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.