Saturday, July 19, 2014

Life on the tenure-track: learn to push through the wall

If you have never read “Stress in biomedical research: six impossible things”, you should read it right now. Not kidding. Go read it, because it’s much more useful than anything I will say below.

I have written recently on work ethics and while on vacation last week I have been thinking about dealing with stress. The first year of running a lab was stressful, but there had been many other stressful times before that helped me figure out how to handle it. The Fall of 2010, when this opinion piece by Doug Green at St. Jude came out, was a particularly bad one. I was a postdoc coming off directing the first year of a summer research program for undergrads I started, two big grants applications, including the resubmission of my K99, finishing a paper. I was at a breaking point. I had a deadline every two weeks for 3 months and as the cherry on top I had agreed to write a review with my postdoctoral advisor due in mid-November. It was a tricky one because it was a short Current Opinions piece and I had a very ambitious plan: it had to cover my advisor’s bread and butter, cover MY bread and butter so that I could use it in the future, and everything had to be elegantly explained and put together while giving illuminating ideas to my field. It wasn’t happening. I cannot write at home so I was in the lab at 1 AM the day of the deadline and I just put my head down on my desk: “I’m going to email him right now and tell him I cannot do this! I just can’t. He’ll have to write this himself.” I had just pulled a muscle in my back writing. Did you even know you could be so tense that you pull a muscle while sitting?

One of the grad students was there and she took me to the lunch-room for tea. “Just take a break from it for a few minutes” she said. We chatted, while I kept running combinations in my head, and then it clicked: the right way to make it flow. By 3 AM the review was done and emailed off to my boss. It gets cited all the time. I was awarded both grants, and the summer program is now in its fifth year and thriving even after I left. Though very hard, the Fall of 2010 was one of the most definitive times in my career. It is when I became a PI in my head, a year before I applied for faculty positions.

The moral of this fable is Impossible Thing #5 from Doug Green’s paper: Be an Athlete. You train, you focus and when you hit the wall, you learn to push through. As it happened I didn’t know I had powered through a wall, but when I read his article soon thereafter, it all made sense. The problem was: How was I going to do it again? The following spring possibly because of these events or the ubiquitousness of the CouchTo5K app, I started running for the first time since college and training for races. I’m still a 5 to 10K runner, but even the transition from running 0 to 6 miles was an eye opener. You have to know your body and you have to listen. There are times when the roadblocks are all in your head and there are times when you absolutely have to rest for a couple of days, so that you don’t get injured. And then there are times when you just fly! The feeling of getting stronger and faster on a monthly, sometimes weekly basis, is pretty awesome, as is the knowledge of your inner resources and limits. If this concept doesn’t help during the madness of your tenure-track years, I don’t know what would.

I am not saying that you have to start running, though it seems a pretty constant advice on the TT blogosphere that to keep sane you have to find time to exercise any way your like. I'm saying that building an academic career seems like a marathon, not a sprint, and developing a mental approach to cope is more important than anything else. I felt that I could handle Year 1 because I had somewhat "trained" for it and that the lessons learned in Year 1 will hopefully help me handle whatever will come along in the future. I truly believe that what I learned as a runner (and a yogi) has been critical and shaping my mental attitude at work. It becomes second nature to check with your body, to push it and to nurse it. Some days are bad, so you just acknowledge it and move on. You have to forgive yourself and work to build on your talents over the long term. You prepare, you perform, you rest, you repeat over and over again while setting always bigger goals. At any given time, there may always be someone who is better than you, but you focus on your personal best constantly getting better. You celebrate the improvements and learn from the failures. Will this really make a difference in the long run? What do I know? I'm just a year into this, but it's definitely making a difference for me. Yet, I have not mastered much of what I am preaching, I'm still training.

There has been some talk on Twitter of what your manifesto is. So in a way my manifesto is this: to never stop training to better myself as a person and as a scientist, and to learn how to balance challenging and nurturing to avoid reaching a breaking point. Now how do you work this into my IDP?

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to thank you for sharing your experience and feelings.