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I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Do you tend to put things off until the last minute? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes this urge to procrastinate makes us behave in ways that are detrimental to our future well being, yet this happens all the time. In science, we find ourselves waiting until the last minute studying for an exam, preparing a presentation to our peers or writing a grant proposal. In a broader scope, we fail to save early and/or often enough for retirement. We delay changing less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or deliberately abandoned by February.

Why do we make decisions that may endanger our future well-being? A recent article in Nautilus by Alisa Opar entitled “Why We Procrastinate” has a compelling explanation—we sometimes fail to identify with that future version of ourselves.

It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us.

In other words, the subconscious rationale is something like: “Why should I exert myself and do it now? Someone else will take care of it later.” That “someone else” being an abstract, future self. I think that goes both ways: I know I tend to look at foolish acts or decisions I’ve made in the past with the observation: “Who was

that person?” As an added bonus, this rationale absolves me from some of the blame for a past act, since now I’m clearly a better, more evolved version of my past self. Clearly.

A possible consequence of this lack of identification with our future self is to delay or even fail to act in the present in ways that will benefit our future selves.

The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores.

This view of the future self as “other” originated in the realm of philosophy, particularly in the writings of Derek Parfit. In recent years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have produced a body of data that appears to support it. Some fMRI studies by Hal Hershfield at NYU’s Stern School of Business looked at the differences in brain activity when someone considers their present and their future selves:

They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more strongly activated when subjects thought of themselves today, than of themselves in the future. Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. And subjects whose brain activity changed the most when they spoke about their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term financial gains over small immediate ones.

Additional research has also suggested that if someone is made to feel more connected to the future self, they can be encouraged to make more prudent and practical choices. One way to establish a better connection is to help someone better visualize themselves in the future, through the use of digitally aged images. Some companies in the finance industry are trying to capitalize on this to encourage people to invest more in their retirement.

Phew! At least I didn't end up looking like the Crypt Keeper.

Images of current and future (+40y) me, Current me tends to put things off. Future me is very upset with current me for the state of his retirement account. And because I’m on his lawn.

Merrill Edge, the online discount unit of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has taken this approach online, with a service called Face Retirement. Each decade-jumping image is accompanied by startling cost-of-living projections and suggestions to invest in your golden years.

Intrigued, I decided to try out this tool. (Warning: Results are graphic and disturbing. At least to me.)

Of course, a contrary view is that thinking or our future selves as strangers does not necessarily mean we will deliberately make choices that will endanger the future self. If we generally treat other people with respect and consideration, why would our future self expect to be treated differently?

The silver lining of our dissociation from our future self, then, is that it is another reason to practice being good to others. One of them might be you.

If I still have your attention, please let me know other topics you’d like to see covered here at JAEP. Either leave a comment with a topic suggestion, or you can contact me by email at geernst at gmail dot com. But, hey, if you don’t get around to it until later, I’ll understand. Or rather, future me will understand. Well, probably. I’m never quite sure how that guy will react.

25 years of American Chemical Society goodness

As I arrived home from work last Friday, awaiting me was a small package from the ACS Membership Affairs Committee. What could it be

, I wondered.

“Dear Mr. Ernst,”
Oh, ACS, you’re too formal. Just call me Glen.

I excitedly opened the box. Inside was an even smaller box, and a letter addressed to me. The letter began:

“It is my great privilege to congratulate you on your 25th anniversary as a member of the American Chemical Society.”

They remembered! Well, I am embarrassed. I didn’t get them anything….except 25 years of dues.

Another excerpt:

“In the past several years, we have significantly enhanced your member benefits to offer a wide range of programs designed to enrich your personal and professional life. … For a full picture of all that ACS offers, please visit our interactive website www.acs.org/memberhandbook.”

In the spirit of full disclosure—and partial irony—I must admit I haven’t browsed through the full breadth of available ACS online content. The online version of the Member Handbook is nicely done and easy to navigate, facilitating access to important areas such as ACS Career Programs.

Further on, the letter read:

“As a special token of our gratitude, and in celebration of your 25 years of membership in the Society, please accept this engraved pen. May it serve as a reminder of your contributions and achievements with ACS!”

I mean it. Thank you.

I opened the small box. It was a pen. A shiny, sturdy, blue pen. A pen that cries, Behold, all ye mighty, I am a pen to be reckoned with. Yes, that sort of pen. And as promised, it is indeed engraved—twice. The engravings state, “AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY” and “25 YEARS OF SERVICE.” Bonus—the pen works!

Time to dial down the snarkiness. (Snark is my baseline setting.) It is a nice pen. I will use it. It’s not a 25th anniversary coffee mug depicting the entry for manganese from the periodic table, but, hey, I like it.

My recent criticisms aside, I’m proud to have been a member of this organization for the last 25 years, and look forward to continuing into the future.

The letter concluded:

“Because of your long-term participation in the ACS, we’ve become a richer, more influential organization, providing the highest levels of excellence in our programs and services. Again, congratulations on reaching this membership milestone!”

My contributions and achievements. Flattering, but to be honest, I haven’t done much beyond doing science as honestly as I know how. Regarding the ACS, I don’t feel I’ve really contributed—I’ve consumed. I do vote regularly in ACS elections, broadly, locally and within the divisions of which I am a member. Beyond that, the most I’ve given back has been through some of what I’ve written here at JAEP.

Can a pen cause shame?

How far will you go to stay in science? Let C&EN know!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I went through a job search last year, and had been preparing for the possibility of a career change after 20+ years as a medicinal chemist. I was able to stay surprisingly positive through it all, and managed to land a new position in May of last year as….a medicinal chemist.

So much for the career change, right? Well, not so fast. Because much has changed.

