We're a little crazy, about science!

The garden of forking paths

It’s called the butterfly effect and goes something like, “a butterfly can flap its wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the world.” That’s not exactly true, like most things it’s an easy way to remember the concept. Something small can have a ripple effect that you may not be able to anticipate. In other words, chaos. The problem is chaos, the universe is not deterministic so predicting the future, even the immediate future, comes with a certain level of uncertainty. It’s only in hindsight can we trace back certain events and see the pattern and even then depending on the scale, it’s impossible to know which butterfly caused the hurricane or if the flapping of a butterfly’s wings prevented one.

That’s the dilemma of the day really. What the hell happened to cause me to end up in the position I did? The answer is I pissed off a butterfly somewhere. In the end, only after knowing the outcome can I see how things could’ve been different. That’s the frustrating part, not knowing and then having to deal with the consequences. When I took the job at the hospital I thought it would solve my trouble, instead it’s put me into a lose-lose position where someone will get hurt and I don’t have the heart to do it. I’m going to have to do it, but I really don’t want to and if I could, I would do everything, but that’s not an option. To understand how I got here thought, it’s important to review the choices that put me on this path. Thankfully because I blog daily, it’s not hard to trace how I got here.

The problem started with funding. I needed money to finish my PhD and I searched high and low to find fellowships (like this one). I ghost wrote grants(here, here). In the end, I did everything I could to find some way to afford to live and finish my degree, but nothing helped. I was on a time crunch and things were looking bad. I’m not a smart man, I never had a 4.0 GPA, never finished top of my class, never had teachers praise my abilities. I am for all intents and purposes average, or maybe even a bit below. I’m okay with this, but since awards are competitive, it made me a less than ideal candidate.

That doesn’t mean I’m not driven. I am, it’s just that on paper I’m an average student and average students don’t usually get awarded anything because there are so many of us. Then things got really bad. My school-PI proposed that hospital-PI hire me, it would pay for my living expenses and give me a chance to focus on research. I was excited because hospital-PI talked about hiring me anyway. So when I approached him about it I thought all my problems were over.

Instead they were just beginning. He had gotten an offer from another hospital. An offer he was most likely going to take because it was so good (here). So I had to come to terms with the end of our years long collaborative efforts just a month or so before my funding ran out. It was bad news on top of bad news. Frankly I am still a little shell-shocked from it.

As a stop-gap measure hospital-PI decided to hire me onto his lab (more). The idea would be to switch to who is now my third PI, whom I’m calling surgeon-PI. We hadn’t discussed this with him, but the worse case scenario would be that I would just go back to my school lab full-time. Not ideal, but at least I wouldn’t be homeless or have to drop out of the program. The catch would be that they couldn’t hire me on right as my funding ended, so I had to go a whole month without pay (thanks to my credit cards I survived, but my credit score did not!). Still, I made it and thought that would be the end of the story (here).

Did I mention I’m tired? It’s been a few hellish months. I’m so fucking exhausted. Anyway back to the story…

I wrote a grant with school-PI and surgeon-PI (more). Since I’ve written three different large(ish) grants, I had assumed this one would end the same way the others did. At the beginning of last month I was told we were awarded the grant and that my proposal got very high scores (here). Let me stop here because there’s another part to this story. This grant was originally due in February (here). I was given just a week or maybe two to write it and even though I finished it, I couldn’t get the letters of support and things from the school needed on such short notice notice so we missed the deadline. For whatever reason, a week or so after the deadline passed school-PI emailed me that we had an extension to the middle of August. The funds would go from being available in the fall to the spring, so it didn’t help me solve the months long issue of no funding, but it would solve the larger problem, funding to finish my PhD.

There are a million of tiny things that could’ve changed in this long chain of events that would have radically taken me off the path I now find myself on. If the deadline hadn’t been extended, if we had submitted on time the first time, if we had missed the second deadline too, if we couldn’t find a collaborator, if we hadn’t been awarded, if we hadn’t thought to submit at all, those are just off the top of my head and pertaining to the grant alone.

The largest diverging path was hospital-PI. What if he hadn’t been offered the other job? The grant wouldn’t have even been needed. What if he took the job, then I wouldn’t be in this position at all. Looking back it’s easy to see how one thing lead to another, and then another. It was not possible to see where I would end up while I was in it, but here we are. Which brings us to the situation I find myself in.

The award announcement was made official (here) at the end of October. This put me at odds with my current position. Technically I’m a full-time employee (for once in the past ~15 years), but now I have what amounts to a full-time project with my school. The compromise would be to split my time between the two labs, but neither school-PI nor hospital-PI could come to an agreement. Not surprising considering the contentious relationship they have had over the past year or two. It’s not fair for hospital-PI to be paying me full-time if he’s not getting any of the benefit from my grant, so there was only one possible outcome since school-PI said it was not possible to give him a portion of the funds to cover my time.

An ultimatum was made by hospital-PI. Either I work in his lab and do a seperate, but close project for my PhD (here) or I would have to quit and go back to school full-time. That talk happened one week ago exactly and since then my anxiety has been at an 11. I still don’t know what to do or what will happen. I can’t see the future so I don’t know what the outcome will be and it’s scary. I seriously just want to curl into a ball and die somewhere (not literally, please don’t worry, I’m safe).

The thing is, if it were up to me, I would have it all. Do both full-time and be done with it. I could do it I think and while the next two years would be somewhat stressful, the past two years have basically been the same thing. I’ve been juggling two full-time positions the only thing that’s changed is that I’m being paid better and have actual health benefits (health benefits mind you that I haven’t even really had the chance to use so it would be super depressing to have them taken away before I actually got some real, non-VA, healthcare). I’ve gotten pretty good at juggling the two labs and while things have, on occasion, slipped through the cracks I’ve been praised for my work from both PI’s.

Unfortunately I cannot do both anymore and after asking for clarification I cannot go back to the way things were prior to taking the job. So depending on what school-PI says the choices are either the hospital lab or my PhD. The answer is obviously my PhD, but I really do enjoy doing research at a hospital. Clinical work is some of my favorite work and I don’t see anyway around this so I’m not sure where we go from here.

Technically I’m at two forks. The first is just go right back to school-PI’s lab, lose hosptial-PI as an official PI (even though he’s on my committee) and start working on collecting the data I need to graduate. The second is to take hospital-PI’s offer on the condition that school-PI agrees. Which leads me to fork two. School-PI could tell me flat out no. That this is my project and I could take it or leave it. Or he could agree. Technically the third path would be to just kick me out of his lab and say I’m no longer worth the effort, but I don’t think, or at least I really hope, that is an option.

In either case I have two competing projects pulling me in two completely different ways and I am going to have to discuss this with school-PI very soon. Which should happen in the next few days actually. Depending on how he reacts, I could be looking at the shortest job I’ve ever had. I’m hoping he has some other escape hatch here that I’m not seeing or some way to help smooth things over. He’s very opinionated, like most PI’s are, but he really does care and wants to help so maybe if I talk to him about all this he will find a way to smooth things over with hospital-PI.

From what hospital-PI has expressed, I don’t think that will happen, but you never know, which I guess is the point of the post. I don’t know what will happen, I can only look back and see which choices gave the result I really wanted. I think the only thing that would’ve fixed this mess is if I hadn’t written that grant, but then again if hospital-PI had taken the job then I would have been out of luck so sometimes you have to plan for the worst.

I guess sometimes all you can do is look at the path you’ve travelled and hope that the choices you make going forward lead to the outcomes you really want. Or I think we can succinctly sum this up as, beware of butterflies.


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