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.

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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Getting Convinced.

Last month I was really depressed. I was burned out. I wasn’t excited to do the things that people do. The dark thoughts were there.

Unfortunately, a lot of that is still true this month. I’ve been taking steps to mitigate these feelings. I’ve kept going, despite not wanting to. And there are projects that I am making progress on. It’s slowly moving me towards a better version of life, but I still am not able to break out of the depressive thinking– at least not fully.

I submitted a manuscript. I’m not excited about it, though.

I co-wrote an article for the National Postdoc Association Newsletter. I’m a little more excited about that.

I wrote one of my more ambitious posts on Quiet Branches, linking the past to the present. I sought input from an author of a study and did a lot more research than I have put in the past. I’m pretty proud of it.

And I got asked to have my blog brought into a blog network, which is exciting. It does feel validating, that maybe I am a “real” science writer.

I went to the Future of Research Conference for a day in Boston, which was really good. I networked! (I got a free book on storytelling in scientific publications from Rafael Luna of Harvard Med School!). I’m glad I took a long day to go.

I even applied for something, putting together a cover letter, resume, and a writing sample in a few hours. Whether I get the gig or not, I feel like putting that together that quickly is real progress.

These are the good things that happened last month and a half. I’m sure there are others, but as you can see, a lot of them still revolve around work, side projects (that I do love), and little outside of that.

How do I move forward from here? Where do I go? I’m still frazzled.

I’ve tried taking care of myself better with some success. I’m not exercising enough, running hasn’t happened other than a few short runs and one short race on a perfect fall day.

And as both commenters to my last blog post here noted, this is a long battle. Self-compassion matters. Having access to a therapist is important too (I am lucky in this regard). And taking time off, which I have done a bit of, feels more like my body telling my brain to take a break. And I even have a tiny in-real-life social life.

I have gotten better about asking for things and I don’t really fear rejection in most contexts, it’s just something that I find likely to occur still and am pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t.

Hopefully, I am learning. I hope I’m putting better content into my brain than bad. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. It doesn’t help that the garbage can come from inside my own brain at times.

Am I just being busy for the sake of busy? Am I just distracting myself from what I should be doing? Am I just stubborn (tenacious maybe the more positive spin on that)? These are questions I keep asking myself.

Life goes on. I am trying to keep up. And keep swimming.

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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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Thoughts at the end of a long day.

Yesterday, I was grooving to music, I was feeling energized and OK about the week. There was a picture of a weasel that jumped on top of a flying woodpecker. I was exhausted, but not bad.

Then today.

It was a long day in the lab. I talked about the science and safety behind GMOs and how possibly, a corporation that makes GMO plants could be compatible with a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system (assuming not all of us are going back to growing all our own food again in the world). I had to help an undergrad, my experiment that I needed for a deadline I’m trying to meet didn’t work out. This in light of Bill Nye’s apparent change of mind about GM technology and how it may not spell environmental doom (he always struck me as one suspicious of a for-profit business being in charge of food…not that it was inherently unsafe). I am a bit jealous that Bill Nye got to visit Monsanto…if I could have a job where I get to visit biotech companies for a living, I’d take it. I loved my tour of New England Biolabs last year.

I listened to Cara Santa Maria’s Talk Nerdy podcast eps from the last two weeks. Indre Viskontes and Joe Palca were the guests talking about their careers, science communication, and paying for it. Dr. Viskontes made the point that in a competitive world it makes sense to do the thing your’e great at…because then you’re competitive. And especially in underfunded fields like science communication, that’s probably true. What am I great at, though? Have I gotten good at something in my life? What do I passionately care about? I still feel disconnected from a sense of that. Is it a vestige of depression, or am I just one of those passionless people?

I read Terry McGlynn’s post about Moneyball and what it might teach academia. How best to measure academics? Efficiency, effectiveness, results, papers? How much pressure do we put on one person to do all the things? What if you’re better at some things than others? How does it all balance out? And how do you figure out if you’re a good fit?

And then I heard Sweet Briar University was shutting it’s doors at the end of this semester. I know many alumnae of Sweet Briar, though am not very familiar with the institution other than it’s a small liberal arts college in Virginia. And that it’s an institution a little like the one I went to in Salem, OR, Willamette University (I donate what I can to them…but I’m a poor postdoc still). The SLAC or PUI is the kind of institution I would like to work, if I were to become a faculty person. And due to economic strains I was not fully aware that some at least (perhaps many?) have been under.

I feel sad for my friends losing the site of their alma mater (they’ll at least always have their memories of the place together), the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar, but also am mourning what seems like a loss to higher education and perhaps realizing more strongly than ever that my place doesn’t feel like it’s in the academy anymore, but I don’t know where my place is. I still have a hard time articulating why I’m valuable to myself, let alone to a place where I’d work. Because fundamentally, that’s what we do in work, ideally, add value (or at least reduce costs). And hopefully we solve people’s problems without resorting to trickery/deception/bad business practices. I like to write. And maybe there’s a career in that somewhere. Or marketing…I love spreading ideas, but a good product is worthwhile too.

