Reflections on this Year of Upheaval

I’ve been itching to get back to this blog so here we are! Hope life’s been treating you passably well in my absence?

I’ve been in my new job in Medical Communications for two and a half months and it’s going well so far. I passed my six-week review with flying colours and a short-ish list of things to work on. My colleagues are lovely people and the team is working really well together. After a slow start, my primary project has kicked off and I have plenty to keep me busy. I’m learning loads on the job as I go, and while it’s been difficult at points, it’s great to develop a whole flotilla of non-science skills. My job is a combination of events planner, project manager and client handler, so it’s very, very different to the PhD.

The commuting is taxing but I’m handling it much better than I thought I would. What annoys me most is the truly awful mobile internet coverage. It’s sooooo patchy and intermittent, it’s impossible to browse the internet properly and means I can’t use the considerable time spent on the train to either work, play or blog in any meaningful way. Not having a Tablet or iPad etc also doesn’t help matters so it’s on my birthday wish list!

What I am finding difficult at work is the occasional anxiety. I know the two key situations where it flares up. First, checking emails when I, for whatever reason, fear I might be in trouble and that the email will be the bearer of bad news. It doesn’t stop me getting work done but I am aware when I’m averse to checking my email because of fear, and it’s more often than I like. The thing I’m afraid of – being in trouble – has yet to happen and I hope that the more I put myself through the momentary fear and anxiety, the easier it will become. I know why it frightens me too – stupid PhD hangover from dealing with awful, bullying supervisors, but that doesn’t make it any easier to make the dread go away! *Sigh*.

The second situation is in asking for help/doing something new with too little instruction – I don’t like interrupting people and ugh, what if I get/do the thing wrong? Being aware that that’s what the anxiety is about does help a bit, and again, it’s not crippling, it’s just unpleasant. I figure as long as I try to be aware of the low level anxiety and keep an eye out for if it gets worse, I’ll be okay.

Because that’s the other thing – I’ve been off citalopram since the middle of August. I’d weaned down to 10 mg/daily and had been there for over a month and then I, after a conversation with my GP, stopped taking it all together. I have a back up prescription of  Sertraline/Zoloft just in case but I’m seeing how long I can go without to see if the depression that’s been dragging at my heels for the last 5 years is in remittance for the time being. And actually right now, I’m pretty much fine. Mainly what I’m waiting for is the last of the citalopram side effects to disappear.

The weight I gained hasn’t gone anywhere but I’m not taking active steps to see if I can shift it because body-positivity and laziness. (Frankly, I just love cake! And sweets, and chocolate, and popcorn, and alcohol… You know, all the tasty things). The boobs leaking tiny quantities of milk (galactorrhea) stopped within a few weeks of ceasing citalopram and my sex drive has slowly been returning, which is a huge relief. Nothing like feeling guilty because you don’t want sex as often as your partner after previously having a vigorous and highly regular sex life with them! My periods still haven’t returned but that may partly be because of the Mirena coil rather than the citalopram alone.

The downside is that my Reynaud’s Syndrome has returned with a vengeance. I am feeling the autumnal cold in the mornings like nobody’s business and washing my hands under too cold water is guaranteed to turn my fingers white. SSRIs have been noted as relieving Reynaud’s and part of me is considering taking the sertraline just so I don’t have to be cold all the time throughout winter. Which, may not be the best reason for taking it, especially as I don’t know how else it will affect me, but not having to deal with the Reynaud’s would be nice!

I figure once I’m back to “normal” and have settled there for a while I’ll start taking sertaline for a trial period and see how it goes. Because whilst the anxiety isn’t stopping me from living my life, I have been feeling more emotional and prone to tears than I would like, and I don’t know if that’s just me, having feelings and being better at being aware of them, or whether it’s an *Issue*.  My Beck Depression Inventory-II score is 7 (“not depressed”) if I’m really fishing to answer any of the questions with anything other than 0, whereas back in January 2015 it was around 25-30 – which scores as moderate-to-severe depression. So that’s not actually a problem to be worried about right now, which is bloomin’ marvelous! Seriously, if you’d asked me back in January, or hell, even in June, before my graduation and landing this job in Med Comms, whether I’d be feeling this well by now, I think I’d have strangled you just for asking, and then burst into tears about how awful my life was.

