Feeling Validated

My university has a fantastic program wherein graduate students (and postdocs maybe) who are interested in bettering themselves as teachers can participate in three cycles of learning and evaluation, at the end of which you earn a teaching certificate.  I am currently participating in the second cycle, a reading group focused on college teaching theory and practice.  I really like the readings.  Sometimes they’re dry, but for the most part, they’re really fascinating.  Thinking about how people learn and understand based on how they’re taught is something that I haven’t done in ages.  Maybe ever.

The very best part of the group, though, is finding a set of people who validate me for reasons other than science.  I spent last week at a scientific meeting, and though some of it was interesting and I did get some good feedback on my poster, I spent a lot of the time feeling inadequate and frustrated (for some of the same reasons I mention here).  To come back, get to go to my reading group on Tuesday, and have a discussion about how universities seldom make hiring or tenure decisions based on quality of teaching and almost always make them on research performance felt AMAZING.  Sure the system is broken, but at least we aren’t alone!  We may not know how to change things right now, but we can keep working on it.

Not stuck forever

I feel like leaving grad school somewhat regularly (it comes in waves).  I’ll feel stuck and unhappy and cast around for other options.  I nearly quit during the first year as I struggled with tragedy in Hubs’ family, the absence of irreplaceable college friends, a new city, and not feeling like I would ever find a lab to join.  Then I found two labs that worked, and one that was just the right fit.  That summer I struggled with my project in my chosen lab, but I was affirmed by my boss, who, realizing what a difficult time I was having, told me to “stop banging my head against a wall.”  I definitely joined the best possible lab with the best possible boss.  The next January, as I [finally] got into the swing of science, where you’re met with failure on just about every day that you work, a classmate who had entered the lab at the same time as I did chose to leave grad school for personal reasons.  Her departure rocked my world, in one fell swoop I lost my closest friend in lab and became sure that I would finish my PhD.  I knew with relative certainty that I wouldn’t be able to make the same choice she had made.  And I haven’t.  Last summer a course that I helped teach kept me going.  Last week, inspired by the geographical closeness of an art school that sounded perfect for me and feeling stuck again, I emailed for more information.  Today I received a reply that elicited feelings that made it clear that this path is not for me.  I thought I was yearning to fill my life with creativity, but what I am truly yearning for is more balance.

Not much about being a grad student lends itself to feeling balanced.  Work during more productive times in lab is unrelenting, lasting long hours and yielding little in the way of measurable progress.  I feel guilty most of the time because I work in cycles:  super productive phase followed by burn out then some slacking (repeat).  I feel isolated because I don’t want to become a PI (principal investigator) or even do a postdoctoral fellowship.  I don’t feel secure enough in the science world to be who I really feel like I am, which is a creative, spiritual person who really enjoys talking and thinking and learning about science but can’t fathom how anyone would want to be a part of a world that seems to ignore everything but scientific productivity.  I don’t want to ever put my career ahead of my family and my happiness, and I feel alone amongst my scientific peers.  I wish that the system was different and scientists could be accepted as whole people, with passions equally as valuable as the work that we do.

The economic structure of academic science is unlikely to allow a change in the system anytime soon.  In order to get jobs, you need publications.  In order to get publications, you often have to work long hours at the expense of other commitments in your life.  In order to keep jobs, you need funding, which you can get only if you publish.  It’s a cycle that obviously self-perpetuates.  And it works so well for some people.  My boss has succeeded, through considerable talent, hard work, and extreme organization, to balance his life with his family and his lab remarkably well, but his wife worked in a job that allowed her to be home a lot with their kids.  And it feels so unfair that because I want to raise my [future] children myself and want balance in my life that there is not an option for me in the scientific world that doesn’t feel second rate, that it will be looked down upon by everyone who sees me as a scientist now.  I have probably been less successful in my work because I feel this unfairness so heavily, but I think it’s the time to let go.

The scientific community as a whole may continue to scoff at people who value other things over their scientific work.  I can make a choice to let it weigh on me or a choice not to make decisions based on other people.  Hubs and I have talked at length about our plans for our future happiness.  He, our families, and our friends are proud of me no matter what.  Though I feel stuck now, I won’t be stuck forever.  I’m here now because I love science teaching and mentoring (as I am often reminded).  Grad school will eventually end, and then I can get to a new place where I can teach and mentor and where I feel valued as a whole person and feel balance in my life.

Cooking with Cheese

Last night I made Grandma’s version of mac and cheese, which is baked and is one of those wonderful recipes with only a few ingredients.  It can’t really get any better, especially when I, um, triple the amount of cheese the recipe calls for.  The very best part, though, is how much Tonks and Duncan love cheese.  Tonks knows very well that she’s not supposed to be in the kitchen, but this is what happens:

It's so close!

