Discernment.

Sarah Peck is inviting writers to reflect on the theme of discernment in the month of January.

From her post: 

Discernment: What is it? What does it mean to be discerning?

How do you decide? How do you know?

Discernment is “the ability to judge well.”

It is, to me, about our own internal ways of knowing.

How do you know?

Discernment is going to be important for me in 2017 as I make at least one big transition: to a new career, one in writing or editing, or perhaps it will be something else.

I need to create better and new content this year, for my blog. I hope, to paraphrase what This American Life host Ira Glass, that I’m maturing into a phase of knowing what’s good and being able to produce good things now that I’ve gotten a lot of terrible things created behind me. Though being discerning, I’d say I can write a decent story, but still feel I have a ways to go.

I am learning to edit better, to know what reads well, at least online. There’s always more to learn, of course, and there is more experience heading my way in 2017.

For most of my life, I’ve discerned things based on scientific evidence. And for things where science can’t test or hasn’t yet, discerning is a lot harder. Relying on science as a scientist makes sense (and the knowledge science has provided us, that gives us our modern world as well as the complexity and deepness of nature.

Science tells us that humans have a lot of cognitive biases that do make sense in some ways, but aren’t always suited to the modern world where critical thinking and taking in evidence to inform beliefs is important (homeopathy is BS, climate change is happening, and vaccines do work – denying these things costs money, public health, and makes the planet less livable and simply goes against a long track record of scientific evidence). The evidence-based discernments are relatively easy assuming there’s time to consider the evidence or have trusted sources putting out the case (science requires openness and trust).

However, science can’t inform everything. Making decisions every day requires discernment absent the time to carefully consider a lot of the time. Emotions come into play. Why do I feel attracted to someone? How do I spend/invest money? Will going to that conference benefit my career?

Discerning those things is harder, and often simply goes by what ‘feels’ right after a few days of deliberation. I often feel my snap decisions aren’t the good ones, especially if they’re big. There may be a hit to taking a decision after deliberation in that it will be less satisfying once made. However, there is something to be said for having an initial feeling one way or another and then spending some time challenging that initial feeling to ask where it might be wrong, or to ask friends where our own discernment might be off.

Discerning is hard for me. Making decisions often not easy, even the small ones. I like to say I have a high activation energy to reach a discerning point. These internal ways of knowing for me are fraught. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve denied how I feel a lot less and think that I am generally happier for it while also living in my means (part of discernment: not spending tons of money on things).

Last, I am trying more and more to discern things from a standpoint of abundance, not scarcity. The Scarcity mindset (even if there are real reasons to have it) is limiting. Basically making decisions for you. I am in a relatively privileged position that I can, really, make decisions from abundance, though in my life as a PhD student and postdoc has felt like one of scarcity. As I’m exiting academia, as I’ve done more entrepreneurial things like getting involved in my scientific society, starting a podcast with friends, blogging, science writing, etc., discerning feels better and a bit easier.

Discerning is a combination of the rational built up over time, feeling, and just what influences obvious and invisible affect our growth and environment.

How do you discern?

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Serious in 2016 -> 2017?

I’ve written more for other blogs and publications this year than I ever have.

It was enough to successfully apply to the NASW, the National Association of Science Writers, which I am proud of. (I also joined the DC Science Writer’s, but that’s a membership fee alone).

I followed a science communication/science writing/science editing track this year as well. I attended the AAAS meeting and met a lot of people into science communication. I listened to reporters and scholars on communicating science, what impedes it (lack of incentive/money, in large part), and how to listen to people and get people to listen to scientists more (yes, it can be a two-way street).

I got to meet Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent and that’s been a fantastic contact to make.

I did my digital communication activities again this year and even did some things on Youtube this year (interviewing people) at the Plant Biology conference in Austin this year, stepping away from my science and just focusing on broadcasting/conveying the things going on at the conference, writing a blog post for each day of the conference. It’s intense for this introvert, but would do it again.

I attended part of the Science Writer’s meeting and got to meet/see some real science writers. A few weeks later, I attended Sci Comm Camp in Malibu and met even more great science communicators and writers (that I still need to do a better job of keeping in touch with).

Then there’s the podcast I started with friends, Recovering Academic, that seems to be going well, at least we’re building an audience it seems.

I’ve even been editing articles and posts for a few places (and will be doing more in 2017 – is it odd that I feel like I need to keep the places I’ve been editing for a bit secret?).

I also finished one of my projects in lab and it got published.

