Category: USA

Three years post doctorate

27 April 2014
Transitions are life changes that allow us to pause, reflect and plan. Here’s a short history of my transition from the pre-doctoral to the post-doctoral stage. Read the full story here.
Hungary 2007. My Hungarian adventurewas a real turning point in my career. I had to commute to work and spent long hours in trams. Bored of watching cars and people, I started to read open-access articles about addiction. When I found something really relevant to my PhD, I felt like a gold miner who just dug his jewel out of piles of dirt. My passion grew stronger with every new paper.
Figure 1. Jano in transition
Ireland 2008. When we arrived to Ireland in late 2008, I had a small EU grant, with a budget of 3000 euros, and an unclear host organization. We survived for almost a year living from my wife’s EVSstipend and seasonal part-time jobs. My PhD and the EU grant took most of my time, leaving only a couple of hours for job-hunting. When I eventually ran out of money, it was late winter and the job market had dried up. Finally, I found an academic job, initially advertised as a PhD in Translational Medicine but my potential boss – Prof Walter Cullen – told me at the interview that I should apply for a p/t job on the same project. That’s how I came to research drinking among methadone patients in primary care at UCD.
Oregon 2013. In July 2011, only two months after receiving PhD, I have attended a summer school on addiction in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Dr McCarty, the school director, lectured about various policy models and evidence-based treatments for several days. Two years later, I did a NIDA fellowship with Dr McCarty at Oregon Health& Sciences University. Read this post about how I got there.

Lessons learned from junior post-doc

1) Write a lot. Like some teenagers, I used to write poems, songs and short stories. Then I stopped for many years. In Oregon, my wife surprised me with a Prompt-based creative writing course for my birthday. She thought it would be good for me and that I would enjoy it. Dr McCartyencouraged me to submit an essay to the Wellcome Trust Science Writing competition and to write a lot. Since then, writing became the core of my work.
2) Learn a lot. If you think of life as a huge learning experience, you welcome trouble as a gift.
3) Keep at it. Perseverance is critical in science. Progress takes years. New knowledge accumulates slowly. And the desired change is uncertain. While I was distributing clean needles to injecting drug users in inner-city Bratislava, Slovakia, I could see the effect of my work immediately. Now I have to wait ages and the change may not come in my life.
I’ve learned many more lessons than just these three, but I’ve learned how to separate the weed from the wheat from the chaff too. I don’t write about the minor lessons.

Future plans for senior post-doc

  • To stay true to myself
  • To reach a position of independence by:
    • conducting a randomized controlled trial
    • supervising work of junior investigators
  • To maintain a happy work-life balance
  • To pass the accumulated knowledge and skills on other:
    • Doctors and helping professions, by helping them become more competent and confident in addiction medicine research
    • Medical students, by helping them discover and master addiction medicine research

Does enthusiasm improve outcomes?

What drives you at your research work?

What do you want to do when you grow up?

What jobs did you have before your career in research?

These, and other, questions came to me during my recent sabbatical in Portland, Oregon. I had time to reflect and step back from the hectic research life. The frenetic chase for money and articles can disconnect researchers from their internal motivation – their primary drive.

If goals are too distant, and are obstructed by too many obstacles, they can get out of site. Continuous re-connection with personal motivated and awareness of own goals keep us driven. Enthusiasm can improve professional performance.

In his book, Clueless in Academe (2003), Gerald Graff argues that schools should use students’ drive to read sports or music magazines for academic purposes. Their interest, if directed properly, should one day bring them to libraries, he hopes.

Many students are not interested in academic topics. Their motivation is weak and affects results. At my final undergraduate exam from personality psychology, the examining professor disagreed with Graff’s assertion. He was convinced that students should spend more time studying subjects which they disliked than their favourite subjects.

Although I disagreed with him, I fully endorsed his conclusion that the disliked subjects are likely to attract less practice time, followed by academic failure, provided that students’ talents do not compensate for lack of practice. At the same time, I think that students need not to excel in every subject. Each day has only 24 hours and no one can do everything – some things have to be neglected. Students need to prioritize their activities. The decisions about preferences shape their lives and future careers. Natural interests are likely to draw students closer to themselves, leading to better self-understanding. Natural interests should be supported.

Book:
Gerald Graff (2003). Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 320 pages

Life in migrant flats

People in my apartment block are mostly immigrants, like me, but they don’t greet me. I live here four years and I don’t have any friends among the expatriates. When I came back from my fellowship, I asked myself why this happens.

