Gosh, well, goodness me. The last couple of months have whizzed by and I have been severely neglecting this blog (I’m only really writing this because someone told me they enjoyed reading and I feel guilty). I’ve got lots of good reasons for being so remiss – honest, guv.
We had a paper accepted in PLOS ONE and I fully intend to write a longer post about that, but I’ve been caught up with getting that sorted. I’ve also been trying to tie up our lab and get my student sorted before my imminent hop over to Chicago (aka Chiberia, Artichicago, Hoth).
Speaking of which, I’m leaving on Friday. Tomorrow is my last day at UoP. I have been fully bowled over by the response to my leaving. People have been lovely to me. Tomorrow is also my 30th birthday, and my Dad’s 69th. It’s been difficult to say goodbye to some, but I think I’m keeping it together – stiff upper lip and what-have-you. No doubt over the coming weeks I will struggle. I guess I could chronicle some of that here but I don’t want this blog to turn into even more of a whinge-fest. Besides, I am super excited about getting started at the new place, and I want to focus on that.
Christmas was hectic, I have spent the last week bowling and eating with my friends. I’m cream-crackered, really. Onwards. I will try to write something slightly more cogent in the coming weeks.
I done finished my PhD a while ago now, over two years. I still get a bit sweaty thinking about it. At best, I really enjoyed splashing around in sewage, working in the field with some ace people, being productive and DOING A SCIENCE. At worst (mostly during the write-up), I was miserable and ill, working a full-time job in the Department I was registered as a postgraduate in (more complicated than you may imagine), while trying to finish the thesis before it killed me (I still have a pretty rotten GI system as a result of a particularly shite two years). I went a bit feral. I was a horrid bastard to be around (it is a great mystery to me that my then-boyfriend was still prepare to become my now-husband, even after living with me during the write-up months. Gawd bless ‘im). Lots of people suggested I ‘just get it finished’, OH SORRY, I HADN’T THOUGHT OF THAT – my supervisor, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them. At the point I handed in, I’m pretty sure he would have preferred to keep me going for another year or so. It took a pretty magnificent display of hysterics to make the point that I literally could not carry on.
Anyway, luckily, I got a lot of support from a lot of people, so I got it done – incidentally, my viva was a breezy joy and my external examiner told me right at the beginning that I had passed, I was going to be awarded my PhD, and that he just wanted to have a discussion about my thesis during the viva itself. This may well have been because I looked like I was about to heave-ho all over the desk, but, eh. You take it where you can get it.
This week, I heard of another pretty miserable Ph.D experience – one that didn’t even end with a doctorate for the candidate. Now, whether or not they should do a PhD is often on the top of students “what I need to think about at some point” list, and I have amassed a reasonable list of instructions for those considering starting a PhD course. So I figured I would write them down. Please, go ahead and read them – but read them with these provisions: these are all opinions, coming from someone who has a fairly non-romantic view of the whole business (seriously, my PhD SUCKED). Also, I am British, and did my PhD in Britainland. I’d be interested to hear how many normal people agree with any of these.
1. Don’t do a Ph.D Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha only joking! (no honestly don’t do one). Okay, alright. You should do one, if you want to. It’s a pretty neat thing to do. But you should go into it being passionate. You have to be REALLY into whatever you are studying. You need to RHAPSODISE about clam bums, or whatever you’re going to spend four years peering at. If you don’t love it, you’ll never finish. When a student says to me that they want to do a PhD, but they don’t think they’re clever enough, my cold little heart cracks a little. A doctorate is a test of endurance, not intelligence. I promise you though – you will hate it/your supervisor/everything before you finish.
2. Don’t want to work in Academia when you grow up? Don’t do a PhD This is self-explanatory. You can work in Science without a PhD – you could go and work at a place where there’s the possibility of progression, and a merit-based reward system! That is not academia. Sorry.
3. Don’t do a self-funded PhD ………or if you do, scope your supervisor up the wazoo. Um, as it were. It really worries me how many of our students are lured back to do self-funded PhDs. Not only do you have to register part-time (so it takes twice as long to finish), you probably have to work (because you don’t get a bursary and you need to pay your fees), and that is HARD. You’re also working on a project which may have been, figuratively speaking, plucked from an arse. There might not be any funds to cover your attendance to conferences, or training – or even your lab consumables. It is not unheard of for students to be asked to pay for lab consumables out of their own money. Check out your supervisor – if they have published in the last couple of years, if they have supervised lots of happy undergrads or have supervised happy PhD students in the recent past, you’re probably ok. But please, please check.
