The Gap and Answering Why.

I’m officially in career transition mode. Looking for what’s next. Trying not to say yes too quickly or chase things that don’t suit me very well. Ideally something that will lead to making more money than one does as an academic.

I was out for a walk the other day and an elderly woman was walking the opposite way down the street looking lost. She asked me if I knew where Mascoma Street was. It’s the street I live on, and only two blocks across the town green from where we were talking. The town I live in is not large either. It seemed remarkable anyone could be lost. But there we were. I talked with her as we walked over to the street and she told me how she was recently retired living here after being a nurse around the country, and in England.

It’s made me think about what I’ve done with my time, and whether I’d get easily lost in 25 more years. Some how there’s still more I feel I want to do. To persist in making a living and hopefully thriving.

There’s no more academia– at least no more planned bench science in my immediate future. There’s continuing to build my skills as a writer and editor (doing some freelance gigs just now to do just that as well as continuing to blog and guest posting wherever I can).

Of course there are questions. Do I have something great to say? Eh. Maybe. Do I just like sharing knowledge. That is certainly true. If I got to spend my career taking in knowledge and communicating it back out to audiences I still haven’t defined very well, then great.

I’ve spent my career as a plant scientist. That’s where I’ve started. Science is amazing and talking about the natural world and how we learn about it is inspiring. I express my enthusiasm for science writing that really resonates with me and hope one day I can produce that for others.

I’m not exactly young anymore and am technically in mid-career. A lot of things that would make sense for anyone younger, going back to school, applying for internships, and fellowships just don’t fit that well, especially as I’m not eligible for many of them.

I’m left with a lot of self-training and still worried I’m a person that falls into the gap where no real career exists. I’m still too much of a scientist to be a popular science writer, but too much of a popular science writer to appeal to a scientific audience. And I haven’t been the most organized about finding an audience— or many other things either. Asking and connecting are still challenging.

I have a PhD and lots of postdoc/lab experience and yet do feel like I don’t have experience in anything else (OK, writing, editing, some basic graphic design, and can research like a pro). Another gap. Despite the online writing and engagement I’ve done. Or is it half-engagement, me just talking at the void?

I’ve networked better than I have ever in my life and don’t have a grand strategy that will get everything to work out perfectly. Despite focusing on better connecting, it’s something that’s still a work in progress. I still didn’t get this advice from Ideas on Fire soon enough.

I let go in some ways and hold on tight in others and the result is…confused.

I’ve written probably hundreds of thousands of words, if not millions the last seven years. Do they add up to anything? I don’t know.

Several years ago, I was so depressed I didn’t want to go on. I did. Why?

I. Don’t. Know. I’m stubborn and like to work? Maybe?

It was in many ways more about other people than myself— I didn’t want to let them down. Why do I want to go on now? I have a cat to take care of. Still have friends and family and colleagues I like working with (currently all through the interwebs). There’s still a sense I want to get really good at something– I don’t think that it was bench science for me. What it is exactly, I’m really not sure. The best at knowing all the things? Is that it? Working at becoming a great writer (that feels further off than ever lately)?

I find writing satisfying even though it is also hard. I’m not one to insert myself in lightning rod topics, but do advocate for the quieter way of being. Basically, few things are as great or as bad as they seem— and so my message is often “yes, it’s complicated and less interesting than you may have first thought”.

I  like brining the obscure slightly more to light, as most research isn’t widely reported on and is somewhat inaccessible either due to paywalls or jargon. I love diving into the archives of journals and digging out past papers and seeing where their work has led, even if it’s a small contribution. Those matter too.

However, none of this is a real career plan. Other than the idea of the world I’d like to occupy of words, letters, and communication, it’s hard to make a solid plan. I want to live someplace new. I want a personal life. I want to work.

I guess I’ll keep on taking steps, making lots of missteps, and hopefully falling forward in a somewhat mindful way.

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Self Talk, Introversion, and Getting it all to Work Out.

I’m still searching for my next job.

There’s been some progress, but becoming a full time science writer still feels like a remote goal. Even becoming a medical writer.

Learning the craft of editing has been good. It’s one of those things that the more I do it, the more I like it. However, liking something doesn’t mean that it’s a way to make a living. However, through the writing I have done, and the editing I have gotten to do, the feeling I get is that I am helping the best version of a piece to emerge. And I really like bringing things to people’s attention they may not have learned about otherwise. I like curating..

However, being a shy introvert in the world of job searching and interviewing and constantly asking/networking/information interviewing gets exhausting.

The joke I’ve made over the years about this blog is that it will tell you what not to do in life, showing you the example not to follow.

My self-talk has been brutal lately. The steps I’m supposed to take are murky, at best. It’s not that people haven’t been friendly or nice, they have. I’m working to build my new career and have been for awhile.

This is my resume:

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I am almost convinced anyone else could take it and land a job quickly. I’m not suggesting you steal my identity, but it’s just that I’ve been trying to break out of being a postdoc for years and haven’t been able to do so and it’s starting to feel like it’s me. Separable from my resume. My resume can get a job. I can’t (feel free to offer my resume a job…it works cheap, I assure you…I’m more expensive).

