Fitting in…or not…

This has been something that I’ve thought about quite a bit actually, but a tweet-storm by @hormiga (see below) made me realise that maybe I should put my thoughts out there. This is gonna be a bit of a personal post, but I think it’s relevant, and hopefully helps someone else that might feel the same.

As the title suggests, I’ve always felt like I don’t really “fit in” to any specific group. I was born in Belgium, to Belgian parents, but when I was 5 we moved to Northern Colorado. I didn’t speak a word of English, but as a 5 year old, you learn very quickly, especially if immersed in the new language. My family has a rather long history of baking, and that’s also what my parents did. Nobody else at school had self employed parents. Most other kids didn’t speak another language at home. Some people had never left the state. I had to leave the country every few years just to be allowed to stay (yay visas). Almost all my classmates lived close to their extended family. I (still) hardly know my cousins. Basically, I was different. I knew it. But it didn’t stop me from making friends or doing well in school. But I was still different.

Then, when I was 13, we moved to New Zealand. Almost everything changed. A few things didn’t. Dad was still baking and Mum was still involved in hospitality too. Everyone spoke English. But it wasn’t the same English. And of course, my English was weird and funny. So, there I was again being different at school. Yeah, I still made friends and did well, but I was still different.

Since then, I’ve met other people who’s parents moved around a lot when they were growing up, and some of my closest friends are other “Third Culture Kids“. But I’m still different. And now, I realise that so many of my “otherness” feelings regarding academia are especially close to how I feel about other “TCKs”. They grew up with money. I didn’t. Their parents weren’t necessarily rich, but they probably were never bankrupt either. When you grow up with just barely enough to get buy, having a comfortable salary is such a revelation, even if it’s “just” a PhD students’ salary.  I still feel this difference almost every day. To a certain degree, I’m supposed to fund parts of PhD-related things myself. They may not be essential, but I’ll do a whole lot better with them. But, I can’t just ask my parents to help me out. They’re doing fine, but they’re running a business (lemonade, not baking anymore) so there’s never any extra. So, it might just seem like a small thing to you, but money can be a really big matter to first-generation college students. No matter what, I’m still different.

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Silly Blog Challenge – Rescue Me

I’ve been challenged by Ian Street to pick five characters from TV series or Movies I’ve seen lately that I would want to come to my rescue in a terrible situation.

  1. Patrick Jane (The Mentalist)
  2. Claire Underwood (House of Cards)
  3. Jake Peralta (or actually anyone from Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
  4. Asher Millstone (HTGAWM)
  5. Mark Watney (The Martian)

I will tag @HereBeNabila, @RheeMor, @inkyspider, @LDrogosPHD, and @NickWan

We’re lucky to do this job, but…

 

A recent article in The Guardian brings up a good point with regards to acknowledging how lucky we are to work in academia, however many of the finer points in the article actually perpetuate many of the harmless attitudes that make up the culture of academia. Accepting harmful behaviour does perpetuate it, and if one does not speak out against it, one is, by default, supporting it. I will break down what I mean below. Keep in mind, I am not criticising the general sentiment of the article, or attacking the (anonymous) author, purely adding to the discussion surrounding academic work-place culture.

“As a tribe, we academics enjoy complaining. There’s too much teaching, too many committees, not enough funding. The reviewers are too mean, the houses too expensive, the wages too low. But I would like to stick my head above the parapet (anonymously) and propose a new idea for 2016: let’s celebrate academia for a change.

We need to remember that this profession is fun. We need to rekindle the fires that got us here in the first place. Yes, there are some rubbish bits. But when I take a break from complaining and reflect, there are lots of things that make me happy – and should make you happy too. Here are nine of them:”

 

Even the first paragraph brings up some points which I would like to dissect. First off, the implication that complaining is unique to academics isn’t really such a great point. I have never, in my life, met a single person who does not complain about something. It is not a mark of academia, and it does not make us special. As a side-note (which will come up again and again), “complaining” is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the “complaints” mentioned even in this first paragraph (eg. relating to money) are actual, legitimate concerns which may keep people out of academia. So, is it really a bad thing to discuss these things? If it leads to awareness of the problem, ideas for solutions, and an improvement in the system, why is it framed as a bad quality? I agree, a positive outlook, and a recognition of how lucky (aka how privileged) we are is very important, but why not strive to be better?

