Zero Wake

It’s the understatement of the century that my life hasn’t gone the way I imagined it would. By now I should have been a year into a postdoctoral fellowship, with my eyes on professorship opportunities in some other city and a steadily growing academic resume. I should have been building a research program around the seven years of work that became my doctoral dissertation, extending it into new directions, new species, and new theories to fit with the interests of my postdoctoral supervisor. I should have been teaching lecture courses, as a guest or full-time, and developing my teaching credentials. I had a plan.

Thinking about it makes my hands shake.

The year after acquiring my doctorate was not kind to me. Postdoctoral positions suited to my needs and interests were few and far between. Their recruiters were not impressed with my proposals, credentials, references, something. Built-up ties in Ottawa prevented me from looking farther afield with any confidence, nor did I particularly want to uproot myself. I looked farther and farther away from my training, at pharmaceutical companies, plastic manufacturers, animal care facilities, private schools, and more. In mounting desperation, I looked at positions that had nothing to do with my training, in technical writing, office assistance, filing, customer service, if I thought I knew or could learn how to do them. The job that found me was none of these things.

I’m not sad about it.

You don’t get to be the kind of scientist I trained to be if your hands shake. Shaky hands can’t handle pipettes or 96-well plates. Shaky hands can’t set up quantitative PCRs or operate scalpels. Shaky hands don’t get to use sutures. Shaky hands can’t set up density layers for membrane extraction. Shaky hands make everything take twice as long and go half as well, and in science, it wasn’t going to go well either way.

My hands only shake when I think about going back.

Those seven years saw me shouted at for twenty minutes at a time for inadequate progress, for not finding every single instance of relevant prior work, for damaging equipment by accident, for being too focused or dissociated to notice that something wasn’t working, for proposing impossible experiments, for taking too long to learn new procedures, for needing funding longer than my supervisor wanted to fund me, and for dozens of other infractions. Those seven years saw my work scrutinized back and forth for weeks at a time, each word rearranged in a repetitive and achingly slow shuffle, every second or third shift looking eerily like what I’d originally submitted. Those years saw me learn to regard my supervisor’s “assistance” with sinking dread, because he made very clear that any help he directed at me was a signal that I was inadequate, or I wouldn’t need it. Those years saw me get my best reviews from the areas that received the least prior approval, and write my best pages in the sections that saw his hands the least. Those seven years saw me flail and lurch through contradictory advice on how and when and how much to rely on others to provide expertise and services I lacked, and how to appear appreciative in this place’s impossible language, and when to give what kind of credit, and when to spend five times as long learning to do the thing myself instead. Those year saw me learn the suppurating horror between every letter of the word “originality,” and how years of work could suddenly mean nothing after a single unfortunate literature search or encounter with a faster colleague.

Getting that degree is the single greatest accomplishment I can claim, even if my homebrew 4ED&D campaign setting is at least six times as long as my doctoral thesis. And yet, my topmost emotion when I turned in that finalized thesis was not pride. It was relief.

Some part of me knew that, once I left that building a Doctor of Philosophy, I would not be entering another.

It’ll be years before I can disentangle how much of this is slowly learning what kind of person academia really wants and the gap between that and who I turned out to be, and how much is how traumatic trying to fulfill my foremost guiding ambition ultimately was. Did I never really want this after all…or did they scare me away?

Either way, the thought of ever trying again brings back the tremors that slowed and ruined too many membrane extraction attempts.

I’m in an unrelated field now, doing unrelated work that I’m good at for mostly-unrelated reasons. I am no longer subject to the tyranny of the literature review or to agonizing hours of revision My supervisor has management tools other than impossible questions and yelling, and the difference has been night and day. I feel valued, respected, and understood in ways I never expected would be mine.

But there’s a strange emptiness to it all, without that supreme ambitious goal to guide my actions. This is the first time in twenty years that I’m not arranging my entire life around working toward a specific decades-long career trajectory. For the first time…I can simply live.

I don’t know what to do with that yet. But I’m sure it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

Zero Wake

2 thoughts on “Zero Wake

  1. 1

    Something very similar happened with me as I was studying archaeology, but a fair amount of baggage I brought with me going in meant I didn’t even finish my undergraduate degree before having a nervous breakdown and leaving school. I hope you find something to do that makes all of that worthwhile.

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