There is a lot of diversity in migrant flats. People speak different languages, cook different dishes and have different habits. Coming back from work, night after night, I smell all sorts of exotic foods on our floor. Yes, that’s the thing about emigrants – they like their own food which is missing in the local cuisine. Many have also little money to afford fancy exotic restaurants. The combination of a desire for a familiar dish, combined with low income, results in higher frequency of emigrant cooking compared to host nationals. On the other hand, Irish too cooked their stews during the massive exodus to US in the 19th century. Cabbage smell was a clear sign of the Irish neighbourhood.

I may expect too much from my fellow emigrants. Many of us live in tight conditions. Our living quarters are small, often packed with children and other close or distant relatives who need a temporary shelter in the new country. Our jobs pay low. Despite the job equality, the same level of education and experience don’t guarantee us the position, and locals get these jobs easier. Adjusting to life in a new country is tough. The intercultural differences make it hard to feel good and homesickness is common. Some cultures are open towards strangers while others are guarded. The culture motley obscures navigation in the interpersonal domain and staying quiet is the safest option. Apart from the cultural differences, language may be a barrier for some. These issues create a lot of pressure on the newcomers. Smiling and saying Hi to your neighbours may be just too much to ask. Emigrant’s life is hard and progress is slow.

I saw nothing of this until I returned from Portland, OR. The time and distance created a bird’s perspective from which I’m able to see life back in our flats differently. Before, this was the norm – now, I see that life can be different. People can interact differently. Talking to strangers is not a sin. The fellowship in U.S. taught me a lesson about openness and talking to strangers, getting to know them and making friends. It makes life nicer.

Re-entry shock – you can’t go home again

Culture shock is defined by Wikipedia as the “difficulty people have adjusting to a new culture that differs markedly from their own. A reverse culture shock a.k.a. “re-entry shock” or “own culture shock” is a state when returning to one’s home culture after growing accustomed to a new one produces the same effects.

First culture shock hit me when I arrived to Portland, Oregon, in March. I thought it was over then and that there will be no more surprises about adjusting to my normal life in Europe. I did not know that the second culture shock comes when people return to their home country. Many students on exchange programs experience it. Here’s my rant.

Big surprise

The shock of the transition to Portland, OR, was surprisingly weak. It took me only a couple of days to adjust and embrace the new life there. The easier this transition went, the more difficult the second transition was.  It was new and unexpected for me. The beginnings were really difficult, manifesting in confusion and other negative feelings.

Business as usual – as if we never left

My normal life, as I knew it before, was over. Most things remained the same. The things I hated before are still there and I still hate them. But I was not the same at all. I could not avoid a feeling of disconnect between the past and the present life. Another fellow told me a story of how on her first day at work, everything turned as it was in a split second. There was just one word of her boss and just one look of her colleague and she was back to her old relationships.

Repulsion

Stereotyping and hostility towards host nationals were not as new to me as other re-entry symptoms. When we came to Ireland first time, everything and everybody looked very different. This time, my eyes became very critical this time, though; every small weakness of the new-old country seemed like a giant disadvantage.

Physiological stress reactions

I was lucky not to have any serious stress reactions, but some of my friends suffered. Depression was lurking in the background and sometimes jumped into Facebook statuses, e.g. “I have grown two wings but I can’t fly”. Examples of what happened to people who came back included divorce, no house, no job, mood swings, or people at work are not welcoming them. Compulsive eating/ drinking/ weight gain occurred too: another fellow have lost 5 kg while on fellowship but upon her arrival she toured her family for 2 weeks and gained that weight again. My mother in law lived in UK for five years and when she came back home, she wanted to return to UK immediately.

Disappointment – inability to apply new knowledge and skills

People aren’t interested in my experiences from abroad. I will never be able to use the knowledge I have gained abroad. Ambitions and competition hinder cooperation, people see you like their enemy. In the previous country, if they saw you being good at something, they supported you. Here, they envy you and try to make it harder for you. This country is broke and there are no growth opportunities. There are no money, no jobs. I could do much more if I stayed there. Smart people struggle to survive here. How can they live in such miserable conditions?

Rootlessness – I don’t belong here

Feelings of alienation and withdrawal are common symptoms of culture shock. I felt that people aren’t nice here. They don’t appreciate if I smile at them or if I start talking to them. They don’t like me and don’t understand me. I feel so weak here, so helpless and isolated. I need their response or feedback. I need to engage with them. People see the “wrong” changes when they look at me. “You’ve lost weight” somebody said and I didn’t believe her. Three other people said it later. This was not the type of change I was proud of or that I wanted them to recognize.

