I maybe have a job. Maybe.

My current position only lasts a year. (It’s a visa issue and oh boy does everyone involved wish I had the legal right to stay in this country.)

When you’re a postdoc on the job market, you apply for anything and everything. Last year I learned from some of my mistakes — I had both aimed too high and too broad — but I was still expecting a long, stressful process.

But, um, looks like maybe not. Job application #4 turned into interview #2 has turned into “informal job offer” #1.

Now, on the one hand, this is weird. I am not a good candidate for this job. Yes, it’s in my field, broadly defined, but this PI was asking for some subspecialities which I clearly don’t have. And yes, I wrote some BS in my cover letter about being able to quickly pick up those skills, but this PI should be able to have his pick of postdocs; he should be able to find someone who already has those skills, not someone who will have to learn those skills. Furthermore, between having a serious chronic illness and the fact that my PhD pretty much sucked, the recent portion of my CV is terrible. I am a walking, talking red flag. Yes, I am very good at my current job, and I was very good at my old job, but he’s considering hiring me to do something else entirely. Objectively, it’s very odd.

On the other hand, assuming this job actually materializes, it would be two more years of employment, as a postdoc, in a country with socialized medicine. I’m not the most excited about the project, but I do have a relevant skillset, and I’ve asked around — this PI checks out both professionally and personally. It would mean living farther away from my girlfriend, but not absurdly so, and we’re both okay with some long-distance. It would mean that I can stop spending time applying for jobs, stop spending energy worrying about jobs, channel that emotion into resurrecting my CV and spending time with my girlfriend while I can.

I talked to my current supervisor, and she thinks that I should take it. (This was a really good conversation. Having awesome supervisors is so great.)

Possibly relatedly, given the stressy tone of this blog post, I’ve decided not to go off the anxiety-inducing Wonder Drug, at least for now. I like being in less pain. I like having more energy. Is anxiety an issue? Sure. Should I be concerned that this anxiety is becoming increasingly normalized? Probably. I’m seeing a new therapist tomorrow; we’ll see if I click with her.

I’m also aware that I haven’t had very much social interaction recently. I’ve been alone in my office for most of this past week, and my girlfriend and I weren’t able to see each other over this past weekend. (Chronic illness with severe fatigue issues -> not much opportunity to make friends outside of work.) I’m one of those people who gets really unhappy without regular human contact; isolation and its toll on my mental health was a major problem during my PhD fieldwork. I think/hope I’ll be happier when my officemates get back from their various travels?

I guess my point is this: sigh. Why can’t life be easy?

How bad is the end of a PhD? Not that bad. It’ll be okay.

One of the PhD students in my group is in the throes of “thesis crunch time.” Another student is looking at her timeline and beginning to despair. They are looking to the postdocs in the group and asking us “how bad was it, really?”

How bad were the last few months of my PhD? Golly, it was bad, but that wasn’t the PhD’s fault.

I was flat broke. (Chronic illnesses are expensive, yo.) I was stringing together as many part-time jobs as my health and visa allowed, trying to pay rent, to pay for therapy, to pay for medication. I was juggling doctor’s appointments and medication side effects, trying to keep my physical health in check, trying to keep my mental health in check. I was applying for jobs, going to job interviews, not getting jobs, stressing out about the fact that sometimes job interviews don’t reimburse you for travel expenses and they certainly don’t reimburse you for the loss of a day’s income.

Also, my PhD supervisor and I weren’t exactly getting along. Part of me was wondering what would happen if my supervisor sabotaged my degree and I failed my defense.

Around this all, I would write. A bit here, a bit there. My supervisor was refusing to read my chapters, but my friends and collaborators did, and their feedback was all really positive. My examiners both knew what was up, both medically and supervisorially, and I knew that they both liked my work and liked me as a person. Even though it was bad, there was reason to hope.

Then I got hired in my current job. That afternoon, I quit my part-time job, and I went into crazy-writing mode. Two weeks later, my thesis was handed in. (What did I do to celebrate? Hopped on a bus, went to a doctor’s appointment.) I worked as a research assistant between the hand-in and the viva, passed my viva with no corrections, and started work as a post-doc the next day.

Not to be a walking cliche, but having a chronic illness really does put life into perspective. Sometimes there would be moments of moments of bitter irony. Once, during my PhD, I sat down to have lunch with a friend, asked her how her day had been. Awful, she said. Her paper had been rejected from a top-tier journal. Her life was over. 

My day? Oh, um, well, I had spent the morning at the hospital, and the doctor had told me that surgery wasn’t a viable option, that what I have was incurable.

(Protip: incurable diseases are conversation killers.)

