This week marks the end of my second academic year here.
Spoiler Alert: I survived.
Second year was an entirely different creature than first year. For one thing, I had successfully recruited people into my lab, and we were in my newly renovated space. We started to build momentum in research projects. And then there was that thing where people – everyone – asked more of me. Meanwhile, I knew people in town, and in having something of a social life, the isolation I felt last year disappeared.
Compared with first year, I did roughly an order of magnitude more things, and although it felt crazy – was crazy – I didn’t feel as if I was spinning out of control, or like I was losing sight of the bigger picture. In part this was because everything was easier than last year. I knew who to ask for things or where to find that information. Last year I learned a lot about how the system functions here, and that really helped understand what is expected of me, where to cut corners, and who to brag to about accomplishments or talk to when I needed a straightforward answer.
It’s been a good year although not everything1 has gone according to plan. So instead of dwelling on my accomplishments, failures, and fears, I want to talk about some of the biggest things I’ve learned this year.
I found my voice.
This isn’t only about learning to say no2, it’s also about being able to command attention of a room full of undergrads, and talking to trainees without (at least in that moment) worrying about whether they will still like me. But it’s also being able to talk with colleagues as an equal and feeling confident in taking part in larger discussions about hiring, grad student issues, and all the various other decisions that come up over a year in academia.
Mentoring is hard
People in the lab were by far the best and most rewarding and also the most difficult aspect of this year. The biggest challenge was (is!) trying to help trainees adjust from expectations in their previous position to my expectations. There were never the things I expected, and often centered around my expectation that people should, at this stage, be in the lab running experiments most of the time that they are not in class/teaching/attending other obligations. I was also reminded that peoples’ strengths and weaknesses do not always line up with their own perception; and writing with new people…well let’s just say it’s a lot slower than doing it myself (assuming I had time to do it myself).
And now, after close to two years, we have some serious personnel turnover. I’m going to miss my lab tech. I mean, really, I’m thrilled for hir to be moving off into the next phase of their life *SOB*.
Research is slow to get going (and that’s okay)
Over and over again I was reminded that my expectations are not always in line with reality.
This year we got some projects moving forward. It was slow and clunky. We replaced some equipment that should have worked for us but didn’t (which cost money). We struggled with getting one technique working reliably. Everyone in the lab learned new techniques. Pilot experiments that should have3 worked, did not and things that were supposed to work last year finally got up and running. So we started to generate momentum, but we are not yet in the stage where we generate floods of usable data4.
During the last semester, I decided that the only way to get a couple of experiments done – and to really get a feel for the lay of the land in my lab – was to get in there lab and run a few experiments myself. So I started setting aside 2-3 hours a day to do that. It was great. Experiments got done, I worked out some kinks in the protocols, it was so great to be in the lab doing complete experiments again. The only problem was that it took me a couple of weeks to realize why I was suddenly frantically running between meetings all the time. Turns out, if you use a couple of hours a day to be in the lab, that’s a couple of hours a day worth of other stuff that doesn’t get done5. This is something I plan to continue. Somehow.
Colleagues’ increased expectations of me is a good thing
Surprisingly, this was one of the most satisfying things this year6. More than almost anything else, being more involved in the department and having more informal discussions in the corridor, or impromptu lunch with colleagues, and even the small amount of committee work I have done have made me feel like I belong here, like I am part of this department. This, more than anything, has contributed to the I AM HERE! I AM DOING THIS! feeling.
Overall, I feel lucky to be in this particular institution and department. It’s a place I fit well and feel supported. I feel lucky to have met really great people and have a bona fide social life and growing support network here. I’m excited about all the research we are going to get done over the summer, and terrified about money and getting papers out the door. Unlike the end of my first year, I now have a pretty good idea of what my niche is here, a better idea of how to move research forward. But the best thing about second year? I am not the exhausted wreck I was at this time last year.
Now I get to look forward to third year review. Yikes.
2 Turns out I was already able to do that
4 Because that is a thing that happens, right? It happens in the summer between second and third year, yes?
5 Apparently I was being productive before that, not just messing around at my computer!
6 When paired with “finding my voice”. And saying “no”.