Thursday, September 19, 2013

On work hours

This is my third week of working as a postdoc, and I see some clear differences in the work culture and work hours. The difference might somewhat be attributed to working with an associate professor versus an assistant professor, but I am not so clear on that. However, the work hours here resemble more of a 9 to 5 job. Make it 8 to 6 actually. Today, the hours got slightly reversed. When I left at 7 in the morning, I saw the sun rise on my drive to the lab. By the time I was done, it was past 7:30 pm, and the sun had set. However, today was an outlier, I hope.

            During PhD, there was no compulsion to show up at work during fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong, this did not mean that I was not working. It only meant that I had the liberty to work from anywhere, and not necessarily the lab. It makes sense, since two of the three years in graduate school was spent taking classes, and the third year was my final year when students are busy writing a dissertation and do not want to be interrupted. There were 1-2 weekly meetings at specific hours when everyone in the lab would meet. If you happened to be out of town, collecting data or on vacation, you could call in. With 3-4 graduate students, people were always in and out. I am not saying that I didn’t show up at work, what I am saying is there were no fixed timings. Some days I would be there by 9, and other days, I would show up after noon. Then again, some days I left by noon, and other days I worked until midnight. All I had to do was tell my adviser that I am going home to work on something, and he can call me or email me if he needed anything. As long as he knew where and how he could find us, he did not care. For me, it was a false sense of freedom while I was still on a leash.

            During my third year especially, I remember working from home three out of five days, or showing up at work for a few hours, and then coming home and working more. As a result, I would have the flexibility to work until late night, and wake up late in the morning. Then I would sit in my sunny, east facing kitchen cum dining space with huge French windows, sipping coffee. I would cook a hearty breakfast and wash it down with more coffee, amid working and staring out of the window and watching students take the bus. After lunch, I would even take a nap. When the roommate came home in the evening, we would chat up, drink tea, eat onion fritters, and watch a movie on Netflix, still working. So I was working all day, but the way I wanted to. It’s not that I was hiking up the mountains. I was still communicating with the adviser whenever I was needed.

            Graduate students are low stake employees. They hardly get paid anything (I like the way I now call them “they” and not “we”), they take a few years to train, and the level of accountability is lower. I cannot generalize and speak for all research groups, but I have known enough research groups to be able to make a broad statement. A postdoc on the other hand is an employee. We get paid (marginally) more, and it is a full time job. The level of accountability is way higher. A postdoc is only a step away from being faculty most of the time. So you can easily forget the morning brunches and the afternoon naps.

            How does a typical day of mine looks like now? Well, I am at work by 9 am, which is when there are no 8:30 am meetings, or 8 am class evaluations. So a 9 am day is a good day for me. I am not the only postdoc, there are more. Hence there is always an implicit comparison on how much work we do. It looks very odd if a postdoc leaves for home at 5 pm, and the other one is still working, and so is the professor. My entire day is filled with meetings. I meet with the professor every day, sometimes twice or thrice a day. There are group meetings, and then there are one-on-one meetings. Then I attend a lot of workshops and seminars, typically 3-4 every week. This is because it is not enough to sit cocooned in your lab working, you need to be out there familiarizing yourself with other research groups and networking with them.

            Earlier, my Fridays did not start until 12 noon, when there would be a group meeting. Now, my meetings with the adviser Friday morning is at 8:30 am. Every week at the group meetings, I give an update on what I have been up to, and critique a research paper from the field. If I was taking classes, I would also have to give a talk on how what I have learned in class is applicable to my research, so that other members of the group who are not taking those classes can learn too. And these talks are around the table formal discussions, with powerpoint slides, and not informal chats. Very soon, I will also be supervising undergrads who work to gain some research experience.

            By the time I come home, it is usually past 6 in the evening. I barely have the energy to cook myself something, take a shower, head to the gym (sometimes), and collapse on the bed reading a book. I cant stay up late nights anymore because I have to be up the next morning, and the similar cycle would resume. I am genuinely enjoying it, learning a lot, and keeping busy in life. It gives me a sense of worth. However, I no longer have the flexibility to show up late, or not show up at all. I now get twelve vacation days annually, and everything is on pen and paper, formally documented. And on that note, it’s midnight here, and I must go to sleep. I am evaluating an 8 am lecture tomorrow morning.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Doing the math

Earning more doesn’t necessarily mean saving more, and I am learning this firsthand. As a graduate student, I thought that my financial miseries will be over once I start working. What I did not realize is that a student is also shielded from a lot of extra spending. As a postdoc, I earn 1.4 times of what I used to earn as a student. Not a whole lot more, I agree, but remember, I now live in a city where the cost of living is much less. Now let’s do some math.

