Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Fighting loneliness on the tenure track

My emergency contact is moving away. One of the friends who convinced me to move where I am was fired earlier this year for not having an R01 grant. She found a new (much better) job, was awarded a large foundation grant and will likely get her R01 in the next month or so. She's heading to be awesome somewhere else. The other good friend I had made after moving to "New PI town" moved away a few months ago also for a job opportunity closer to her family and boyfriend. So, who should be my emergency contact now? Likely someone in my family in Europe, since I don't have close friends nearby.

What I'm really asking is: how much loneliness is one supposed to put up with for the sake of their job? Many jobs may push you to move around for career advancement, but I do not know any other one where getting a new job takes 1-3 years and will most likely mean you have to move somewhere else. Being on the tenure track adds a level of restraint where you may not be able to be completely honest with senior or junior colleagues. In addition, being the boss is a lonely job, as you can be friendly and caring, but not the one to share your deepest fears and doubts. Not being in a relationship makes things more lonely, but relationships can complicate things. Some people move to less than ideal situations to follow their significant other. Other couples are stuck living in different cities because two academic positions in the same place are hard to find. Last but not least, studies have shown that it becomes harder and harder to form close friendships after a certain age,

Children's voyage (Wikimedia Commons)
This sounds dire. What is an academic to do? When deep ties built during graduate school and postdoc years are severed and friends are scattered all over, conferences and seminars become as much about science as about getting together and catching up. I never really appreciated how critical this is for my well-being until I started as an Assistant Professor. Other networks are also available to get support and develop a sense of belonging. Twitter provides a broad and supportive scientific community, though trolls and the constant barrage of news and opinions sometimes require taking a step back every now and then. Nonetheless, friendships can be forged on the site. The New PI Slack (no relations to me) is a supportive community for early stage investigators which is now hosting more than 1000 academics in constant discussions about running a lab, writing grants, training, teaching and many other topics. What matters is that there are A LOT of other people out there going through the same things and having the same problems I have. Science in academia doesn't have to be so lonely.

I will miss my friends terribly, but everyone has gotta do what they gotta do. Old friends are still an email, a phone-call or a flight away. And I am glad there are all these other groups available. I am still not convinced that you cannot develop new strong friendship after 30 or 40, in real life and online.

8 comments:

  1. I hope you will soon make new "emergency contact"who can share the joy, sweat and tears of being a PI.

    I can totally relate to the loneliness. My better one and I have been separated for 5 yrs since I started this TT position. We tried very hard to reunite (argubaly not hard enough to sacrifice one's career?!) and the closest one we got for 2.5 yrs was 300 miles apart (drivable distance for weekends), then he got an industry job and moved 600 miles further while I struggled to get an R01. My family is 3500+ miles away and I had always relied on "local close colleagues" as my emergency contact. Earlier this year, those friends were either retired or let go, at the same time my tenure was denied, I got an R01 and published a few high profile papers. As of today, the Provost still stands firm on her original decision, despite the outcries from the senior faculty and multiple TT review committees. Looking back, my decision to fight through the 5 yrs of "loneliness" is laughable, and I have decided to take whatever measures to reunite with my other half, even though I may end up in a less ideal career position.

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    1. Sorry to hear about your story. It is far too common. There is always that doubt of whether this is all worth it. I really hope you can reunite with your half as soon as possible and that life throws a great position at you. You never know what is right around the corner.

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  2. Hey Newish PI,

    I found your blog through Twitter, and there are lots of things that I can relate to here. I've chosen NOT to got the academic PI route and transition to industry, but a lot of my best friends from graduate school and my Post-Doc are just starting to dip their toes in those waters, and it is stressful for me just to watch them going about it!

    The loneliness is palpable, and the stress can be overwhelming, especially on the tenure track. I have enjoyed reading your posts here as a kind of fly-on-the-wall into the life of a new PI.

    I'd love to alleviate at least some of that stress. I know that starting labs up can be extremely costly and complex, and you'd always like to stretch your funding as far as possible, and I think I can help. Give me a follow on Twitter and maybe we can talk later about how I can help your lab run smoothly and efficiently.

    https://twitter.com/DerekJacobsPhD

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  3. I also can relate to that feeling. I was for for years in Germany as a post-doc, and all of my friends there inside and outside the lab were expatriates like me. I was one of the last to leave, and went back to my home country. I got a TT position with 35y in a city I knew no one. Again, no local friends. Although there was a number of young PI like me, I was an outsider, as unlike them, I was associated to a big boss. When finally I did not get tenured, I moved again to a different city, to start over a new life with 40. Now, after seven years, I got tenured (3y ago) but I can not count with any friend here but my wife, and I am considering quitting to move to her home country to have some family support.

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    1. I completely understand. I always moved where I already knew people because I couldn't imagine going to a brand new place alone. I think it takes such amazing strength and I always wonder how this attitude has affected my career. In the end, it just doesn't make sense to sacrifice everything for science...

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  4. When I was interviewing for TT positions I literally flew all across the world and I interviewed in 4 different countries. In the end I was lucky enough to have a pick between two offers and ultimately I let the non-science argument weigh heavier: I had only pluses for one job, but the mere fact that I had to move again to a different country and a city I didn't know yet all by my single self just tipped the balance. It's not that I didn't know whether I could do it (I also did a postdoc abroad in a place where I didn't know anyone), but I just figured that if I did it again, that would be my life. I would be sacrificing everything for science. And I knew I would be perfectly happy doing that in the end, but it would not be the life that I think I should want to have. Because in the end there is more to life than science (I still forget that way too often).
    So I sacrificed what may have been scientific success/glamour (who knows, I may have been a total dud) for being closer to family and friends in a town I really like. And I am still happy I made that choice, even though every now and then I do get a 'what if' moment. But those moments are becoming more rare.

    Now that I have tenure though, I can feel the sense of "adventure" and not wanting to be stuck in one place rearing it's ugly head again. So maybe it's really intrinsic and we do this to ourselves. But a TT is hard enough as it is. So try to also build a life outside of science: meet non science people doing other activities. That in itself can be comforting.

    And hang in there - it is hard! Also, there is no right or wrong here. There is only what is right for YOU. It took me a long time to admit that to myself because I had always let science come first.

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  5. NewPI, what a coincidence it time and events! My emergency contact just moved back to Europe. I had to change his info in the U website to reflect this yesterday. I moved to the US from Europe, so now I have no close friends or family...going back to how I came here. I do feel the strings pull to follow back to Europe, but I cannot right now b/c of work commitments. And I still love the adventure feeling Bio Brains mentions!

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  6. When I got my TT faculty job, I moved with my wife to a city where we knew absolutely no one but each other. She was a postdoc and became friends with grad students and other postdocs. They became our social group, but I always feel a little awkward about hanging out with "trainees" and don't feel like any of them are actually MY friends. Plus, they all eventually move away after completing training. I also started my faculty job at the height of the recession when there was a hiring freeze at my Uni (I got hired as a special exception as part of somebody else's retention package), so there was no cohort of new PIs to commiserate with. We're just now starting to hire some new PIs, but since I've now been here for five years, they all treat me like a mentor rather than a possible friend. As I'm thinking about it now, it seems like the hierarchy of positions in academia make it particularly hard to make true friends at work. This combined with the fact that there just don't seem to be a lot of 30-somethings looking for friends outside of work, can really make the life of a new PI lonely. Anyway, I'm just commenting here to say that I can relate to what you're feeling.

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