that was my wildest shot is the job I am currently in now (and loving it too)!

So don’t be afraid to think wild and different. But also, notice how everything I wrote above are what attracted me to those career paths. Recognize that reality may be very different!

wp_20160116_019
Be aware of the shadows in the path you choose

Step 6. Doing a reality check

There are three levels to this reality check:

Reality Check-Level 1. Is the job a practical possibility?

I might love science communication, but if I haven’t already created a portfolio that proves I am good at it, no hiring committee will take my word for it! It takes a license to be able to work in a clinical laboratory, which in turn, takes some studying and shelling out not an insignificant amount of money. It also takes 2-years of schooling, and even more money, to be a genetic counselor. So it’s worth doing some serious thinking at this stage: You may love the job or career path, but is it a practical possibility? Would the job require you to move elsewhere and can you manage without help?

Reality Check-Level 2. Does the job appeal to your personality?

I might love doing the science, like for instance, working on a new kind of cancer drug. But am I OK with the company charging people a ridiculous amount for that drug, if all the while the people at the top making the big bucks, justifying the charges as funding for research? Now, I’ll be the first to admit biomedical research is expensive. And I have nothing against making a profit. But I cannot reconcile myself to science where the primary motivation is profit, and not peoples’ benefit.

You may love the actual job but would be you be happy in the larger environment the job is set in? Does it fit with your personality?

Reality Check-Level 3. Does the job fit with your health care/self care needs?

Spoonies, remember where we started? I left academia because of the expectation that I will work 70 hours a week. My body cannot deal with that kind of exertion. So if the reality of the next job is basically the same, then it cannot be a real solution. This may be the last point in my six-steps to reimagining one’s professional identity, but this is definitely not the least! It is absolutely, the most important, in fact. A successful change of career would be to where you are able to engage in your profession while also taking care of yourself.

IMG_0704
Allow self care to take precedence

It helps to have a list of problems you have with your current job  — things about the job that prevent you engaging in self care or which are triggers for flare ups. And then compare this list to the new potential career option and ask if at least some of those are mitigated. No job will be perfect where you engage in everything you love doing and be able to mitigate all your health issues; it will always be a balancing act. But as long as the scales tip in favor of your health, it is worth further consideration. If you find that it does not, it may be worth considering something else.

All in all, these 6 steps have led me from a career in a biomedical laboratory to one on a computer in public health. Here I am using my data analysis skills and learning new ones in epidemiology. It is not perfect I miss the flexibility of academia but it has other things going for it that I did not have before, such the being able to directly impact people’s health and attitudes. This fits in with the kind of scientist I would like to be; one who uses science to help impact people’s lives for the better. I also enjoy the intellectual challenges that the job poses, being a complete newbie in the field of public health and epidemiology.

While not all my health/self care needs are met, my current job has been an improvement in many ways from the previous one. All in all, I would say I am happy with where my six steps of soul searching has got me. This job has allowed me see that a steady state can exist for me, where work does not eat into my health. And it is indeed practically possible to work as a scientist while also battling a chronic illness.

IMG_0464
Every day brings a new set of possibilities

That last bit I seriously doubted until I worked out my options from Step #5, which was my first glimmer of “real” hope that this might work out after all. I know many spoonies often struggle with where to go if they cannot remain in a profession they identify with, as I did for a long time. This is especially true for grad students (spoonies or not) because we become so specialized and go so deep into our fields that it becomes hard to imagine something different from it. If that is the case, I hope my three-part story here of how I broke the mold helps you think of ways to break your own as well.

As a final note, I would like to add that one need not only look towards paid jobs when reimagining their professional identity. It is entirely possible to engage in your core interests even from unpaid work and hobbies. Either way, I hope that the steps in this series of posts help you take a piece of your life back that your chronic illness may have stolen from you.

Love,

Fibronacci

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

Since around the time I was planning my graduation, I had been giving a lot of thought about how I can be a scientist without pushing my body farther than it can realistically go. I was lucky that I could still work and that meant a lot to me. I wanted to keep it that way instead of sending myself down a bad spiral with a workload I could not handle. But I found it terribly hard to extricate myself from the “academic conditioning” that academia is the only way to go for a Ph.D.

From my internal deliberations then, aimed at redefining my professional identity, was born this series of posts. At a time when I felt lost, not seeing a way forward for myself if I did not continue on the path I was already on, this series of steps helped me devise a new direction for myself.

While I hope it will be helpful for other scientists/grad students seeking a path outside of academia as well, this post is not only for them. Too many of us spoonies are forced to relinquish existing careers we cannot handle anymore. I hope this post is also helpful for them who may be wondering where they could possibly go if they quit a job they closely identify with.

IMG_0353
The path “least trodden” is the path forged for oneself by one alone.

In Part I of this series, I discussed Step 1, getting over the guilt of leaving academia, before I could even start thinking about other paths. The guilt was on many levels, but I mostly felt bad about how I was another statistic adding to the list of chronically ill people leaving academic science, instead of standing up to it and perhaps helping to make the road easier for future grad students like me.