            I now pay more taxes.

            I now pay some money for my health insurance, which I did not have to do as a student. It’s about $100/month, but still.

            Most students live in shared houses. The more the number of roommates, the less expenses per person. The rent gets shared, and so do the utilities, electricity bill, internet bill, water, sewer, garbage, anything you can think of. Now that I live on my own, I pay everything by myself.

            Most students also live close to campus, and either walk, bike, or take the bus. The bus ride is always free. In a bid to stay in a larger apartment community, I moved away from campus. So now I am paying for gas, as well as parking. Parking alone is close to $50 every month.

            School gym is free for students. Not for postdocs.

            I now have an iPhone, that comes with a data plan. Despite getting an 18% university discount, I am still paying more.

            I now fancy things I did not fancy before. Bose speakers, nice bedding set from BB&B, et cetera. Agreed, it is a one time buy, but still.

            I will no longer be able to avail all those student discounts. At conferences. For professional memberships at organizations. In Bengali associations, et cetera.

            I am not even accounting for the weekends when I do not have to work (which I used to as a graduate student), and hence feel like taking a flight and visiting some place. Remember, I live in a place which is really flat and uneventful. The nearest mountain is a good 8 hour drive away, the Pacific is close to 26 hours away, and the Atlantic is close to 20 hours away. To curb temptation, I just stay at home in the weekends, do household work, watch movies, and read.

            And at the end of the day, I cannot take up a second job for money. No tutoring, consulting, or offering professional services. I could, if I lived in India, but not here. Hence my argument. Unless you earn many times more, this earning more as a postdoc is just an illusion. What you actually do is spend more, and become poorer.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In press

            Today, I signed the agreement form for my paper, the first one to be published where I am the first author. And while I should be doing a victory dance, tap dance, lap dance, any kind of dance, I feel neither happy, nor sad.

            I had written this paper two summers ago, and ever since, it has seen multiple rejects. The reviews were pretty harsh every time, and I still vividly remember the first time it was rejected. Call it professional naivete, but I had a misconception that this was a great paper, my first and best brainchild, and should not have been rejected. I cried, consulted, went and talked to people about their first rejections, and some of them said that they still have papers sitting on their shelves that have never seen the light of the day (and probably never will). My heart sank.

            Since then, I pledged that I will try my best to get it published. I gave it a few months of break, and took a stab at it with renewed vigor. I rewrote it almost entirely, added some more data analysis, and emotionally distanced myself from it, my theory being that things happen when you detach yourself from the expectation of outcome. Not entirely scientifically proven, but I believe that if you can actually distance yourself sufficiently from an outcome (and not just pretend that you have distanced yourself), your failures will stop bothering you, and even if they don’t see fruition, you would have stopped caring by then. And then last April I went to San Francisco for a conference, met an editor (another reason why you should not spend time sightseeing during conferences), and things fell in place. After five more months of back and forth correspondences and editing, it finally got accepted. It might not be in one of my dream journals, but it is still something worth a few lines on my CV. And by now, I have matured enough to know that this paper is not my best work either.

            All this makes me think about the futility of using the number of publications as a productivity measurement currency in academia. Years go by from the time you conceive an idea in your head to the time you see it in print. The process is arduous and painstaking, to say the least. I am not even considering fraud where someone in the lab steals your idea or takes undue credit. And then we critique other people’s papers in classes, saying they did not do it well and the study is old and will not be relevant ten years down the line. No experiment is perfect, even the world we live in is not perfect. This is social science research after all, and people change. Then what is the point of using publications as a yardstick to measure success? It takes years of mastery, rounds of edits and rejects, heartbreaks, and tears, and this research may not be relevant in the future anyway. Then why not measure a researcher’s worth using more tangible measures?

As you can see, I’m rather feeling philosophical today.  


