In which the truth hurts – or does it?

As crocuses push through muddy earth, the air softens on campus and the undergraduates wake up from hibernation to resume clogging up the pizza queue in the refectory, I feel the weight, yet again, of the swift passage of days and months.

It’s that time of year again: our annual staff appraisals. Being subjected to this exercise is, for me, a surreal experience. Before I returned to academic research, I was leading a team of eight scientists in biotech and, after that, a group of six editors, giving me many years’ experience on the other side of this process. Appraisals now, in my status as lowly post-doc, administered by a boss several years my junior, only underscore how far back I have slipped in my career progression. And progress is never as quick as you’d like, especially when you’re flying solo again after years of achieving things as a team. Looking back at last year’s appraisal document, I saw with discomfort that my main goal – submitting the big screen paper for publication – remained unfinished (albeit lurking only a few weeks off, if all goes well).

The chat was informal and went well, but with only eleven months of funding remaining, there was no avoiding the serious discussion about My Future. And the boss made no secret of the fact that he didn’t think I was cut out for the cut and thrust of lab head existence. It was not framed in a particularly negative way: I am, I was told, a woman of many talents, and I probably would not find focusing solely on research to be an adequate outlet for my interests and passions. Obtaining an independent fellowship might be tricky with my track record in the current climate. Attempting a bridging, three-year project grant would be a gamble on success. Yet if I went the way of a lectureship position, I’d probably end up frustrated by a situation that didn’t even allow, these days, a fair shot at performing any significant research at all.

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed that my boss is not alone in the assumption that I would not like leading a group. Last week in the common room, a colleague told me about a particular Oxbridge artist/writer-in-residence programme, and several professors we were drinking coffee with thought it would be the perfect thing for me – not seeming to realize the double-edged implications of their hearty praise or how it might make me feel. I know I am fully capable of leading a group and writing novels at the same time – after all, I’d done it before, quite effectively, for a number of years. But although one of the professors always urging me to leave science “for writing and that sort of thing” probably spends as much time playing tennis and watching the cricket as I do working on the side, her hobbies are somehow not considered to be incompatible with science – neither do they impinge on her serious reputation. (I’ll leave for another time the fascinating topic of why physical activities, like sport, or passive entertainment such as TV, are fair game for scientists, but intellectual activities that may take up no more time are viewed as best, an odd quirk, or worse, a fatal distraction from research that taints the purveyor as “less than serious”.)

So, do I want to be a lab head?

Yes – and no.

Would I be capable of pulling it off and still keep up my writing and other science communication endeavors?

Absolutely. I can do anything I want, and I always have done.

Would it be the best course of action for me?

Your guess is as good as mine.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
This entry was posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to In which the truth hurts – or does it?

  1. rpg says:

    I can imagIne it would be the most literary scientific research group ‘known to God or Man’ (quoting an erstwhile boss of my own).

  2. Dave Bath says:

    Oh Jenny!

    It’s not like some other famous molecular geneticists couldn’t write a story that gripped the reader – did people take Jimmy Watson less seriously when he wrote a book that was used as a novel in Australian secondary school English courses (So you’d have Double Helix next to Hamlet and Tess in the bags of people who were humanities-only students).

    A friend of mine also has novels under her belt (one published, one about to be) – she’s a lawyer and has recently completed her Masters by thesis at Ox – and she’s never mentioned a hint of not being taken seriously because she is better known as a writer. But then, knowing her, they wouldn’t dare raise the issue!

    What’s odd is that your writing, thinking in a way to keep C.P. Snow happy, would definitely help develop the long links in the brain that are good both for cognitive reserve, keeping Alzheimer’s away, as well as insight, looking at things from different angles – something very useful for forming hypotheses – or even figuring out ways around a snag in some methods you are using in a lab.

    Sports versus cognitive hobbies? Hmmm… How would a competitive chess or bridge player be viewed? Less seriously? Hmmmm.

