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.

The Transition to Sci Comm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Do something.

I’ve been struggling the last few days…physically not feeling great, mentally feeling foggy. And not getting enough exercise. Which is frustrating.

I’m powering through, still investing in myself, and catching glimpses of being actually confident in some ways. A feeling I’m not very familiar with, honestly.

Today, I read this post from the thesis whisperer on being someone that’s thorough, but not perfectionist,  vs. someone that’s a 95%er, someone that gets most of the way there, but struggles to close the final 5% of a project. There are definitely two strains of perfectionism: the one that’s crippling and interferes with your life and the one that is just holding yourself to a high standard and putting out things that are as good as you can make them.

She also linked to this post about a lot of bad advice out on the internet (shocking, I know). I hope I haven’t contributed too much to that problem. The entire piece set off thoughts in my head.

I worry about being considered an expert or authority (even though in some areas, I am). I’ve done enough leg work with my own mental health to be comfortable conversing with people about it, but haven’t done any active research or delved too deeply into the literature on it too much (other than reading a few books, but that’s not primary lit). And I know a thing or two about plants and plant hormones. This is one part of what I think people think about when they say someone’s afraid of success.

I really am always seeking to learn new things. And that’s been a frustrating part of feeling awful lately…my brain hasn’t been good at absorbing things; do I need to work more on my meta-cognition?

Stephen Tobolowsky was on The Nerdist podcast today. Ned Ryerson himself. He’s a really fascinating person. And one that has some interesting things to say about being productive, managing our limits to thrive by finding things we can do (note: not watch TV or otherwise passively consume things). And further, view new opportunities as doors, not prisons. Anything can be a prison. Academia, fabulous wealth, name it…it’s all in how we think about them. I’d recommend giving it a listen. It is about holding onto things loosely, not being overly attached.

Do Something

As someone that’s been trying to change my self-narrative the last few years, I am at a point where I realize that I may have more control than I think I do over situations. I’ve made writing a habit (perhaps not good writing, but that’s not really for me to judge necessarily). I’m slowly building nodes in my network and really trying to do things for people in small ways, at least.

I still think I’m a 95%er when it comes to many projects, but there are projects that I want to see to completion, getting them as good as I can make them before release too. It just kind of depends how resonant something is. It should register higher, but doing a thorough spring cleaning of my apartment is in my 95% category. Writing my science blog is more 100%er territory for me, but I know I don’t always have time to have that standard. Done is determined by deadlines. And I hit publish each Sunday, whatever I have and promote it the following week no matter what. I hope I’ll get better.

I feel like I am slowly connecting the dots, extending beyond myself now that I have done some hard internal work. And it feels good, but still frustrating because there’s no obvious path forward. Being on a team of people brought together to do something just means you have good people around a specific task. The key is getting to be one of those good people that are wanted on a team; a team can do a lot of various things (even in this world of needing to be a specialist and generalist at the same time).

Quietly Doing Something

I’ll never be the loud member of the team. I’ll be thinking, trying to find blocks of time to read, process, do, make, and otherwise work. I’ll put ideas out sometimes, but it takes time for me to think things through. I’ll suggest things to individuals and let them take credit for it. I’ll connect people to ideas, people, and other things that may not have occurred to them before, or just listen as they hash something out for themselves. I want my superpower to be quiet connection because I want to put people on a path to productive, and good, work. That’s what matters in the end to me. Are you working to put something good out into the world? And can I nudge you along that path? If so, wonderful. If not, that’s OK too. I’ll be here writing and doing work in my own quiet way to serve and better the world.

I’m sure I’ve made wild leaps of thought in this post. Sometimes, doing something is just getting what’s in your head on paper. Or screen. But I hope there’s something in here, reader, that helps you in your day.

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Closing the gap.

I still see signs of depression in my brain. That’s hard for me to admit since I’ve been working to manage better for years. Lately, I feel exhausted and frustrated with myself though.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of symptoms and signs of depression (copied and pasted directly from the linked page and my evaluation for myself is indented):

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
    • What do I feel about things? I still feel anxious at times, but more than anything, I do have “empty” feelings. There’s emotion there, but it’s a null set, or at least that’s how it feels to me; it’s a perception problem. It’s like there’s an empty place in my chest (and I know, that’s not where feelings come from).
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
    • These have intensified recently. I really question if I can improve my skills, have I been learning? I only have a limited lifetime, so just when does hopefulness and optimism become more default?
    • Can life get better? my honest answer is “probably not” right now, at my best it’s a “maybe”.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
    • Yes, yes, and yessish…this last one is where I feel it sometimes, but know there are things I can do and actually do do sometimes. Am I improving, growing? The feeling I have is one of being stagnant.
  • Irritability, restlessness
    • Kinda…yes. especially the former.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
    • What do I enjoy doing? And am I doing those things? Often no. It always seems like the effort and time are crushing constraints. And it feels like anything I do isn’t fun/pleasurable, exactly, it’s just something I do.
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
    • Yes, and yes. This may be getting less sleep, but I rarely feel energetic or excited.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
    • Yes, possibly (I don’t seem to care about details in too many situations), and yes, decision making is still really hard for me; even small ones.
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
    • I am up past midnight most nights, I wake up around 5am most mornings, try to sleep til 6 at least or 7…then the cat insists I get up to feed him.
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
    • I have eaten less this year. I think I’ve lost weight, though I haven’t stepped on a scale lately.
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
    • Unfortunately, yes. the former. They’re not insistent, nor do I take them at face value; they’re thoughts that come up and I dismiss them as temporary, fleeting, but my sense is healthy people do not have these thoughts. And they aren’t thoughts I would act on.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
    • Unsure on this one. It is perfectly possible. I have aches, pains, headaches, and more; but that may be due to exercise and not taking the best care of myself.

So given these signs, how can I say I’m doing better? I still feel like there’s a gap between reality and my perceived reality. Making time for meditation/mindfulness may help; it’s something I’ve gotten away from the last few months. And how do I experiment more to figure out how to get myself into feeling better?

I need to think about it more.

But this assessment just goes to show the the road from feeling crushingly depressed is a long one. I’m not completely under its false narratives anymore, but still haven’t totally given way to new ways of thinking, cultivating a healthier mindset.

The component I’m missing may well be social too. I need to interact more with other people, the world, engage in real life with fellow human beings. I do this in fits and starts now, but I hope I can do it more often. I am still scared of spreading my depression to someone else. Trust me, I don’t wish the depressive thinking pattern on anyone.

I know things take time. But it is frustrating to realize I still have these feelings, even a year after feeling like I’d made a lot of progress. And in some ways I have, really. I am better at recognizing and addressing my depressive thinking in my own brain.

And I am more anxious than ever about being open about it (hello insurance cos and potential employers! I’m self-disclosing medical info! But you know, it shows I’m a bold person…so that’s good, right?). But here I am, showing up, telling the internet how I am doing. I hope it helps someone.

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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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