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.



Blogger autumn said...

Hey Amy!

I kind of feel like you do in regard to wondering what to do next and to what extent others feel the way that I do, but got to that place in a different way.

My mom actually encouraged me to stay in school longer (I was thinking of getting an MFA in Jewelry & Metals in addition to the BS and MA in Art Ed that I already have), but I declined, kind of anxious to get in the "real world" and see what "real people" do.

I always loved school and felt quite comfortable just doing my own thing and drinking coffee at midnight to pull all-nighters, but at that point (end of my Master's) it was almost like I knew that the "jig was up" and I had to make myself move on before an outside force could kick me out on my ass [from school]. Like I had already gotten away with so much freedom as a student that I needed to get a job to try and grow up. (Plus, I couldn't imagine trying to take on any more debt.)

Now I can't believe that it's been 3(!) years since I've been in an academic environment, and it almost feels as though college never happened. (It doesn't help that I moved back to my childhood home with my parents..) I haven't really settled into an actual "career" yet, and am still confused as to how it all seems so easy for others to figure things out.

It's been scary sometimes, like when I was laid off from my first "real" job and spent my 6 months of unemployment applying for dozens and dozens of positions, only to never hear back from most of them.

And it was kind of depressing when I got a "whatever" job after that and realized that the other people there were actually going to be "life-ers" instead of just using the job to earn a few bucks.

But overall I think that I, personally, needed to see all of these aspects of "real life." Because otherwise I just wouldn't get it.

I remember really being caught up in my own head and really only caring about myself and my own schedule when I was in college. It was a very selfish time, and that was okay considering my age, circumstances, etc. People expect you to be a little selfish while in school. They understand if you're broke and don't get mad if you forget to send a birthday card.

Once you're out, though, the expectations slowly start to roll in. Which isn't necessarily bad, but I think ideally one should be able to balance the narcissism that comes with being a student with taking care of everyday-life-type-things.

I think that if I choose to go to school again, I'll be better able to achieve that balance since I've had a break from it all. Yes, academia does feel a bit foreign to me, but I'm not too worried since I know that I can get back into it at any time. Like it will always be waiting for me like a beloved family dog when I get home from work.

On the other hand, experiencing what I did and hopping between a few jobs is something that you can only really do when you're young (at least I think... you know, before you get a family and a mortgage, etc.) So I don't mind having that chance to experiment with living arrangements and jobs, etc.

I guess it sounds like an opposite mind set from that of trying to get all possible schooling out of the way before trying to move on with the career, home, etc. But I got tired of waiting for my "real life" to begin.

Obviously you can tell by my convoluted response that still don't have things all figured out. But hopefully you can extract some useful data from my reply.

Anyway, CONGRATULATIONS and good luck!

Love, Autumn

9:10 PM, June 08, 2011  

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