The chameleon

Last weekend, we celebrated my parents’ 33rd wedding anniversary. Since I’ve been travelling quite a bit the past months, we agreed to go to some place easy to reach with public transport and met in Brussels. It was fun, with lots of special beers and chocolate of course! Being away from the lab, even if only for a few days was good to reset my brain and really relax for a while. At some point, my sisters boyfriend asked me when I started drinking so much and I replied that I’ve always enjoyed a beer, but that it helps that I’m free to do whatever I want nowadays.

Traveling back was interesting. When I walked to the check-in for the train, I wanted to make sure I had everything I needed and stopped in the middle of the hall to pull out my ticket from my bag. Someone stopped behind me. I was puzzled at first, until I realised I’m getting into British territory again and this person is probably so fond of queueing, that he’s trying to start a queue behind me… It was quite entertaining to see his confusion after a troop of Spanish guys walked past our ‘queue’ and checked in. He still needed me to tell him I’m not actually queueing before he continued on :)

I still have a healthy dislike of queues though. So I got out my ereader and decided to wait with checking in until the border control queue, arising after the ticket control, was gone as well. However, the British are determined to introduce people to their system. As soon as I had walked past the ticket control and French border control, I walked into a massive queue for the British border control… With no way around it! Like a good British citizen, I just sighed and accepted this fate.

Then, the person in front of me dropped her laptop on my foot and I quickly pulled my foot back. She grabbed the bag and asked whether it hit my foot. In a flash, I thought that she can’t do anything about it hitting my foot anymore anyway, right, so I just said no, it didn’t. And actually apologised for not catching it for her. With the result that I walked into the train wearing a stupid grin, because I was fully aware of ridiculousness of the situation. Getting hit by a laptop and then apologising. I think I’m perfectly well adapting to the UK.

And that was also when I realised what the core of my recent breakdown really is: I too easily adapt to different environments and expectations. Drinking a beer less because I know my ex didn’t like it; going to visit a museum because my dad wants it. Apologising for nothing because that’s what the Brits do. Going for a postdoc because that’s the expected path in academia. I realised I should start making up my mind about what I want. Which is pretty scary: what does make me happy?! My family, my friends, my work, my hobbies? Not so easily answered, but at least something I can work on.

It’s kind of funny though. I’ve been telling people they don’t have to do a M.Sc. or a PhD if they have some other job in mind that doesn’t require it anyway. I’ve told friends to get out of their relationships if they’re not happy with it, no matter what the priest may think… I’ve been telling people to stop worrying about expectations of others and live their own lives. I never really realised I’m doing the same – I always assumed I’m doing the things I’m doing because they are want I want to do. I actually could have realised this way earlier, when one of my friends started called me ‘chameleon’ because I always adapt pretty quickly to new surroundings, people and expectations… Guess a bit of forced time alone & some introspection isn’t all that bad after all :)

Why I can’t *secretly* take over the world

Sometimes, mostly when least expected, I have brilliant ideas. Like on the bus. Or in the bathtub. When I’m not even trying to control my brain but am simply staring at the world passing by, when I’m almost falling asleep and just letting it happen. Lots of ideas are irretrievably lost, but every now and then I hold on to it and get to my laptop or tablet. I work it all out. First this fellowship, then that committee role and organising that event. Et voila, my career is fixed for the next hundred years.

(and yes – if you thought I was thinking about brilliant scientific ideas, yup, they happen too in the bathtub, but those are not what this post is about)

Sometimes, after waking up from my trance where everything is rosey, I wonder whether the path I envisioned is realistic, whether things I’d like to apply for are too ambitious. Or may not fit my supervisors expectations. Like a few months ago, when I asked him to back an application for a teaching role – “you sure you want to do teaching?”…

Yes, I do. But maybe I do not always want to tell the entire world. Maybe I just want to try on a new role, see how it goes. Or just see how far I can get with the application procedure, without having to admit that I’m actually as arrogant to believe my chances are good enough to apply for THAT job.

Impossible, no secrecy permitted here. I’ve asked both my PhD supervisor and my current postdoc supervisor for at least 5 letters of recommendation so far this year. And the end is nowhere near in sight. Travel money. Teaching positions. Research Fellowships. All kinds of things really.

I like applying for stuff. Maybe I’m a bit mad. However, I like to write applications as I simply like writing and think it’s good practice. Especially when, like now, they are not absolutely necessary for jobs I need to live, but are merely extracurricular functions. I’m nosey, curious and restless and I know it, so I would simply like to use that energy for something useful.

But do I really have to admit that to my boss, with every thing I apply for?! Even though he says he doesn’t mind writing letters, he has to start wondering at some point when I actually get to do all these things, whether it doesn’t interfere with my work? It doesn’t interfere with it, but sometimes I’d rather have he didn’t know about everything I get up to.

Besides that, I feel guilty for claiming so much time. Some roles require three letters. Even if some of them have asked me to write the letters for them, they still edited them and wasted time on it. And then the search committees, who have to get through so many letters…

So my plea, arising from a tiny frustration… Could we please stop asking for letters of recommendation up front?! Make a shortlist, ask them for references, but don’t ask them from everyone immediately. I always wonder what the added value is anyway, does it every happen that are not absolutely positive?! It might make a difference maybe when you have two very good candidates, but like I said, it should do then to request more information only about the people you’re actually interested in!