4. Publish this relates strongly to point 3. I didn’t publish anything from my thesis (I wasn’t even self-funded or part-time. Ask me why I didn’t publish, I dare you). It’s bad.
5. Get a network. You’ll need some support. Everyone else doing a doctorate will need some support too – it’s the best thing in the world to know you are not the only one feeling like curling up under the bench and freebasing jaffa cakes. Give each other a little cuddle. I did a lot of work in isolation – I wasn’t really part of a research community or anything like that. That is definitely something I struggled with, and when a postdoc came to the lab to work on an unrelated project, things got better.
Of course, everyone has their own story, and of course, things worked out well for me and I am very happy now. I probably wouldn’t be the person/scientist I am without that epic battle, so, in that sense, it was a positive thing. I was also very lucky to have been able to do a PhD in the first place, and, joking aside, I do think that all able, passionate peoples should be able to do one if they so desire. It’s only fair. But I *do* worry about the folk who get trapped in bad situations, and I always urge, whenever I’m asked, students to make their decisions based on the above principles.
I thought I would write a post with a slightly more practical tone, as opposed to the nasal whining that came across in the previous couple (sorry about that).
I was talking to a colleague today, who has just applied for a position in the US. We started talking about visas, and the process I have just been through to obtain mine. This is the first experience I’ve had with obtaining a visa of any kind, and I spent a lot of time reading this forum, which seems to contain a lot of good information.
The first point I’ll make is this: I think a lot of people in the UK (including myself, before I knew better) assume it is very easy to move to the US, that they can show up, find a job, and set up a life. Actually, I realised (and I had no idea), it’s really flippin’ hard to get into the US. I’m on a H1-B visa, which is a specialist worker visa. It’s temporary visa (I think you can hold one a maximum of 6 years), and it’s a non-immigrant visa, i.e. I’m going to work in the US, but as it stands I’ll be coming back to the UK eventually. As far as I’m aware, you (or more accurately, your employer) have two choices of visa for a postdoc. My one, or a J visa. Everyone else I know who has worked in the US has been started off on a J visa, and moved on to a H1-B. I think the H1-B is ‘better’ for the employee in many ways, but the main difference between the two, which has proved a little troublesome, is that visas derivative of the H1-B don’t allow the dependant to work. So, my husband can get himself a nice shiny H4 visa, and can come out and live with my for as long as I have my visa, but he’s not allowed to work in the US. So that means he’ll be in the UK for 6 months a year, saving up some $$$$$ to come out and stay in Chicago. If I was on a J visa, I believe he would be able to come out and work – having said that, getting a job wouldn’t necessarily mean he’d be allowed to work: you find a job, and then apply for a permit to actually do the job, but there’s no guarantee you get the permit. See?
Anyway, that is what it is. When I accepted my new position, I was immediately put in touch with a lovely lady who sent me lots of forms to fill out, which allowed the University to then petition for my visa. Photocopies of my passport and degree certificate, the usual. I also had to pay a company to do an equivalency assessment of my PhD – basically assess if the UK PhD is equivalent to the US PhD. That was pretty expensive (actually, the whole process has been pretty expensive, but there it is).
After the paperwork was done, I had to wait a couple of months until my petition was approved and then I was given the OK to make an appointment with the US consulate in London, to have my visa interview. To do this, you fill out an online form using the petition approval which was Fedexed over from Chicago, and pay another bunch of money. I was really lucky – I managed to get an interview for the day after I filled out the form, but I was in the queue talking to a guy who had to wait 5 weeks. I had to take my passport and some photos of myself – be aware, standard passport booth photos aren’t the ones you need, you want the special square visa ones (wasted £5 on them :(). Speaking of the queue, my appointment was for 8.30am, but praise be – I was advised by my newly-minted-US-citizen-friend to get there early. So I arrive for 6.45am, and was around fifth in the queue. As it was, I was over and finished by 8.45am, but if I had shown up for 8.30am I may well have been there until close of play.
They took my fingerprints and processed my paperwork, and the interview itself lasted around 3 minutes. The pleasant American chap at the window told me I was heading for a nice part of Chicago (and I said something incredibly British in reply, something like “Ooooh, lovely”), asked me what my highest degree was, what it was in, what I’ll be doing in the States. Then he said the application was approved, and I said “OK……good”, and he said my passport would be sent to me in 5-7 days. More Britishness: “Lovely……well, thanks very much.”
