Just don’t get in my way

The revelation after my six years of study and lab work to complete a PhD in biology is that I wasn’t on an automatic path to career fulfillment, or happiness. And I had an envious PhD experience.

My principal investigator had a clear vision. He was so sure about his goals that our only problem as his trainees was how to reach them. And we achieved those goals, through improvision and creativity, and published groundbreaking studies in high impact journals. 

I knew the moment I drove off campus for the last time, like leaving your family home for college, no one would support me as much in another work environment anywhere else. The list of reasons why is long, a major one being the synergy of the labor force in that lab. 

That lab was a respectful work environment, despite the composition of people from around the world, Australia, Sweden, India, China, and even West Virginia and Philadelphia. The only requirement of anyone in the lab was to work hard, which also meant that some of your best ideas might help another succeed. I might argue any ideas I had for a project other than my own was my most important job.

The principal investigator worked hard to make it easy for us to accomplish our goals. He considered not only the conditions within in the lab, but also factors in your life that might make it difficult for you to get to lab. He once borrowed a car for me from a relative while mine was in the shop. Another time, he suggested purchasing a washer and a dryer so we could do our laundry while we worked, “If that would help,” he said. 

We didn’t get the washer and dryer. A consensus was that even though we already knew many of the details of each other’s lives, having our dirty laundry lying around in a heap at work was a step too far.

It wasn’t always easy. Working on a PhD in biology is an emotional time, when you’re trying to finish your project, maybe competing on an international level, and at the same time, trying to balance all that with having a life outside the lab. 

A minor incursion can trigger a blow-up. Still, the academic lab environment is composed of people who’ve reached that point only after years of education, years of behavior modification. So you think when you have a PhD in biology and you go out to work in the world, you will be insulated somewhat from more base behaviors driving people to reach the top. 

But even I’ve been pushed around, not for any other reason than because someone else was my boss. 

One boss said, “I don’t like what you’re doing.” 

I asked, “What would you like me to do?”

 When there was no answer, I told him what I was doing and why. After that discussion, he assembled a team of people from across the campus that became the best at the type of analysis we were trying to do that wasn’t done that well anywhere yet. 

Just don’t get in my way.

At a retreat for my department in a room full of my professional colleagues, barely two slides into my presentation, the chairman said, “Janice, no one here wants to hear your results.” 

Criticism doesn’t get tougher than that in person, unless you throw a punch. My presentation was about incorporating new technology and analysis into the study of human brain tumors, which at the time no one had done before. I didn’t stand up to this bullying tactic, coming from an ex-football player turned neurosurgeon. I suppose in his overall management style of the department, it registered as a minor slam. 

I failed to turn the question back onto the knowledgeable crowd in front of me, embarrass the boss. Instead, I rushed to reach the conclusion of my talk. All I had to do was survive the painful moment, the obnoxious, unnecessary comment. I was so sure what I was doing was right. I would show him.

Four years later when the paper on that data was published, the same chairman said, “Congratulations, Janice. It must have been a lot of work.” He didn’t even remember how he had treated me.

And my PhD advisor, a well-regarded cancer biologist, so many years after I had left that lab, sent me a one line email, “Nice paper, Janice.” 

Just don’t get in my way.

I left that environment and moved to Norway, where I was told I would find gender equality, even in the academic environment. But when I was awarded a prestigious three-year grant, worth the equivalent of nearly a half a million US dollars at the time, my department declined the grant and left me without a clear path forward. The faculty, university-wide, killed my project before it got started. And to what end? They could have at least led me on and waited until the three years of funding were up to get rid of me. 

Technically the university’s action was a breach of contract with the funding agency. I was a foreigner so I didn’t have the luxury of time. I would have to leave by the time the new year started if I no longer had a contract to work in the country. And if I wasn’t working, it would be an expensive place to live until I found out.

So I began my protest by meeting with the university lawyer. After a couple of months, an agreement was hammered out, but the head of the department threw one more glitch into my destiny – I could no longer work in the lab I was a member of. I ignored that mandate, as my research environment was one of the reasons I was awarded the grant. I would have been foolish to leave my colleagues whose focus was human brain tumors.

The project I proposed in the grant worked and I got my publication in the end. The work was some of the most difficult I have ever done. The project is also the one I am most proud of. One of the reviewers’ comments was the following, “Magnificent piece of work.”

Just don’t get in my way.

The three years of work didn’t lead to a grant renewal though. I fell way short of the publication requirements, and its difficulty made the project a risky bet. Being the first to accomplish a goal no one previously succeeded at scored me no points. 

I woke up one morning realizing I was done with the career path. I loved my work, and I felt I had purpose, but I had probably stayed too long in a business that didn’t want to work with the skills I had. I didn’t fit. I was sure I would have worked out my academic career path if I just had another year. My project was about to explode with possibilities, and I had established some collaborations across Europe. 

But maybe I had been saying that for years. I could no longer ignore my desire to move on to the rest of my life. To leave behind a career path, that for years I knew wasn’t working for me, to start another.

I might want to attribute my problems in the field to the chromosomes I was dealt, but I never expected my career in research to become the toughest when I had my best ideas. That the obstacles would become their fiercest, just when I figured out what to do. That I might be better off if I just worked on nothing every day, because no one would notice me until I had an idea that might actually work. 

But the academic research environment, where the assumption is that some higher level of civility exists based on the high density of degrees, made a soap opera out of some of my highest achievements in my life. It should have been easy; I created my own opportunity with my own grant, so how about just don’t get in my way?

There’s nothing unique about my career experience. These stories are just my version of the challenges that come up at work for everyone striving for career growth at any level in any type of work. But they illustrate a point that’s relevant to the discussion today about how to encourage change in the demographics in some fields today. A powerful approach requiring no novel effort is to just let the ones who want to do the job, and importantly, can do the job, do the job. Especially when they’re already there.

Simple. 

But children will never reach their potential if they don’t have the tools or exposure to achieve it. Children should have the freedom to gravitate toward a career path due to choice and not fate based on their DNA or the circumstances into which they were born.

A fundamental feature of achieving this goal is the government’s critical role in creating a fertile environment for all its people to have the opportunity to flourish. And since 1964, the law has been that it is illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation. Since then, the struggle has been what an individual will do with that freedom. 

By now, people across the spectrum have succeeded in taking action on their dreams. Unimaginable music, books, art, technology, and businesses exist that developed from the spark of an idea and enriched the American culture in unique ways. With more technological advances and the internet, it’s becoming easier to tailor a career around personal interests, whether man or woman.

So I left Norway without knowing what I would do next, but feeling I would figure it out. I’ve started my own international business as an editor and writer of scientific literature. I even sell a photograph or a painting once in a while through the internet. 

Just don’t get in my way

Check out my new collection of travel essays “postcards to me” available on Amazon for Kindle or iBooks.

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