Mostly, I want time to be able to think and process. And to integrate a life outside of work into my schedule of work (not balance, exactly, but you know, it’d be nice to try dating again…maybe see friends on a regular basis; maybe the only way that happens is if you work with your friends now).

We are nowhere close to equitably spreading resources around. And it seems increasingly true that there are a few winners, and the rest lose out. There will always be hard choices to make in resource allocation, but I hope teaching, spreading knowledge, and pursuit of the intellectual things that enrich and advance our society (including science & humanities) don’t go away from the world completely.

I still need to figure out a plan. And a long day in lab didn’t feel like I was moving towards it.

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Is change possible? (for me).

No.

I don’t know.

Maybe.

I want to believe.

Yes. And it has been happening.

But outwardly, it’s all still the same.

I don’t seem to know answers to basic questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

Yes, no, maybe.

Still a big work in progress.

I’m a scientist taught to question everything and never be fully sure about anything, even with data. Mission accomplished.

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Placing.

I was reading Terry McGlynn’s two-year anniversary post of his Small Pond Science blog and like him, I have found blogging to be a rewarding experience and how it’s enabled me to reach more people and given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

He’s done a lot of good work. And it’s another in a cavalcade of people I can point to that have done good work in many aspects of their careers & lives. Twitter has really opened up my eyes to the wide world of people doing good things. I am trying to be one of them. Maybe I am in some small ways, but to my mind still not meaningful ways. I will still celebrate and point to others who I think are doing good/clever work before ever saying that I am.

I am trying to get going now after having stopped for years due to depression, anxiety, and other poor mental habits that mired me in quicksand relative to the rest of the world. Now, I am getting my voice into the world more and trying to contribute usefully to society and hopefully further knowledge or at least spread it further. Or perhaps connect two dots for someone, introduce two people that go on to do great things, etc. And I hope I can be a good friend, significant other, possibly parent someday too. Someday soon, I hope.

I am trying to finish a lot of things this year and start others, namely a new career, somehow, some way. I don’t know how to place myself though, or sell myself that well. “Hey, I’m that open-about-myself-on-the-internet-guy…”.

In an era of tight budgets everywhere and a world where employees seem to be viewed more as liabilities than assets (gotta make the share-holder rich above all else, right?), it’s obviously important to show that you’d add value to a team or a company. I wish I could translate my value into monetary terms…just simply say “yeah, I can bring in $200k in new revenue to the company each year if you hire me” (yes, I chose an arbitrary number). I have no credible way to really make that claim from my current position though. I don’t want to say that I can’t do that, but I don’t have a track record of saying that either.

Maybe I bring a new perspective? As an individual, maybe that’s true, but then there’s the issue that I am a white male looking for a job. In theory, I know this means all the doors are open to me. However, because I believe there are issues with diversity and bias everywhere, it is truly not a fair playing field. I am aware that I do not add diversity to nearly anywhere that would take me in any industry (perhaps there’s hope at the individual company level even if STEM industries & related fields are white male dominated as a whole).

In a tight job market, any job I get is literally taking an opportunity away from someone else (esp. true in academia, I think). Of course, I do need a job still…stay-at-home single person is not currently a thing, unless you’re independently wealthy. I don’t know how big an issue to make of this, except to say that it’s something I don’t have a good answer to, but feel is a real issue. I know no one is asking me to step back and not compete (just to help change the culture with the long-term goal of achieving parity, I guess?), but can I be pro-diversity and also take a job in a field that has issues with diversity? I don’t know. It’s not really credible for me to say “yeah, I can affect change from the inside” (you know who’d do that better…a member of a group that faces societal biases). This isn’t to say, “woe is me”, but it is something I think a lot about.

I founded a Science blog. And I enjoy writing it. (check it out here). that’s probably the only self-promotion I’ll do in this post. and of course, it’s just one of many science blogs out there. One that’s devoted to plants, which is maybe a bit more rare in the scicomm world, but still…yet another science blog.

I am slowly networking and writing more, trying to put a lot of energy into communicating more effectively…hopefully with some success. I am trying to upgrade my skill set, etc. I am willing to learn, but then, that doesn’t seem to really be that valued a thing in today’s economy. Who isn’t willing to learn? To look like an idiot doing so, and come out the other side more humble, but having learned something new?

I like being able to take my time and think things through, explore something deeply. That is almost certainly not valued in today’s world. Fast. That is what matters. Not circumspection & dotting i’s, crossing t’s. Those things only seem to matter after something goes wrong.

Maybe I’m empathetic and listen more because of my experiences with mental illness, but then I also feel pretty tone deaf to too many things in the world too.

I feel more confident that there’s a place for me out there somewhere, but whether I can identify it and attain it is still really a murky process for me.

More to come, I’m sure.

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