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.

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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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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Brakes.

What is the purpose of Brakes?

The intuitive answer is so we can slow down and stop.

Less intuitive is that brakes let us go fast. The better the braking system, or the more trust in it, the faster it’s possible to go (credit to Sarah K. Peck for this idea).

While literal brakes operate this way in cars and other vehicles, permitting slowing down and going fast, the brakes in brains don’t work the same way.

I’ve been thinking about brakes in my life and how I might ease off of them to go fast- possibly achieve flight, basically thrive– career-wise and personally.

I wrote two articles about mental health in the last month. One for Bitesize Bio and one for the The National Postdoc Association Newsletter that will be out sometime this summer. It’s what I’ve written about for years here, and it is good to see that I can write for platforms that get a wider readership than a personal blog.

I’ve maintained my writing on The Quiet Branches as best I can with one of my more ambitious posts published last week. And doing it has lead to opportunities for me, and I really like doing it still, though my feeling is research is still a challenge. I read other science bloggers/writers and am constantly impressed- and I’m not comparing myself to the best/most successful science writers I know of- Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and Jennifer Ouelette, for instance. I still haven’t joined the NASW. Or the Genetics Society of America, or many of the several other professional societies I might be a member of.

There are deadlines I have made at work, a conference I attended, The AAAS meeting, where I networked like a pro and even got a decent opportunity out of it for a new job, that may or may not pan out. I’ve had people send me job ads that might be of interest to me as well and I’ve applied to some of them even. Despite the last few weeks where I’ve felt pretty worn down and burnt out, this has been a year of accomplishment in many ways.

There’s a direction I’d like to take my career in- away from the lab bench and in the world of science communication, publishing, editing…the more I learn about that world, the more fascinated I get. It’s incredible that they are all a key part of translating raw results into final reports, write ups, releases, and popular articles, videos, and books for audiences beyond other scientists (though it’s for them too– who likes science….scientists– well, OK, we at least sometimes like science…OK, perhaps not even sometimes, but we do it because we believe strongly in studying the natural world to understand it and ideally make it a better place).

I just finished attending Beyond the Professoriate (#beyondprof) where there’s a lot of good advice for those PhDs and other academics seeking to make it out into the world beyond academia and broadening the career ideas/paths that PhD holders might take. And trying to get the idea into our heads that we have skills that are in demand out in the world if only we could speak the language of the employers that want them.

All of the above are mostly good things and here’s where the brakes come in. The brakes in my brain are keeping me going slow, from punching the accelerator. It’s like my parking brake is stuck in the engaged position.

I am slowly learning to speak the language of editors, science writers, and communicators/public information officers/digital communications professionals. I still have a long way to go I feel (but thanks to two opportunities this year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an editor). Though I write my blog, I feel like it could be better. There are content marketing and design elements I’d like to implement, but haven’t. My blog is due for a redesign. I could track my numbers better, but still have an academic philosophy about that- namely that numbers aren’t the most important metric– does my writing resonate with one person and their day is better for having read it? Does it spur some new project whether I’m involved or not? Is it evergreen and there if someone wants to refer to it (i.e. is it an archive for someone to stumble across)?

I want to start trying to record audio clips talking about each new post as a way to play around with podcasting as a medium. I love podcasts, though I know it’s not a career unto itself for most people (in that way content creation is like many careers these days it seems- the middle is getting hollowed out and you are either poor and in the masses or lucky/good/fortunate enough to make it into the elite of the profession). I think about doing it. I have the tools to experiment…and yet…nope, haven’t done it.

It’s been a slow process and one that I seem to have the brake in place for. I’m trying to learn new skills. I’ve adopted R and tried to figure out how I can take advantage of some of the massive amounts of data available out in the world, but haven’t made much headway there yet– finding a hypothesis to test isn’t exactly easy. But I can do and more or less understand what an ANOVA is in R and plot some data, so that is good.

I have tried learning more about Illustrator, Photoshop, and other digital tools that I just really like (& can use and figure things out in, it’s just something I’d like to get better with). And yet, the brakes are there too. Time is limited. I’m exhausted at the end of the day and learning new things just doesn’t happen as often as I think it needs to. Again, it feels like the brakes are there.

In my personal life, well, I haven’t really been trying much…I’ve been focused on networking and trying to figure out what’s next for me in life– or perhaps more fundamental than that…figuring out how to network most effectively still.

Until I figure out where I’ll be living and what I’m doing, it’s really hard to create any sort of dating life. Of course, this is another instance where the brake in my brain feel strongly applied. I know most postdocs are married, have families, date, meet significant others, even in the face of career transitions and other life backdrops. but my brakes are firmly in place to not explore that part of life until my career is more figured out (of course the question is, when will that be- more and more the answer is seeming like “never”, so may as well start trying now, right?).

I had the honor of curating the @realscientists Twitter account in March. And as a social media experience, it was intense and immersive. One of the things I started that really took off was #AcademicSelfCare, which echoes some of the things in the mental health articles I wrote about how academics seem to take terrible care of themselves.

I try to take time to take care of myself, but that has been harder and harder to do lately it seems. Injury and pain keep me from running far, time to join and make it to a gym are scarce, sleep has been elusive, and making decisions and moving forward rather seem more difficult. Cleaning, organizing life, focusing on the present, eating well…have gotten elusive as I try to spend all my time getting to what’s next, with my parking brake in place.

It’s spending a lot of my time in deciding rather than in doing– analysis paralysis? Distraction from real things? Some of this comes down to perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and the latter especially can feel like a weight that slows me down too often still (another form of braking- just weigh it down). Will I ever feel like I’ve “arrived”?

Am I still moving in a direction and not drifting? I don’t know. Some of the issue is that I’ve been doing the things I have been doing and haven’t had much chance to step back and think much. Enforcing reflection time would be a good thing, and something I need to do more often. And perhaps say “no” more.

There’s more to say, and yet I am also self-conscious about going on and on…

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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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Adaptable.

I’ve been thinking about my career a lot and just how I might fit into the modern world.

I’m a thinker. I research. I do things once I’ve thought them through. I need space and time to focus and process things and then I’ll talk about it until the topic and possibly my conferees are exhausted and am still willing to keep going. It sometimes feel like I want the last word on nothing.

One thing humans are praised for is adaptability. PhDs seeking to go beyond academia are said to be flexible too. And in a way, the in-demand person is adaptable and can roll with many situations, learn what’s needed to get something done and do it.

I may be missing something but I do worry that the modern world vastly favors specialization (and automation). It is impossible for one human to do it all. I can’t build a computer or a smartphone (at least not a notebook computer) from scratch (yes, I could source components, but can’t make them myself). I can create blogs, I can write a bit, and research, as well as explore data and get something out of it. But that is general and vague it seems to me in a world that wants instant specialists. And fast specialists. Patience and thinking seem to be luxuries of the past.

A lot of people seem relatively adept at creating their own job within an organization, or at least that seems like a relatively common way jobs are gotten as organizations simply like having good people on hand. To do specific things sure, but who can adapt to new roles and grow as well.

It seems like the ideal candidate is a specialist that can generalize/adapt.

I hope I’ve specialized enough, that I can adapt. That i’m not stuck in Shawshank Prison.

In my next post, I think I’ll try and inventory my skills and see if something interesting emerges from the exercise.

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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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