I’ve completed projects, started writing, guest written a lot (even asked to write things lately!), learned some of the art of tweeting conferences live and digital marketing…and yet can also feel I know nothing at the same time. Have I honed a craft? Writing? Editing? The art of Twitter? Is that even a thing? Is there enough substance behind what I’d done? Do I need to certify myself in coding and better formalize my scientific training somehow? Go back to school?

I’ll keep networking, and applying, but the pace at which I go seems like it’s too slow. I want a job where whoever I report to (yes, I’m assuming I’ll start at the bottom somewhere) will let me know what they need, when updates are due, what progress needs to be made by what time, and a deadline. Then let me get to work. I can do that.

The opportunities that work tend to have grown out of what I’ve done before. I just hope growing a full time job (or a combination of jobs that add up to a full time job) materializes out of my experiences.

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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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Blank pages.

I feel like I’ve been crossing things off this year. And I have a lot of blank pages to fill. To figure out.

I don’t think I want to be an academic anymore; not the PI route. I’m not sure I’m cut out for it and of course, it’s always been a tough job that seems even harder now. Plus, even if I were to succeed, something I’ve come to care about a bit is diversity. And in academia, I simply can’t contribute to it, period (no matter how much of an ‘ally’ I am).

Of course, it’s unclear that there’s anywhere I could go where I’d actually add diversity. Of course, I hope there’s such a thing as an expanding economic pie or growth in opportunities (I think at least some of the problems in academia stem from the limited opportunities there, driving unhealthy competition; it’s a lack of growth in the sector leading to stagnant demography; and yes, of course unconscious bias exists to make it even worse), otherwise there will always be people left out. And I still do need a job. Everyone does (that wants one or can do one, that is; anyone not working needs to be taken care of too…not unto ourselves alone are we born). (and yes, I know, my problems don’t really matter in this area).

I’ve explored consulting a little bit. I don’t think it’s for me. Maybe there’s a firm out there that’s the right fit for me and would have a role for me like doing some technical writing or data analysis, but I don’t think I’d do well being a boots on the ground consultant.

The startup world fascinates me. I even went to a conference all about Intellectual property and tech transfer, which is a cool world too, but again, my inner sense just told me this wasn’t for me either. Again, it’s not something I’ll write off entirely, but I just don’t see how I fit or how I can help contribute to that world.

The last few years, I’ve been writing. This blog, my new(ish) Quiet Branches blog. I’ve been guest blogging for the ASPB every so often and have the honor again of being able to officially cover the conference via social media and blogging (along with a team). I really like doing it. I love being a curator, telling the story of a day at a conference. I think I’ve learned from last year just how much better I should be able to do that too. After all, there are a lot more tweeters at the conference than ever before. Note how this is a longer paragraph than the previous two. It probably means I’m excited about doing this kind of work. The gathering of information and trying to make sense of it into a good narrative. Telling the stories of science. And the scientists that do it. And telling the world about it. I believe every journal needs a blog dedicated to its content (I know many already do).

It also seems like the most impractical path ever. Is there a career in it? I don’t really know. We hear a lot about how journalism is dead, writing is going by the wayside as a profession and anything to do w/ human communication will be done by a computer in a few years. I don’t want to be cynical. I think I’d like being a writer/editor. I had a nice moment on Twitter a few weeks ago…I noted a correction that needed to be made (a minor one) to a story by a journalist I really like. I get a rush out of editing copy and helping people tell their stories (ed note: this blog post will not be highly edited).

I also like being an educator. Or at least feeling like one. And even though I don’t generally know a lot about how it works, genuinely educating people about things is a part (I would hope a big part) of marketing. I could see myself in a role like that as well.

So, have I done things to move in this seemingly fraught and stupid career direction I seem to be ineluctably moving toward? Yes, but perhaps not enough, maybe never enough. Whatever I go on to do, and it will be something (I’ve at least jettisoned the idea that there’s nothing out there for me), I hope it’s not another academia. I just hope I can do to the point where I’ll actually grow and thrive, not remain super stagnant.

The thing that’s always frustrated me about my own brain (besides depression) is that it thinks. A lot. Decisions don’t come quickly. I think about a lot of aspects of things, I don’t consult people enough (been correcting that lately, perhaps). And it can get me down. But they’re also precisely the things that I think make writers good a lot of the time. Things percolate. Sometimes there are quick stories,but often times there aren’t. Things take time. Thinking, re-writing, editing, trying again, are all part of it. And it’s something I like doing (I know there aren’t necessarily jobs that follow ‘what I like’).

I’ve fought against myself for a long time. I’m happier when I am able to embrace a bit more of what I gravitate towards, at least. And that is new. Also, stating what I like is fairly new to me too. I’m what would be described as an ‘old soul’ I think.

My career still feels full of blank pages. As does my life. And my brain. I still have vestiges of depression too that make me feel empty inside too. But slowly, I’m eliminating things that don’t make sense, and I hope populating my mind with worthwhile things. Things that are important to me.

So if you’re looking for a writer/blogger/editor/educator/marketer with a science background, get in touch. Maybe we can work together.

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Life metaphors and narratives.