I’ve been pitching my work more places as well (& getting mostly rejected). But I did get a byline with the Royal Society of Biology blog this month.

And of course, continued to write on The Quiet Branches.

In short, I’ve been taking myself seriously. (yes, I cited this post by Sarah Cooper before).

It all feels very chaotic, and it certainly hasn’t been linear, and there’s still the pesky thing of actually finding my first full time paying job beyond academia.

Then I saw this Tweet, yes, also from Sarah Cooper – her voice has worked for me this year):

As an over 32 year-old that I think has been working hard to “make it” in this world (& I do have a beyond generic definition for myself of what that would mean). And at the end of 2016, I do feel like I’d like to be able to take a step back and not give up, exactly, but rest more. Take care of myself more (because to do all the above, it has taken a toll on taking care of myself).

Another concern with the all the things I’ve done above is something I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been reading, and just finished, Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.

Am I conning myself? Is my dream of being in the science communication world something where I’ve pulled the wool over my own eyes? Should I give up and get out before I’m too much further in?

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Self-made work of words to theme my 2017 (I keep it on my phone lock screen).

I’ve been aware of just how hard it is economically to make it as a writer alone. And that the career of the future is one where we’re all wearing many hats…the Uber driver-programmer-independent scientist, for instance. So in that sense, I don’t think I’m really fooling myself. However, as I enter 2017 and will have to find a new full time job, that the time I’ve dedicated this year, of taking myself seriously, pays off.

And that the skills I do have are valued somewhere.

Here’s to a prosperous 2017,

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The Transition to Sci Comm

I’ve attended three conferences in the past year where I’ve been trying to pay attention to the science communication/science writing tracks.

I went to the AAAS meeting and wrote about my experiences there.

Then I attended the National Association of Science Writers meeting in late October – or rather, part of it as I had a friend’s wedding to attend ahead of time.

Last weekend, I attended Sci Comm Camp and reflected about some of the things I got out of the experience on Quiet Branches.

I’m not sure I really captured the experiences in either of my write ups and I wonder if any of my writing is reaching an audience at all.

I know I write mostly for myself still and that’s fine because I do still enjoy it most of the time. However, it feels like I’ve plateaued and am not growing.

I’ve at least networked with some science writers/editors and my primary reaction is: I really like the people I’ve met. I like hearing the stories, I still love the idea of being part of the world of communicating science, even if I’m still at the beginning of my efforts to really dig in.

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Me sitting by the Pacific Ocean 11/19/16 at Sci Comm Camp thinking about Sci Comm & where I might fit.

Of course, a lot of the science communicators I know are really good at what they do. I hope I’m still able to grow to get a lot better than I feel I am. I think I need to get better at writing and at least get better at one other medium to tell stories besides writing.

My favorite thing to do so far is dig into history and tell stories of scientists past and even people who were impacted by science. I’m not sure how valued that is, but it is fun to learn about what people used to do and how it has changed over time.

I’ve tried to maintain writing content online all year and even broaden my writing in other places as well. I’ve started editing for a few places as well. I’m moving in the direction of doing writing/editing as a career and feel like a shift is happening, though by burning my candle at both ends, it feels like all I’ve done is exhaust myself.

I analogized actually making a career transition recently to getting through the Berlin Wall – before it came down in 1989, to be clear.

And I’m not sure what lowers the barrier. Perfectionism? Intertia? Anxiety? The feeling I’m stepping into a void?

I’ve gotten used to rejection. I know I’m probably not the greatest science writer in the world currently, but I am working on it. Despite starting later than most would down this path.

Perhaps that is what feels hard. I’m having to change course in mid-adulthood when most people seems to be more settled down than I am.

I heard this Sally Herships BBC ‘As Many Leaves’ story this morning about a sudden transition she went through; her husband just leaving without notice or explanation and documenting the year afterward. My situation isn’t similar though I feel like the transition in career I’m making is going to be that stark. That I just don’t know how to deal outside of where I am now.

I’m at a bit of a low point just now, but I am going to keep going. Keep working to be efficient, better, more organized, and as ready as I can be for what’s next.

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On Mattering.

What matters?

What counts?

How can I help you and myself to lift us both up?

I’ve been thinking about things like this lately  as I’ve been trying to evolve myself professionally into a writer/editor of some kind (and I seem to be making some progress there, still seems like small drops in a large bucket.).

There’s also a sense that my plate is overflowing with projects to do, things to try to do well, and some things have fallen by the wayside as lower priorities. Which is hard.

