I’m bribing myself!

I’ve made the following deal:

This weekend: cleaning my apartment. Grocery shopping. Finalising some experiments I started last week. Finish writing up my lab journal and process all successful experiments into figures. Finish proof-reading the PhD thesis I promised to read. Apply for some Junior Research Fellowships. Depending on how long that’s gonna take, there are some papers I want to read.

Should be manageable in one weekend, although not necessarily pleasurable. I’ve given myself one good reason to pull it through.

Next weekend, I’ll get to go to London. IF I’m good and do what needs to be done now. I’ll meet up some friends and go to Winter Wonderland and do a bit of shopping. I promised myself I’m allowed to buy a pair of black suede wedges :)

This is the way to make myself do the things that need to get done. Luckily, I have a quite good self-control, so I know that if I don’t do the things I have to do, I most likely won’t get those new shoes…

When your job makes you unhappy

Being in a city full of highly ambitious scientists, I’ve walked into a (maybe even not) surprisingly large number of people who are quite unhappy in their jobs. Like I realised earlier, people come to Oxford feeling they’re the next big thing, only to figure out they are one of many a few months in.

So, what do you do when your job makes you unhappy? If you’d asked me half a year ago, I’d have said easy, find another job!

Some of the people I’ve met, made me see it’s not always that easy. Say, for example, you’ve gotten your postdoc position through a friend of a friend and your CV isn’t that great. Maybe you did your PhD in a country where it’s normal to wait 3 months for the delivery of a chemical and any kind of publication is great. Maybe it isn’t so easy to leave that precious postdoc position in a well-known lab in Oxford. Or maybe you’re on a fellowship, which has the rule that you’ll have to pay back money you received if you quit earlier. Your girlfriend has a job she can’t leave so you don’t want to leave either.

Some of those people are really in a bad shape. Coming to work every day, doing virtually nothing, going home. Waiting for their contract to end. Or being used by bosses who don’t give due credit. It isn’t always pretty. What I can’t understand though, is that people allow themselves to be swallowed by this kind of lethargy.

There are some things they can do in my opinion:
1) Try to make change happen. What exactly is making you unhappy? What can you do to change it? Are there any bosses of your boss that you can talk to, if talking with your boss doesn’t help? Usually there are places you can go to, people who might have good advice for you. Rather often, people are unhappy because they aren’t speaking up about the things that make them unhappy. Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes.
2) If you’ve reached the conclusion you really can’t change anything, look for alternatives. What does your dream job look like? Go through job adverts, even though you feel like you can’t change positions yet. See what the requirements are, and use the time left in your current job to prepare you for exactly that. Many Universities have excellent skills trainings, make use of those!!
3) Network! Go to seminars. Go to social events. Go to conferences if you can. Join the PhD or postdoc association and if there isn’t one, create one! Or start a journal club. Meet people. Make sure they remember you. You never know who you’ll walk into a new boss, a new collaborator, a new letter-of-recommendation writer, a friend. If you are so unhappy with your job you’re not being productive anyway, this might be a good way to make more of it.

The side-effect of broadening your skill set, is that they can be very uplifting. I’ve been volunteering at a Museum and after the first (very scary!!) session I’ve spent with 6-12 year old kids, multiple moms and dads told me their kids really enjoyed it and wanted to come back for more. This nicely balanced out a less successful week at work! It’s nice to have some things to fall back on when work isn’t great.

And finally: realise that work isn’t everything. You work to make a living, not the other way round. I’m in a way quite happy with my upbringing, because my mum works at the till in a supermarket. And she’s happy. Which taught me early on that there’s more in life than work… If anything, even if life in academia gets frustrating every now and then, it still is very rewarding. When I’m not happy with how things are going, I’m off to read some totally unrelated articles, or teach a bit, Skype with my old boss, pick up some random experiment that I’ve been planning on doing ages ago. In what other job do get so much freedom really?!

What you should do though, is stop moaning about the things that make you unhappy. Constructive conversations, fine. But many people are happy to moan a LOT, without aiming to get feedback or anything. Which isn’t getting anyone anywhere really…

Dr Ks 364 days in Oxford

Exactly one year ago, I was torn between excitement of my upcoming one-way flight to Oxford and sadness during my grandfathers funeral. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Oxford exactly one year. And what a year it’s been…

The first days were exciting, my boyfriend joined me for a flat-hunt. We were fairly successful and even had some spare time to enjoy Oxford and each others company. Things turned ugly pretty fast and I vividly remember the moment he walked out of the hotel room to return to Germany a few days later. I felt abandoned, lost, alone in a new city without anyone to talk to. Maybe I also released the emotions kept in during the funeral, as I didn’t need to pretend to be strong anymore. I forced myself out of the hotel room to allow cleaning, but all I wanted was to hide.