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The seven year (h)itch

Today marks the seventh year of my move to the US. Like I keep repeating this story to the now bored audiences, on a sunny September morning seven fall seasons ago, I had toured the entire world (almost) on my maiden flight, from Calcutta to Mumbai to Frankfurt to Los Angeles (with a one hour cockpit tour over Turkey) until I reached Seattle. I was tired, jetlagged, discombobulated, and ready to collapse. That started a series of many first experiences in life.

            I started with paying a rent of $375 every month (including utilities) in my first apartment at the U-District, sharing a floor, a kitchen, and two bathrooms with seven other people. Canon was my first point and shoot camera. A tub of Vaseline was my first purchase (which I still have, because another tub came free with that). My first trip was Las Vegas during Thanksgiving.

            Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was twenty five, starry eyed, and ready to change my life with my freshly minted F1 visa. Moving to Seattle was the best decision of my life, something I have never regretted. It started many a memorable journeys in life, making hundreds of new friends, whose spouses and siblings and neighbors and parents also became my friends eventually. 

            And what a fantastic journey it has been. I had never lived outside home before that, and this was my first real taste of independence. I have messed up quite a lot, burnt my dinner, knocked off a trash can while driving in someone's driveway, woken up late and missed class, shown up for the wrong exam, failed my Biochemistry test, had bland soup at someone's house because I did not know how to use a pepper mill, wished happy Thanksgiving to a cop after he gave me a $300 speeding ticket, ordered quesadilla as kyu-sa-dilla, the list is long. These are real life examples as well as figurative examples.

            And yet my learning curve in the last seven years has been tantamount to my learning curve for the twenty five years before that. Have I changed as a person? I don’t know. But I think that I take life way less seriously now. My goals are still serious, but not the way I see life anymore. Because nothing matters at the end of the day. 

            Regrets? Not at all. Okay, maybe a tiny one. I still have not seen Grand Canyon, but I intend to change that soon. I'll add Alaska to the list too.

            Quoting Jhumpa Lahiri from Interpreter of Maladies, “Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” Seven years, and I have moved and lived in three cities and six apartments. I will always associate most of the significant milestones of my life with this country. Getting a masters degree. Getting a PhD. Working. Researching. My postdoctoral job. My first digital camera. First car. Failing the theory of the driver's test the first time. First speeding ticket. Trips to Hawaii and Puerto Rico. First road trip. First paper publication. I realize that memories of the milestones achieved in India will slowly fade out, replaced by memories in the US.

            Quoting Jhumpa Lahiri from The Namesake again, “Pack a pillow and blanket and see as much of the world as you can. You will not regret it.” No Mrs. Lahiri, I have never regretted it. Today might as well have been my second birthday. And here is a toast to everyone who has been a part of this amazing journey.


Saturday, September 07, 2013

A tale of three job offers

My first verbal job offer came as early as a year before I graduated, during a conference presentation. Someone I met there liked my work, asked if I would like to talk over breakfast, gave me tips on how to strengthen my skills in my CV, and thumbs upped my adviser. I had not even proposed my dissertation then.

            This was one of the premier cancer research institutes of the country, the person was very well known, this was a big city with an impressive diversity, sizeable Indian population, and one of my favorite authors lives in that city. I was thrilled, and mentally started making plans of graduating on time and moving there. Five months later, a formal interview was done, and they said that they will get back to me.

            When I did not hear back from them for a while, I got nervous. I started applying for more jobs, thankfully. And there I saw a job advertised for a postdoctoral position in the Chemistry department. I was applying to as many jobs as I could, and although Chemistry is not my specialization, I wanted to give this a try. I was a chemistry minor in undergrad, had studied enough chemistry and biochemistry during both my master degrees, and for the rest, I was wiling to learn. I was not terribly excited about the place, and this was more of a backup job option for me.

            When I asked my adviser for a recommendation for this job, he actively discouraged me from applying, because of the same doubts I had. I did not specialize in chemistry. According to him, it would look bad on my part, as if I had not done my job research, and it would make him look bad, because he was recommending me for the job. We argued, and by the time I left his office, I had decided that for once, I will go against his advice. Sure he is my adviser and is supposed to know more than I do, but I was fighting battles he had no inkling about- the need to find employment, a visa sponsor, and making sure that I did not go out of visa status.