Boredom

The shift from a big town in a big country to a smaller country was dramatic. This is a small town, there’s nothing here. This is nothing. No life, no culture, no fun. It is boring. Services are undeveloped, ineffective and slow. They are not customer orientated. People are dull and everything is made on such a small scale that it doesn’t even matter. Everything is small. Cars, trains, houses are small; I need more space to live better. Bicycling is unsafe, there are no bike lines and cars don’t share the road with cyclists. The streets are dirty and the greens are overgrown; nobody cuts them regularly.

Our flat is very small; we need to move out to a better place. I don’t like this area; I don’t understand how I could live here before. We threw away most of our things when we came back home. Our home was not our home any more. This state is well phrased in the saying “you can’t go home again,” first coined by Thomas Wolfe in his book of the same name.
Hope

When people return home after living abroad, it can take a while to adjust to their home country. Some don’t get used to it at all. I had the privilege to meet people who succeeded in bending their new lives. The new life wasn’t great. They lived in small apartments and struggled financially. But at least some of them enjoyed what they worked on. It was a demanding and low-salaried job, and often not just one. This gives me hope that things can get better. This country doesn’t have big events, venues or communities, but there are many small, which can serve the same purpose.

Going home

West coast and East coast of the U.S. are very different, people always told me. West coast was my home for 6 months – spring and summer. At the summer’s end, I took a long trip home to explore the East coast. This blog is about our journey to NYC, Ocean City (NJ), Millstone and back.
On Monday, we went from Portland, Oregon, to New York City. The Portland cab couldn’t find our address and stopped at the bottom of the block, leaving us to carry our heavy luggage alone. This was his second day at work, and his first airport ride – as we discovered later. He played in a heavy metal band for 11 years, since he came to Portland, and he was a vegan. To our great surprise, he knew many towns in our homeland – Bratislava, Prague and Brno – because he played there with his band. His intimate knowledge of those places made us feel closer to him, as we talked about the live in Portland. People who move to Portland are … bums, they are different. What is it about the city that attracts this special breed of humans? We couldn’t find an answer to that question, but agreed that it is the best city in the States. The driver wanted to give us 5$ discount because of the address issues, but we refused recognizing that starting a new job requires learning new skills, which takes time.
NYC was dirty, crowded and noisy. Our red-eye flight drained away all our energy and motivation to explore the city, so our greatest experience there was a long, morning nap in the Central park.
On Tuesday morning, we woke up in the Ocean City, New Jersey. I chose to stay in the Crossings Motor Inn long time ago. Ten years ago, I spent a summer working in its laundry room. It was my liberation summer, when I gained independence and self-reliance, changing my lifestyle forever. I was just a kid when I was here the first time. I didn’t realize it until now; 10 years of independence. As an adult artist-scientist, I am much more self-aware; I’m also very thankful that my research job allowed me to get here after 10 years and to have a great time, and to relax my tired scientific brain.

Crossings changed me; how has the motel changed?

The motel was no longer owned by my Italian friends; staff and housekeepers were different too. Our housekeeper was Kayla – a quiet student from Russia. J1 students, like her, were experiencing increasingly more problems with obtaining visas for this type of work/ region. Sandy damaged the Jersey shore and left its mark on the Crossings too; the lobby was painted and refurnished. Should I have come back last summer – before the Sandy storm – I would still see the ugly pink countertop in the reception. The season ends in Crossings on September 29th, the receptionist stays with her daughter during winter. The handyman hopes to get a job in the construction; he was able to do so during the last 2 winters
On Friday, we went to visit my cousin in the Millstone Township, in the Lakewood area. After dinner, and a short card game with Cassandra, they drove us to the JFK airport. Journey to the airport was never-ending. The traffic was really bad. We needed to pee badly and struggled to find a toiled. So we left the free-way and found a supermarket, where we were the only white customers. The bathroom smelled badly. Half of the toilet desk was missing and so were the bath tissue and soap. Nobody wanted to use the toilet and when I opened the door to get in, a nearby girl told me to save myself. Under these circumstances, there was no discussion about finding another toiled; we did it there. Luckily, we had just enough time to catch our flight back home. Our home away from home – a second home in Ireland.