My birthday and what I would like…

Yep, it’s my birthday and I’m officially old.  My younger sister and my wife both use this day yearly to remind me of that fact.  Unfortunately, they’re right – I am getting old, and getting sick of grad school, which has had me thinking about what I’d like to be doing, if/when I ever get out of here. (Nominally, it should be in the fall.)

In light of many current discussions about the world of academia, for instance this excellent piece by Jennifer Rohn, I’ve been pretty much convinced I’m not interested in going down the academic path.  I understand the value of a post-doc position, but I just don’t see it really being the right path for me. I’ll save those particular reasons for another post on another day, though.

Instead, I’d rather focus on what I want out of my next position, or rather, what’s lacking in my current position.  I suspect that what’s lacking here is also lacking in most academic labs, and in my limited experience, I’ve seen varying degrees of it, but apparently post-graduate education is supposed to be a lonely path, so I think my criticisms are likely valid in most labs.

The first thing I’m really lacking is teamwork.  To be fair, I don’t want to say that you can’t work as a team in academia, because it can and has been done, although usually in the form of collaborations.  Instead, what I feel is lacking is the ability to share a set of goals with co-workers.  During my time at Zymeworks, I enjoyed the sense that everyone was working together towards the same objective.  We may not all have had the same tasks, but we had a common goal and achieving that goal meant that everyone did their part.  When one person struggled, others could provide assistance and advice.  For instance, we often had competitions to see who could come up with the best method, and then picked the best one.  That was teamwork, and the best ideas always came to the top.

In contrast, I’ve rarely shared the same goals with other people in grad school.  I’ve shared tasks with other people (while they tried to scoop me), or shared goals with people (when they needed my work to accomplish their tasks), but failed to find any real evidence of teamwork.  The closest I’ve come was when a full-time employee was helping me write code for FindPeaks.  For a brief time, we had the same goal : implement and test a particular solution, and that period was one of my most productive in the past 4 years and I’ve often lamented that he moved back to Europe. (He was also a good friend.)

Instead, teamwork (in this environment) usually consists of someone taking your code and applying it to their own project and coming back to you with bug reports, or sometimes it means one person finds something interesting and hands it off to another scientist. It strikes me as a “teamwork by pipeline” method.  It’s useful in that the work of one person stands independently of everyone else’s.  Unfortunately, no cross-pollination of ideas ever takes place, and the pipeline is the sum of everyone’s independent work.  Bad ideas are never challenged and no one ever really knows what another person has done.  Not ideal, in my humble opinion.

That takes me to another facet of what I wish I had in my working environment: interaction. I miss bouncing ideas off of others – and I miss discussing ideas in a context that people can constructively tell you when you’re wrong… before you implement something and waste your time finding out you’re wrong.  I’ve gotten used to spending entire days sitting at my desk without talking to a single other person. (Thank goodness for twitter and blogs!)  I used to have the excuse of playing ping pong for a half hour in the afternoon (alas, they took away the ping pong table about a year ago to put in a new first aid station), but without a common lunch room or any activity other than the occasional walk to the lecture theater, it gets pretty lonely in the cubicle farm.  I’ve taken to walking over to people instead of emailing them, but it’s disruptive to other people’s working habits, so I try to do it only for important items.

I also crave feedback.  I know grad school is about working independently, but 4 years into it, the vast majority of my feedback has been in the form of bug reports.  That would probably be par for the course… if I were working as a programmer.  Instead, I’ve been doing bioinformatics, and I’d love to hear about the biology too.  Imagine you’re writing a book, and the only feedback you ever get is about the spelling mistakes.  It’s valuable information, to be sure, but it won’t help you refine the plot or character development.  Authors use spell checkers, but they have editors for a reason.

I know it’s unreasonable to expect to be involved in the applications of my software, but hey, we can all hope, can’t we?

Anyhow, now that I’m done complaining about what I’m missing, I should also be thankful for what I have: a lot of resources (how many other graduate students get their own dedicated server and RAID?), a lot of freedom (how many other grad students can invent up projects out of thin air and get support for them?), a lot of leeway (how many other grad students can do all of their work openly on the web?) and a lot of opportunities (how many other grad students actually have people looking to collaborate with them?).

Even though I find things lacking in some elements, I’m happy to say I don’t think I’d trade away what I do have.  Now, I just have to figure out if there’s some way to combine it all.  Is the perfect job too much to ask for my birthday? (-;

3 thoughts on “My birthday and what I would like…

  1. I know why I always feel wary upon reading your blog… you are just too close to where I’ll be in a couple of years for comfort.

  2. Happy belated birthday!

    A couple of things in this post really resonated with me. For example:

    “I’ve gotten used to spending entire days sitting at my desk without talking to a single other person. (Thank goodness for twitter and blogs!)”

    and “I’ve taken to walking over to people instead of emailing them, but it’s disruptive to other people’s working habits, so I try to do it only for important items.”

    I, too, often spend entire days at work barely talking to anyone, as (with a few notable exceptions) my department is one of the least social ones I’ve ever experienced. As a naturally chatty person I find this rather depressing – thank the FSM for Twitter, and for the occasional person who does want to say hi in the morning or go out for a beer after work every once in a while! However, people coming to my desk to ask questions really IS very disruptive – I’m often trying to work on stuff that requires prolonged periods of focus, and interruptions drive me nuts at these times. So it feels like I’m in a constant mental battle between not wanting to be interrupted, but simultaneously craving conversation… it’s a weird place to be!

    I also hear you loud and clear on the lack of teamwork and feedback. It can really jar to send out reports, meeting minutes, etc. that took me days, if not weeks, to put together, and not have a single person even respond. Yes, I know that everyone’s busy (and that I’m a grownup), but when people only ever get feedback when they do something wrong, it’s not exactly good for morale. Luckily not everyone is like this, though, and when someone does take the time to thank or praise me, it really makes my day!

    Having said all this, my last job had a much friendlier, chattier, and more team-based vibe to it, but I’m still happier now than I was back then, as my work is now more interesting and fulfilling. I’ve often said that my ideal situation would be to do my current job in my old office!

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