First, there’s the setting. I’ve gone from an industrial setting in Big Pharma to what is essentially an academic setting at a nonprofit research institute. It’s very invigorating here, and I need to wear different hats through a typical day. Translation: Busy. But that’s a good thing.

Yeah. This is fun. Courtesy flickr user fakoman

Second, and perhaps foremost, is the time spent commuting. At my last position, my round-trip daily commute was about an hour on average. While unemployed, when I began my tenure here as an electron pusher, my commute was zero. Okay, maybe a few seconds walking from one room in my house to another. Now however, I typically spend around three hours a day on the road.

The upshot is my days are long, and when I get home, I have at best two good hours before it’s time for sleep—and my brain disengages long before that, I’m afraid. And yes, if you’re wondering, there is a discernible difference, thankyouverymuch.

And, to make matters worse, there were several articles this past May discussing the results of a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine entitled “Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk,” which examined health effects of long-distance commuting. I’m afraid the data doesn’t look very good.

The data showed statistically significant correlations between commuting distance and increases in blood pressure, waist circumference and body mass index (BMI).

The researchers summarized by stating,

“Daily commuting represents a source of chronic stress that has been correlated positively with physiologic consequences including high blood pressure, self-reported tension, fatigue, and other negative mental or physical health effects in some studies.”


In other words, Long Distance Commute = Bad For Your Health.

I’m striving to be an outlier from this data, but I realize all too well that I’m putting myself at risk, both chronically and acutely, with all the miles I now drive.

However, this is a minor complaint—I know I’m very fortunate to be employed. The job market appears little better, if any, than it did a year ago. I’m still monitoring the situation, as a few of my former colleagues are looking for a job, either due to the same site closure that affected me, or a subsequent one after they were able to land elsewhere.

Tip: When away from home for an extended period, keep a family portrait on your desk. Not this family—yours. Courtesy flickr user Gary M

There’s another long-distance commuting situation that—to me, at least—seems to be more common now than it had previously been. I’m referring to those that have retained their current position, or have found a new one, but have had to move far away from their families. The sad result is they are now only able to be with their families on weekends, or even less frequently. This particular variation on the two-body problem causes a completely different form of heartsickness than from extra sedentary hours per day. This is a situation that I have great difficulty picturing myself doing and have deliberately tried to avoid. That said, you never know what you’re capable of enduring if you have no other options.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by C&EN, which, in the coming months, will publish an article about chemists who have had to relocate while their families remain behind.

If this is a situation in which you find yourself and would be willing to share your experience regarding the pros and cons of your predicament as a contribution to this story, please contact Susan J. Ainsworth, Senior Editor, ACS News & Special Features Group. Her email address is…

S_Ainsworth AT acs DOT org.

Your experience may provide reassurance to others facing this dilemma. Thanks in advance for your help!

On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

The light at the end of the tunnel

There's no greater feeling than finally seeing the light at the end of the grad school tunnel! Photo credit: flickr user SamBoyd Photography.

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation.

It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!!

Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near!

For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done!

Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research).

The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually…

So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. Continue reading →

Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

Women in their mid-thirties with careers in science, engineering and technology are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men– and studies on women and work-life balance suggest that it will take more than surface-level changes to put a dent in this statistic.

Even though it's not 1923 anymore, women in STEM careers still report that they struggle to thrive in a male-dominated workplace culture. Photo credit: flickr user Meaghan Courtney

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review wrote about a research study that explored the reasons why women leave behind STEM careers:

“The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work, recently reported that women in science, engineering, and technology fields are likely to leave their positions, in large part ‘because the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in the United States, then this [science, engineering, and technology fields] is its Alamo– a last holdout of redoubled intensity.’”

-Quote from p. 50 of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples

The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:

  1. The hostility of the workplace culture
  2. A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
  3. Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
  4. Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
  5. Bemoaned by the “mystery” surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors

It’s easy to see how it can become a downward spiral: Women drop out because there aren’t many other women who they can relate to—which serves to worsen the situation.

But it’s not just that there aren’t more women around. The pressure of juggling responsibilities of work and home, as well as a plethora of other factors, contribute to why more educated women are quitting their jobs recently than ever before.

The results of a research study on why women opt out of their careers are chronicled in a book titled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family. Continue reading →

You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:

Don’t be surprised when people give you a blank stare after you tell them about your nontraditional career plans. Photo credit: flickr user lungstruck

So, what did you study in college?


Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying?


Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.?

Become a writer.

(Blank stare).  Hmm… how does that work?

At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand.

I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this.

I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path.

Don’t be afraid to be different and pursue your passion, even if you’re going against the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user Ben Heine

I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in.

Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing.

Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry.

I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college.

That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start…

I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little, too…

Jump in and discover what you love

Not sure which path is the right one for you? You’ll never know until you jump in and try it out. Photo credit: flickr user mswill5607

A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are.

But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are.

I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship– it helps to know who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner.

It’s okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love.

But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for.

Mostly, you’ve got to just jump in and start trying different things.

I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career:

I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine.

Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion.

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn’t convinced it was my passion.

Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths.

To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters.

Take a lesson from bacteria and “feel” your way toward a career you love. Photo credit: flickr user Emily RF

I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like.

I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless.

I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since I loved curling up with a mug of hot cocoa and a science magazine feature story. But science journalism was also the option I felt least qualified for.

I worked up the guts to show up at the info session for the student newspaper on my campus. I sat in a room full undergrad journalism majors and wondered if I was crazy for being a chemistry grad student with no journalism experience wanting to write science news stories.

I also signed up for an introductory journalism course on my campus. This class taught me the basics of journalistic writing, which is totally different from academic writing.

Long-story short, I fell in love with science writing. By the end of 2010, I knew my passion was science communication and that I was made to be a science writer! Continue reading →