Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense
Apr02

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed! This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet. It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes. And then… you’re done. Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D. Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful. But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done. Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. My labmates have become my good friends—we have so much fun together both inside and outside the lab. My adviser is a down-to-earth person who has been supportive of my nontraditional career plans. Not all labs are as friendly, and not all advisers are as encouraging and supportive, to say the least. And perhaps most importantly, my project has cooperated with me. Even after I fell out of love with my research, we were able to maintain a good working relationship. So, what’s next? That’s the question of the hour! The good news is that I’ve been offered a fellowship for a 12-month Masters in journalism program at the University of Illinois. This is fantastic because I wasn’t really interested in taking out loans to get a degree that I don’t necessarily need to be a science writer. But, what can I say, I’m a sucker for getting paid to go to school! And I think I’ll have a lot of fun developing my skills as a reporter and writer. There are core classes that every student...

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2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures
Jan09

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation. But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma. While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet. It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally! But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss. I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years. It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Despite all that, I’m more excited than scared. I’m looking forward to an adventure-filled 2012. I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I am all about making a list of goals and dreams I hope to see fulfilled in the next year. Those two things may sound the same, but they don’t to me. It feels much less restrictive and more freeing to say, “Here are my dreams for the New Year” instead of, “Here are my New Year’s resolutions,” so that’s what I go with. Here’s what I dream of accomplishing in the New Year: Be intentional and patient with myself as I grow as a reporter and a writer. As a child, I remember getting frustrated with myself when I saw older kids doing stuff I just wasn’t old enough to know how to do—like write in cursive, do algebra or ride without training wheels. Sometimes I feel that way as a writer. I look around and see what other writers, who have 20 years of experience, are doing, and wonder why I’m not out there doing that. But that’s silly. And I know it is, but for some reason that’s how I’ve always approached life. In my frustration, I...

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You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world
Aug11

You want to do what? Explaining your nontraditional career to the world

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this: So, what did you study in college? Chemistry. Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying? Chemistry. Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.? Become a writer. (Blank stare).  Hmm… how does that work? At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand. I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this. I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path. I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in. Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing. Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry. I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college. That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start… I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little,...

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Jump in and discover what you love
Jul20

Jump in and discover what you love

A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are. But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are. I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship— it helps to know who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner. It’s okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love. But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for. Mostly, you’ve got to just jump in and start trying different things. I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career: I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine. Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion. Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn’t convinced it was my passion. Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths. To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters. I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like. I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless. I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since...

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Chance favors only the prepared (and clear) mind
Jul05

Chance favors only the prepared (and clear) mind

Last week, there was a terrific post here by Christine on the value of looking deep inside yourself to find what you truly love to do. This caught the notice of David Kroll, fellow blogger on Terra Sigillata here at CENtral Science. There’s a connection here that’s relevant to me, and how I was able to keep my brain engaged while seeking my next position which I landed a few weeks ago. Please bear with me as I explain, as I think there’s a shred of relevance here for anyone who’s currently unemployed. My unemployment began in early January of this year. During my job search, I knew I needed to stay active mentally and physically, be focused, and expand my network. Part of my strategy regarding networking was to use social media, including Twitter. I had an account for over a year, but tweeted seldom, with brilliant witticisms such as “Got new tires for my car today.” It’s a wonder my relatives followed me, let alone anyone else. I got into it more seriously this time around, looking to establish a consistent personal brand, as advised by the social media mavens and jargonistas. I started following science-y folks, including science bloggers, like David Kroll. Then, on February 3rd, I saw this: I answered each bit internally: Hey you! Who, me? Job-seeking in non-traditional chemistry careers? Why, yes, it so happens that I am, if you must pry. Wanna blog with some killer writers? I’m not sure. Sounds dangerous. What or whom did they kill? Oh, wait, I get it. My answer is, um…..yes? Contact @rachelpep http://bit.ly/eeRKOv <click> I checked out the link. I became better acquainted with this blog and the rest of CENtral Science. (Confession: I had visited the blogs here before. Once. I hereby throw myself upon the mercy of the court.) I really enjoyed reading the past posts by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. There was a lot of useful info that really hit home—and funny at the same time. This sounds challenging and fun, I thought. What the heck, give it a shot! So I did, and, well, here I am. I could have dismissed this opportunity out of hand. But in it I saw a chance to get out of my comfort zone and keep my brain active. And, hey, you never know where things will lead. Okay, this blogging opportunity didn’t directly lead to me securing my current position. But I have no doubt it made a difference. It definitely helped me keep a positive frame of mind. I was getting feedback, getting to meet new people, talk science—all good stuff. So, when I...

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Making a Case for the Overqualified
Apr06

Making a Case for the Overqualified

You think I’m qualified for the job? I’m delighted you think so! When do I start? What’s that? You said overqualified? Really, now, that’s quite a compliment. You’re making me blush. I’m sorry – am I missing something? You say “overqualified” like it’s a bad thing. Oh…I see. I’ll just show myself out, then. In my current combined job search and self-discovery vision quest, I’ve been met on different fronts with the recurring theme that a wealth of experience may, in fact, be a detriment. There is no shortage of “expert” advice, online or otherwise, suggesting that you should hide or neglect to mention years of education and/or employment. If your light is too bright  or its spectrum contains too many wavelengths for the position, hide it under the nearest bushel. Okay, honestly, I do get it – target your resume and cover letter toward a specific position. Focus I understand. However, I can’t completely evade the feeling that this gamesmanship of playing hide-and-seek and cherry-picking facts seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. It’s somewhat against the grain of how one is trained to think as a scientist. Even if one hasn’t been met with this particular o-word per se, it lies not too far beneath concerns that are more openly stated. Prospective employers are worried that so-called overqualified candidates might jump ship at the first opportunity for a better position elsewhere. They’re concerned that after going through the interview process, they won’t be able to seal the deal because their budget can’t meet the candidate’s salary requirements. They fear their new hire may soon be bored. This sort of thinking is, well, a bit risk-averse, shall we say. A recent post by Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a case for taking such a risk. A challenge is posed: “When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don’t just focus on the current needs, but on the future.” So, will the final hiring decision for the position you desire be made by such a visionary leader? Does the future lurch and loom darkly before them, or will they embrace the challenges ahead? I think it’s safe to say that most people would prefer to work for someone in the latter category. A perceived benefit for a hiring manager to adopt this mindset is driven home: “Hiring overqualified candidates can help you achieve much higher productivity, grow, and achieve opportunities that you may not even be thinking about pursuing right now.” There are other less obvious benefits too: these employees can mentor others, challenge peers to exceed current expectations, and bring in areas of expertise that are...

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