    I wonder if there is something else going on, a fear of C.P. Snow.

  3. Jenny says:

    Thinking about it a little bit more, it could be that if you’re off down the gym or in front of the telly, no one knows about it, but if your book is in the bookshops, there’s concrete evidence that you’ve not been in the lab 24/7. It could be as simple as that. Friends I know who do a lot of media work say they also get labeled as ‘not serious’. But again, that’s quite visible.

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  5. Sarah says:

    @Jenny I agree with you, though not sure there’s really this intellectual vs. sporting distinction. Seeing your books at Waterstones also makes them think (rightly so) that you don’t just *have* hobbies, you *excel* at them – and that suggests a lot more effort goes into it than playing a spot of tennis at the weekend. If you reached the 3rd round of Wimbledon you might get the same comments…. It’s the curse of multidisciplinarity – everyone agrees that a lot of progress in science results from a multidisciplinary approach and lateral thinking, yet the traditional academic career has no space for people with those skills.

  6. Jenny says:

    I’m loving the Wimbledon idea…but this implies that getting a novel published required, for me, a lot more work than excelling at tennis. In my case, I use writing to relax and it comes effortlessly, as effortless as watching TV or going for a run – and also quickly – so I think the output is deceptive.

  7. Nico says:

    This is indeed disheartening. I have very few talents myself, but my wife has come across the same problem, many of her colleagues profess to be impressed by the fact she is a very competent pharmacist as well as a decent Taekwondo fighter (international level), but do not seem to think she can excel at both at the same time when it come to promotion time.

    It makes me wonder what would have been the comments on Leonardo’s performance review: “L. is an excellent engineer, but wastes too much time doodling”?

  8. Jenny says:

    Ha! Or is an excellent artist, but spends far too much time mucking around in his shed.

  9. It’s presumably all about perceptions: playing sport for a hobby is just that, a hobby so can’t be taking anything out of you, but getting published? Hey, that’s serious stuff how can you be concentrating on the day job? People don’t understand how wildly out their preconceptions are about another individual and can only extrapolate from their own narrow experience. As good scientists they should know, but clearly don’t, that extrapolations are not always accurate. There may also be another stereotype lurking in there, that arty literary types, being dreamy and vague, aren’t necessarily cut out for serious leadership roles which require clear thought and force of character! However, only you can work out what you actually want to do – good luck with your own internal debate.

  10. peeceedee says:

    I can’t help thinking: it’s not good for your nascent academic career to self-flagellate in public like this. I have known a fair number of ‘top’ scientists in my time. Many of them are bordering on internationally competitive in other arenas outside science, or are polymathic in some way or other (if that is not a contradiction). Also a good few of them I would judge are secretly paranoid and self-obsessed with their ability, or at least maintaining that ability, to compete in their discipline. In other words they are human after all, but they just don’t show it in public. As I said I can’t help thinking this, true or otherwise.

  11. Jenny says:

    In this blog, I am interested in discussing my life in science – the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s is not meant to be “self-flagellation” (which I think is a bit of a harsh term, personally). I doubt being honest and saying in public what many of my peers talk about all the time offline would do my career any significant harm. Either way, it’s a risk I’m willing to take as a writer.

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    I always need to get my 2 cents (2 pence?) in–but it’s clear from your passion that your career calling is science. Reading about your inherent curiosity, your dedication to students and the next generation of scientists and knowing your writing abilities leads me to the conclusion that all you need is a break. From the outside (in freezing Nebraska), I would guess that you need to secure another couple years, preferably in a position where you can push your own science (with a supporting mentor), perhaps with a student or technician or postdoc or two, publish a couple nice papers and get your own lab.

    I agree with your comments and those above that you may be “paying the price” for simply being exceptionally good at your hobby. Most people are not (eg., me and chess–don’t tell Austin I wrote this…), and therefore they are not in the limelight. But having said that, if you can strengthen your publications, what will the detractors be able to say? Scientific productivity should trump any such nonsense.