Loss aversion, where humans take losses a lot harder than gains, means we tend to avoid losses as much as possible. It’s why letting go can be hard.

If you asked me in my fully clinically depressed mind of a few years ago if anything I did mattered, if I mattered, I’d say “no, I don’t, my work doesn’t, and the world- even my small world of immediate people I interact with and like- would do fine without me”.

I’m a little beyond that low point now, though far from thinking my writing, the things I try to do for friends (largely seems to be listening), the editing I do, is essential. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a talented human being in an area of life. Or I can dismiss the skills I do have as not valuable to the world.

I’m academic.

This may be the cost of doing basic research and being an academic scientist or a symptom of seeing the world through social media. The first takes a long time to pay off, the second reveals a world where lots of people show all sorts of things they are doing that really matter.

As I was drafting this post, I attended a friend’s wedding. I caught up with old friends, most of whom are moving into new things in their lives, at least relatively speaking. That seems to matter. They’ve grown. Are growing.

No sooner was I done with the wedding than I was off to the National Association of Science Writers conference. And the science writers…all fantastic people I met, all seeming to do a lot of hard work to communicate science well, to tell good stories, to hold people and institutions accountable, doing important work of making the connections that link scientists to one another, and scientists to the wider world.

It’s important work. Is that what I do? I’m not sure. A lot of the time, it feels as though all I’m doing is putting words on the page, perhaps relating a decent story, but one that isn’t essential. I realize it takes time to get to the point of realizing a story that matters. The last thing I want to be is an empty bloviator, however.

What problem do I help people solve? And is it possible I can get paid to do that?

The science writers I met the past two days are a really great bunch of people. Enthusiastic, caring, considerate, open to experiences, curious, and it sounds like from the first two days of workshops I couldn’t be present for (b/c friend’s wedding), passionate about their craft and working to make themselves and the community of science writers better.

There was an amendment up for vote this time around at NASW that was contentious, a vote to allow PIOs and other writers that aren’t what might be considered journalists to hold offices within the NASW.

In the complex media world of today, there may need to be two organizations; one for journalists that is more specialized and the more general NASW because most people practicing science writing professionally may well hop back and forth between the promotional and journalistic roles of science writing/communication– going where the work is (until a standardized minimum income is a reality- which may never happen- we all have to make a living somehow). Even here though, it sounds like everyone wants to do the best by the profession of science writing.

The #nextflint session really drove home how non-traditional journalists (one working for the ACLU) working with scientists (and local citizen scientists) could hold accountable the government charged with keeping drinking water of Flint, MI safe and not doing its job, even covering up and denying the problem. This while the traditional press went along with the authorities public claims until evidence became so clear it couldn’t be ignored by reporters.

Perhaps sub-sectioning is the solution. The NASJ would be a subsection of NASW and could have their own meeting in addition to the broader NASW (and the PIOs could be a subsection too). So even if PIOs and others are allowed to be officers, some independence of journalists is maintained (as each subsection would have its own officers). Other societies have zsections, often based on geographic regions, for instance.

However it resolves (I’m way too new a member of NASW to have voted; so I didn’t). The point is, the issue of whether NASW is a broadly or narrowly defined organization does matter. The people on either side of the amendment think it matters.

Perhaps that’s the key. Individuals think it matters and so it does.

Thinking I matter, matters. And yet it’s hard for me to think I do, even if progressing the past few years.

Does mattering matter to you? What’s a way you go forward and know that you matter (because you do, really)?

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11/1/2016 This post has been updated to clarify some of the writing.

 

 

 

 

From ember to fire.

A few years ago, this was my life:

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Barely an ember, burning lowly and without much focus– or fuel– to move forward, to grow.

It’s gotten better:

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I seem to have a small fire going, that I’m trying to manage, working to get myself to my next career, trying to maintain momentum, identify fuel. It feels like a precarious time as I’m really trying to get to my next job, my new career. I’m trying to invest in myself more, even though that’s hard to do and to keep going. I don’t know why. But I am doing my best.

I hope I’m lighting a fire that will burn bright, but that seems like it’s not a guaranteed outcome. I’ll do my best to get there though. I hope, that with help- I hope I can better ask for things now, I’ll get there.

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It feels better to have some spark than none. But it’s felt like a long road to get here and I hope catching fire happens faster than reaching the small flame stage.

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Being serious.

A lot on my mind lately. Figuring out my career and life foremost among them.

I’ve been guest writing more. I had a post at the Research Whisperer a few weeks ago that seemed to do well about building a portfolio career and using that to try to transition into a new job. Partly gaining experience.