Or, same friend, different lunch, complaining about how hungover she had been over the weekend, how a fun evening of binge-drinking had resulted in various vomited-filled escapades.

And me? Well, yesterday, I had gotten radioactive stuff pumped into my veins and had almost thrown up on the nurse, so I could relate, right?

(Radioactive substances: also conversation killers.)

My point is this: you’ll make it. PhDs are tough, but they can be vanquished. Take a deep breath. Take a walk. Spend some time with your partner, with your dog, with a hobby. See a therapist, do some yoga, turn off the internet, do whatever it takes to keep your head on straight and get the damn thing written. Break your to-do list down into little chunks, and if that doesn’t work, break it down into littler chunks.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s okay to be okay.

Kidney stones don’t hurt that much and other things I learned this week

You know how I inaugurated this blog by explaining that a new medication has given me an anxiety disorder?

Well, the anxiety didn’t “go away within 2-3 weeks.” In fact, it got worse, as did the paresthesia, the incredibly painful burning sensation in my hands and feet. So at week 4, I stopped increasing the dose. And then at week 5, I developed what appears to be kidney stones, which is also a side effect of this medication.

Right, okay, at that point even I knew that it’s time to see my GP.

My GP immediately pointed out that I didn’t just have an anxiety disorder, but hypomania (oh, right, duh), and that I need to get off this medication basically immediately. Well, okay, by “immediately” I mean that I have to wean myself off the drug slowly — ideally we’d go over 6 weeks from this halfway dose (it would be 14 weeks from the full dose had I made it up that far), but we’ll go faster, 2-4 weeks. If while I’m withdrawing I can demonstrate that I am not anxious/manic at a lower dose, then we can play around with small doses.

If not? Goodbye, wonder drug.

Because it really was a wonder drug. This medication worked so damn well, and that’s not just the hypomania talking. I was able to function under it in a way that I haven’t been able to in years.

My GP is right, though. Anxiety’s not sustainable. Hypomania’s not sustainable. What was obviously foreign and abnormal after “only” five weeks would slowly become normalized, and thus my behavior would come to match my thoughts. Also, even though I say that kidney stones aren’t that painful, that’s (a) because I got rather lucky this time and (b) because I’ve got a really screwed up pain scale. (A migraine every single day for three and a half years will do that to you.) Kidney stones are not sustainable.

So, where does that leave me? I’m anxious and mildly hyperactive and my hands and feet are burning and the middle of my back really hurts, all because of my medication, even on a drastically-reduced dose. Also, I have a headache and am nauseated and am having trouble speaking and might at some point start having seizures, because I am simultaneously withdrawing from this medication. I have data to collect and analyses to run and paper drafts to comment on and a grant to write and some grants to review and god knows what else, because such is the life of a postdoc.

I can do this.

It will be okay.

Unspoken emigration requirements for ECRs are discriminatory

On Saturday night, I dreamed about a dessert from my home country.

I don’t know why I dreamed of this particular dessert — I’ve probably only had it a handful of times in my life — but ever since then, I’ve been craving it. It’s a branded dessert, made by a certain company, and it’s not something that I have the skills, equipment, or the ingredients to recreate myself.

It’s not available in my adopted country.

On Thursday evening, I attended a mentoring workshop for early-career researchers, part of a program that pairs senior academics with postdocs and postdocs with PhD students, with some university-affiliated non-academic folks thrown in for good measure (academic administration, journalists, etc). The evening was a good mix of “here is my advice to you” and “here is how to be a good mentor,” but the reason that I’m bringing it up is that one of the theme of the evenings was academic mobility. Early-career researchers are expected to move labs, move cities, and, most of all, move countries, if they want to succeed in academia.

But you know what?

Sometimes it sucks to be an immigrant.

I will pause right here to acknowledge my tremendous amount of privilege. I am the majority race of both my home country and my adopted country. You can’t tell that I’m an immigrant from my name or from my appearance. My home country has reasonably high prestige within my adopted country; the stereotypes I have to put up with are relatively benign. I am part of a religious minority in my adopted country, but this is currently a non-issue, and as a queer woman I have excellent legal protection in my adopted country and even comparatively decent legal protection in my adopted country. (By which I mean, I won’t be killed or put in jail, but I could be fired, denied health care, denied a lease, etc, if it was discovered that my partner was a woman. I’ve brought my partner home to visit my parents, but we don’t touch each other in public. At the moment I’m out on social media, but if I were living in my home country I probably wouldn’t be out at work. This is absolutely nothing compared to the situation in, say, Uganda. But that doesn’t make it right.)

