Updated: Mar 29
Don't you also think we had a great journey together? I hope you do, too.
Erich Froom once asked, "If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?"
I am asking this question to myself a lot lately.
I used to define myself with my degree, career, and successes. I used to define myself as The Scientist.
Now leaving all that behind, and just being Kumsal,
trying to create my life as a mental health advocate and future practitioner, based on my current values and priorities, not my prior education or training.
There are times where I feel lost.
I feel as if I don't know who I am anymore.
It is the loss of my identity, The Scientist.
The society, as usual, is not helping while I go through this process of career shifting and identity loss.
We use the phrase "what do you do for a living?" as an icebreaker usually.
In a workshop that I just attended, the first thing that I was asked was, "so, where do you work?"
"Well..., I don't."
LinkedIn keeps persistently asking me to update my current work.
I don't know what to say.
Well, does writing here counts? Because that is what I am doing lately. A lot.
Maybe I am a freelancer? who knows...
and my mother... (isn't she somehow all in my posts, one way or another...)
She has been telling me that my uncle told her how I can easily find a job here in Canada as a scientist because it is such in high demand... yadda yadda yadda.
Frankly, I haven't seen anyone banging on my door and begging me to join their team or running around like a mad person to hire a scientist... That's probably just her wishes that I will find a job, soon.
All good intending people asking me about my job or my plans to get one - makes me feel like crap.
Truth is, three months ago, I left my job. And I am not looking for one at the moment.
I left my career actually. A part of me, The Scientist.
I also just left the place that I called home for the past 5 years. So if you don't mind, I am going to feel a bit sad for a while and grieving for this complex loss...
The persona that I build so tediously and crafted so nicely for the past 10 years came to an end. And it didn't end because I didn't like it.
I loved being a scientist! (I still worked in the lab for the last week of my job.)
So, you may rightfully ask, can someone part ways with something or someone even though they love that person or thing?
Yes they can. And frankly, they should.
If that person or that thing is not serving them well anymore.
Let me explain to you why I left The Scientist.
But, first I have to tell you the best part of being one, how I went about my day as a scientist.
(And please forgive me for throwing some jargon here and there, as this is what The Scientist was all about... )
Usually, I started around 9 am with my weekly plan in front of me. I jumped into the cell culture hood and split my cells. (My favorite thing to do in the lab!!!)
Then I might do some computer work... It could be some excel/Graph Pad analysis or preparing a presentation.
Oh, how much bench scientists love(!) producing and then dealing with a lot of data... I loved producing it, but not so much to deal with in excel...my least favorite actually. But I managed.
I mostly loved doing experiments on the bench, back to back. I would start treatment here, then do some RNA extraction and PCR there, and end my day with running an SDS-PAGE gel with overnight transfer...
The next day, let's do it all over again; let's do a big lysosomal prep or animal work. Or both!
I loved cleaning my bench and keeping it so tidy. I loved following protocols, writing my lab notebook and keeping my buffers so nicely labeled. I loved cleaning the lab, putting up some notes here and there (for other people to keep things tidy...)
Before I had Eleanor I used to stay in the lab till 8-9pm sometimes. It was not unusual for me to go to the lab over the weekends too. I worked hard and long but usually did it willingly and happily.
Other than the experiments, I also liked the pace of it; The fast-paced life of a scientist.
Doing experiments, then setting a timer going in a meeting and running back again. Running from here and there in the lab between different types of equipment or rooms.
Preparing buffers, following complex protocols, and analyzing data in the computer...
Then presenting the hard-earned data to the lab or department colleagues. Writing articles, preparing presentations & posters, and teaching new lab skills to other students, technicians, postdocs...
So many different activities done under one job title. Isn't that so exciting?!
I especially loved the never-ending learning part.
I was trained as a cell biologist in my PhD. and learned in vivo work from scratch in my postdoc. In the beginning, I was so scared even at the sight of a mouse!!! But in the end I had a huge mice colony that I built from scratch and did all sorts of different techniques with them...
As a scientist, I embraced being a continuous learner.
I learned how to be a beginner over and over again.
The more I learned, the more I realized there were so many other things to learn and less to be scared of.
The more I learned, I became less frustrated to approach something novel. The more I learned, more I trusted my ability to learn faster.
Slowly, I became a better learner through The Scientist.
From 2010 till 2020, I became the scientist. Through every experiment, through every presentation, through every article, through every night that I left the lab late or through every weekend that I went to lab.
So you could ask "why on earth Kumsal you decided to leave then? After putting so much hard work and loving it this much -- why?"
The answer is simple.
I outgrew my role as a scientist. (and I realized some hard facts about academia)
When I was starting my postdoc, I imagined having my own lab -- like every other naïve PhD holder out there. That dream lasted couple years, until late 2017.
A scientist always functions over the data and rational numbers. But honestly, I am not fully like that. I have never been.
