In pursuit of approachable

As I have decided to move off the PhD track, I have been searching for more career ideas. This mostly involves looking at entry level jobs and trying to decide if I can imagine myself working the job for a few years. One of the positions that consistently draws my attention is communications coordinator, especially when its for a science organization.

This position can be anything from website management to writing copy for press releases to traveling and giving presentations. Usually they want some professional experience, and some jobs want a lot more than others. They usually want to see project management experience. Either way, they want someone with communications experience (and sometimes marketing).

I’ve been working towards the PhD for awhile, and during that time, I have presented many, many times. Does that count? I’ve completed my project, with minimal supervision or help. As I think about how to spin my experiences, I’m struck again and again by how hard it is to write about them. Especially in a readable format, since I’m applying for a comm job.

For example:

  1. In order to test the ability of the enzyme to catalyze the conversion of reactant to product the scientist consulted with a colleague to design a new method of analysis.
  2. Two scientists worked together to design a new experiment to study an enzyme.

Unfortunately I’m better trained in example 1 than example 2. Neither is necessarily wrong, but one is dramatically more approachable. And when you’re talking about discussing science to the general public, it seems like you should begin with sentence 2 and perhaps build detail to sentence 1 (although in this example I’d say they are really equivalent). I’m having trouble. I have to keep rewriting sections of everything and substituting smaller, simpler words in a lot of cases.

But why dumb things down? Its hard to make things easily readable. And sometimes that means spelling out the main idea instead of hinting around at it seems juvenile (that’s a loaded thought for another topic).

So how do you write in a way that makes it conversational without losing the detail? I’m still trying to figure this out, if you have some advice, let me know in the comments.

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Year review

What a crazy year. I started this blog with the hope of exploring some thoughts about graduate school, science, and other ideas that popped into my head. Unfortunately I haven’t really done it justice. Its so hard to find a cohesive theme, since I have so many random ideas. They aren’t all worthy of a blog post, and its hard to make them coherent sometimes. I definitely started off with a bang, when my two-body post exploded. I didn’t even know what to do with all the interaction I was getting.

I wasn’t actually able to have as many interesting conversations about a post again, as I struggled with the voice. I still want to talk about the challenges of being a scientist while  not being a bench-scientist, so that’s where this is going. But there is so much more to it. Conferences and readings and job searches and degrees. So if you’re looking for stories about trying to figure out what to do for a career from someone who waited kind of late, stay tuned. You may be able to learn something or spark your own thoughts.

Publications as a measure

My first publication went live today. It is a pretty exciting moment in a scientific career. Lots of hard work and volleying with editors and reviewers, and BAM paper. Put a line on your CV and go onto the next thing.

I think lots of people expect about 2-4 publications out of PhD students these days. I don’t know how I feel about that. I would like to think substantial work should be represented by the time a dissertation rolls around. Does that mean one glamour publication and two small journals? I don’t have the answers today.

What I do have is a perspective of humor for today. You see, I decided that I don’t want to play on the PhD wagon. I started this process so I could teach college students biochemistry. Maybe I was super naive (definitely), maybe I didn’t really understand what it meant (possibly), and probably I thought I wouldn’t have trouble getting the job I wanted.

Turns out this type of job is going to require me to continue slaving at the bench and then move across the country a couple of times to land a job. And, at the end of the day, after working as a TA for six (!) semesters, I don’t even know if I would enjoy that job.

So I made some changes, got an internship, and started putting together a master’s degree. I’ll be graduating in May, and going off on the next adventure. I don’t exactly know what that means right now, but I’m sending off lots of applications.

So how is this related to the publication? This publication isn’t from my master’s work. Its from a rotation in a lab the first year of my program. That’s right, six weeks of work yielded more scientific currency than 3 years in my thesis lab. Now maybe I’ll get a publication from my master’s. I’m really working for it. But it isn’t looking good.

It just really amuses me (in a crying sort of way) that I have more to show from a rotation than my master’s degree. Whomp.

Thoughts on Quit Lit

I read a few articles last week about ‘quit lit,’ where various people write about quitting their PhD programs. I hadn’t previously considered that this merited an entire genre, although in retrospect there are so many stories I have read it would be silly if there wasn’t. I’ve read stories about bad situations, changing life plans, and ennui. Lots about overworked and underpaid.

I like reading stories about quitting. I think part of the appeal is that most popular stories are about rising over adversity. I like the alternate perspective. (Kind of like the Wicked perspective: How did the wicked witch feel?). But the story about the quitter who finds success on another path isn’t the ‘responsible’ perspective. Even in profiles of successful people who didn’t follow the standard trajectory, the quitting is downplayed. Responsible young adults dutifully follow the steps to success. Work hard, do the extracurricular activities, be a leader. College, PhD, work hard, job, better job, work hard, Success. Success will come to those who work hard. But what if you’re working hard at the wrong thing?

