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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