Thursday, June 30, 2011

Grow Up and Blow Away

With my student track rapidly running out, it seem I can't avoid that age old question: "what do you want to be when you grow up?" When I was little, my response was "a pay-lady"--what I called cashiers. Pushing all those buttons at the cash register! Getting to take people's money! Seeing what everyone bought and getting to talk to them! It seemed so thrilling.
As I got a bit older, and the novelty of pressing buttons gradually wore off, my goals shifted. I can't remember having any other well-defined profession in mind, though. I mostly just pursued whatever interested me. So here I am, after a long road in school and science, in grad school. It can be easy to look back on your life path and impose some grand plan. We like to see order, even when it isn't completely there. (I've done this plenty of times in application essays, explaining all of my research experiences and education as if they were clearly motivated from a desire to achieve my current goal.) I've had inklings of bigger plans and interim goals, sure. But if I'm honest, much of my education and extra-curricular pursuits have been more motivated by what I was interested in at the moment than by a bigger "dream".
I did enter grad school with the idea of staying in academia. Though it was definitely more of a general notion than a well thought-out plan. I think it may have also been because it was the obvious path. It's what grad students do, I thought. I was never really fully aware of other options for people interested in science/research. I also only had vague notions of what academic science was like. As much as people like to pretend undergrad research experiences prepare people for graduate school and beyond, it's just not true. It's not something you can really understand until you've steeped yourself in it.
I have steeped. And I'm not convinced I want to stay in the water. As I mentioned in my previous post, the past few months or so have left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth with regards to academia. (I think I'll save those rants for another day.) I'm not completely soured, yet. But I'm concerned enough to realize that I really need to stop and finally think about my career path. I finally need to answer that question I've been avoiding since the age of 5. Are my current reservations about academia just passing resentment about some negative situations? Or is there something better out there for me?
That thought is overwhelming. Feeling like I have potential and options is simultaneously exciting and stressful. Particularly since making life decisions is not my strongest suit. I've been trying to narrow down the field a bit to make things less daunting. But that seems to require answering an exploding list of even harder questions: What are my best skills, and what do I enjoy doing the most? Do I want to be the big-shot, workaholic; or do I want a job that let's me have a real life outside of work? Am I driven more by passion/interest, or do I need my work to have a broader impact on society? Do I want to live in a particular place/area? etc. etc. And what of these qualities are a priority?
Sheesh, who knew being an "adult" would be so hard?
I've been seeking out as many career seminars as I can over these last few months, trying to get a sense of what other jobs are out there and what they're like. Slowly attempting to collect data and fill in some of the many many blanks. Some of the most consistent advice I've heard is to use internship and fellowship programs to explore. That seems reasonable, and it's something I'm seriously considering. Try different things, gain new experiences, and hone in on the ideal career. Shuffling around for a while could also take advantage of my relative freedom now, before I go and become a real adult with a family.
But in the back of my mind, I worry I'll just use internships to further put off answering The Question. But maybe that's ok for a while? I can delay being a real grown-up for a bit, right?

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Monday, June 06, 2011

I've come too far, and I don't want to fail

"Don't you hate that feeling like you suddenly have to pee when someone pokes in your belly button?"

Mostly likely you don't. Because almost everyone I've ever mentioned this to has stared at me like I'm a little bit bonkers. It took me a while catch on to the fact that not everyone experiences things the same way as me. That people are fundamentally different in everything from their basic physical perceptions to their motivations and goals. It took frequent iterations of "Isn't it funny/weird/great how ___?" statements yielding blank stares for it to start to sink in.

I still default to the assumption others feel/think similarly to me. It's the easiest option. But I seem to learn the most about myself and how I really feel when I discover that assumption is wrong. One of the best examples of this is my love of academic pursuits. I was an egg-head from the womb. As a kid, I think I never fully separated enjoying school from my abilities. I was good at it, and I liked that. It took seeing others who were also good at school, but would rather apply their talents in other ways, for me to realize that I didn't just like getting the gold star. I liked the whole process. My mind was blown when I heard people in college saying they couldn't wait to get out of school and move on to "the real world" and careers.

So naturally, I just kept going; High school to undergrad, to grad school. My parents call me the "professional student". And I've often operated under the idea that I could be that. Just keep going to school forever. If you've ever done an experiment-driven Ph.D., it feels like you will be there forever. Equipment constantly breaks, there are always better/more controls, there are always new ways to analyze the data, and even "finished" experiments usually generate more questions than they answer. It's a great way to get lost inside your own little Never-Ending Story.

Then suddenly* my advisor called me in to his office and started talking about me graduating and asking what I wanted to do next. What? There is an end to this thing? And it's soon? I always knew that my Ph.D. would end eventually. I had even tried thinking about the future and career options on occasion. But there is a big difference between "someday" and "in a year". I'm starting to run out of the clear-cut career-preparation (read: student) path, and heading straight for a point when I have to make some decisions.

