One of my coworkers was “once upon a time” a sheriff. He told me the other day while waiting for a meeting, “you know, no matter how bad it gets, it was never as bad as the worst day of my career as a sheriff”. I have no idea what happened in June 1978 where he was a sheriff, but I am thinking I don’t really want to know. However, the fact that he stood there on Wednesday morning and said this to me should provide a bit of context for the week’s events and my mental state.
I thought about this a few times in the past few days. What was my worst day at work? What day do I look back to in my professional career as the really downer days? Do I have an epic fail? What is the worst day?
When I was in graduate school I learned a major lesson that I have carried with me throughout my career, “don’t depend on anyone but yourself”.
I was a graduate student and went to my first professional society conference with my advisor. I stood proudly by my poster and answered all the questions that came to me. I was on top of the world! The next day was my advisor’s talk. I sat anxiously in the audience waiting for my name to appear up in front of all those scientists and secretly wanting to flash my badge to everyone so they would know that was ME! We had run some computational work that was standing out as being large impact in our field. It contradicted what a few preeminent scientists in our field had said about this reaction. But we ran the computational work over and over and had experimental work to back it up. It worked and it made sense (to a new assistant professor and a 3rd year grad student).
My advisor stood up there and spoke. He was interrupted once, he answered it, he was interrupted twice, he answered that question. Pretty soon the room had erupted and my advisor had a red face and wasn’t able to answer the questions that were flying at him. They were ugly questions, many of them with little basis, but some were quite legitimate questions.
I walked away from that talk a changed graduate student. I had put so much faith into my advisor leading me, guiding me, taking care of me and telling me how to do things and what to do. This was my first exposure to the cut-throat nature of science. I snuck to a phone booth (this would be a place where you could go and make a call on a large phone attached to the wall and hardwired to the building that also required coins to operate). I picked up the phone and called my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and declared how ugly it was. I had serious reservations about the validity of our work.
We moved on in our research. We learned from the work. That ground-breaking paper? Never published. And it didn’t make its way into my dissertation either.
That day at that conference was the worst day of my graduate work. The turning point in my graduate career and possibly my professional career as well – I could only trust myself.
My post-doc years were rocky, I have talked about that before. I can think of many of those days that were less than ideal. I remember one day sitting in my mentor’s truck on our way to lunch and he started making comments to the other occupant in the cab of the truck about how hard it was going to be to get me hired on. I remembered that day with my advisor and my vow those couple years ago to only ever depend on myself. I reminded myself that if I wanted a job here, it was going to be up to me to do it.
I did it. And I did it without my mentor. At the time he complained to me how offended he was that our manager had hired me on as staff without so much as even speaking to him. At the time I rolled my eyes – I had taken the initiative to get myself hired and made it happen, yay me! I understand his complaints a bit more now that I have limited term staff under me. I understand as a full time staff member with my own projects the load and hit your project can take when you have budgeted for a post-doc and you suddenly have a full time staff member under you.
I understand why he cut me loose. One element of it was that he had to do it from a budget perspective (in theory of course). The other, and larger element I believe was that he was making a statement to our manager. “You hired her, you find her something to work on.”
I was then on my own. I didn’t inherit a project to lead, or even a task. I didn’t have a mentor. I was a lowly and lost Scientist 2.
I floundered a lot, but eventually made my way into a new group and succeeded in keeping myself employed by pounding on doors and introducing myself during those early years.
Unlike many people at the lab, my start as a staff member was solo. My constructing myself as a scientist has for the most part been solo. I am now considered mid-career (however that happened) and I will happily, any day of the week, hang my hat on the fact that I built myself to where I am now. I met people, I worked so many different varieties of projects I have (to my own detriment) been called a Jane of all trades. Yes, I have been given helping hands at many points along the way, but that has been based purely off of my performance for others and proving myself. In times recently when it has been feast or famine. I have feasted. By my own doing.
I once heard a lab leader say “the lone wolf mentality is not tolerated here”. But when you don’t have the support of others to help build your career, what other choice do you have? I have few allegiances professionally. I am fighting my label as a “Jane of all trades” in order to build a niche area. Everyone has hurdles professionally and this is mine.
So back to my “worst day of my professional career” thought…
That would be the entire last two going on three weeks. I have managed to stick my foot in my mouth more than once in ways I will never forget. I have delivered bad news. I have yelled. I have hid in my office. I have confided in others, some I have learned I maybe shouldn’t have. I have found myself trembling as I have sat in my chair and listened.
Yes, this period of time would be the third turning point in my professional career… the first in grad school when I realized I couldn’t trust anyone but myself. The second when I actually acted on that as a post-doc and got myself hired on as staff and the third when I have had to deliver blows to people, real live people with feelings and aspirations in life. I have thick skin. I haven’t cried (yet). But it has really taken it out of me. And yes, yes, I do believe that these three weeks have changed me. I am not sure if it is for the better or worse yet.
But I will admit to contemplating (for a brief moment in time) that maybe I should buy a farm, raise chickens, sew and be a SAHM?