But anyway, when you’re an immigrant, everything is just a little bit harder. Visas are expensive. Banking is difficult. Signing leases is both expensive and difficult! You find yourself Googling things like “what kind of store do I buy pillows in?”

Social customs completely pass you by, and you only find out months later than everybody thought that you were a little bit rude, or weird, or overbearing. Sometimes, I’ll be explaining something to my therapist, only to discover that there’s a cultural element that she’s just not getting. Sometimes, you have to adapt. Sometimes, you don’t want to adapt, goddammit.

You miss weddings. You miss funerals. Instead of living in one of a handful of possible cities as all of your friends from high school and university, you’re miles away, living in a place where you know nobody, where absolutely everything is just a little bit different. (Or a lot bit different.)

And nevermind a particular dessert not being available — though healthcare sucks in my home country and is amazing  in my adopted country, there are more drugs licensed in my home country than there are here.

Some people are able to move country a few times early in their career. They have good mental health, spare cash to spare for visas and relocation expenses, a partner and children willing to be uprooted (or no partner and no children), no physical health concerns that tie them to a particular country’s health care system. They’re cisgendered, they’re straight, they’re white — or they’re willing to pay the significant emotional cost of being a minority abroad. Maybe they have family or friends in another country, maybe they’re already fluent in a foreign language, maybe they’re just particularly adventurous.

But see, none of those qualities that I listed bear any relation to how good of a scientist that person is. In fact, most of those qualities have to do with luck and/or high socioeconomic standing.

Next time you’re comparing CVs and you’re impressed by someone’s experiences abroad — or are judging the fact that someone else has never left their own country — remember this. Remember that the ability to be an immigrant says more about their personal circumstances than their academic merit. Remember that not everybody can be an immigrant.

Your academic career is not necessarily over

A few days ago, I saw a particular phrase on my Twitter feed.

It was the name of a neurological disorder that I was once misdiagnosed with.

My Twitter feed is about 80% science, 10% politics, and 10% pretty pictures — I tweet under my real name, so I keep generally keep disability / chronic illness stuff off of there. It turns out, though, that someone I follow on Twitter has just been certified to return full-time to her PhD, after taking significant time off to recover from this neurological disorder. As you can imagine, she was expressing a range of emotions about this development.

I know how isolating it is to have a chronic illness during one’s PhD, and most of us aren’t brave enough to talk about it under our real names. This Twitter-er and I haven’t met in real life, but we do follow each other, and we’re in broadly the same field. I sent her an email to say “hey, you’re not alone.”

Since the second year of my PhD, I’ve gotten daily migraines. Yes, migraines. Yes, daily. For about six months during my fourth year, I was hitting 9/10 or 10/10 on the pain scale at least once a week. (For comparison, appendicitis was about a 6/10 at its very worst, and breaking my toe was maybe a 4/10.) (Also, I’m allergic to opiates.) For about half of my PhD, I could only guarantee about 4 hours per day of functionality, in which I had to fit in every single thing that had to be done. Not just research and teaching and supervising and job applications, but also endless doctors appointments and trips to the pharmacy and seeing my therapist and going to the grocery store and exercising and cooking and seeing friends and dealing with my incredibly complicated family. All this nonsense on Twitter at the moment about 40 hrs/week versus 60 hrs/week versus 80 hrs/week? That conversation’s so far removed from my reality, it might as well be about Mars.

And yet, I finished my PhD. I had guaranteed funding for N years and partial funding for the N+1th year, and I finished in N years + 9 months. (Note that I didn’t officially take any time off during my PhD, as that would have lost me my visa, and thus my access to any sort of health care.) And I got a postdoc. A postdoc that was perfect in nearly every imaginable way. (Part-time, awesome research, amazing boss, within weekend traveling distance of my partner.) It is possible.

The PhD student with this neurological disorder told me that she thinks her career in academia is over. And, well, it might be — I don’t actually know anything about her. But the club of successful academics with chronic illnesses is bigger that you’d think. It is possible to finish your PhD. It is possible to get a job afterwards.

If you’re a member of our club, I’m sorry, but also, welcome. Take heart in our success stories. Whatever your goal is, even if it’s just getting out of bed today, I believe in you.

Vertigo, and other symptoms that will screw with your PhD

When people use the word “dizzy,” they typically mean one of two sensations. The first is presyncope, or lightheadedness. Feeling like you’re going to pass out. The second is vertigo, or the feeling of motion. You can feel like you’re moving, or you can feel like you’re staying still and the rest of the world’s moving. Either way, your inner ear is telling you one thing, but the rest of your senses are telling you another, greatly affecting your balance — and your stomach.