            Months later, on an unrelated note, the adviser told me that if I felt unhappy with my job, I should let him know. He was applying for a grant renewal, the same grant my dissertation was based off, and if he got the renewal money and I was still interested, I could rejoin the team as a postdoc. I considered this as a verbal job offer, and my best option, since I already knew everything about the project. But he said that this was a backup option for me, since I should spread my wings independent of him.

            I got the second job offer during the phone interview itself, stunning me. I was too tempted to ask, “But I have not specialized in chemistry”. That was a backup job and I did not even think that I would get.

            After months of prodding, the first group told me that they are declining me an offer. The funding agency had recently gone through serious sequestrations, and they did not have enough funds to hire me. Job offer one was gone.

            Yesterday, the adviser announced that he has decided not to go for that grant renewal this year. He wants to wait for a year and get more publications first.  Job offer three, from my very own doctoral research team, was gone as well.

            As for job number two, I took the job and moved here. Then one day not so many hours ago, I asked the new boss why I was hired despite my lack of background.

            “To avoid researcher bias”, she said. She wanted someone with the required skills, but outside the field, because everyone else was from within the field, and she wanted an outsider’s perspective. She wanted to reduce research bias. I got the job precisely for the same reason that I thought I would be denied the job.

            What can I say, this situation reminds of three movies, Amores Perros, 21 grams, and Babel, all from the same director. Each movie has three separate stories revolving around something common. All three movies are fantastic.

            Three independent research groups in three different locations and specializations, together decided my professional fate. What I thought I would get, I did not. And the job I got was precisely for the same reason I thought that I would not get that job. And I am beginning to like that job.


Wednesday, September 04, 2013


The first day of work was more paperwork than work. Filling out numerous forms, photocopying passport and SSN, visiting international student office and postdoctoral office, attending a faculty workshop, doing online training, and interviewing an undergrad. Then there was going to the bank to get one dollar bills (for parking) and quarters (for laundry). I am slowly beginning to figure out my way around the city, and around the campus. Now I know where to park my car, where to pay, and how to figure out the way to the department without using a GPS or getting lost. I know where to go for grocery, where the bank is, and where the post office is. Slowly, I am beginning to figure things out. The feeling of alienation is not gone yet, and I mostly drive around like a stranger in an unknown city, looking at roads and shops and people. Anonymity has its own merits, when you know that you will never bump into a known face, since there is no known face. A friend tells me that before I even know, those bylanes of the city will be privy to my life and secrets soon. I don’t know if I should believe him.

As a child, the first day at school was always exciting. I'd spend the night before arranging my bag, smelling my new books, polishing my school shoes, and organizing my school uniform. The smell of newness surrounded me- the smell of shoes polish and paper and camel ink and laundered school uniforms. There was this excitement of meeting old friends again. The enthusiasm would ebb eventually, and would rise by the beginning of next year. I felt the same excitement of newness the night before my first day at work.

I still don’t know a single soul here (except the people at work). I intend to keep it that way for a while. Anonymity comes with its own merits, and I don’t see the need to try to unnecessarily bond with people just because they speak the same language or there is a shared cultural heritage. I decided this after someone I have never met and exchanged a few introductory emails with asked me if I am married or have a significant other, adding a postscript of “This is a personal question, don’t take it personally, and don’t reply if you are uncomfortable”. Clearly the guy was more uncomfortable about my status than I was. It was so evident that the Indian community is curious about the evident lack of signs of a male.

In the meantime, I stayed home for more than a week, and used this time to set up home. And I bought a smart phone. 

There I said it aloud. If you know me well, your jaws would have dropped by now. I resisted buying a smart phone for the longest time. I do not have anything against them, but change disconcerts me. I have ordered the same ingredients for a burrito at Chipotle for years, take the same road to work, and like to use the same set of machines at the gym. I didn't see why I needed to follow the herd and buy one, especially since technology is fickle and gets upgraded almost every week. I do have an iPad, but that was after my adviser told me that he would get me one, and even then I waited for 2 months, until he screamed at me and threatened to fire me if I did not get one right away 

When I was doing my road trip and moving here, someone asked me how I would manage without a smart phone. Well, I had my GPS, map, and smart friends, who were on call to help me, if I needed it that is. I was really happy with my red flip phone that was so small, you could hide it in your fist and no one would notice. I could use it with my eyes closed, solely from muscle memory. I am not a text person, and I have a camera and three lenses that I proudly sport around, so I really did not need a smart phone to talk, text, or take pictures. What also bothered me is the way people become around smart phones. Here I would be having dinner with someone, and instead of making meaningful conversation, that person would constantly check the phone that would not seem to stop dinging or droning. 