I did some guest science writing too, both for UK based websites/publications. One was a collaboration with my PI, and then other was for the UK Plant Sciences Federation on flowering time. I even emailed a flowering time scientist to get some quotes. That is pushing my comfort zone.

People have been passing job ads and opportunities along to as well, which is incredible and part of why I am so grateful to platforms like Twitter. Which brings me to the #seriousacademic hashtag after The Guardian posted a short piece from a grad student that could not see the value of social media and how it distracted from the real world in front of people as well as taking away focus from actual academic research.  

As much as I love Twitter, I never tell anyone they have to be on it. I also legitimize most uses of the platform…I suggest people start out just by listening in/following things they are interested in and checking in once in awhile. Finding things serendipitously can be great sometimes. And if you feel like responding/joining a discussion, then great.

My community is almost entirely online…I would love to have a more consistent real world community of people I see regularly, but that is part of why I need a new job in a new place, something new. I tried being a serious academic. After years of trying, I’ve concluded I’d rather be a serious something else– ideally in the writing/editing world where I can draw on my scientific skills as well.  

Twitter has been great for me to get my blog(s) out to the world…for those interested in plant science and my writing about mental health here. My goal has been to be a one person broader impact for the plant science community– Twitter is my way of giving back and it has fed back into my science in great ways too. I consider it education/outreach, though I also am writing about things I find interesting or am curious about. I’ve made genuine personal and professional connections because of Twitter. I hope I’ve contributed something and not just taken away.

I’d tell the “serious academic” grad student that building a network takes time, and if it’s all an in real life/email chain of networking and that works for them, then awesome. No social media needed. However, I think social media has made me a better scientist. It’s instilled a love of learning that I had lost. It’s opened my eyes to some things, like inclusion/diversity. I really want to learn new things and do better science, and live up to the amazing things I hear about people doing on Twitter every day.

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Something that becomes more possible when you take your ideas seriously and have a community  as a backdrop to accomplish your goal. 

I try to be a supportive ear and celebrator of successes and pitch in when opportunities arise to do something specific that I can do (organizing a conference panel for instance). Or being a digital media coordinator for the conference I attend most years. Trying to stay on top of Twitter activity at a >1,000 person conference is hard, and I do think is valuable as a record of the conference. Twitter is a good way for me to take notes and to listen to a talk as well, but there is definitely a balance to be struck with attention and tweeting– however, Twitter really shines as a 6th sense at conferences and as a networking tool. More people visit posters that presenters tweet about.

That said, lately, I’ve felt really exhausted. Everything seems to take gargantuan effort and little feels light anymore. Some of that is taking on more ambitious projects, and trying to make things better than I’ve done before. Some, though, I fear is feeling burned out with all the extracurricular things I’ve been doing to try and figure out what’s next. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong? It’s hard for me to know.

Last, Serious academic reminded me of this essay by Sarah Cooper on Medium about why taking your ideas seriously is important. Like her, I didn’t take my ideas seriously for years. Starting my blogs, engaging on Twitter, discussing real things there, has gotten me to take my ideas seriously. However, I don’t take myself too seriously and do have fun on Twitter too. Twitter is great for having fun– that is part of how serious communities are built.

Twitter has gotten me connected to people and I’m not sure that would have happened in real life in the last few years. It has, in many ways, saved my life. Are there plenty of people that can live without it? I’m sure there are. Even I need breaks sometimes. And having built my community online that has translated into the real world in many ways and I feel a lot better taking those social media breaks.

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Enjoying Nature.

A friend of mine took me out to see the sunset the other night.

It was a gorgeous night.  But I was distracted. Not really present. Thoughts kept interfering. I have things to write. Stuff to learn, like coding and R stats. Things along these lines (superimposed on actual images of the sunset):

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When people talk about the all consuming nature of working in science, this is what it looks like. Time away feels wasted. There’s never enough time spent. And especially as I’m trying to transition to a new career this year, down time feels like an unaffordable luxury. That even taking care of myself is impermissible too (and that one goes beyond just the sunset…I resent having to take time to go to the Dr.).

And it’s not as if I am exactly enjoying work either. I still feel burned out a lot of the time. Still, after a few hours, and eating something, this time lapse my friend Holly Pierce took is pretty incredible:

I know time away is important, but it’s hard to feel that it’s OK to take time away until I get my life more settled. I hope that happens, but it’s still hard to see how it happens. I hope there’s a time when I don’t feel like I’m burning my candle at both ends.

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