Many of the points in the article are great to reflect on, and a few I cannot comment on because I just don’t have the experience, but some of the nine “good” points this author mentions are actually anything but.

“6 Time is on my Side

As an academic, you are more or less your own boss. That means you can find the things you enjoy and do them: I get deep joy from taking a break to play football during the working day, for example.

There are disagreeable tasks: admin, marking, grant-writing. But the bad bits shouldn’t take all of your day – if they do, drop some. It is acceptable to say no. And where it is not, it is normally possible to shape courses and committees to reflect your research interests.”

While we do generally have flexible working hours, this often comes with the expectation to work MORE HOURS. I really love the fact that I can choose when I work, and that if it is a really sunny day I can get out and go hiking, or if the snow is good, I can try and avoid the crowds by hitting the slopes mid-week, but I have also been pressured to work extreme over-time and been denied holidays. I’d argue that this is a much bigger problem for junior represented academics, we are much more likely to experience pressure from our superiors than someone who has tenure. There is often the implication that if you are not at work every single day of the week for at least a few hours, you are not serious enough about your work. You can be productive in a more-or-less 40 hour work week. Some weeks you may need to work more, and sometimes you may also need to do the work at odd hours (especially in biology), but when discussing work hours of academics, one needs to consider both sides of the “flexibility” argument.

“7 Under Pressure

Remember, there are far more stressful jobs out there – some involve people shooting at you (soldier), shouting at you (police) or dying on you (doctor).

There are others that involve horrible hours, terrible working conditions and repetitive tasks, but luckily I stopped being a post-doc.”

See above points about working hours and expectations. I also take issue here with the “joke” about post-doc positions. In my view, this shows how little respect the author has for their juniors. Yes, science has repetitive tasks, and nobody should shy away from that, but horrible hours and terrible working conditions are not to be passed on to your juniors at all. I really can’t stand the “my journey in academia was horrible like this, so it must be like this for you too” attitude. We can all work together to make academic culture more welcoming for everyone, and this starts by respecting your juniors.

“8 The Kids are Alright

If my relentless optimism isn’t enough for you, think of the children/students.

Complaining about the stress of an academic job may be a cunning plan by established faculty to stop newer, smarter people snapping at their heels. But it isn’t fair on the next generation and it is a waste of the time, energy and money we have invested in getting them across the line.”

Yeah, but the students also need to know what awaits them when they embark on a PhD. Having unrealistic expectations about your future plans or your dream career helps no-one, and only pushes people out of academia.

 

“9 Don’t Worry, Be Happy

In conclusion (and for the sake of balance), I do accept that there are problems with the system. There are fewer entry-level posts, and those that do exist come with considerably less job security than they used to. The demands of the career have changed significantly and it is much harder to get that critical break-in grant than it was 20 years ago. But dwelling on the negative doesn’t actually help anyone.”

 

These are not the only problems in academia, and overall the author seems to be advising “just smile and be happy” as a way to fix all the problems. Maybe, instead of dismissing meaningful discussions by people who experience the issues of modern-day academia as “complaining”, it would be more useful to listen, really listen to what they are saying and try to use your position of power (or luck, privilege, whatever you want to call it) as a means of change. So, dear author, try and listen more to your colleagues who are experiencing these issues, and maybe their “negativity” WILL actually help someone.

 

Reflections

So, it’s been almost a year since I left a place where I felt at home. The events and decisions that lead to me leaving were complicated and emotional, and this ‘anniversary’ is really making me reflect on my time there, and my past year.

