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Category → things involving me

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

The final defense is the last hoop you have to jump through in grad school! Photo credit: flick user Palma Co Test.

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. Continue reading →

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

A New Year for new adventures! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ondrejk.

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. Continue reading →

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

Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:

Don’t be surprised when people give you a blank stare after you tell them about your nontraditional career plans. Photo credit: flickr user lungstruck

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.

Don’t be afraid to be different and pursue your passion, even if you’re going against the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user Ben Heine

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, too…

Jump in and discover what you love

Not sure which path is the right one for you? You’ll never know until you jump in and try it out. Photo credit: flickr user mswill5607

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.

Take a lesson from bacteria and “feel” your way toward a career you love. Photo credit: flickr user Emily RF

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 I loved curling up with a mug of hot cocoa and a science magazine feature story. But science journalism was also the option I felt least qualified for.

I worked up the guts to show up at the info session for the student newspaper on my campus. I sat in a room full undergrad journalism majors and wondered if I was crazy for being a chemistry grad student with no journalism experience wanting to write science news stories.

I also signed up for an introductory journalism course on my campus. This class taught me the basics of journalistic writing, which is totally different from academic writing.

Long-story short, I fell in love with science writing. By the end of 2010, I knew my passion was science communication and that I was made to be a science writer! Continue reading →

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:

Opportunity tweets but once. (Well, not counting retweets)

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 scored a couple of interviews for chemistry positions, I was ready. I was psyched, not scared. I was able to interview without appearing desperate or downtrodden.

Okay, now for the broader relevance part.

The one facet of my job search strategy that I intentionally omitted above was giving myself a break when necessary.

That’s right—cut yourself some slack once in a while. Photo credit: flickr user szlove

If you go at this 24/7, it’s easy to get burned out. In that fatigued frame of mind, it can be difficult to recognize opportunities and stay mentally engaged. Don’t forget to step away from the job search when you need to. And you will need to.

I don’t think it matters all that much what you do, within reason of course, as long as it makes you feel like you’re productive and making some sort of contribution, even towards your own edification.

You can do volunteer work, take a class, gain a certification—expanding the breadth of your transferable skills—to further (or change) your career. Do whatever makes you feel useful and that you’re advancing in some direction—even if you’re not completely sure what direction that is sometimes.

I think the key is in striving to keep an objective, open mind. If you can, avoid job search tunnel-vision. If an activity doesn’t appear directly related to your job search, it still might be well worth doing.

Yes, you need to find a job, but you’re only human. Breaking up your routine will help your mind stay clear. Searching for a job is a job. In any job, some time away every now and then is valuable and can improve your performance.

Many companies like to tout a focus on their employees’ “work-life balance.” When you’re unemployed, your work and your life can become almost inextricably intertwined. During your job search, you need to achieve some separation. If you can find something to do that gives you enjoyment, all the better.

So, if you’re dealing with the stresses of being unemployed, or feeling overworked while employed—please remember to give yourself a break now and then. You deserve it, and it will likely pay off.

And one more thing: Thanks, David. Thanks, Rachel. I owe you one.

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.

It sounds like a compliment...and it should be. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

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 not represented at the company.

Yummy knowledge! Save some for me! Photo credit: flickr user Christian Haugen

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Honestly, though, don’t most people’s jobs change over time? There are new developments in technology, best practices, knowledge within your discipline, business needs, what have you, that necessitate modifying some aspect of what you do. If you’re adamantly resistant to change, you’ll be left behind. Successful people aren’t usually like that, though. They have amassed their supply of deep, diverse experience because they want to learn all the time – that’s what has driven them from day one. They don’t wait for knowledge to be fed to them; they seek it out like it’s a special treat, and then devour it – nom nom nom nom. They evolve; curiosity and a hunger for knowledge feed their evolution. To behave otherwise invites negative consequences. The philosopher and writer of social commentary Eric Hoffer put it best: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  This preferred path of continuous learning will reap benefits whether you’re an experienced professional, a new chemistry graduate, or anywhere in between.