But I quickly learned that you cannot educate everybody — even when you talk the science behind your condition to other scientists. I also learned that my first responsibility is to always to myself; I cannot do anything for others if I cannot take care of me first. And if I wanted to continue sciencing, I would have to find a fairer path than the one I was on.

IMG_1602
Allow yourself the freedom to fly free

Once I got that, I was able to move on to the three core steps that helped me figure out where I could take my life after academia.

Step 2. Understanding what you enjoy about your current work

Assuming you enjoy doing what you currently do, figure out what exactly is it about the job that you like. Let’s call these “transferrable interests.

For me, the intellectual aspect of the job was perhaps the most rewarding, followed by the thought that my work might benefit people in some way some day. I also enjoyed the hands-on “bench work,” i.e. all the pipetting, playing with test tubes and chemical solutions, and sticking them in fancy machines that use mind-blowing technology. Regardless of the frustrations inherent in “bench work,” I found joy in the process itself, regardless of the results (though a successful result always added to the joy!). And finally, I enjoyed sharing knowledge with others (through talks/seminars) and helping a new generation find the joy in science (through my role as a teacher).

Figuring out what about your day to day activities bring you happiness is a great place to start, because it lays the foundation for the kinds of jobs to seek. Ideally, you would then look for jobs where you can still engage in as many of these interests as possible.

IMG_0539 (2)
Look within to find your own daily source of joy

Step 3. Recognizing what you are good at in what you do

This is the part about “transferrable skills.” Many grad students (including myself) get so absorbed in the day to day workings of the lab, that we start to feel like our skill is the entire package. But if we look at the components of the package, we realize that the individual skills could be applied to other things. For example, nearly all grad students probably have the at least some of the following skills by the time they finish grad school:

  • Creative as well as critical thinking
  • Troubleshooting skills (i.e. ability to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it)
  • Research skills (i.e. the ability to sift through a haystack to find the needle)
  • Solid argumentation skills (i.e. being able to back up what you say with facts)
  • Ability to clearly communicate verbally and in written medium
  • Ability to communicate to both specialized and non-specialized audiences
  • Experience with Microsoft Office (or equivalent) products, other softwares (e.g. statistical or image manipulation tools), and/or technical skills (e.g. programming)
  • Great organization and project management skills
  • Tenacity to see both short- and long-term projects through to the end, regardless of their complexity

Recognizing the specific things that you are good at helps in two ways: (1) it adds to your confidence that all that time you spent in grad school wasn’t wasted time even if you cannot continue in your planned path; and (2) it helps you start practically looking for where you can now apply your skills, and get paid for doing what you are good at!

Once I overlaid the jobs that that matched both my skills as well as interests, I knew I finally had ball rolling!

IMG_2022 (3)
Recognize your own blossoms

Step 4. Realizing what #2 and #3 tell you about you

Understanding your transferrable interests and skills are great, and they might help find job options that sound good on paper — but they alone may not serve you well in finding a new fulfilling job until you understand what your interests and skills tell you about your core values and motivations.

For instance, I would describe myself as a scientist with a heart; who sees science as way of bettering the world and helping humanity. I am not someone who views science as a way of making money or how to snag the next big patent or paper. I am also not a science snob; I enjoy talking science with other scientists and non-scientists alike. More than scientific facts, I lay emphasis on the scientific process, which I like to talk about with people, to help them make informed decisions. But I also recognize that not all things can be done “scientifically;” some things are just based on how you feel, and I don’t discount the validity of that approach, when appropriate, either.

Realizing the motivations that drive our interests and motivate us to master the skill sets that we are good at help to rule out certain jobs that may involve doing the things we like but does not fit with our overall personality.

For example, I could not see myself working in a place where the primary motivation for doing science was profit. (I have nothing against making money, as long as that is not the core goal of the science I am doing.) Knowing this helped me rule out certain options (e.g. the pharmaceutical industry), and helped me draw up a shortlist of potential job options.

058
When you find yourself considering an unlikely branch, return to your roots to see if that’s where you belong.

In the third and final segment of this series, I will discuss the last two steps in my process, as I used my reflections to draw up a list of potential career paths and the final considerations I made, especially regarding my health, before moving forward.

But these are the core three steps that I used to actively decondition myself from thinking that academia is all there is for me. Breaking down my job into its component parts and analyzing what it all meant to me helped me realize there may even be potentially better directions for me out there than what academia had to offer!

At all major forks in life, I feel like some introspection is key to helping us overcome the hurdles and find a reasonable solution. But it can feel like we are lost in a sea of confusion when we are faced with losing a career path we closely identified with. In times like that, I hope these steps can help one understand why the job means as much as to them as it does, and then apply those core motivations in a more health-friendly direction. Stay tuned for more on that in the next post.

Love,

Fibronacci

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.

42_Silent Scream_Munch Tribute
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.

11884582_411391545730917_307704370694550996_o
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