Working with a Chronic Illness: Scientist in Government vs. Academia

As I was getting close to finishing graduate school, I was contemplating many career directions. I liked the flexibility academia offered, but the labor expectations of a postdoctoral appointment made that a difficult option for me with fibromyalgia. So I looked towards private industry (pharmaceuticals, hospitals, genetic testing companies, etc.) as well as science jobs in government. I knew they would be less flexible but also come with a saner work load. And I wrote about my thoughts regarding whether a highly flexible vs. a more routine-oriented job might better for a fibromyalgiac such as I in Part I under this title.

Finally, I chose a job as an environmental health scientist in government. And nearly every day, I thank my lucky stars for getting it! After 3 months of employment, I am absolutely loving my job (except for the hard bits here and there). Like everything, it has its pros and cons over the “standard” post-PhD academic route. And I felt it deserved a fair comparison for other grad students with chronic illnesses who may be considering non-academic options. So here’s my take on “sciencing” in an academic lab vs. on a government computer!

1. I do miss the serious flexibility academia offers.

Working in a relatively respectable position, I actually still have a reasonable degree of flexibility. Nobody would fuss if I came in at 9 one morning, instead of 8.30, or took a slightly longer lunch break, and just made up for it in the evening. But nothing quite offers the extreme flexibility that is unique to academia. It takes time to build up the leave time you need in order to comfortably make doctor’s appointments or other life commitments that may take longer than a couple of hours. Accruing leave at about 1 day per month means having to push through many flares initially, until sufficient leave time is built up.

Academia_0
The sad reality of my flexibility dreams, captured perfectly (as always) by Jorge Cham!

2. I start work earlier, which can be painful (literally and figuratively).

Many of us have our “best hours” later in the day – I certainly do! – and having to start moving too soon before my bones and muscles have had a chance to thaw can be a struggle in the morning. As a senior grad student, I was able to work 10 AM to 6 or 7 PM, because I called my own shots. As a government employee, I feel the earlier hours very sorely on days when it is especially hard for me to get out of bed.

Realistically, however, if I took  a postdoc position, I would not have been able to exercise a 10-to-6 workday anyhow. Most postdocs are expected to work anywhere from 60-80 hours, under an intense amount of pressure. But on days when I am seriously flaring and desperately needing a bed to lay down on, I really miss the ability to work from home or just lay on the couch for 15 minutes while some test tube is incubating.

3. I really like the shorter hours though!

It is much easier to pace yourself when your body knows what to expect from each day. This job definitely offers that regularity of schedule. However, like with any transition, it is taking me a bit of time to find that new pace. Still, coming from an environment where the trade-off for flexibility is working till 1 AM in the morning, it was an interesting experience to leave every afternoon while there’s still some daylight! And now that my husband is all better, I really appreciate all the rest time.

4. You are actually off on government holidays and weekends!

This was a new experience for me too, as I typically worked through all holidays and many weekends as a graduate student (as most academics do). But here, we get several long weekends a year, and you are expected to NOT work during that time! These extra off-days often come right around the time I really start to need an extra rest day, making them very welcome and much appreciated! And I found out long ago, that weekend rest time is absolutely essential for me to continue working period. So it is really nice to have this guilt-free time off!

Academia_1
Not anymore!

The sum of #3 and #4 is that this job comes with a reduced anxiety factor for me.

While I was in academia, I felt like I was always carrying a huge weight of unfulfilled expectations. I knew what I was expected to do, and that I was not able to do it. I was well on my way to completing the Ph.D. and had a history of being a dedicated worker, so I was not kicked out of grad school. But there was always the latent anxiety from knowing you are not quite the grad student your advisor may have hoped for.

Here, I finally felt that weight lifted off my shoulders. My boss is amazing, and she made it clear that I surpassed her expectations. And she is more than happy with what I am doing at the pace that I am doing it in. This has resulted in much reduced anxiety, and had added to my career satisfaction.

5. There is less physical activity as a data scientist than in the lab.

This could go either way. Sitting too long can cause extra pain and stiffness, so it’s good to move around time to time. But for me, the pain in my legs went down (in general) after I took this job! I imagine I must have been overworking them at the lab, likely by standing or walking more than my body could reasonably muster, and I never realized that until I got out of that environment for a while.

6. Government is more slow-moving and bureaucratic than academia.

Which, again, has its pros and cons. You will not publish a lot of papers very quickly, but the ones you do will be meaningful and thoroughly vetted before it even reaches peer review. Instead of publishing just for the sake of it, the idea is more to publish when you have something important or meaningful to say. While the bureaucracy can be irksome at times, it is the same mechanism that allows you rights to fight your position in case of any disagreement with the boss, or say if you need to negotiate special accommodations. In academia, your boss is your master. So if s/he does not agree with you, then other routes are all but blocked for you. Here, there are clearer rules for such things that both employee and employer must abide by, so there isn’t a ridiculous power imbalance.

Academia_2
There is a WHOLE new vocabulary in the “adult” outside world, that I am now learning!

