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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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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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):

YouShouldBeWritingSunsetFallingbehindNextJobStudyNatureOutHereDidntGetEnoughDone

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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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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The answer to life, the universe, and everything (not really).

I’ve been quiet here lately. But I’ve had things going on. Go check out my other blog The Quiet Branches where I write about plant science each week– it’s been a fun project. Then it has also been a crazy few months in the lab trying to meet several deadlines. And I’ve been taking more online classes. One in learning R and statistics…it’s only going OK on that front. The time it takes to concentrate and truly internalize everything is probably more than I actually have, but I think I am picking up a few things at least. 

I need a career and to feel like I have a life. It’s been really hard to sense that I do have a life even though I know the mere passage of time that I am aware of is life.

I realize I’m not entitled to anything. I am grateful for what I have. This is a call for more humanity out there. It may be there. I just can’t detect it because of where I am or maybe I have faulty sensors. I find it sometimes though.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work and how I really want to carve out a space to not make it all of who I am anymore. In fact, it cannot be all that I am anymore. That will kill me. I am more than my work.

Setting that boundary is difficult and doesn’t seem all that acceptable in the world of work today. Companies/employers are not your friend. And will basically take whatever they can get from you of value. And they don’t care what your life is outside of work so long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the blurred lines of work and life in modern times. And it seems like there is little slack for life events these days as a lot of us try to do as much as possible to prove our worth. At Tenure She Wrote, @SciTriGrrl wrote a post a few weeks ago about time management and carving out time for people that priorities at work that are truly important.

Prioritize until it hurts is something I’ve heard entrepreneurs say.

Hustle.

Everything will be OK…unless something goes wrong.

Perhaps it’s possible to work through that fever.

The science must go on.

In the entertainment/creative/pro-sports industries, they work sick all the time I hear. Unless you really can’t get out of bed, your’e at work. At least in those industries, they have brief periods of intensity and then they’re off for a time until the next job comes along and it’s intense again for a period of time. I’m not sure science is quite like that.

 

If you can’t get out of bed due to illness for a day or two…maybe you’re not cut out for being in that industry.

Now let’s say it’s not the flu, but depression or other mental illness that you’re working to manage. Or imagine a sick kiddo and need to stay home with them. I fear the mantra of “you only have value if you work” is the only acceptable way to have value in today’s world (at least in the US). It’s OK until some challenging thing happens and knocks you out of the game, no matter how resilient a person you are.

It’s like species being able to adapt to climate change. Some species undoubtedly will be fine and adapt quickly enough to the rate of change.

Others. Not so much.

Internal value doesn’t matter. The fact that I am enriching myself by reading ,writing, learning stats/R/coding at some level despite the fact that I’ll never likely be a master of any of it, trying to socialize more, being a decent person, helping friends do things. I hope these things are valuable. But fear they’re not. In and of themselves, they don’t produce money and therefore are not valuable.

I am exploring career options beyond academia and it’s really jarring to deal with the fact I feel like I’m basically killing all the training I have and starting completely over again. I know I’ll bring something of what I’ve learned to whatever I go on to do, but worry it’s not enough, never will be, and that basically ,I am useless. I really try not to think that way because obviously it leads nowhere good. At the least, it makes me beat myself up. At worst…

It is a hard mental habit to break.

I have to find evidence to reject the null hypothesis that I am not lifeless.

If the goal is to prove your’e so valuable and in demand that you never have to worry about anything ever, do you get to take breaks? Ask for help? Or is asking for help saying you can’t do things on your own, acknowledging humanity, and there’s just not room for that in the world. Humanity is not valuable.

Except that it is, of course. Why are we working except to keep humanity going. Even for-profit industry has a component of providing a service to the world.

Look like your’e interested, but not too interested, you don’t want to seem desperate, but also not completely aloof either. Where’s the right line? When do you cross it?

All the above thoughts indicates that I probably need to socialize more with close friends. Vacation. Something restorative I haven’t had in quite awhile. Being human in front of another human, not a robot.

I want a pub trivia team to go out with and have fun. And I haven’t been able to build one so far. But it will be a part of my life some how. Until then, I have Good Job, Brain at least.

What is it I do that no one else can? I freely admit my struggles on the internet…that I’m human. I don’t think I’m alone or remarkable for that. I hope I’m not alone in my thoughts. I have learned to manage my depression, which is not nothing, but again, I don’t think anyone actually cares about that.

I can write a lot of words.

I can listen. I can synthesize ideas, edit writing, and think about the bigger picture as well as sweat details. Perhaps sweating details way too much. I think things through and am deliberate (which I honestly do not feel is of any value in the fast-paced world of today).

I can take a lot of punishment and push myself hard when needed, but certainly need recovery time too. I’m human. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for the world.

Just where do I fit? What exactly do I need to get there?

I’m in the science-verse (but note, not at the center):

The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it's a horizon that doesn't feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven't explored either.
The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it’s a horizon that doesn’t feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven’t explored either.

What is beyond? I am trying to see and navigate that way. I just hope I can land there, realize there’s some slack in the line where I can work hard, but have a life outside too (my cat demands it…and having time to do taxes is important too). Heck, even staying somewhere in the vast science-verse would be OK with me. I just feel my value lies not at the bench, but in helping others do great work.

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