Playing the Wrong Game

Playing the Wrong Game

Playing the Wrong Game

Contributed by Johnna | September 2013

Image courtesy of CultofAndroid

There have been many metaphors written about life, especially when it comes to personal career strategies. I’d like to share my perspective on life and the game of having a career in science because I’m sure others have had similar experiences. The quest for a successful science career is not unlike that of many popular video games. There is a given path to follow with obstacles that must be hurdled. These are somewhat expected given the experience of your mentors (once former players). They know how to navigate the system and maybe offer you a few cheat codes or special bonus levels during your quest. As each level is played, points are earned and you survive to ‘level-up’. Eventually, the princess is rescued or all of the monsters, aliens, zombies or evil martial arts masters are vanquished. You have completed the game. Here’s your medal.

The Games We Play

While most of this analogy seems logical, I’m having trouble winning the game. The reason is because this analogy has one fatal flaw. It isn’t because I’m necessarily playing the game wrong - it’s that I’m playing the wrong game. The game I’m really playing is more akin to the pinball machine, where a player is thrust into the field with great energy and must navigate a field of obstacles trying along the way to rack up points.

At certain points in the path you encounter obstacles that award points. Other obstacles just sap your kinetic energy and change your trajectory. All the while, you’re trying to avoid slipping through the tabs and into oblivion at the bottom of the game. Each player’s path through the field is unique and determined by the fluctuations of minute physical parameters.

The end game isn’t a princess; it’s accruing as many points as possible by encountering obstacles along the way for as long as you are able to roll within the playing field.

All the Right Moves?

My experience as an undergraduate and graduate student fit easily into the video game model. I was successful in my coursework and productive in the lab. Some of my projects had setbacks, but I worked diligently and published the results. My score was looking pretty good, and I didn’t think I’d have any problems leveling-up within the game. However, as a postdoc it became clear that I’m really in the pinball model of life with a science career

It started with my lab choice for my postdoctoral research. As I was wrapping up my thesis dissertation, both my mother and my mother-in-law were experiencing some serious health issues, which geographically limited my choice of postdoc labs. I basically contacted my undergraduate mentor (who got me into the research business in the first place) and begged him to scrape together some money for another postdoc. I was headed back to my hometown either way, and it would be nice if I could be employed.

Fortunately, he had some money to accommodate me and gave me the opportunity to work with a new model organism. I went from working on pond scum as a graduate student to plants as a postdoc, so in that sense, I did level-up. Not long after starting in my new (old) lab, I was able to secure my own funding through a USDA postdoctoral fellowship. Also within the first several months as a postdoc, my mother-in-law had an unbelievably successful surgery to remove a large ovarian tumor and was on her way back to health. My position within the game and my score were looking a little better

While I was developing mutant plants and other biochemical tools for my fellowship project, I entered into a collaboration with another lab to gather biophysical data on some biochemical preparations of mutants they generated. This yielded some quick results that could easily be packaged into publishable stories. During this time of relative research stability, my husband and I were expecting our first child. All of the necessary data had been collected, analyzed and e-mailed to my collaborators for manuscript preparation prior to my family leave. However, other personal obstacles were looming on the horizon.

The Winding Road

For a number of years earlier, my mother had suffered from a rare neuro-muscular degenerative disorder known as Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which is in the same family as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). At this point, her health was starting to deteriorate and she needed significant care. One particular symptom of PSP is extreme difficulty in swallowing, which eventually results in the need for a feeding tube. While she had always intended to refuse such measures, her symptoms became critical about two weeks before my due date, and she opted in favor of the procedure so she could meet her newest grandson. My mother’s condition was stable although it added another layer of care that other family members had to provide for her. My son was born without any complications and I adjusted to my demanding new role as mother. 

The lack of sleep and additional caregiver responsibilities definitely took some of my energy, but I was still in the game. After a rather generous nine weeks of family leave, I returned to the lab ready to tackle my project. I was beginning to get some intriguing results from one of my mutant plant lines and manuscript drafts were coming back from my collaborators for revision. Just as I was poised to rack up some career points, my trajectory took a drastic turn.

My father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He had been my mother’s primary caregiver for the last few years, and now he had his own difficult battle to fight. My extended family rallied together to make sure everyone was taken care of. For me, those next few months were a blur of hospital visits, breastfeeding, chemotherapy appointments, ear infections and coordinating visits with home health and hospice services.

I was thankful for my flexible position in academia and was able to analyze data and continue writing even when I was away from the lab.

I translated my research skills to my personal life and kept ‘lab notebooks’ on everyone to organize medication lists, insurance information, treatment schedules and doctor’s appointments. Despite all of our care, my mother’s health continued to decline, and she passed away before my son turned five months old. My father’s aggressive cancer treatments were unsuccessful and a surgical option failed. He passed away five months after my mother and barely two months shy of my son’s first birthday. During that year, I had taken a significant amount of leave, some unpaid, to care for my son and then my parents. Yet, somehow I had managed to keep my research projects going and manuscripts were accepted for publication. I had bounced around quite a bit and was close to rolling off the edge at times, but I hadn’t slipped through the tabs yet.