  13. cromercrox says:

    As a functinary with your favourite weekly professional science journal beginning with N, I have the privilege of meeting many great scientists. Not just good scientists, great scientists. And, funnily, enough, I find that the great ones excel not only at science but at something else, taking what might be hobbies to a professional or near-professional level. Such people aren’t ashamed of it, but seem to think that such polymathic abilities entirely normal. Now, I can’t opine on the greatness of your science – I know you mainly as a writer and editor – but it seems that the fault isn’t yours, Jenny, it’s that of the company you keep. You need to go to a better lab.

  14. KristiV says:

    @ Athene: People don’t understand how wildly out their preconceptions are about another individual and can only extrapolate from their own narrow experience. As good scientists they should know, but clearly don’t, that extrapolations are not always accurate.

    I would say that such extrapolations are almost never accurate. IANADP*, but I think that relying on preconceptions, based solely on one’s own experience, qualifies as egocentric thinking, and we’re meant to grow out of that mentality in adolescence. It’s rather egregiously childish among scientists, who should at least query the database (i.e. ask people what they’re thinking about a particular situation, or how they feel about future career options and work/life balance). I would much prefer that a colleague ask me a personal question, knowing that I have the option to defer if I find it too intrusive, than for them to make something up and then spread it around the department as if it’s fact. But a psychiatrist colleague, who has been an amazing mentor for me on issues of cultural diversity and competencies, tells me that egocentric thinking is pretty common among academicians who really should know better – not that she’s excusing the behavior at all, but rather as a commentary on how annoyingly pervasive it is. Maybe it’s a form of psychological neoteny.

    * (I am not a developmental psychologist)

    @ Jenny – I always enjoy reading your posts for their honesty and insight, and if I don’t comment, it’s because I’m in agreement and have nothing significant to add. This post especially hit a nerve, and though in none of my hobbies have I achieved a level of success or proficiency equivalent to publishing a novel, I do get the same kinds of attitudes from some of my colleagues. Here, though, the “approved” acceptable hobbies appear to be coaching and watching the sporting activities of one’s children or grandchildren (“I always have my Crackberry with me and check e-mail constantly from the sidelines”), and anything associated with one’s church. I don’t have kids, and I’m an atheist, so as you might guess, my hobbies are not particularly acceptable. Pastime FAIL, iow.

  15. peeceedee says:

    Yep, you are right: that phrase is too strong. Apologies. Too much Superbowl and not enough shut-eye the night before, maybe (way to go Packers!). That and perhaps the prospect of conducting and being subject to my own impending appraisal season. Important but, ugh, difficult at times. I meant my comments to constructive. In other words I don’t see why you can be an excellent author and scientist. Don’t write yourself off (pun intended). Unfortunately I have learned that pretty much like everything else, you always have to sell yourself, and modern times do not leave much room for public self-doubt. Would that we could all be more open about such matters. Maybe you are blazing the trail and enlightened employers would recognise that.

  16. rpg says:

    Do you mean “I don’t see why you can’t be an excellent author and scientist”?

  17. cromercrox says:

    Hey, cut some slack. Too many bowls of soup the night before.

  18. rpg says:

    That was two nights ago, Henry: do keep up.

    It’s amazing the difference a ‘t can make.

  19. Jenny says:

    I think it’s clear “can’t” was what was intended…

  20. peeceedee says:

    Yep, sorry. Can’t. I am beginning to see where Frank Norman gets this editing frustrations from

  21. peeceedee says:

    Oh, and ‘ to _be_ constructive’. I’ll nevver be a righter, me.

