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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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):

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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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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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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Daring Greatly/comfort zones.

The NPR show “On Being” re-ran their interview with Brene Brown.

For those not familiar with her work, it’s all about vulnerability, shame, and trying to live in a more whole-hearted way, or those that don’t ever question whether they are ‘enough’.

Her work, along with a few others that hit similar themes really does resonate with me. And it’s been not small part of better managing depression. And her work is not ‘just be positive, and things will work out’…it’s perfectly possible that anything anyone tries will not actually work or go well.

I was listening to the interview this morning and wondering if I’ve truly been pushing myself to “Dare Greatly” the last few years, or have I only really put myself on the line in small ways, ways that don’t really matter, that are harmless to me. Have I been vulnerable? On one level, I suppose so. Because of this blog, I have been open about dealing with depression. On other things, not so much. I still seem to have a really hard time exposing myself to the world (though I am a little better than I once was, for sure). I don’t know that I really show love to people I care about or have feelings for all that well; I still tend to hide that (with some exceptions for really close friends of mine). I haven’t been able to really stick myself out there professionally either, though I did a little bit more of that last year perhaps.

It’s a mixed bag, but it’s a question I keep asking myself. Do I feel like enough? Deep down, I still don’t. It’s still negotiable whether I am worthy or not in my head. And that is a problem. It does make it harder to extend myself, to develop more. I’m not sure how to get there. And I’m open to suggestions.

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