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Disgruntled Julie

Disgruntled Julie is a laboratory slave 6th year Ph.D. student studying pediatric cancer through biochemistry and biophysics. When she isn't in lab (never), she enjoys cooking, cleaning, crafting, and other domestic goddess type activities. When she is in lab (always), she spends her time attempting to purify seemingly non-purifiable proteins, determining the structure of unstructured proteins, fighting with the pH meter, and injecting mice with cancer. Disgruntled Julie survives by finding the humor in lab life, and rants accordingly.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A female physician with a successful career and family once tried to explain the work-family balance to me as: "You can have it all; you just can't have it all when you want it." In other words, she went for the whole good things come to those who wait cliche -- in other words, eventually, someday, you'll retire and then you'll get the family life you craved while you were working. I tend to think of it more like "You can have your cake and eat it too, but your cake will be triple wrapped in the freezer taunting you for years before you get to take the first bite." Whatever it is that you want, it's right there waiting for you... but if you want it all, patience is key. Sure, you can jump right in and sink your teeth into the cakey goodness (assuming you like cake; I do not), but then the cake will be all gone too soon and you'll spend the rest of your life wondering if you should have waited. On the other hand, you can not-so-patiently wait, hold your hands over your ears while everyone else talks about how great their cake is, and then, when the time is right... unwrap that (slightly stale) cake and enjoy a life of bites.

So why has my life philosophy been reduced to pastries? Well, you see, I have my cake, and I am in the long, slow, painful process of waiting to unwrap that cake. Sure, I might open the freezer and peek in once in a while, and entertain the thought of taking just one bite.... but then I think about how much time I've invested to get where I am today, and how that will all go away if I want the cake now. In my scenario, my husband is the cake and my career is the freezer door, blocking the way to the cake. My husband is a PGY3 radiology resident in a city that is... not where I am. And thus, we have found ourselves making the ultimate career sacrifices -- only seeing each other every 5-6 weeks, delaying children, and generally thinking that life would have been a whole lot easier if one of us was less driven in life.

Having a long-distance marriage certainly has both pros and cons. On one hand, while I've given up seeing my husband... I don't really have a day-to-day limitation on my work life. I can stay in lab until 3am every morning, and there's no one at home waiting for me to come back and cook dinner. I can be in lab based on my own schedule, set my own hours, and have no one else to involve in this decision, the way I might if I actually had a spouse living in the same state. At this point in my relationship, I don't have the problems so many other seem to have regarding not making home in time for dinner or having to shut the door and read papers in the evening. But, on the other hand, I seem to get the most shit dumped on me in lab for just that reason; I have no one else to worry about, so everyone else can go home to their spouses and children and leave me with the work. Case in point: even though I am the lone biochemist/biophysicist in a lab full of biologists, all the animal studies have been dumped on me; not because it relates to what I do, but because none of the post-docs were willing to come in seven days a week because they have children. So instead of them spending every night with their children but having to sacrifice a bit of time on the weekend, I am now tethered to the lab and do not get to leave on weekends, and thus am unable to travel and visit my husband. And of course, the absolute worst part: the endless nagging from my husband about when I will finish and move closer to him. Because, damn, I'm in my SIXTH YEAR already, so maybe it's a sign that I'm just not cut out for science and am wasting my time and should stop sacrificing my marriage for something at which I clearly suck.

For me, I've found there really is no work-relationship balance. It's all work, all the time. I have not been to Philadelphia to visit my husband since the first week of May; he gets one out of every six weekends off, which is when he comes down here to visit me. But the thing that gets me through it? The knowledge that someday, SOMEDAY, I will be able to tear through that freezer door and get to that cake. I am 100% positive that the sacrifices we make now will pay off in the future... as long as I can manage to hold back the temptation to throw it all away and just become a housewife instead. I can have my cake and eat it too.... I'm just stuck in several years of a lab-imposed fast.

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I really don't envy you, Julie. At least during my last years of graduate school when things got dicey and I was threatened on more than one occasion with being kicked out of the lab (For absolutely no reason other than pig headedness and ego on the part of an unmentioned party), having the support system of my girlfriend/fiancee was very helpful!

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Wow. What a story. Ok, well I know everyones life is different, but here's what I've learned so far...

One - Have fun now, enjoy everything you do, and I know you love the lab, you wouldnt be there otherwise, so you got part of that down.

Two - Long distance.. ughh.. Im not doing that again. Did that for 4 yrs. Ended badly. Relationships do end, we werent married, the distance was part of it but not all of it, the point is, I really do feel that I missed out on all the fun we could have had, had we not been at different grad schools in different states.. For me, being away from him was not the end of the world, I was fine being alone, I liked working at the lab and going to school, and I was also 5,000 miles away from home to begin with, so no big, but to him it was more of an issue, which did eventually make things really shakey.

Three - Dont let them dump work on you. It is just as hard for those of us who live alone, we dont have built in help, no one takes our car in for an oil change, or does our laundry, or has dinner ready when we get home. Took me forever to realize it, but I was totally being taken advantage of at work, I volunteered for stuff, I didnt mind coming in on days off, staying late, driving all over the place, but you cant set that precedent, cause it will stick forever, and then they will have the nerve to get upset when you do say no. You really have to set firm boundaries and stick to them with force. It’s your right. Push back! I am sure you know how to do that!