I had always planned on a career in academia. If I had to be a real adult and have a real job, at least do something that's as close to being a professional student as possible. I could get paid to think. It seemed perfect. But as seems very common, some less than ideal experiences with the nitty-gritty details of doing research for a living have left me a bit disillusioned with the academic lifestyle. I've also developed new skills, and learned that my talents might actually have interesting applications outside of school--a somewhat crazy idea to me. I'm also having trouble telling what is just a bad aftertaste from my current research burn-out and what are genuine feelings and goals.

So I have come here. In the next few weeks, I hope to use this space to explore some of my thoughts on science, academia, and careers in general. It is probably going to be pretty self-indulgent. (But, then again, that's part of what blogs are for, right?) But it seems crucial for me to try to get input from others. Maybe I need outside thoughts in the mix to figure this out; to burst my self-generated bubble and get a sense of what I really want via comparison. I need perspective on other people's career paths, and what it might mean to not be a student anymore. Basically, I need to be reminded yet again that not everyone feels like they have to pee when you poke their belly button.

*well, not so suddenly. I have been working on my Ph.D. for four years, after all. But as many Ph.D.s and grad students know, finishing a graduate degree is typically not a clear-cut "you filled requirements X, Y, Z so you can graduate." It is a discussion you have with your advisor, motivated by career goals, current projects in the lab, etc. So it can sneak up on you sometimes.


Monday, July 28, 2008

Where's Your Head At?

I just got back from a 2-week stint in L.A. for a UCLA summer course on neuroimaging. The class wasn't exactly what I was expecting, and ultimately wasn't that useful for me. But, surprisingly, that wasn't the most disappointing aspect of my trip. This short change of pace managed to put me in my place; it reminded me that, no matter how much I may enjoy visiting new places, extensive travel is probably not my forte.

I've been struggling with chronic tension headaches for not quite a decade now. After a sizable string of doctors and many different medications, I was effectively put on "pain management"--otherwise known as "we can't fix it". I eventually stopped seeing doctors, and stopped medication completely. And for the last 5 or so years, things have been very managable. I've figured out the patterns that trigger my headaches, and on the whole am pain-free.

Unfortunately, avoiding headaches seems to require that I live something like a 60 year old: regular meals around the same time each day, a pretty constant sleep schedule. I have to get in a routine and stay there. Any significant or sudden change, and I could be in for a rough couple of days. If I want to catch up on sleep on the weekend, for instance, I wake-up with what I refer to as a Sleep Hangover.

From the usual day-to-day, this is fine. I know my body, and don't feel particularly limited. Traveling is an entirely different thing. While staying at UCLA, I was at the mercy of the program. They set my schedule. Turns out, the schedule they picked (and switching schedules) was a recipe for headaches. I haven't had headaches this bad and persistent in a very long time.

I really enjoy traveling, and experiencing all that a place has to offer. But, I saw very little of LA. Some of that was because it's just so time-consuming to get around without a car. But mostly, I just never felt like exploring. After a full day of lectures, and an ever-growing headache, I just wanted to watch tv in my room. I can generally push through my headaches. (After 9-odd years, you kind of have to.) But these two weeks really kicked me to the curb. The transition back home doesn't seem to be much better, either.

I'm not particularly upset about this flare-up, but the reality of how tightly I have to regulate my schedule is a bit disheartening. I'd like to be able to be spontaneous, to be able to travel and not worry about when I can get to bed and when all of my meals will be. I'd like to live, well, like the 20-something I am.

Maybe this trip was an unusual circumstance; maybe it was the smog. I sure hope so, because there are a lot of places I'd like to visit--without an extra large bottle of Ibuprofen in tow.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

It's All Gonna Break

As I've mentioned, I recently found myself in need of a new iPod. I waited about a month, and though I did realize that life was indeed possible without a portable personal soundtrack, I also saw that my addiction to DJing my way through commutes and studying was going to die hard. Very hard.

So, I took a trip to the Apple store this weekend and treated myself to a sparkly new iPod classic. Apple is nearly synonymous with sleekness, stylishness, simplicity, and functionality. The stores are refreshingly bare-bones--clear glass everywhere, products clearly displayed on counters with any essential information about them nearby. Their packaging couldn't get much sleeker. (I actually asked the clerk if the necessary cords were included because the iPod box is so small, it didn't seem like everything could fit inside.) Their "Genius Bar" helpdesk is, in my experience, a well-oiled machine getting complaining and befuddled customers in and out quickly. Et cetera, et cetera.

It seemed to me that Apple really had everything figured out. At least when it comes to running a retail store.