Let’s just take a look at a post from February, after I’d handed in my PhD Thesis for comparison.

“The only downside to all of this was that emotionally I was still a wreck. I cried/had hysterics once a day for over a fortnight. I.e. things were not that great. I was massively anxious and panicking about my future and all the things I have to do over the next several months. The list is as follows:

  1. Prepare for my Viva Voce exam
  2. Start claiming Jobseekers Allowance (JSA)
  3. Job hunt for temp work while I prep for my viva
  4. Job hunt for permanent work, probably in the Med Comms industry
  5. Move in with Squishy in deepest darkest Kent, i.e. a long way away from where most of the Med Comms companies are, likely necessitating communting into London for work, the thing I said I’d never do.

So, no biggie, right? All small, minor obstacles that can easily be overcome, right?

Wrong!

Try major, stress-inducing issues, each with their own set of sub-tasks and problems. All at once, when I’m still physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted from finishing my thesis.”

Soooo, I wasn’t in the best place in the world but it’s inspiring to look at that list and see that I’ve handled all of those things.

I had my viva, and passed it well. I went on JSA and found a part-time job to keep body and soul together and get some relevant work experience (organising travel and booking hotel rooms was one of the reasons my company gave me the job!). I landed a job in Med Comms which suits me, that I’m enjoying and want to stay in for the foreseeable future and which pays reasonably well. And finally, I’ve moved in with Squishy and have been living with him for over 7 months and it’s good! It’s not 100% to my liking but that’s because housework sucks and we both work long hours and spend upwards of 20 hours a week each commuting to London, on top of the hours we actually spend at work. So when we do see each other in the  evenings, we’re usually both tired and hungry and have to be up again for work in not enough hours.

Three months ago, I literally couldn’t see myself where I am now and for that I am deeply grateful.

 

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Unwinding after my Thesis Submission and the Next Steps

So, hello, how are you all?

I’ve been unwinding and relaxing after handing in my PhD Thesis and working out my next steps.

Handing in my thesis went without a hitch and I didn’t stop grinning for two days, I was so relieved! I also spent most of those two days asleep, which was sorely needed after running on adrenaline and caffeine and too little sleep for the better part of two weeks. Continue reading

No more lab work – ever again!!! Thoughts on being a scientist.

Let’s just take a moment to savour the fact that I never *have* to do another science experiment ever again. No more Western blots, no more qPCR, no more tissue culture, and best of all, no more effing microscope experiments! I’ve cleared my lab bench, my shelves and drawers and my write up desk, and I’ve condensed my freezer space into one -20 drawer, two racks in the -80, and two boxes of cells in the liquid nitrogen store. I am so very glad that’s over with, so very glad. I never have to do another experiment again!!! 😀 😀 😀

Okay, so maybe it’s a little sad, I mean I have spent the last three and half years doing bench science, and I have no clue what I’ll be doing next, which is a little scary. On the other hand, no more frustration at doing everything perfectly and still have it fuck up for no discernible reason. Never again Continue reading

Career Planning Resources

I’ve been thinking about jobs and career options for after I finish my PhD. I say thinking, I mean panicking. However me + panic = avoidance, so what I’ve been doing is a little light reading and link following. Fortunately for me there are people producing good content on the matter.

The best thing I’ve found so far is Jobs on Toast. The guy is writing all sorts of useful things about transferring out of academia and how to tell a convincing story about that process. I’d already encountered the idea of re-framing this kind of transition and how to describe your skills to a non-academic audience in language they understand but Chris writes more persuasively and engagingly about it than anyone else I’ve encountered so far. He provides ways to talk about it that don’t sound cheesy or fake or over-hyped, which is something I really appreciate.

Going off what I’ve read of his archives so far, and the many other articles I’ve read on other career sites, I think I might finally have a clue about the sort of environment I might want to work in and what sort of things I would want the work to achieve. I’ve also got some idea of the challenges and opportunities I might appreciate in the future once I’ve got more business experience. I know now how important a good relationship with my management is to me, and just how much I want to have my work acknowledged and appreciated. I know that I enjoy collaborating on projects and I value the opportunity to engage and communicate with others. These are all things I didn’t know before, when I was so dead set on wanting to “know how things work”, confident that if I had that, it would be enough. This is progress.