Four - Of course you dont suck at it and youre not going to quit science. Its WAY too much fun! :)

Disgruntled Julie
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Evie: Yes! You are SO RIGHT about not having someone to help at home, and that is something we are always discussing about the PI. He doesn't understand why people can't be in lab 12 hours/day, every day... and gets annoyed when we have to do simple things like go to the post office, which means either coming in late, or leaving early. But he has a wife at home who can do things like the post office and bank that are only open 9-5, whereas I don't have that option. We always tell him we could be so much more productive if he found us all our own housewives. ;)

biochem belle
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generally thinking that life would have been a whole lot easier if one of us was less driven in life
My spouse and I have both made major decisions in the past few days to months, which present a very likely possibility of living apart for a few months or even a year plus, and this sentiment has definitely come through. But at the same time, we know that for us to be happy together, we have to be happy individually, and a big part of that is chasing after our dreams. There have been times where we've both reached the point of wanting to just say "Screw it all", but that would never ever work for us.

Disgruntled Julie
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Belle: The funny thing for us is that Husband totally WOULD give up his career and be a stay-at-home father... if I could ever match his salary. With his $300k+ debt from medical school, and the additional $100k we will accumulate in interest as we slowly pay it off, we'll really NEED his 6 figure radiologist salary to pay everything off. If someone wants to hire me at $300,000 per year, he'd be happy to stay home. :) Of course, he'd still only want to live in Philadelphia... but it sure would make the decision of whether or not to have children a whole lot easier!

Also, the long distance thing is really not so bad, if you can see each other on the weekends. The first 8 months we saw each other 1-2 times per month, and it really worked out well. The problem now is going generally a minimum of 5 weeks, often up to 8 weeks, in between seeing each other, and the frustration that we have no idea how long this will last. If I could definitely have said that it would be 18 months, or 24 months, or some length of time, it would be a whole lot easier to plan for the future! But honestly, it's not so bad. Mostly I just get jealous that I have to fend for myself while Husband gets everything handed to him (he lives with family, so he has dinner on the table every night that he doesn't have to make, maid service, someone to hang out with in the evenings, etc). I'd whine a whole lot less if I had my own chef and maid. :)

Guest Comment
I have no advice, but I just wanted to pop by and say that it's nice to see you blogging again!

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It might feel bad to have someone that's as driven as you as a spouse, but having someone that isn't doesn't work either. My ex-spouse had to have everything done for him. In fact, this year he thought that I was going to do his taxes since our divorce wasn't finalized until February. Not that I mean to lessen your situation either.

A PI that wasn't my own once made a comment along the lines that when he was in grad school that he worked 14 hour days. I enquired, and he said that his wife really did everything. Finally I looked at him and said, "So what you are saying, is that I'm supposed to do that job and the grad school thing at the same time." To which he stammered, because in our department of 80% women, he never once thought about none of us having a 'wife' to take care of us.

Hang in there.

Lady Scientist
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I'd imagine that the lack of a timeline makes it even harder. When we lived apart we were at least able to keep a countdown to when we'd be back together. But Advisor would do the same to me with not having anyone at home, so obviously I could do X, Y, and Z. And that's just awful!

Lab Mom
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Ouch. That is rough. I don't have any advice either. Just sympathy. :(

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Julie- you will finish your PhD. It's all about perseverance. You don't suck at it. It sounds a little like your advisor does not have your best interests in mind. Isn't there a first or second year student in the lab you can pass off the animal studies off to? If it has nothing to do with your project, you need to transition the animal work to someone else. You are not a technician.

If no one wants to do it, they should hire someone else.

I go through similar things regarding the extra work I get asked to do because I don't have kids and everyone else does. But I also know that it is only because I allow it. I accept the extra work to ease the burden on the others. Did you have a choice about the extra work you are doing? Can you get out of it now?

Disgruntled Julie
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Jade: The biggest problem I am facing in lab is that I am the only graduate student. Traditionally, work was just dumped down the line to the newest graduate student, but now that I am the only one... well... I get to do all the technician-type jobs too. The problem is that everyone who rotates through our lab sees how much I have to do, and has no desire to put themselves in the same situation (and I can hardly blame them). The animal studies are an ongoing battle; my PI constantly gives me a hard time that my other experiments are suffering because I'm always with the animals, but he's the one who makes me do it, and right now there is no one else to whom I can pass it off. I never felt like I had a choice or the ability to say no, because once the post-docs declined the animal work, my PI phrased it as "in order to graduate, you need to do an animal study", and he's pretty serious with his "in order to do X you must do Y" statements.

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You need to talk to your committee members about this. It is part of their job to help you finish. You are not alone. Why don't you call a meeting of your committee and go over where you are at and get their help in extricating yourself from this burden? There are people who will look out for you- you need to find them.
You may even need to have a private conversation with the chairman of your department and explain what is going on and get advice.
He or she will help you.

Is there any other faculty person who you can turn to?
What would happen if you came in one day and said to all the postdocs, "I am no longer doing your animal work for you. Here are all the notes and protocols. You're on your own." ?
What do you think would happen?
Do you think you would have to leave the lab? Would they make your life more hell than it is?
What do you have to lose?

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What Jade Ed said. The situation in your lab is well past unreasonable. You need to start talking to people who can help you. Yes, it's hard, but at six years you should be planning to graduate, not looking after the animals of lazy-ass postdoc's.
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