I was really glad when I could start work, so I wouldn’t be facing the hotel room anymore and had some distraction. Turned out that my colleagues are absolutely fabulous. There were many Christmas lunches, dinners and parties and before I knew it, I was on my way back home again for a two week Christmas break. Returning to Oxford was even more difficult than before, because I felt like leaving my real life in Germany on hold for a shallow substitute in Oxford.

Winter was grey, windy and rainy. My work seemed to progress albeit slowly. My boyfriend visited once, during a period of festivities back home he hated. I was really happy to have him over so unexpectedly, but in retrospect I already should’ve asked the question: why can you come to Oxford when the alternative, being at home, is worse than being here, but why can’t you come over just to see me?! I went home several times.

It became clear a long-distance relationship is going to be difficult and I started looking at alternatives. Could I go back without damaging my CV overly much? Doubt crept in though, because I realised I quite enjoyed being in Oxford and didn’t really want to go back. I started to realise it’s not fair to treat my time in Oxford as my life being on hold, because I’m living here and now. To be happy, I’d have to invest in hobbies and friends over here as well.

April then literally hit me. I had a freakish bike accident, which had me waking up in the hospital totally confused and lacking several teeth. When they asked who I’d like to call, I realised there wasn’t anyone in particular I’d like to call. Another wave of loneliness swallowed me for a week or so. I felt so terribly alone, I couldn’t face it and went to work two days after the accident, with my face stitched up and lacking teeth…

We decided it’s better to break up. He didn’t want to come here, nor me back, so we reached a stalemate. His grandfather died and I went back for the funeral. It was bizarre to hold him, to comfort him, in the knowledge that our relationship was over. But still caring enough about him to want to comfort him. Two weeks later, I went back again to sign the papers needed for our break. I sold my share of our house to him and we loaded a van with some of my possessions. Most of it stayed with him though: I didn’t think I’d be able to face the memories day after day.

The weeks that followed must’ve been the blackest of my life. Stripped of everything I held dear, I had no idea where to go. My friends weren’t here, my family needed me back home, I suddenly didn’t have a boyfriend, house or cats anymore. Progress at work was infuriatingly slow.

I hate cheesy sayings, but apparently time indeed heals. The months between then and now have been relatively quiet and given me plenty of opportunity for introspection. What do I want from life? What’s important? To be honest, I still don’t know, but I’ve reached the point where I’ll just go with the flow, do what feels good right here and right now. Anything else will follow. I realised I’m really not happy at work and tried to address it.

Because I felt I had nothing to loose anyway, I tried to explain to my boss why I am unhappy at work. We haven’t found a solution yet, but one of the reasons why I was disappointed is because I felt my input in a project went unacknowledged. After speaking about it, at least I’ll be an author on the manuscript and be included more. I’ve always been bad at speaking up for myself, but the current situation is definitely making me better at that.

I’ve started to see many more rays of light. Being on my own has forced me to make my own choices in everything I do. It made me more aware of my needs, more confident.

I’m organising a symposium. I’ve tried to address certain issues at work, which have been medium successful at most, but have led the Institute’s Director to tell me he’d write me a recommendation letter if I ever need one. He really appreciates the effort I’m making, even if my direct boss doesn’t see it. Apparently most people never speak up about issues they may have, which is a shame really.

I’ve been demonstrating in immunology classes and got lovely feedback. I’ve given my first ever lectures, on molecular biology and bioinformatics, and got good feedback on that as well. I’ll use the experience to write up a teaching portfolio, which’ll allow me to become an associate member of the Higher Education Academy.

I’ve picked up piano classes again, joined a group of people playing board games and another bunch of people going to the movies quite often. There’ve been ladies nights out. Or the occasional drink with colleagues. I’ve started volunteering at the Musea. Finally, I feel like my life is happening here. To the point where I’m not really looking forward to Christmas, as two weeks with my family is going to be odd. Especially because I’m not sure yet whether I want to face my ex again, or see the cats. That’ll probably make me incredibly sad and throw me back, so I probably won’t, which in itself is enough to make me sad again. Does that mean I’ll never see them again?!

So yes, the past year has been a special one. One that makes me realise I’m stronger than I think. Which has taught me a lot about myself. I’m not afraid of what the future may hold, but will just take it one day at a time. Let’s see where life takes me!