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.

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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!

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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.

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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