Sometimes the plan isn’t what you thought, and sometimes you aren’t what you thought. I think introspection has to be combined with a thorough investigation of where your passions lie. I don’t mean the liberal arts track, where you pick a major as a freshman and then take gen ed classes. I’m talking about internships and shadowing and talking to people. Having job experience in the profession you think you want.

If you think you want to be a pharmacist, work as a pharmacy tech. Want to be a doctor? Take a job as a CNA. Interested in research? Work as a research scientist. Jumping to the next step to achieve a job you don’t understand just leads to unhappiness when your expectations are shattered.

This is the niche I think quit lit fills. As young people wake up to the reality that they are on the wrong track, they need to read stories about how other people answered the same questions. What should I be doing? How do I know? What can I do to make a living while making a difference? How can I make a transition? The job isn’t the hard part. Changing expectations, worrying about disappointing people, and most importantly, changing how you define yourself are the hard questions.

Until we spend more time developing a thoughtful, experience-based career plan, I think the quit lit genre is not only here to stay, but completely necessary to help the younger generation.

That awkward time between semesters

Its that time again. I have no teaching obligations and the days are wide open! And so then I feel overwhelmed with the extra time and find myself getting less done. I need some strategies to deal with this lack of motivation, because currently I am considering a forced vacation…

Of course, it definitely feels like the calm before the storm. I recently found out I would be teaching for the first half of the semester. While not out of the realm of possibility, I am frustrated that my boss didn’t tell me. Sometimes I envy the students that actually have real conversations with their bosses.

In any case, its back to the old to do list. I am really trying to come up with a way to back log a bit of experimental data so I can still have new information during a slow week. This idea is still floating around, I’m not sure its the right focus on what I want to do.

Ping pong. That’s how I feel, and gosh I need some focus before the summer semester takes off.

Why am I here?

As much as I may pretend otherwise, I am first and foremost a researcher. A thought crosses my mind, and off I go. I read constantly about everything. The internet gives me the power to learn a bit more about any information that is presented to me. The breadth of this information is crazy! I can find out so much about so many different things.

Of course, this isn’t anything new to anyone who lives in the here and now.

The tricky part is when there isn’t much written about whatever topic is being researched. Which leads us to the point of this blog. I have not always come across many blogs that deal with the personal things in which I am always interested. I maintain a rather large feedly account, and while there are some gems that discuss lots of relevant things, I can’t always find more than 3-5 perspectives on the issue of the moment.

And that’s the goal of this blog. I want to write about my experiences in graduate school as they happen, just in case I can provide something helpful to even one student that has the same concerns I do.

So some of the things I struggle with:

  • What am I going to do after graduate school? Should I just master out?
  • When should I think about having children?
  • Am I committed to having a science career?
  • How can I be a better mentor/teacher?
  • Are tunnel-vision interests really a problem?

Hopefully I can meet some people with similar challenges and they will share some tips. And maybe I can figure out the answers to some of these questions.

How to get past the expectation of logic?

We all have parents. Most of us idealized them at some point, and many people realized their parents were human at some point. The particular point of humanity, and all the associated flaws, is fairly challenging for me. I have a decent relationship with my father. Somehow I have managed to forgive him from some things he has done, and we have moved onward. I guess it was easy to forgive, because it was never directly related to me. It has also been easy because we look at the world in the same systematic way. I got my love of science from my dad.

My mother is a bigger challenge. There is nothing to forgive, simply different ways of looking at the world. Yesterday was mother’s day, and I found myself dreading calling. I was further turned off by the outpourings of Facebook and the indirect contest to see who could write the most heartwarming post about their mother. I saw friends commenting to other friends what great moms they were. All this serves to make me feel even more guilty that I am just not feeling so warm towards my mother. Guilt guilt guilt.

I imagine at this point, you’re trying to figure out what my mother did/does that is so frustrating. Its a lack of logical approach to life. She doesn’t think through things systematically. Its very hard for me to follow along with her train of thought and understand why she chooses to do certain things. She is incapable of explaining her thought process, which further complicates things. I find it especially frustrating because I want her to be happy, and from afar, I can see how she is preventing herself from being happy.

And none of this should matter. She is my mom and I appreciate the things she has done. I have been diligently thinking of ways to accept that my mother does things differently. I have been brainstorming ways to just skip along with her thought process without becoming crazy in my confusion. And someday hopefully I will succeed.

This ability to leave others to their own brand of logic is tricky to develop. There are certain people I have accepted that I cannot understand and I am ok with that. But not my mother. Maybe in my love for her, I am so focused on helping her I cannot just let her be herself. Whatever the reason, I need to love and let go.

Do you have any tips for reconciling your hopes for your loved ones with their illogical (to you) choices?