After 6 years of being a postdoc and 3 years of a project scientist, I am now a stay-at-home Mom (SAHM) of two girls, ages 1 and 4. What am I doing here in this blog? Am I still a scientist? What is my next? I hope to answer these questions in this and future posts (thanks peírama for including me in this group of accomplished and thoughtful women!).
As a SAHM (yes – please forgive me for the acronym), I have completely abandoned any and all of my scientific activities and endeavors. I do not keep up with literature, I do not inquire how my former lab is doing, and I do not conduct experiments on my children (though sometimes they remind me of rats, my former experimental subjects — I may elaborate on this in a future post). When I left science/academia/my former lab, I was 5 months pregnant with our second child, my husband just received his PhD and got a well-paying industry job, and we moved to a new city. I did apply to a faculty position at a liberal arts college one hour away from our new city, but I was skeptical and indifferent, and never heard back anyway. More than anything I was burned out and felt defeated, and was ready for a little break.
My postdoctoral training and project scientist job was in a lab with exciting questions, approaches, and techniques. The PI was brilliant and kind. I was not able to flourish as I wished or imagined in this ideal environment. For a long time it felt everything I touched would turn into rust. Many many many experiments I conducted produced inconclusive results and were abandoned. I allowed myself to fall into a depth of negativity, self-doubt, guilt, and shame. After few lackluster and dispersed publications, I lacked a BANG of papers or a modest but consistent line of papers that could have led to a faculty position and future grant opportunities. I failed to discover and develop my own niche and became disillusioned and pessimistic about my abilities to navigate, survive, and succeed as a PI given the current status of academia and basic research.
Even if I had the abilities to do all those things, it would have taken so much blood, sweat, and tears (on my part, but perhaps also for my husband and children). To compete with top-notch scientists in the field for meagerly available grant money, and to get tenured, it would have taken an inordinate amount of work, brain power, and time. Simply, I just did not want to work that hard anymore. What I learned through my experience is that in science, you can work so hard and so long, and sometimes things do not work out.
I often thought that a “PI” at a university is a lot of occupations combined. Besides conducting scientific experiments (which you no longer get to do once a PI), you prepare manuscripts, grants, textbooks (writer/editor/artist), teach a class (teacher), mentor students and fellows (therapist), present evidence and defend your findings (lawyer), market your research (business person), and review manuscripts and grants (judge?). You bring in money, hire and manage personnel, and determine how money is spent (CEO/small business owner/HR/accountant). In the beginning that is one aspect that attracted me to this job. However as I learned, the prospect of doing all these jobs well became overwhelming. In a way, a mom/parent also does many of these things. So to be a PI and a mom, you have two “all-occupation” jobs. You must be a superhuman to be successful at it. Many do it. They must be superhumans. I am not.
So I escaped. Luckily I had an escape route. Regrets and jealousy are there — what am I doing with 22+ years of education? What am I doing with most specialized and highest level of techniques and knowledge? My friends, colleagues, trainees, and nemeses will succeed and gain notoriety (ugh – especially resentful of nemeses publishing nonsenses 🙂 ). Science will go on without me in it. My graduate adviser and postdoctoral PI believed in me, supported me, and wanted me to succeed (after all my PI kept me for nine years!). I felt shame in not meeting their or my expectations.
Or am I? Perhaps I have been given a second chance. There must be something else that will make use of my training and experience. There must be something that will make me feel passionate, worthwhile, and contributing to the advancement of science (bonus: something with an outcome positively correlated with efforts). Perhaps I can discover it through this blog (or document my search). It has been almost two years since I have been a SAHM. I feel rejuvenated. I feel ready to get out there again.