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.

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.

What’s my back up plan?

This morning on twitter I was reading this post by @Odysseyblog. They mention that many junior TT faculty are advised to have a back up plan. This post was supposed to make mid- and late-career folks think, but it caught my attention.

It makes me wonder about my back up plan. Of course, I need a primary plan first, but I thought I would brainstorm about some of my various back up plan ideas. Depending on the circumstances, some of these ‘back up plans’ become more primary.

Small liberal arts college professor- I could see myself teaching intro bio or chem and some biochemistry or special topics. I would enjoy seeing students develop.

Editor- I imagine myself helping writers clarify their message.

Consultant- This one is broad, but maybe some way to combine my scientific interests with my organizational/team skills.

Lab Manager- I am really drawn to organization and facilitating. Even though this job would be below my projected education level.

Community college lecturer- With lots of non-traditional students, CC give a large feeling of fulfillment when students learn.

High school chemistry/physics teacher- Again, student development and successes. I would definitely be more drawn to a private school, or somewhere science was valued.

Outreach director- I love communicating science with the lay person, so I could imagine some job where I designed programming.

Food for thought. I’m always looking for more ideas of things to investigate, so if you can think of any careers that might be tangential or even unrelated to this short list, leave a comment!

My version of the two-body problem

Luckily for me, this problem isn’t quite a problem just yet. Since my significant other and I are still both working on our PhDs. Unfortunately, this is very much on the horizon, as the boyfriend will be graduating this summer. And so I have been reading lots of articles about how other professionals deal with these challenges. And its pretty scary.

Growing up I was always told that I could do whatever I wanted to do. While I wouldn’t characterize my parents as extremely pro-equality they were almost secret feminists. My parents were clear that I shouldn’t let any boys get in the way of my attempts at world domination. And I didn’t even think of letting those pesky boys get in my way! Sure I dated guys and talked about dreams and forevers, but I never really seriously considered compromising my goals. Until this guy. Who is really perfect for me in every way.

Now I feel like I’m sitting on a balance where I need to decide me or family. And I hate that feeling. Its not fair that I should feel like I have to choose between 1) Following my career and climbing the ladder or 2)Focusing on my [someday] family. Now before you tell me to man up, I realize lots of people successfully manage this challenge. But they are often overworked and under appreciated (in some aspect of life) and struggling hard. I don’t see many stories that talk about a manageable amount of work life balance. And that makes me feel like I need to choose, because I don’t want to kill myself in the pursuit of science.

And so here we sit, with the significant other about to graduate and myself trying to decide where I want to be. He is very firm in his career goals. He wants to get back into industry and climb the ladder. Chief Scientific Officer is his goal. Shall I follow along like the good housewife (which I may or may not enjoy), search for an alternate career that will allow mobility to follow his job, or fiercely focus on my career and make the two body problem my success?