The next step is researching job roles, discovering what types might suit me and best use my skills. From there I can start to look for companies, charities, institutions and government bodies that mesh with my wider life aims of working to reduce suffering, harm and injustice. ‘People before profit’ and environmental sustainability are things that matter deeply to me, as do corporate honesty and integrity. With those things in place, the work will be more fulfilling because I’ll know we’re working towards something useful, something good.

My intention for the next few months is to start this research task so that when people ask the dreaded question “what do you plan to do after?”, I’ll have something constructive to tell them. An hour or two a week, flicking through books from the careers service and browsing post-PhD career profiles, will be a definite help and it will all add up over time.

Please feel free to share any good careers’ websites or books you’ve encountered that really helped you in the comments!

Careers Advice: PhD-Specific Bonus Skills

 I promised you Part Three would be about PhD-specific bonus skills, and here it is!

PhD-specific bonus skills? Science-specific skills? Yep, they’re a thing. If you’ve spent any time at all in Science beyond Undergraduate, then you have access to a number of Unique Selling Points. It’s not that others don’t have or develop them, rather it that you’ve spent considerable time in a hothouse that is pretty different to the average workplace in certain ways. If you’ve been through gradschool, then you’ve spent anywhere between three and eight years training to become a Science Professional, and you’ve got some, if not most, of the skills this requires.The good news is that prospective employers want your skills, if you can only identify them and sell them in the best light.

The speakers gave numerous suggestions. Perseverance was one that got mentioned more than once. Lab work breeds a particular kind of bloody-mindedness, especially when your cells have refused to grow again/your samples thawed when the freezer accidentally defrosted overnight/the computer server crashed loosing months of data analysis (insert own horror story here). Talking about how you coped with a major set-back or kept on trying in the face of recurrent failure gives the interviewers a good idea of your personality and resilience and in turn, how well you’ll do in their work environment.

Independence is another valuable characteristic. This one I struggled with because while I am great at going off and getting things done once I know what I’m supposed to be doing, the process of making my own decisions and justifying them to an absent supervisor fills me with terror low-level anxiety, and leads to major procrastination. Other people thrive under these conditions, but even if you don’t, it’s still possible to put a positive spin on things if you’re careful. At the very least, it’ll reassure your potential employer that they won’t have to hover over you and that they can trust you to get stuff done.

Analytical skills and agility of thought are another pair of skills you may not have considered. Don’t under-estimate the amount of time you’ve spent faffing in Excel or MatLab or whatever your most-hated bit of software is. Being able to look at a bit of evidence and come up with ideas for what it’s telling you, and why, is a skill that is not as common as you’d think. Creatively thinking your way out a problem is another good skill worth mentioning, if you can give a solid example of the time your lateral thinking saved the day.

Then there are the other skills that are the very essence of science: researching a problem, synthesising data and explaining it in an articulate manner. That one bit of data you spent ages trawling through PubMed to find? The masterful way you mashed those ten disparate papers together into a sensible story that gave context to your project? The elegant way you framed your data to tell a convincing story? That process is what science is, and it makes you useful in all sort of fields. Wherever you end up, you’ll be able to look at something you don’t yet understand, make sense of it and share it with others. Useful, no?

Finally, the absolute favourite skill set of the speakers was project management. This one really threw me because, to my mind, it’s the bit that has made the PhD most difficult for me. Juggling multiple strands of work over a long period of time takes considerable organisation and planning. You need to know what your hard deadlines are, like funding expiry dates and thesis submission deadlines, and you need to be able to figure out how your different strands of work fit together and in what order they need to be done. In light of that information, you ought to be able to set reasonable ‘soft’ deadlines and stick to them. You also need to have an idea of what could go wrong, and what you’d do if it did, a.k.a. risk assessment and contingency planning.

Gantt Chart

Gantt Charts – you know you love these, right?