  
 
It’s been a crazy 12 months, an exciting 12 months, a heartbreaking 12 months, a brilliant 12 months, a stressful 12 months, a lonely 12 months, 12 months filled with new and old friends, 12 months of goodbyes and 12 months of hellos. I’m sure there is only more to come, but I am also sure that the past 12 months have been really tough for me, very rewarding too, but boy have they been challenging. I’m now living in my 5th country, but it’s my 3rd in the past 12 months. Of course I like most parts of my slightly nomadic lifestyle, but there are parts that are hard. And it’s the same parts every time you leave a place dear to you, when you come back to an old haunt, and when you try and settle in a new place. I hated to leave Bergen, it felt like it wasn’t my decision, I had finally settled in and made friends, I hadn’t seen as much of Norway as I would’ve liked. I wasn’t ready. And it’s really the first time I haven’t felt like it was my own decision to do something since my parents dragged me to New Zealand when I was 13. So, of course, I was miserable when I arrived back in New Zealand, I was miserable for quiet a while. But then, I managed to find a job to keep myself busy, I really earnestly started applying for new PhD positions (it took me a while to decide to have another go), I got involved with some sports, I made some new friends, I went to a friend’s wedding, and another really good friend came to visit me. It was really great, and really awesome to find that side of me again. Eventually I found a new phd position, and I moved to Austria. I love my new lab, my project is great, but I’m not sure I’ve really settled in yet. I’m not sure I will settle in here as much as I have in other places, it’s nice here, it just doesn’t feel quiet like it could ever be ‘home’. I guess that feeling might go away, but right now I’m not convinced. 

I guess it’s always a bit of an adjustment when life throws you a curve ball, and I am slowly adjusting to my new world, it’s just taking longer than I thought it would. I really do like what I’m doing now, and who I’m working with, so I’m excited for the future but I guess I just can’t help looking back at last year just a bit more than I probably should.

Debate, academia and privilege

So, over the weekend, I was involved in a  debate surrounding open access publishing, about which people can feel very stongly. I won’t be talking much about the arguments of this debate, but about privilege, and silencing of younger, less privileged scientists and people. Now, one thing I will say, no matter who you are, or which side of any debate you are on, there are things that are unacceptable. Namely, ad hominen attacks, including telling someone the world would be better off without them. But what is also not ok is telling people (especially those who are junior to you) to shut up and fuck off cause they don’t agree with you. And that is what I feel happened to me.

This is, of course, all from my point of view, and feel free to call me out on any of my perceptions.

I came accross a tweet from someone (lets call him Bob) who claims they are not anti-open access, but who has reservations about the system. This is completely fair. However, I did not agree with the example in the tweet, so I quoted the tweet explaining why I thought it was an incorrect example. Later, I replied to another tweet, with Bob’s handle at the end. Both of these actions allowed the tweets, and my response to be visible to my followers. My reasoning behind this is that I think this is a good, and worthy debate to be having and thought that the points represented were at least worth thinking about for me, my followers, and Bob. Now, as I understand it, someone else (lets call him Sam) (who has thousands of followers, compared to my hundreds, and who is a huge advocate of the open access movement) had also quoted a tweet from Bob. What followed was pretty unacceptable, but it was likely what Sam intended. Bob was attacked by Sam’s followers, including being told the world would be better off without him. THIS IS NOT OK. I had not seen this until later when Bob pointed out that nobody had spoken against that. I think here, the responsibility lay with Sam to tell his followers to respond reasonably and not viscously, and anyone else who came accross that tweet should have spoken up, but did not.

So, based on his experiences with Sam, Bob was rather angry with me for broadcasting his tweets to my followers and refused to engage in debate with me. Keep in mind I was unaware of the previous attacks on Bob, and also completely uninvolved. Some may argue that quoting Bob’s tweets and making them visible to my followers is for the sole intent of my followers attacking Bob. This is untrue, and indeed is not what happened. I am a graduate student, an ‘underling’ if you will, and my honest intent was to spark conversation and debate. Bob told me to stop broadcasting his tweets to my followers and when I asked why he refused to engage with me any further. As a result, I felt silenced by this person. Is he threatened by opinions contrary to his, even from a mere grad student?