And when I remind her, “No dogs in the kitchen,” she goes just past the peninsula and waits with this goofy grin on her face:

I am ready for CHEESE!

And to be honest, I really can’t resist it when she looks so happy, so I ask her for a sit and a down and then give her some cheese.  The minute I do that, someone else, who likes to keep me company by sitting in a bar stool while I cook and tries to nonchalantly sneak onto the counter all the time, is all, “Look how cute I am.  And even though I am a cat, I also know how to sit on command.  See?”

They have me trained pretty well, I think.

Here’s the recipe:

Bring enough water for 16 oz pasta (we use organic rotini) to a boil and add the pasta.  Boil until it’s the tenderness you like, stirring enough that the pasta doesn’t stick together.  I like it slightly mushier than al dente.  While the water is boiling and pasta is cooking, preheat your oven to 325ºF and grate up your cheese.  I used 4 oz gruyère, 6-8 oz smoked cheddar, and 6-8 oz aged English cheddar, though I’ve successfully made this dish with sharp cheddar already grated from a bag.  Grated, these blocks of cheese made about 4-5 ish cups of cheese (as you can see in the photo above).  In this time, you should also cut up 4 tablespoons of butter (I use salted) into 1/2 inch square cubes.  When the pasta is done, drain it and spread about 1/3 of it in the bottom of a 13×9 oven safe dish.  Sprinkle 1/3 of your grated cheese evenly on top of the pasta.  Layer another 1/3 of your pasta and another 1/3 of your cheese and once more again until you’re out of pasta and you end with cheese.  (You should have three layers of pasta-cheese).  Add some salt and freshly ground pepper to the top of your layers.  I try not to add too much salt because Hubs and I have been ruining dishes lately because you can’t un-salt things.  Plus, cheese is pretty salty inherently.  Then pour 1/2-2/3 cups of milk over your casserole and dot your cut up butter evenly on top.  Bake for 25ish minutes or until the cheese is bubbly.



Sasha and Tonks

On Monday our neighbors moved away.  In addition to being life-mentors for Hubs and me (they were several years ahead of us in similar PhD programs), they have a Border Collie-Great Pyrenees mix, Sasha, who is Tonks’ best friend.  Tonks regularly stayed with them when Hubs and I were out of town.  She loved to visit and just hang out with Sasha, so much so that after walks, she sometimes headed for their front porch rather than ours and stood at the door (solid as a 68-pound boulder) as we tried to convince her that it wasn’t time to see Sasha.  Their human friendship was one of support when Hubs and I became first-time doggie parents, joy as we were included in their wedding celebration last summer, and togetherness as we jointly shared disappointments and celebrated successes in grad school.  So now they’re off to post-docs and we can keep in touch through the miracle of the interwebs, but I just felt so terribly sad about Tonks losing her puppy pal.  She struggles so much to get along with other dogs that it felt like a huge blow for her favorite canine to move away.  I felt devastated as Tonks tried to go visit Sasha after our Tuesday morning walk, and my sweet momma cried with me and said that it was probably good for me to experience the inability to protect my “kid” from hurt.

All Monday and Tuesday, I felt consumed and helpless, and I struggled to sleep, function, and act normal at work.  Coaching practice on Tuesday night, I had a breakdown when some guys playing soccer yelled something (totally innocuous) and I yelled back at them (normally would have been able to laugh it off) and then started to just cry and cry.  My sweet team is used to a rather emotional coach, and they comforted me and went on with practice.  The best thing that any one of them said to me was, “It’s okay.  You can just feel sad.”

What a novel concept!  Given permission [from this wonderful, wise-beyond-her years friend] to just feel my feelings, I was able to spend the rest of practice recovering, go home and cry to sweet, always-supportive Hubs for another 45 minutes or so and then go to bed and wake up FEELING BETTER.  Wednesday morning I could talk to Tonks without crying, handle seeing the empty, dark neighbor house, and be productive at work!

And then my experiences were validated through the posted link on a friend’s Facebook page.  The gist:  most people wouldn’t expect someone whose lovely friends and neighbors had just moved away to just get over it.  My counselor would say, “Take time to grieve this.  It definitely is a loss.”  We are entitled to feel loss in our lives, to experience and grieve it in order to be able to move past it.  But what I was doing was just trying to act normal and feeling impatient with myself when I couldn’t!  This mode of dealing is just the opposite of self-compassion, and in order to be able to invite the joy again, I had to show myself a little grace.  I had a good cry and have returned to mostly normal life (though I am still crying as I write this post).

What might you be struggling with in your life that deserves a little bit of self-compassion?