All in all, this job has really been a great boon for me! I am somebody who is environmentally conscious, and actually care about the topic of environmental health. In fact, what I studied before – epigenetics – is closely linked with how the environment can affect our health! It’s just that now, instead of working on the molecular mechanistics of it, I am working on the human aspect of it. Personally, I find that much more rewarding, knowing that my work is reaching people now, instead of just the hope that it might help somebody decades from now!

So if you are a grad student, or a scientist, who is struggling with a chronic illness and looking out for various options, I would recommend staying open to government jobs. In the future, I might even do a short series on how I was able to expand my horizons regarding career options (basically, getting over the fear that my science career was over if I couldn’t make it in academia), and other potential job options for scientists with chronic illnesses. I know I searched high and low for much of this information when I needed it, and sadly, found little of it. So, it is my hope, that these posts might reach others in a similar boat as I, and help them in at least some little way!

Love,

Fibronacci

The Glow of a New Hope: Redirecting Career Possibilities as a Scientist with Fibromyalgia

I love painting sunsets.

Aside from the fact that they are simply gorgeous, the glowing light also signifies a lot of hope for me. First, the warm colors in the light of the setting sun has a psychologically uplifting effect. And second, on a more philosophical level, sunsets signify a state of transition, where you are standing at the threshold between the old and the new. A state of liminality. The very nature of the sunset marks the end of an old, and therefore by extension, the beginning of something new! It’s a beautiful close to what once was, and invites you to think of what the future will bring.

Featured image: Twilight’s Last Glow (oil on 6X6 canvas; available)

It was about 7 years ago that I first got into academic research as a career. The field of epigenetics fascinated me: it is the study of the various modifications on our genetic material that fine-tune how the genes actually behave. If you think of the DNA code as just the lyrics to a song, then the epigenetic modifications provide the tune, so you can actually sing the song. I was enthused enough to learn more about the subject so that I joined a research lab that studies the same. Over the next 7 years in that lab, I first completed an undergraduate honors thesis, and then a Ph.D. dissertation.

Epigenetics
A conductor wouldn’t know how to direct the opera with just the libretto (the genes), s/he would also need the accompanying musical notation (the epigenetic marks).

All that time I was on a single-lane, yellow brick road to become a tenured academic professor in Oz. I worked hard since the junior year of undergrad, often working long hours without pay, paying all the seemingly appropriate dues for a supposedly cushy future. But I was devoted to the deity called “science.” I knew the sacrifices I would have to make to reach my goal, and I was ready for it. At the time I felt like that was really what I wanted of my life. And besides, it wouldn’t matter if I did not – I was conditioned to think that that was the only road possible for me after a Ph.D.

Yellow brick road
The yellow brick road to the ivory (emerald?) tower!

So then when I was struck with fibromyalgia, about halfway through graduate school, perhaps you can imagine my state of mind when I felt my dreams had just gone up in smoke. I felt I was now trapped into this very narrow specialized field, educated beyond most jobs, with a medical roadblock in the only credible path to a bright future. In addition, it certainly did not help that my advisor, who had high hopes for me, now thought that I was a lost cause. He had no reasonable advice for me other than to “just deal with it.”

I have now spent upwards of 2 years trying to get out of the dark mindset that my professional life is ruined because I am no longer able to spend 60-80 hours per week working any ol’ time of the day. It has taken a lot of career research, reading other peoples’ experiences of life after academia, and talking to people who were more supportive of my seeking “alternative” routes, to really figure out new possible directions for myself. More than anything else, it has required me to shake off the chains I had put around my own expectations of my future. I had to do some serious soul-searching about what I truly enjoyed about my job, in order to figure out how I could continue engaging in that, in a way that is not so detrimental to my health.

recycled-art
Reimagine the possibilities!

The result has been a liberating feeling that I have a lot more paths to choose from than what I was initially led to believe. I just spent the last year or so considering traditional postdoctoral research appointments, along with “non-traditional” post-Ph.D. options like teaching, as well as jobs in science publishing, government, and clinical laboratories. Some of these are more directly connected with the topic of my graduate training (molecular genetics/epigenetics) than others, but I was not shy about looking into related but different fields like human genetics, environmental health, public health and policy, and forensic science. I even considered options that would require further schooling, such as genetic counseling and molecular epidemiology.

Not all has been bright and sparkly, though, as I sought out new potential directions for myself. I learned that it can be incredibly hard to budge even a tiny bit from your field of specialization, especially after a doctorate. At the same time, I also received enough positive responses to have faith that difficult though it may be, it is not totally impossible! However, it does require you to be honest with yourself about your priorities (both professionally and personally), and keep realistic expectations of your job search. It is possible to carve out a new fork in the road for yourself, but it takes time, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck.

Despite it not being all glowy, I nonetheless feel like this period of transition after graduate school is like a sunset. It is a time to reminisce about the past as one chapter in my life comes to a close, and to contemplate what new experiences the next one will bring. Nobody knows what tomorrow holds; but for now, as I stand on this threshold, the possibilities are endless!

Love,

Fibronacci

 

Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!