(the actual trigger for this post btw… I sent off an application for something with deadline tomorrow. Warned the beloved letter-writers well in advance. Sent them a subtle reminder last weekend. To get a panicky reply from one of them: “I forgot! And I’m on holidays in Uzbekistan now with my laptop locked away in a safe at home! How can we solve this?” *facepalm*)

The road goes on :)

First of all; sorry for the overly dramatic previous post. That was written during the darkest stage of a crisis like I never went through before, I probably shouldn’t have posted that. It isn’t all bad. Just a rather unfortunate timing of homesickness, family matters, a dying relationship and frustration at work…

Second; maybe it IS good I posted that. I received some very heartening emails and even stepped over a few psychological barriers to meet a random stranger to discuss my problems with. I usually don’t meet with strangers nor discuss my problems; I don’t like either! But I’m happy I did. Apparently it’s sometimes good to hear someone say what you already know deep within. That such a crisis is normal for example. Plus get a couple of good ideas on how to continue :)
Thanks for getting in touch with me through email & Twitter, for sharing your stories and reassuring me that this is all part of the game and will get better!

So now what?

I’ve decided to kill all doubts whether my ex and me might get back together after all. I blocked him on all social media so I don’t have to witness his happy moments without me and try to break contact as much as possible. Was pretty tough to do after almost 9 years together, but probably the fastest way to get moving on. Focus on the good things instead: the bathroom is full with dried laundry I could get out of the way. And there’s moving boxes waiting to be unpacked. I can ignore them as long as I want because there is nobody around to complain about it! Instead, I’m learning some Bastille songs on my guitar & piano. Brilliant, right?! And my sister, whom I’ve never had much contact with, witnessed the beginning of this breakdown on Sunday; we’ve probably had as much contact the last few days as the years before. She’s even planning to take another flight here this winter! How good is that?!

Then, considering friends.. This is probably a good way to sort out the real friends from the merely acquaintances: those who can’t be bothered to reply to an email, why are they my friends anyway??

One point someone made in an email, couldn’t be more spot on: I’ve been unhappy here, partially because I kept considering this as something ‘temporary’ and have not invested in actually making my flat welcoming or meeting people. So yeah, that’s gotta change too.

And finally.. Work.. I’m still convinced of the value of my work and really want to find out how the proteins I’m interested in cause the illnesses they’ve been linked to and what they are good for in general. So I just got to stop moaning about the lab and make it to my liking. We do have good resources after all; I just have to find the best way to use them.

To start off, I’ll warn my colleagues once more to stop using MY materials stored on MY bench without asking. Perhaps I’ll just swap some labels to figure out who keeps using my stuff anyway. I feel really bad doing something like that; but then again, apparently they don’t feel bad using stuff I asked them not to?! It feels really childish, but I hate finding bottles that I thought were full standing empty on a colleagues bench, in the middle of an experiment where I need them. Or worse, people using things I’d like to keep sterile without consideration, leaving me to wonder for weeks where that yeast contamination could possibly come from… Maybe get some hidden stocks of things we’re most likely to run out off. Depending on how it goes, I might even get back to working early like I used to during my PhD – if I start at, say, 7, I’m probably mostly done by the time most of the lab wakes up. There are possibilities, I see now.

And most importantly: consider what I really want. I don’t think being in a top research institution is right for me. As I described before, I feel like a major effort is going into politics and strategy, which will be even worse in a highly competitive top institution. I’d rather do less ‘famous’ science but have more time for the science I’m doing and get more involved in teaching and outreach. That’s something I’ve got to think on a bit more.

So, how’s that?! Much better than last post eh. Maybe I should really my act together and start unpacking those boxes then ;)


[EDIT] For those who interpreted the bit about changing labels as sabotaging the lab. I would never, ever, jeopardise the work of others. I am too conscious of the tax pounds, dollars and euros flowing into the work, how much effort it is for our bosses to keep the cash flowing. What I meant to say, is that I’d for example label my bottles in Dutch. Or add stars and flowers and things on the label, that *might* make my colleagues uncertain of the contents of my bottles and leave them alone.

In the past, I have actually swapped labels once though. I quite like the story.  I had made a solution, which was quite a bit of work to make, tested it and seen that it works very well. During lab meeting, I told my colleagues I have this super solution – would they like to try it? And gave them the recipe in case they liked it. I noticed that the liquid level in the bottle dropped alarmingly fast – I didn’t want to make this solution for the entire lab every month, so I kindly asked them to stop using mine and make their own. Even offered to help them doing it! That, of course, didn’t help. So I got really angry next. Which also didn’t help. Then I swapped the label of this bottle with a bottle of water. Sat back and waited for complaints of people whose experiments didn’t work out anymore. These were experiments where you know within 2 days that it didn’t work, so it didn’t disrupt anything major. It cost people a week at most. But I knew who kept using my things and could get angry with them. And because they couldn’t hide anymore, because I could get mad at them personally, this time it actually worked. (plus maybe they didn’t trust any of my bottles anymore ;))