I looked further at Bob’s timeline, and he engages in this sort of behaviour with anyone who disagrees with him, even if the tweets are more ‘private’ conversations. Why tweet controversial opinions if you don’t intend to actually debate the issue? Why this constant defensiveness? I can’t even point out the privilege in many of Bob’s tweets for fear of further silencing by him. How do you have a conversation with someone so unwilling to listen? This sort of behaviour makes many feel unwelcome in academia, because what is academia and science without debate and solidly supported arguments?

New Beginings!

It’s been a while since I wrote a post, but everything suddenly got very busy after I (finally) accepted a PhD position!

I officially started my new project two weeks ago, but I did some reading in advance. I’m now based at the Limnology department of one of Austria’s universities which is actually in a small town a fair distance away from the actual uni. The department is right by a beautiful lake and I can get out in the outdoors very easily, hiking and swimming and summer, and hopefully I can go snowboarding in winter! My new lab is rather small, but really wonderful. We all work on different parts of the same project, which is sort of new for me, but so far it’s great.


The view from work.

My PhD plan is yet to be outline in detail, but I know what I need to do in the next few months. There is a conference at the end of August that I will be attending (so soon!), and my supervisor even encouraged me to submit an abstract for a poster, so I have been, and will continue to work pretty hard in the lab until the conference, and even afterwards in the hope of submitting a small paper to the conference proceedings. All very ambitious plans, but the lab work is fairly straight-forward, I am currently optimising a karyotyping protocol, and hopefull that gets ironed out soon. I have some nice stainings so far, but it’s still proving difficult to actually count the chromosmes.


Taken with my phone down the microscope, this is the nicest DAPI staining I’ve had.

I do apologise for the unorganised post, but I just thought I’d get back into writing again!

Let me know if you have any suggestions for how to improve my karyotyping protocol!

Valuing people

For the past 6 months or so, I’ve been searching for PhD opportunities and funding. This search can be disheartening and frustrating at the best of times, but sometimes, you read or experience things that make you really angry or frustrated. The worst of these infuriating occurances make me reconsider even sticking around long enough in academia for a PhD, let alone any further plans. Most of these events make me question my worth and how much others value me and my time; they range from neglecting to send out any notification of the application or interview outcome, to the most recent PhD advert I read (which has ultimately lead to this ranting blog post).

The basics of the advert were this: Cool, interesting PhD topic with the chance to develop my own project along the direction of the lab; competitive scholarship to cover full fees of any student of any nationality. But, that’s just it, the ad explicitly stated that the student must fund their living costs separately. There is no mention of other scholarships that may help, and an explicit statement that even part-time employment is not advised during a PhD. What I take from this, is that candidates are expected to be able to find 3+ years of living costs to support themselves without any assistance or indication where they may find help to find these funds from the PI/head of the lab.

To me, this advert sends two signals:

1) To get into science (remember, a PhD is just the start of a scientific career) one must have an incredible amount of money so that you can spend three unemployable years not earning anything but still somehow put food on the table and a roof over your (and maybe even your family’s) head.

and

2) PhD students are not valuable. They are not seen or treated as any other person is. Even without a university degree and really great grades, you can get a paying job, that (in most Western countries) will easily cover food, housing, medical expenses, and probably even a leasure activity or two. The fact that you are refusing this to a PhD student is essentially slavery.

I will not sugar-coat this: I AM a valuable person, I DO deserve a livable wage. No, I do not neccisarily expect this wage to come from the same funds as those that cover my fees, but at least take an interest in presenting me with some options. Had this advert had suggestions for where I might find a separate living-fees scholarship, I would have understood that you do value me and my time, but clearly, in this case, I am either expected to be rich or to starve.

I hope this does not come accross as entitled or concieted, but it is really frustrating and infuriating to constantly come up against a system that does not seem to value people. Without people, there is no science, and we need to start treating scientists better if we expect more enthusiastic minds to keep wanting to come through the ranks.


Note: I have not, and will not post any part of the advert that I saw. I am not interested in targetting anyone in particular. I just wish to bring to light an attitude that I keep coming up against in academia that I feel needs to be changed.