Back in the Saddle Again

I was able to get back into the research routine and get my main project going again. I had created a significant number of mutant plant lines that were yielding interesting phenotypes and developing into their own stories. I also started a side project in cyanobacteria based on a question that had nagged me during my PhD work. A year after I lost my parents, my PI and his wife, our laboratory manager, moved across the country for a year-long sabbatical.

Since I was the senior lab member, I was left in charge of our small lab and learned to embrace these new responsibilities and juggle them with my own benchwork and writing. It seemed as if I had found a particularly valuable section of the pinball game. About halfway into my term in this new role, my mother-in-law had a recurrence of her ovarian cancer, and her time was short. Those months were another blur of hospital stays, family decisions, hospice (yes, they knew me by name by then), and memorial services. Again, I was grateful for the flexibility my workplace allowed, but it was all I could do to keep myself in the game. 

I wouldn’t say that I ‘lived for my research,’ but my work did provide the normalcy that I needed to keep looking ahead during such a stressful time. By the time my PI returned from sabbatical, it was time for me to submit applications for faculty positions. In preparation, I contacted everyone in my network that was further along in the academic pipeline, pressing them for the truth about the elusive work-life balance on the tenure track.

Examining the Road Ahead

Quite frankly, after the ups and downs of my postdoc years, I was terrified of layering on the demands of a tenure-track position. I received a lot of great advice that allayed my fears and was assured that with creative strategies it was possible to be human and an assistant professor simultaneously - and even enjoyable. While I didn’t land a position during my search, I went on a few campus interviews, met some great people and got a chance to share my research vision with them.

Given the recent trends in federal funding for science, a career on the academic track seems even more precarious. So as another season of hiring begins, I’m open to a wider range of employment options in science.

For now, I have enough kinetic energy to handle new obstacles in science or otherwise.

Preparing for the Game

So, what’s the take-home message for succeeding in the pinball machine of scientific careers? I’m still playing the game, but I have a better awareness of my position within it. There are some things you can plan for and others that come out of nowhere that you just have to adapt to. Here’s what I’m trying to apply to my own career struggle.

Don’t take formulaic advice based on the video game metaphor, which insinuates that all players must follow a common path to a singularly defined ‘success’.

Traditional scientific career advice has focused on academia, highlighting the priority of excellent research at all costs. While research is the foundation of a scientific career, many other skills are needed - communication, collaboration, teaching, project and time management. Take opportunities to develop these skills in addition to honing your technical talents. Also, I would never advocate a strategy requiring someone to dedicate their life to any career in such a way that would compromise their happiness or breed personal regret. You never know what obstacles lay ahead, but you have to be prepared to adapt for them. Finally, success can take many forms. Obtaining academic tenure may be the equivalent of saving the princess in The Legend of Zelda, but everyone isn’t playing that game (and we shouldn’t assume that they are).

Define which game you are playing in the arcade and have fun winning it. 

Defining My Game

As for me, my game is pinball. It’s taken me a while to come to terms with the chaos life has thrown (and continues to throw) at me because I am still enamored with the tiered order of other games. However, my pinball game has taught me some valuable lessons along the way. I have gotten much better at recovering from unexpected changes in direction. I have faster reflexes to catch me from rolling off the edge of the game, and when I find myself at the bottom, I’ve improved my ability to re-launch myself back onto the playing field.

Of course, there is one constant player disadvantage in pinball - the sloped field. To overcome it, I choose to tilt. No, not necessarily in the cheating sense, but in the challenging-accepted-constraints sense and the I’m-not-going-to-take-your-subtle-bias-any-more sense. While I am willing to accept the disorder resulting from random acts of physics, I choose to tilt against unnecessary and arbitrary constraints inherent to the system.

In real life, this means I’m gearing up to be a more adaptable candidate that is open to a wider range of career opportunities.

What’s your game?* How are you playing it to win it?

*Hopefully your game isn’t Frogger or the Hunger Games or Global Thermonuclear War.


About our guest contributor

Dr. Johnna is a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Terry Bricker at Louisiana State University. She received her Ph.D. in Biochemistry from Washington University in St. Louis working with Himadri Pakrasi. She studies the light reactions of photosynthesis in plants and pond scum. Her favorite enzyme is Photosystem II, the membrane protein complex in photosynthetic organisms that splits water and makes oxygen. However, sometimes her projects take her to other parts of the photosynthetic electron transfer chain. When she’s not in the lab, you can find her juggling a dozen random projects for her extended family, gardening or herding a small flock of backyard chickens. She also blogs about her work, plant-related research, and general science on her blog New Under The Sun.


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