Of myself, I’m not so bad at working out what has to be done in what order, but making myself do stuff on time? Ha, nope. I found out the hard way that, although I’m pretty independent in my work habits, I like company and I love deadlines, you know, like coursework due dates and exam timetables. I’m going to get round that one by finding a job that has frequent, tight, externally-driven deadlines. Knowing if you favour external demands or internal ones is very useful, and should help inform your career choices.

The trick with all these skills is to find specific examples of them and describe them with the appropriate HR buzzwords. Job adverts will often give you a clue as to what skills they’re searching for, and if it’s a decent job at a well organised company, they’ll even have an itemised job description. If you can get hold of it, it’s a golden ticket – they’re telling you exactly what they want to know. The point where I fall down is in looking at it and either a) not quite understanding what they’re asking for or b) thinking ‘there’s no way I can do that’ or ‘I haven’t ever done that’. I’m great at underestimating myself and thinking I’m worse at something than I actually am. Getting a reality check from a friend, mentor or careers’ service advisor could really help here.

Next time, I’ll be looking at areas where younger scientists are often weak, tips for ‘selling yourself’ and answers to that evil question, “Aren’t you a bit over-qualified?”

Transferable Skills, What Are They?!

Welcome to Part Two of my careers advice notes. Part One is here. This part is about transferable skills in general: what they are and working out if you’ve got any. Part Three will cover ones specific to PhDs, and how to market the damn things. 

If you’ve had any careers’ service exposure at all, you’ll know of transferable skills. They’re those annoying things you have to demonstrate on your CV or resumé with examples of your brilliance, as opposed to just saying you’ve got them. You know, the standard “Our team won first prize for_______. I contributed to the smooth functioning of the team by_____.” instead of “I am good at teamwork“. The stuff that feels like over-egging yourself, and feels like a tick-boxing exercise of the sort so beloved by HR with their wretched ‘Personal Development Programmes’. As you can tell, I’m maybe not so fond of them! However, the speakers at the conference had a lot of useful advice, of which I’m going to share as much as I can remember.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The first thing the speakers said was that, as a science PhD graduate looking to work outside of science, you have a reputation, or rather a stereotype, to overcome. If you ask Joe Public what he thinks a scientist is like, you’ll get a description of someone who is too focused on nit-picky details (à la classic geek), who prefers to work alone (with the concomitant lack of team-work skills), and who is so shy they simply cannot speak in public. If you come from the hard sciences, they’ll expect you to be better at numbers than words. They may also think you’re a bit wacky or expect you to have evil genius powers. Muwhahahaha.

"Same thing we do every night, Pinky..."

“Same thing we do every night, Pinky…”

Ahem.

These negative stereotypes are less of a concern if you’re looking for work in fields related to science that regularly or solely hire science post-graduates/post-docs, but you do still have to prove you have the desired soft skills. It’s hard, I know.

So, what are these elusive transferable skills?

Essentially, a transferable skill is one that you can use wherever you go. Continue reading

Non-standard Careers Advice for Post-grads

I think I promised to write these notes up yonks ago. I attended an event called Pathways run by my university that is aimed at giving careers advice to post-grads looking to move outside of academia. I have to say, it was pretty damn good. The format of the event was a series of parallel panel Q&A sessions with former University post-grads at various stages in their careers from all sorts of different fields.

I attended “It’s okay to change your mind”, “Industry versus Academia”, “Using a Medical/Life Sciences PhD”, ” What do employers look for in PhDs?” and finally, “Marketing Your Skills!”. After being made to feel utterly incompetent and rubbish at just about every soft skill PhDs are supposed to develop during the introductory lecture, with absolutely no clue what I want to do with my life, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the event. Fortunately, my expectations were far exceeded.

There are almost as many careers options as there are implements!

“Eenie-meenie-miney-mo”

The general gist of “It’s okay to change your mind” was “it’s okay to change your mind”! Funny that. We heard from people who had done Business/Finance as post-grads and found, after several years working as Analytical Quants for Big BankingTM, that actually they disagreed with the morals of the whole system. We heard from someone who had started out as a forensic scientist, working as one for several years before the UK government decided it was a fantastic idea to outsource and downsize UK Police forensic departments. He now works as a course manager for the NHS Clinical Biochemists Training Programme, after going through the course himself and doing time as a Clinical Biochemist. Continue reading