I got my passport a few days later (couriers are a bit rubbish, so be aware) with a nice shiny visa in it.
Ta-daaa! I have a feeling I was very lucky with timing and what have you – plus the guys at my new Uni were brilliant. I am sure they made a complicated process very painless for me. So I’ve got my visa, got my flight, and most importantly, the cats have had their rabies vaccines and now have little kitty passports. Ready to go.
Just read this post which was linked off of a recent #ECRchat. I’m not in a great mood today, because the building I work in is currently going through one of it’s ‘I smell like sewage and there’s NOTHING you can do about it short of razing me to the ground’ weeks. But this paragraph really narked me off:
In all competitive processes, applicants with a more accomplished publication record have always had some advantage (for a publication-related criterion) than those with fewer publications. However, some funding agencies will use publication output as an explicit eligibility criteria. In one example, an Irish funding agency (Science Foundation Ireland,Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) Programme) stated this as follows:
“The applicant must demonstrate a proven record of internationally recognised research accomplishments. The applicant must be senior author (first, last or corresponding) on at least three primary research articles (that is, not reviews nor other secondary research articles) in international peer-reviewed publications AND be a named author on an average of at least one international peer-reviewed primary research publication per year since the award of the PhD (or equivalent).”
It’s old news, of course, but just serves to remind me that this is an area I’m severely lacking in, and I’m constantly paranoid about. My PhD supervisors didn’t believe that publishing was a crucial, or even important aspect of my PhD, for whatever reason. Result: no papers during my PhD, and when I tried to take the initiative and publish something off my own back after I’d finished, the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster. I mean, I didn’t bloody know how to write a manuscript effectively – I’d never done it. Anyway. Now, I’m a postdoc in a tiny lab in a tiny University. It’s just me in the lab. There are no parallel projects for me to be involved in, in order to get my name in the middle of a bunch of other names on a paper. Any paper which comes from this project comes from me alone, I do everything. I do all the lab work. I do all the reading and experimental design. Fine. I *also* do all the ordering, all the cleaning, all the washing up, all the health and safety, all the media making, all the practical undergrad supervision when the need arises, all the lab maintenance. There are no PhD students. There are no technicians.
I believe that I have a very strong idea of what ‘good science’ is, and that I’m moral enough to always apply my work to that principle. I work my ruddy arse off to get interesting and meaningful results, but I have an incredibly low productivity because it’s just me doing this stuff, and all the associated crap which goes with working in a lab. Regardless, I’m at a massive disadvantage, and I will always have to justify why I haven’t been chuntering out a paper a year since I finished my PhD.
Mother pus bucket.
I couldn’t think of a good title for this post. I’m settling with an image which best describes the general tone, instead:
I have been *well* naff about writing blog posts, haven’t for ages – I merely haven’t had the capacity in the last month or so. I have a couple of serious ones in the pipeline, one of which is based on a paper I have under review at the moment – that’ll have to wait until such time as it is accepted, I’m afraid. If you’re particularly disappointed about that, I can, however, offer you *this*. A most excellent band from Italy. I saw them twice in a row a couple of weeks ago – they played the gig we hi-jacked to celebrate of wedding.
Yup, got married a couple of weeks ago. It was everything a wedding should be: you can see my bra in almost every photograph, my nephew threw up, I had steak for lunch and we made everyone pay for themselves. It was a very laid back, relaxed affair, which I am grateful for. Despite the low-key nature of the whole do, I was pretty wound up about it all. I have no idea how people manage to plan massive big churchy things – kudos. Small quantities of family were present at the registry office, including some I’ve never met, which was lovely. The registry office was close enough to where I work so that my PIs could show up and chuck confetti at me. In the evening, we went to a gig which had been organised before we even decided to get hitched. Because we’d only told very close friends we were getting married, in the morning we Facebook’d what was going on and suggested celebrations could take place at the show (so jammy). Mr. Siv’s band played, a comedy Black Sabbath covers band played, Fuzz Orchestra played. It was the best night.
I was allowed to hold up the cue cards for ‘War Pigs’. So proud.
Aside from that, and applying for grants and courses and submitting papers and getting our new MRes student up to speed, I’ve trying to sort of this imminent move to the US. Everything seems to be going very smoothly – my potential for actually getting over there in January and being able to function is going up, while my bank balance continues to go dramatically south. But that’s the name of the game, isn’t it – and the support I’ve been getting from my new place of work has been incredible. I’m very excited about going over there.
