The Gap and Answering Why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m still searching for my next job.

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

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

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

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

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

This is my resume:

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

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

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

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

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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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Serious in 2016 -> 2017?

I’ve written more for other blogs and publications this year than I ever have.

It was enough to successfully apply to the NASW, the National Association of Science Writers, which I am proud of. (I also joined the DC Science Writer’s, but that’s a membership fee alone).

I followed a science communication/science writing/science editing track this year as well. I attended the AAAS meeting and met a lot of people into science communication. I listened to reporters and scholars on communicating science, what impedes it (lack of incentive/money, in large part), and how to listen to people and get people to listen to scientists more (yes, it can be a two-way street).

I got to meet Joe Palca, NPR’s science correspondent and that’s been a fantastic contact to make.

I did my digital communication activities again this year and even did some things on Youtube this year (interviewing people) at the Plant Biology conference in Austin this year, stepping away from my science and just focusing on broadcasting/conveying the things going on at the conference, writing a blog post for each day of the conference. It’s intense for this introvert, but would do it again.

I attended part of the Science Writer’s meeting and got to meet/see some real science writers. A few weeks later, I attended Sci Comm Camp in Malibu and met even more great science communicators and writers (that I still need to do a better job of keeping in touch with).

Then there’s the podcast I started with friends, Recovering Academic, that seems to be going well, at least we’re building an audience it seems.

I’ve even been editing articles and posts for a few places (and will be doing more in 2017 – is it odd that I feel like I need to keep the places I’ve been editing for a bit secret?).

I also finished one of my projects in lab and it got published.

I’ve been pitching my work more places as well (& getting mostly rejected). But I did get a byline with the Royal Society of Biology blog this month.

And of course, continued to write on The Quiet Branches.

In short, I’ve been taking myself seriously. (yes, I cited this post by Sarah Cooper before).

It all feels very chaotic, and it certainly hasn’t been linear, and there’s still the pesky thing of actually finding my first full time paying job beyond academia.

Then I saw this Tweet, yes, also from Sarah Cooper – her voice has worked for me this year):

As an over 32 year-old that I think has been working hard to “make it” in this world (& I do have a beyond generic definition for myself of what that would mean). And at the end of 2016, I do feel like I’d like to be able to take a step back and not give up, exactly, but rest more. Take care of myself more (because to do all the above, it has taken a toll on taking care of myself).

Another concern with the all the things I’ve done above is something I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been reading, and just finished, Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.

Am I conning myself? Is my dream of being in the science communication world something where I’ve pulled the wool over my own eyes? Should I give up and get out before I’m too much further in?

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Self-made work of words to theme my 2017 (I keep it on my phone lock screen).

I’ve been aware of just how hard it is economically to make it as a writer alone. And that the career of the future is one where we’re all wearing many hats…the Uber driver-programmer-independent scientist, for instance. So in that sense, I don’t think I’m really fooling myself. However, as I enter 2017 and will have to find a new full time job, that the time I’ve dedicated this year, of taking myself seriously, pays off.

And that the skills I do have are valued somewhere.

Here’s to a prosperous 2017,

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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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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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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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