During the second year of my PhD, I fell suddenly ill…and then didn’t get better. At the time, it was assumed that I had picked up some sort of weird virus (I was an international student, most of my friends were international students, these things happen) and that this combined with the stress of my PhD had set off mental health issues (not unreasonable, given my personal and genetic history), but one of my symptoms had my doctors scratching their heads: vertigo. Constant, moderate vertigo, occasionally and unpredictably escalating to severe vertigo. And while a lot of things can be faked, even the most skeptical of doctors will admit that nystagmus isn’t one of them.

For months, I was ill, and I didn’t know why. I was put on wait list after wait list, with doctor after doctor being utterly perplexed and then trying to make me someone else’s problem. I was exhausted and in pain and could barely stand up straight and freakin’ losing my vision and things were getting worse, not better. Completely separately from this, my personal and academic lives were both simultaneously imploding. In a fairly terrible self-fulfilling prophecy, my mental health was declining. Life sucked. After several years of therapy, I now know what I should have done, but at the time, I was an foreigner in my early 20’s with essentially no social support system. Things were awful.

As terrible as it is to have a chronic illness, it’s worse to have a chronic illness and not know what it is. To anyone out there reading this without a diagnosis, my heart goes out to you.

If you have vertigo for long enough, eventually you will be seen by an ENT. (Vertigo sucks, but it won’t kill you, and apparently ENTs are very busy people. It took me nearly a year to get an appointment with one.) The ENT seemed to regard me rather incredulously. Yes, I had one symptom under his purview. But I also had 20 others that quite clearly did not belong in his department. Nevertheless, he ordered a test for something I almost certainly did not have, wrote a letter to my GP, and wished me luck.

I indeed did not have this particular vertigo disorder.

The test did, however, reveal the true cause of my symptoms: a very serious, very rare neurological disorder.

(I should have been tested for that neurological disorder basically immediately upon showing symptoms; the reason that I wasn’t is a series of horrible coincidences not particularly relevant to my story. Trust me, if you have vertigo, you [a] don’t have what I have and [b] will have already been tested for this.)

Things happened very quickly after that.

See, there are, it turns out, three types of this neurological disorder. In the first type, you die basically immediately. Since I had been showing symptoms for over a year by that point, I clearly didn’t have that. In the second type, doctors do a bunch of horrible things to you, there’s a chance that you’re fine, but there’s also a chance that after all that horrible stuff, you lead a pretty diminished quality of life for a bit, and then you die anyway.

And in the third type? In the third type, your symptoms might eventually stabilize. You never get any better, but you might not get any worse, at least not for years and years. You take medication to control the pain, the fatigue, the dizziness, the nausea. You take more medication to control the side effects of that medication. You mourn the loss of your vision, of your memory, of your mental acuity. Someday you’ll wind up in the second type or the first type. But until then? You just get on with your life.

So that’s me. After my diagnosis, I was very, very ill for a very long time. But then things started to look up. My neurologists, psychiatrists, and I began to find combinations of meds that actually somewhat worked. Years of therapy started to pay off. I went back to my PhD, finished it, actually convinced someone to hire me as a postdoc. At the moment, I have a partner, a visa, a bank account with positive numbers in it, some papers with my name on them. I’m doing alright.

To succeed in academia, I feel like you need three things: talent, training, and time. I was, if you’ll pardon the complete lack of modesty, a pretty kick-ass undergrad. I have tangible proof of my academic potential. Two very shiny degrees plus some highly marketable skills speak to my training.

My problem is time. Or, rather, energy. My currently contract is 0.8 FTE: 30 hours per week, 6 hrs/day. I work slightly more than so that I can fit in more non-grant work (finishing up papers from my PhD, applying for my next job, working on collaborations that don’t involve my current supervisor), but absolutely most that I can function in a day is 8-9 hours. That’s it. Pain and fatigue and the schedule of my medication don’t allow for anything else.

I see my partner maybe 2 out of every 3 weekends (we work in neighboring cities), and when we’re together we do low-energy things like watch TV and play board games. That’s it. That’s my life. I don’t really exercise, don’t really cook, don’t really socialize, don’t really have hobbies. I, who conned her undergrad institution into letting her take 25% more credits than what was needed to graduate, while working 2 jobs, while leading multiple extracurricular groups, while going running every morning; I, who am full of stories of epic fieldwork adventures in far-off lands, now have days where I consider going to the post office to be an achievement.

I’d make a great academic. It’s what I’m trained for. It’s what I’m good at. I have awards to prove that I’m a good writer, to prove that I’m a good teacher. I can write grants, write code, communicate with members of other disciplines, communicate with members of the public.

I am a part-time postdoc, and I am damn good at my job.

Can I make it in academia?

Let’s find out.