  22. achillespubtalk says:

    I had an interesting experience yesterday which resonates with your dilemma, which, I would also add, is not only confined to science research. Peddling my usual advisory wares in a “new” University I was invited by the Dean of Science to look around a suite of brand spanking new research and teaching labs, just opened this semester to drive forward freshly validated undergraduate and postgraduate biotech degree programmes. It is rare for me these days to see lavish state of the art labs unveiled in academia. The vibrant buzz of enthusiastic students, fantastic environment with significant cell research already advancing alongside major global contracts in place, combined with the romantic view of the busy harbour waterfront directly outside the sunny windows instigated the next question, rumbling in my head after reading your post. “What type of experience and values do you want researchers, lecturers and post docs to bring to this Faculty?” I certainly touched on a fundamental principle and raw nerve underpinning this academic environment. All postgraduate and undergraduate students undertake mandatory short courses in business enterprise, law, patents, teambuilding, effective networking, communication skills, marketing, management etc so that they could combine the pleasure and challenge of pure science research with the employability tools and confidence building to earn a realistic living, whether in academia, large company or start-ups, the latter especially encouraged. The Dean wanted top academics and research leaders but with experiential values and a diverse background to reflect a real-world outlook, and to mentor the same to their students. They actively rejected researchers and teachers with a narrow, research only, woolly jumper life view of the science world. There was a lot more positive embellishment to this dialogue but you get the gist. I breathed a sigh of relief that it isn’t all doom and gloom out there for the science multi-disciplined.
    I think the reality is quite simple – you are a square peg in a round hole, in the wrong academic environment which may be culturally incapable of maximising on and valuing your breadth of talent and ability. I wouldn’t hide your creative and organisational management light under a hobbyist bushel, quite the reverse I would integrate it with your research talent, because your writing isn’t a hobby but a rare skill to be celebrated and marketed. I am told by recruitment specialists that in recessionary and austere times there is a big increase in unadvertised posts – time to push out the speculative new CV – the 24hour holistic scientist – all research, project management and creativity!

  23. rpg says:


    Glad that’s all sorted.

  24. Jenny says:

    I’m definitely not dead yet! Thanks for your supportive comments.

  25. Jenny says:

    Sounds like a department ahead of its time…It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any enthusiasm around me. The austerity culture has well and truly kicked in.

  26. ricardipus says:

    Ah, the annual performance review. I had one, four years ago (I’ve now been here five). Unfortunately, I also get to administer them. In theory, one per person (we have about 60 that would need them). By institutional policy, these are all supposed to happen at the same time (September). Can you imagine?

  27. MGG says:

    Hi Jenny,
    I think you are very brave…
    I am told repeatedly (by well-meaning friends) not to reveal such thoughts in public…as they could haunt me later…my career.. I cannot see where it is going, yet…
    I’m sure there are many people like me who have all these same thoughts and it is like hearing me think out loud when I read your posts…Sometimes (at least for me) expressing these things lets me get past them…
    So thank you for doing this.

  28. Ian the EM guy says:

    A week or so late, but my thoughts nevertheless:

    The reasons that sport is considered a more acceptable hobby are manifold. Firstly it is thought of as the physical and mostly not the mental. There is no chance you can be playing your sport when you are at work, so there is no suspicion that your mind is not on the job while you are there. As sport is a physical pursuit it is seen as something to relax you and give you a break from deep thinking. It goes hand in hand with the healthy body healthy mind philosophy, and isn’t seen as competing for time and mental capacity as more intellectual pursuits. Sports, particularly team sports are also considered as positives in that they promote and teach teamwork, leadership and responsibility, discipline and competitiveness.

    Whilst some of these may be partially true, I don’t think they are the whole truth. Certainly I can spend a lot of time thinking about sport when I should be working, and certainly I have taken time off work to compete, or on sick leave due to injuries etc. I don’t suppose anyone has ever been injured writing a novel! I have always thought that these extra curricular activities are what make me a more rounded person, and are a positive attribute.

    My own thoughts are that if anyone has the time management skills to work as you do, and also fit in the writing, blogging etc etc, then they are easily the right stuff to manage running a lab. I myself was once told that whilst I could possibly run a lab group, it wasn’t thought that I had the ambition or drive to do so. They were right, I didn’t want to, so I sideways moved into being a technical specialist instead.

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