I always gathered and analyzed data but then run it through my heart. And that is where I failed. I mean, I always wanted to believe that I would be able to find a position in academia, even when the odds and numbers were against me.
So the hard truth about academia is that; there were not enough PI positions for every postdoc. It is just not the case. Only 30% of postdocs can land for an academic position. That is one tough & brutal competition. It demands everything from you. It asks for your whole life, in my opinion. (and this is my humble opinion)
I always knew this was the case, but I didn't know any other way was available. So I naively believed I would make it, if I worked hard enough and sacrificed enough.
In 2017, I went to a conference called "What can you be with a Ph.D.".
After that conference, I feel like I had an epiphany, realizing all the things that I can be with a Ph.D. So many different tracks other than academia. So many other paths that I can use the skills that I gained in Ph.D.
I felt overjoyed and free and in a way, I also felt betrayed with this knowledge that there were so many other ways to go around, other than academia. I mean, why didn't I know any of this before? Why no one told me??
Also why we were not made aware of these other paths while graduating and even further why we were not trained for these other tracks in the program? and kind of forced to compete against one another for the scarce academic positions...
Knowing so many different options out there, outside academia, I started asking questions, "Am I really happy with what I am doing? Is this really what I want for the rest of my life or I am doing this because I am good at it?"
I started wandering. Thinking.
Well, here I am today. After three years of thinking and some more thinking...
Asking those questions eventually made me realize that I am not just The Scientist. I figured that it is part of me, but not everything I have to offer to the world.
In 2017,I started doing a lot of extracurricular activities on the side of my daily scientist role. I started to speak up softly and quietly in my own way, joining clubs and boards and "experimenting" outside the lab, with expressing my opinions. (Something that I was never allowed to do so, while I was growing up in my culture)
I started advocating for my needs and for my community needs; for immigrant researchers and families. The moment I realized that I was taken seriously and that I can make a change, the moment I realized that I can improve conditions and change policies, the moment I knew my purpose -- I knew I can not just continue being a scientist.
So, there came an end with our journey with The Scientist. I saw it coming but I didn't tell it out loud for a while. I just knew it.
I guess in a way I have been ashamed of leaving my career behind. I thought people will judge me for that. I guess I judged myself for leaving it.
I still do, but I am also coming into peace with the fact that I had to do it, as I knew to the bottom of my heart that, there was more in me, than just the Scientist.
It is so hard to let it go. Still to this day.
I deeply mourn for my loss. The career that I build from scratch and worked so hard for.
A career that I defined myself with, for so long.
Back to my original question, Now that I am not the scientist anymore, then who I am?
Let me tell you who I am now.
I used to hate being in the kitchen, following a recipe, mixing stuff... I kept thinking "I do this all day in the lab. I am not going to do it in the kitchen. No way."
Lately, I've been cooking a lot. I guess it just reminds me of doing experiments at the bench... good old days. So, I guess I am becoming a better cook somehow...
I still use my weekly calendar. A habit from my scientist days. Now I don't have experiments lined up there. It is my daily tasks or workshops that I attend. I can say I am still very organized & high-maintenance.
I may not be learning Graph Pad or Python from scratch anymore, now I am learning how to build a website, SEO, and other cool stuff. I am still a learner (and forever will be...)
I love doing research about random things (can be anything!) and it makes me a better writer. (Once a researcher, always a researcher.)
I do miss my lab colleagues, talking to them over lunch or coffee. I miss learning about their cultures and tasting so many different foods ( mooncake, rice crackers, Torta di mele, Kaju Pista cookies, paella, spanikopita...) Even the ones who annoyed the heck out of me with p values and stats, I miss dearly.
I miss presenting my hard work data in lab meetings and putting a slide at the end with Eleanor...
I miss running around in the lab till 8pm and walking back home with my aching feet, with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
I miss The Scientist a lot.
Now, I am a wanderer but I am not quite lost.
I am not yet where I want to be, but I am on my way. On my unique journey.
So, this one is for you, The Scientist. You are someone to celebrate.
To my dear scientist,
I am so proud of you. You have been extremely hard-working and resilient. You worked so hard to be where you are. You earned every bit of your life.
You worked day and night (even during your maternity leave...) You gave everything, maybe too much sometimes. You believed that if you work so hard, you will find a good job and place to stay. And indeed you got it. Life did not let you down. It took you so far (across the ocean!).
I am sad to see you go because I still love you. I loved being the scientist.
I am not leaving you because I don't love you anymore. Not because you are not good at what you do.
I am doing so because I realized there is so much more to me that just you.
It is through you, the scientist, that I decided to leave everything behind, take a leap of faith, and become a student again.
You gave me the courage to be a learner.
You taught me to be brave.
You showed me the world is more than just the lab, the bench, and my pipette.
You made me who I am and I am so grateful to you.
Don't you also think we had a great journey together in past 10 years?
I hope you do, too.
Thank you, for everything. You will be always part of me.
Now it is time to let you go. Forgive me for letting you go.
February 10, 2021