So what changed?

Everything. I moved here, and my original phone provider’s network sucks here. I could never start or finish a conversation with anyone. I got a land line, but that meant I need to be home to be able to talk. Then one morning, I needed to talk to my mom, but there was no network for 2 hours, and I could not call her. And that was it. Like Eric Cartman, I said, "Screw you guys, I'm going home". I did some research on good providers and ended up at the phone store. There, I realized that the deal I was getting for an iPhone is not that bad. I got mine within 10 minutes. 

Now all I hope is that I do not become one of those people whose phone wouldn't stop droning while making real face to face conversation with people. I have the same phone color. I told you, change disconcerts me. My preferred mode of communication still remains meeting in person, talking on phone, emailing, chatting, and texting, in that order.

I also had a strange dream a few days ago. During my undergrad studies in India, my early mornings and evenings were fraught with private tutorial classes. A necessary evil according to me, everyone went for multiple classes, because content was not always taught well in colleges, because there was often a mismatch between what was taught and what was asked in exams, because a particular professor was often reputed and sought after, and because everyone else did it (herd mentality). So the time I could be learning new skills, reading a book, or relaxing, I was running in and out of these tutorial classes, often at the other corner of the city. All that happened for years, draining a lot of my father's money and my time and energy.

After ten years since all that ended, I had a somewhat scary and hilarious dream. I dreamed that I was back to my Chemistry tutorial classes in Calcutta. I argued that I am done studying, but the professor said that I will need it for my postdoctoral training. Surprisingly, I identified at least 3 other friends, all PhD students in the US, who were in those classes. They told me that since education is so expensive in the US and they were visiting India for a month, they wanted to use that time taking tuition. I never really recovered from the shock, and was only too happy to wake up and realize that it was all a bad dream.

Then there was this saga about assembling a desk. I wanted to buy the simplest writing desk, that I could use to do some daily writing. So I went to Office Depot and chose the simplest of them. They did not have it in the store, so they said that they would ship it directly to my home. However when the delivery guy arrived, I was not so sure that it would be that simple to assemble.

I opened the box, spread out the contents, and got so overwhelmed that I started doing other work. Yet at the back of my mind, I kept wondering what I should do. Should I ask for help? Should I return it and live without a desk? By afternoon, I tried making sense of the manual, but it looked so complicated that I gave up the idea and went off to sleep. The package came with 15 slabs of wood, and 130 of these fasteners (bolts and screws and what not). Had it been my dad, he would have started working on it with all his excitement. But I am not at all a do it yourself (DIY) person. Building and creating and hands-on activities are not my forte. I actually spent the day confused and clueless about what to do.

By evening, I was so annoyed with the mess I had created, and my inner and very sarcastic voice kept saying harsh things. The manual actually shows how to assemble the desk in 20 steps, each step in a page with lots of complex diagrams, and I stared at the manual for a long time. Step 1 took me the longest, but soon emerged a very embryonic stage of a simple writing desk.

After 6 hours of working on it (seriously!!), a few cuts and bruises, an elbow swelling, a little bloodshed, hours spent on my haunches, studying, understanding, Googling videos, and ending up with backache, I was able to assemble it. I actually stayed up the whole night assembling this 90 lb desk. The desk is finally ready. The upper drawer needs some rework, but I am too tired, and it can wait.

If living alone has taught me anything, it is the fact that no work is gender-specific. We hear and see a lot of these, that women are good at certain things and men are good at others, but necessity has taught me to cook, drive, clean, assemble, lift weights, and now use a hammer and a screwdriver as well. It's just a writing desk, not a big deal at all, but until I did it successfully, it became the biggest deal for me. Sure, it took me 6 hours and a few cuts and bruises, but I am glad I did not take the easy way out by returning it. It's not perfect, but I can live with that.

And life goes on, as I slowly try to make a living.