So at the moment I’m in a peculiar turmoil of being very, very excited, panicky and bit sweaty, and feeling pretty guilty. The move I’m about to make will have an impact of lots of people I love, which I’m trying to address on a practical, non-hysterical level. My husband, of course, is going to have to move out of the home we love. He can’t work in the US – his visa will only allow him to accompany me, and sit there looking pretty. He can’t even open a bank account over there. Mr. Siv is a grafter, he wants to work, and the only way he can is to stay in the UK. We’ve come to terms with that bit, it’s a temporary thing. Part of the reason we decided to get hitched was a nod to this – it will be hard, but we’ll be ok. We’re still permanent.
Reading this by Mark Martin made me think again about leaving my Mum and Dad. Mum and Dad are not really travelly people, and while their initial stance of “oooooh…….well I don’t think we’d be able to come and visit you in the US” has recently changed to “oh, so we can cruise there? Well that’s a different matter”, I know that mostly for the next few years I will seeing them via Skype. It will be tough not hanging out with them regularly (getting nails done with Mum, getting fed chicken stew by Dad and talking about George Martin), but I’m trying to deal with that by telling myself “it’s just a 6 hour plane trip..” which I suppose it is. I think it will feel like more than just a plane trip for the first six months I’m out there, though. The really brutal part is not seeing my nephews and nieces all the time. Say I stay in the US for 5 years – every time I get home to visit the little guys they’ll be different people! That bit really stings.
On top of these more considerable worries are the day-to-day guilts I’m griping with. I feel guilty about spending all our money of going to the US, I feel guilty about having to move out of the house we rent because I like our landlord lots, I feel guilty about pressuring people to come visit, I feel guilty about not doing enough work at the moment, I feel guilty about working too much at the moment, I feeling guilty about leaving the people I work with, guilty about leaving students behind, I feel guilty about complaining. And why can’t you buy flippin’ duvet covers in the US?
I’m guessing all this is fairly standard. I suppose I’m writing this post to give an account of what it’s like moving to a new country – it’s bound to be different for everyone but I suspect I’ve covered the fundamentals.
Ahh. If only I could be more like Venkman.
Now, look here. I don’t want to harsh anyone’s mellow, but I’m going to talk about bullies and bullying.
I know someone who worked at an institute for a long time (decades, not years). Very far away from retirement age, they felt they had to hand in their notice with no new job to go to because they had been suffering at the whim of bullies. Now, at this place of work bullying was endemic, and as such, the subject of this tale lived day to day with inappropriate comments, aggression and belligerent behaviour, but, you know, it was happening to a bunch of people and you just try to keep your head down and do the best you can at your job, for the people you manage and the higher powers you work for. However, in the months leading up to handing in their notice, a particularly nasty character (newly employed), had raised his rotten little bonce and, in all sincerity, made our protagonist’s life unbearable. Unbearable – i.e. not deal-able with. Utterly miserable. An existence which no one should have to deal with at work, at school, at home – anywhere.
The vile little shit responsible for this torment, this bitter little pustule who deemed himself important enough to wield this level of influence over another human being’s life carried out his abuse in the cold light of day. In clear view of many other colleagues, decent people in most cases. But here’s the thing – they didn’t call him out on it. They didn’t stop him or say anything, and because of that, a person, the protagonist of this little story, was sad, all the time. We all know what it’s like to be sad, right? How utterly grim and bleak to be sad all the time. How repulsive and maggoty that one human being was able to make another human being feel deeply and wholly sad every day.
This is what I want to say, to anyone who is reading this. If you see someone treating somebody else poorly, in any way, you speak up. You stand up in front of that scum and you say “Hey, PAL, that is NOT appropriate and I will NOT watch you treat another person like that”. If you don’t feel able to do that, you immediately go find someone who is in a position to investigate the situation. If you don’t do that, you are complicit. It is your responsibility as an observer to make an effort to stop bullying. Whether or not the powers that be deal with a culture in which bullying is accepted and learned behaviour is a whole other smelly matter, but YOU need to know that you did your bit, and said your piece.
My nephew is five and he just started school. I hated school. It was horrid. The fact that he is a sweet kid and will probably have to deal with bullies at some point breaks my heart, truly. It makes me want to weep even though I know he will learn from it and hopefully grow up into an adult who will stand up for the little guy.
What sort of a person moves into professional life still behaving like the bully in the playground? I’m sure someone somewhere has something to say about that. I don’t care.
I wont have it. Not on my watch. And you shouldn’t either.