But, as it turns out, they have a very amusing Achilles' heel: checks. Approaching the check-out counter, my sales person asked "Cash or card?". I hesitated for a moment, and questioningly replied "...check?". He seemed a bit surprised, but agreed. He then proceeded to 1) have to switch computers, 2) ask co-workers for help on how to process checks, which none of them seemed entirely sure about, 3) stay on the phone asking for approval for at least 10 minutes. All in all, my picking out the iPod and accessories took about half the time it did to buy them, and I'd caused a pretty sizable back up in the check-out line.

I didn't have anywhere to be, so I didn't care about the wait. I just giggled, realizing that I unknowingly managed to throw a wrench into the gears of The Great Jobs-mobile.


Sunday, June 08, 2008

Dancing in the Streets

I enjoy living in a city. The crowds and expense can get a bit overwhelming at times--especially for someone like myself who grew up in the rural Mid-West--but, the museums, amazing restaurants, boutiques, so on and so forth, win me over.

While I don't like crowds much, I am a huge fan of the unique amalgamation of people in cities. Explorations in San Francisco nearly always result in at least one hilarious and/or awesome interaction with a stranger.

Case in point:
Today, while waiting for the bus, Matt and I saw something nearly too good to be true. A man on a motorcycle, dressed to the nines in tough-guy-looking leather and helmet, pulls up to the intersection and stops at the traffic light. As he drives by, I hear vague pop music playing but can't tell where its coming from or identify the song. As Mr. Motorcycle is waiting for a green light, I realize that the music (very loud now that the rumble of the bike has stopped) is coming from his motorcycle's stereo. Then, I recognize the song--The Spice Girls hit "Say You'll Be There." He proceeded to dance and jive as he waited.

He quickly sped off, engine roaring, once the light changed, and left Matt and I laughing and smiling in his dust. Amazing.


Sunday, June 01, 2008

I Turn My Camera On

I've been slowly exploring more of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Slowly only because my classes and research this past semester kept me quite busy. When I had free time, I just wanted to watch my latest Netflix movie and pass-out on the couch. Which is a shame, really, because I enjoy this area when I finally come out of hermit-mode.

With exams over, I'm back to my more active self. So, I have some pictures. Most of them are older, actually. I just never uploaded them--another example of my recluse tendencies under stress.

I went with some friends to Santa Cruz and Carmel during spring break:

A boat on some random pier

The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. A bit touristy for my tastes, but people watching here was fun.

The waterfront in Carmel, California. If I'm somehow very wealthy when I retire, this could very well be where I end up.

An overly twee, but very delicious candy store in Carmel.

Matt and I also finally walked across the Golden Gate Bridge:

I wish I could credit great my great photo skills for this shot looking like it belongs on a postcard. But really, it's just hard to take bad pictures of somewhere like this.

The bridge really is an impressive structure.

Looking back on San Francisco from the bridge.

A few random shots:

One-Way Colour Tunnel by Olafur Eliasson at SFMOMA. I saw his full exhibit there this winter and meant to write a post about it, but never got around to it. Maybe this summer.

My and Matt's favorite local coffee shop, Farley's.

More pictures at my Flickr account.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Music Always

Yesterday was a tragic day. The end of an era, so to speak. My iPod of nearly 4 years has passed. There had been signs of impending doom for a while now—skipping songs more frequently, restarting itself at random, steadily reducing battery life, occasional freezing, and even cases of full-blown amnesia—so I wasn’t shocked that it happened. But it all seems so sudden. It was working just fine, and then it froze. After restarting, it made some weird grumbling and grunting-type sounds, and then the display showed the link for iPod support and a hilarious yet sad picture of an iPod with x’s for eyes and a frown. I think it’s time to finally put the poor thing down.

I suppose I can’t complain too much. Most people I know who bought one of the early generations of iPod (mine was a 2nd generation) have long since abandoned them for various reasons. Four years is a very long time for most any hand-held electronic to last.

I’m sure I’ll be buying a new one soon. I’ve been eyeing them for a while now that they have increased the memory so significantly. I filled my 20 gigs up a long time ago, and have to shuffle music around whenever I wanted to add things to my iPod. The color screens and video are also a plus, though I’m mostly just interested in the music. Plus, I supposedly get a small discount if I turn-in what remains of my old one to Apple.

But this interim where I’m without a music player is making me very aware of how much I rely on it. I’m writing this during my commute to lab. I didn’t feel like doing anything intellectually intensive, and if I had my iPod I would probably be listening to music and zoning out. But I don’t, and spacing out without my own personal soundtrack doesn’t seem to work. I can already tell that my long commutes to Berkeley could get excruciating. I also have to plan my working-out schedule around the TV. I’d never get through biking or the elliptical without music and with nothing good to watch.

I’m a bit ashamed of myself and how dependent I’ve become. It’s also clear how spoiled these entertainment-at-your-fingertips tools have made me. I can’t entertain myself anymore? Hmm. Maybe I should wait a little while to buy my new iPod.