I’ve been challenged (keeping the by who vague for now) to write a blog post talking about a narrative, a story I tell myself to help me along as I try to become more of a blogger/science writer/editor/informal science educator of some kind, likely beyond academia, but not necessarily so.

And the challenge is to come up with a positive narrative, one that has challenges and obstacles, but not one that is self-limiting and stifling. I’ve been there and done that narrative, and it doesn’t work well.

Is academia like Shawshank Penitentiary? Yes, it kind of is. And I am trying to crawl through the tunnel out into the clean rain on the other side, and pray I’m not like Brooks, unable to make it on the outside.

For awhile, I’ve felt like I’ve been trying to swim to the surface but I’m being held down by a large squid, each arm an aspect of life that I have to take on, but there are so many of them and each time I take care of one, there’s another one there…hard to get free. Or to go after the squid itself for some reason.

One, more positive, narrative is that I’ve gotten away from is Ian 3.0. Treating myself as software that upgrades over time with all the right skills (of course, I wonder how many of us have software on our computers we don’t use often, or that we don’t use to its fullest extent or become full masters of no matter if we use it regularly or not.

However, the one I’m going to explore is that of running an ultra-marathon, Something I have never done (best I did was a half marathon). It takes training, and grit to do something like that and the fact that I’m still here, after going through a deep depression, still showing up, starting a science blog and spreading the word about it. Hitting publish each week, even if I know each one is not the best work I could possibly do. I hope I’m getting better as time goes on.

I have helped staff an aid station at one ultra-marathon, and it’s the kind of event that relies on having friends and staff to account for racers along their way. I think runners go through more than one pair of shoes, and their friends/staff leave aid packs strategically along the way, at least for some of the runners.

And that is what I need more than anything. Connections with others, and being able to ask them for things/help/encouragement to keep going. And of course, having a staff to track me well along the way would be useful too.

I have been running for awhile, I may be halfway to a finish line that would mean a new job, new life, a better place for me. I am tired. I have a lot of trail to navigate still.

I fear that any step I take towards a new career also means stepping away from having a life outside of work. I hope that’s not really true. I want to experience things outside the world that is the career race and I hope that it’s still possible to explore beyond work. I can’t see them really in opposition, because that will always cause problems.

I hope I have a network of people I can ask things of to help get me to the finish line. I am a lot less hesitant to ask for things, though I still feel like I could do more in that regard. I know I can’t do it all alone and that indeed I am not alone.

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ineluctable.

I recently learned the word inelcutable.

It has the same latin root as reluctant. Luctari, or “to struggle”.

The word means unavoidable or inescapable. The inelcutable sunrise.

I heard it on an NPR radio show ‘A Way With Words’ all about language. and the way it was described, when I heard it, really struck me. I was tired and it was 6:30am when I heard it, so the first thing I had to do was to figure out what the word was. I didn’t get it at first, but luckily in this era of podcasts, I found the episode and the word a few days later.

It brought up for me the frustrations I’m having being a postdoc, trying to figure out how to have a career beyond it and just the sense that for me,  it seems that a lack of change is ineluctable.

I’ve been working to manage depression and do other things to improve life. Be present. Meditate. Exercise. Learn new things via the growth mindset. Take risks. Get out of my comfort zone. I have done a lot of these things and maybe I need to do it more, or better, or differently, but not much has changed. And that’s frustrating. I am still trying, but it still feels like outward change is simply not possible.

I am writing more. I am engaged in several fun side projects and I am trying to learn some new things too. And I think I’m networking.

There was a discussion on Twitter yesterday about how academics rely too much on external validation, don’t act on our own intuition, and are risk averse/not resilient.

The first two are true of me, certainly. I have tried to cultivate my own internal sense of intuition and to trust myself more, but still have a long way to go and may need to be out of academia to really instill that in myself. Risk aversion is still true of me…except when I’m talking openly about depression on the internet (which may not be a real risk, just plain stupid…seems to be a fine line). I live in fear of becoming someone obsolete, just eking by…which I kind of do now, but it feels better than that. I do live rather minimally, but aspire to more.

Resilience is something I think I may actually have. I (so far) have successfully been managing depression and slowly coming back to life from having stalled a few years ago. I still feel grey and not vital, with an internal drive for life, experiences, enjoyment, etc. but one reason I’m anxious for change is so that maybe a new place will spark that in me again (I know, I’ll always be carrying my own brain, which may be problematic).

I still think academia is not the best place for good mental health (unless you’ve made tenure, perhaps). And leaving may be the best thing for my soul. I don’t want to ever feel the ineluctable conclusion is figuring out how to remove myself from the gene pool. And I still feel too close to that thinking. And that is scary to me. And while I hope I’m alone in thinking that about myself, I’m sure there are other academics that may be thinking along similar lines and that is why I write this blog. We’re not alone.

Despite frustration. I still am not giving up. I don’t know why. I do have some people that still care about me, for one, and I still feel like I can be useful…somewhere. Maybe a connection I make, maybe something I write, taking a chance. I think I’m willing to do the work. I just also need to pair it with a life as well. I hope that that is an ineluctable outcome.

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