Thursday, January 17, 2019

Post tenure, my answer is to just be me

I have no clue how many you will feel this way or find this post helpful, but I try to be true to myself in everything that I do as a scientist and part of that is wearing some thoughts on my sleeve right out there in the open for all to see.

About two years ago I received tremendously awesome news. The University of Arizona was going to grant me tenure. Literally the one thing in my career that I had struggled towards and worried about and I made it!

I had read about what some had discussed in terms of a "post-tenure depression". There are a ton of posts out there describing such feelings. A lot of the ideas seem to boil down to the idea that once you attain what you've been working for, there's a period where you question what else there is. I had some other things going on in my life (see my previous post about the circumstances around my son being born),  but I can honestly say that I experienced a post-tenure lull in my career. Never thought it would happen to me, but there it was.

Don't get me wrong, I love my job and still love my job. However, every lab and every department and every University have their own little weaknesses that can become problems. When you start to look around and evaluate your career,  you really notice these things and it can wear on you. It certainly did for me. I have never worried about coming up with new experiments and ideas, my greatest worry is finding the money to carry out these experiments. Writing grants is hard. It takes A LOT of emotional energy to pull together a new grant and it is completely devastating when your grant is rejected. Given funding rates in the US, chances are pretty good that you're going to see many more grant rejections than funded grants. It wears on you, the grind of writing and rejection and rewriting and rejection and rewriting and government shutdowns and rewriting and now that funding program doesn't exist anymore, etc etc etc...At the same time you start to look around and compare yourself to other scientists, it's inevitable. It's human nature to wonder things like how did that project get funded? How come that paper was accepted to that journal? Why does this set of experiments keep failing? On and on, all of these thoughts and doubts pile on to each other. "But you're tenured, you should be happier" people say. It's easy to lose perspective for a bit. We're all human, recognition feels really good when it comes and it's super difficult not to feel jealous about others' good fortune.

For me, the key was to double down on what got me here. Focus on my own happiness and the rest will come (or it won't, that's OK too...).

It's taken me a good two years, but I definitely feel much better about my career than in the couple of months post tenure. I've decided to keep being  me, to do science that I love and am truly interested in and to not worry about the small stuff. I'm going to teach a bit more, and  maybe that buys me some karma from my bosses in case grants don't come through. I realized that one of the best things about science is the friends you make along the way, and I absolutely love talking shop with other scientists. I've made some pilgrimages back to the places and the people that mean a lot to me and have helped me along the way and that's certainly helped to bring me out of whatever funk was there. I've made a lot more time for my family and for enjoying life outside of science. I've tried to really celebrate others' good fortune and give them kudos when possible. At some point, we all are just trying to hang on and survive, and those little kudos go a long way. 

I have no clue what the future holds, but I'm going to try and keep sciencing until retirement. There  are going to be ups and downs, but it's still incredible to walk into the lab and see that an experiment worked. It's incredible to feel like you've just discovered something completely new about the universe. That's enough for now, even if the government ever opens back up and my grants are rejected.

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