Okay, prospective employers, here’s my mission statement. While I’m in your employ, you will have my full attention. I will give my all and strive to grow in the position. All I ask is a chance to do what I do best every day. I will reward your courage with my efforts to contribute and make a difference. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

When Your Employer Wants to Break Off the Relationship

Last week, Christine posted a very heartfelt assessment of her struggle to continue on with graduate research although she has lost the fuzzy feelings she once had for it. She convincingly described her relationship with her graduate research project as being similar to one with a person, and how she felt she may be falling out of love with research.

Well, what if you’re on the receiving end? It occurred to me that what I and my (now former) colleagues have experienced is more akin to having someone, or rather, something, fall out of love with you. The situation was handled very professionally, and some of us have ended up in better roles (i.e., relationships) as a result. Yes, it’s business, not personal, but you can’t completely avoid the feeling that you’ve been dumped. Not the most positive emotional state to be in when you begin your job search. You need to let go of that, and quick. Don’t cry into your beer. (That’ll just dilute your beer. You’re a scientist, remember? Hello!) If it requires some sort of ritual ceremony to purge yourself of these negative feelings – do it.

It is here that I, much as Christine did, feel compelled to point out that this analogy in no way reflects my own relationship status. To illustrate, I will now go into game show contestant mode: “Hi Alex, I’d like to say hi to my beautiful wife of twenty-three years, and my two awesome children, my terrific son and my outstanding daughter, not to mention our three phenomenal cats. Hi everyone, I love you!!” There, I made nice.

Okay, I don’t know how valuable my advice might be currently, since I am still “in transition” and have yet to “land” in my next position, but I’m confident that it will all pay off in the end. So, here are things, drawn from various resources and my own thoughts, which keep me sane. Okay, sane-ish.

Continue reading →

Falling Out of Love With Research

I had a thought this morning. (Well actually I had lots of thoughts this morning, but one that I feel especially compelled to blog about). Being in grad school is a lot like being in a relationship.

This was me during my first year of grad school, with fuzzy feelings all over the place. Photo credit: flickr user henna 8084

When you first get to grad school, you join a lab, get a new project, and then there’s what I call the puppy love phase. Everything is so promising and bright. There are fuzzy feelings all over the place. You just feel so in love, so optimistic for what the future holds. Nothing could go wrong.

That was me three years ago. They (my fellow grad students) called me the “naïve optimist”, no joke.

Time passes. You realize that the technique you are developing which appeared so promising at first is actually chock-full of problems. You have to work to solve those problems. It takes a lot of time. Numerous failed attempts to fix things are spotted with few successes. You try everything you can think of to figure out a solution.

Now hear me out. Does this or does this not sound like the period in a relationship when you’re starting to fall out of love?

I have to interject at this point and just say that I am happily married to an amazing guy and that my description of how my relationship with my project is going through a rocky period in no way mirrors my relationship with my husband. I’m just saying that it’s like a relationship. Now that that’s all cleared up…

So you’re starting to fall out of love with your project. You get mad at it some days and don’t want to talk to it.

But then you realize that while you can try to just keep ignoring the problems, they’re not going to go away on their own. Sometimes the problems fester and get worse with time. But if you want the relationship, I mean the project, to work, you need to keep on trucking. You need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. Because if you don’t, your project is on the line, and the chances you’ll ever finish and escape with those three coveted letters after your last time– they get slimmer.

There comes a point in many relationships where you have to decide to either commit to working on the relationship, or call it quits. Same with research. Photo credit: flickr user I Support Miley<3 2.0

Your choices are: suck it up and keep trying, or walk away from everything you already invested so many years of your life working on.

Gosh, I feel like I could turn this into a daytime soap opera. I’ll call it: Days of our graduate school lives.

Here’s the thing though. I still love being in grad school. I love learning, I love being part of an intellectual community. I love communicating fascinating scientific concepts to people in a way that gets them excited and makes them want to learn more. Hence why I want to be a science writer.

I just don’t love research anymore. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve found a new love in science writing.

But I’ve just gotta keep on keepin’ on… and stay on speaking terms. Good communication is vital to any relationship.

Dear project, tell me what you need. Tell me what you want to be happy and I’ll do it because I care about you and I want you to succeed.

Gosh, now I’m talking to my project. This needs to stop.

But I know you know exactly what I’m talking about…