Thursday, March 18, 2010

A broken system, and a broken heart

I have not written in a while, and I will tell you why: my heart is broken.
It is not that I have had my heart broken by a boy (or girl, for that matter); it is nothing of the sort. No, it is, in a sense, far worse - a betrayal by nearly everything around me; a desertion of that spirit, that spark, which keeps one truly alive.
I have discovered that the community of my "colleagues" in the UK, where I now work, is full of liars, cheats, fakers and backstabbers. Idle people, shallow people, envious people, selfish people, people who wouldn't hesitate to steal your ideas, people who drain you of everything you have within you until you are left empty. Every morning is a new struggle to convince myself to get up and go to work. The British education system does nothing to try and raise my spirits, either. Not only are the academics often hateful and lazy, their students are just as often incapable and underprepared.
Add to this the nature of the place I find myself. The sun hardly shines, the land is flat and soggy all year, and even the river is sluggish. My SAD lamp can barely keep me awake in the morning - it takes about 50 oz of Diet Coke to accomplish that. Seasons all blend together into one muted greenish-brown blur; there is no distinction. As though England has given up on trying.
Today, I tried to work on finishing the analysis of some data from my last postdoc. It's good data, and deserves a publication. I've already sat, unwillingly, on it for months, being swamped by the mindless secretarial tasks my current boss has set me to. And I discovered that I could no longer remember how to do something very, very simple.
It was a shock, a kick to the gut: not only had the world around me turned hostile, but I, in return, had weakened, and forgotten the things I knew before. I immediately shut my computer, leaving several unfinished conversations in my wake, grabbed my coat and ran outside. On the way home, I fought back tears, but was unsuccessful. I bounced between fiery anger and utter despair on a moment to moment basis. Melodramatic, perhaps, but it was the proverbial straw. The light had gone out, snuffed by the darkness. It was like all of the evil and stupidity around me had finally won.
So there you have it. A broken world has broken me.


  1. Ugh, sorry for the disheartening situation. Betrayal is a horrible feeling.

    I hope you find yourself in a situation with mutual respect soon. or at least common courtesy!

    good luck!

  2. I am so sorry- it is difficult enough to face the work of research, without having Shakespearean drama as well.

    My wife and I are slowly working our way through "Women who run with the wolves", which is very enjoyable. Perhaps it has some nuggets for you, now that darker wolves are about. We both were scientists, now are not.. it is a hard life, I know.

  3. Steven, thanks for the well wishes! A good night's sleep always seems to help temper these things, too, and a little sunshine in the morning.
    Burk, it's funny you should mention Estes - Women Who Run with the Wolves is sitting on the shelf above my bed. It's one of my favorites. Out of curiosity, what pushed you (or tempted you, or neither) from the life of science?

  4. Hi, Kelley-

    It's a long story, of course. We were both molecular biology postdocs, and I was moderately successful, with a job offer after all was said and done. But I also took a long look at my field of research, disinterest in teaching, lack of a "nose" for great research questions, questionable social skills, and enjoyment of programming on the side, and all the funding difficulties, and decided to go into biotech, which was rather rosy at the time, a decade ago.

    My wife was miserable, profoundly temperamentally mismatched to the whole scene and desperately depressed. I was, naturally, oblivious. She has written up her story in a tell-all memoir. (Forgive my nepotistic blurb). Now she continues to write and has just taken up the cello. I get to work from home full time, which some people can't deal with, but I (we) love every minute of it.

    Luckily, I had good advisors throughout, not chummy, but with very high ethics. Decent colleaues as well, mostly. But obviously there are a lot of politics involved in academic life, as elsewhere. In addition, while I love reading about science and appreciating it, doing it can be another matter, with whole graduate careers spent on very small questions. The tedium and lack of feedback over long periods of time could be soul-destroying. I just didn't feel personally ready to perpetuate the cycle, however noble the overall pursuit.

    So, push might be the best way to put it, I guess, though more for internal reasons than external.

  5. Burk, thanks for the link. The book looks very intriguing (being a bit of a Jungian myself), and I'd love to read it.
    I find that, in the stress of my situation (and others like it previously), I, like you, do question my vocation. But I have seen better, and have possessed better, than this.
    During my graduate degree, the first couple years slowly became hellish. Trips to certain national labs exposed me, not to eager and intelligent "professional scientists," but to people who argued merely for the sake of hearing their own voices. I was bounced from project to project for reasons outside my control - the funding was lost, the beam couldn't be produced, the collaboration fell to bureaucratic pieces. The projects I did manage to work on for any length of time failed to come to fruition for reasons only partially of my doing - broken equipment, endless tests, simulations that failed to account for every possibility. I grew tremendously disheartened. Add to this problems in relationships and no support from colleagues, and I was ready to quit on numerous occasions. But for whatever reason, I didn't.
    I started traveling to a different national lab in the summer of 2005, and things finally started to fall into place. I had the moral and scientific support I so desperately needed. I quickly learned the ins and outs of the lab, and was able to participate in a myriad of interesting experiments, some of which I led. I eventually moved halfway across the country to be there, instead of traveling for a week every month. My social life improved immensely, and I was able to pursue endless hobbies. Then came the project which would become my thesis, and though it was stressful - as all theses are - it was the good kind of stress. The kind that pushes you to improve, to do, and be, the best you can. It was a success, so much so that I had a job offer to keep me at the lab six months before I defended.
    The years spent there were the best of my career. But it came time, as these things do, to make a decision; now here I am, and the rest, as they say, is history. It may not be unique, but that is hardly an excuse. I'd be interested to see just how common this kind of thing actually is.


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