The light at the end of the tunnel
Dec11

The light at the end of the tunnel

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation. It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!! Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near! For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done! Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research). The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually… So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. For those who don’t know, I’ll be diving head first into a science writing career as soon as I graduate. I’m so glad I’ve found what I love, and the thought of waking up and doing my dream job every day (instead of squeezing it in on nights and weekends and wherever there’s extra time) makes me really excited. I’m already starting to plan for my next steps. I’m applying for another round of science writing internships, as well as the AAAS Mass Media Fellows Program, which gives a select group of science students the opportunity to work as a science journalist for a major media outlet over the summer. I’m also preparing my application for journalism school, since I’m toying with the idea of getting more formal journalism training before launching a full-blown science writing career. Some science writers say the formal...

Read More
Take what you can from where you are
Jul26

Take what you can from where you are

I'm back in the lab! I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!). It actually feels good to be back. Don't get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I'm still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn't involve working at the bench. But I'm excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong. A much-needed break The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained. The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little. Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer. While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I'm really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer! A new attitude As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I'm realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment. Formerly, I couldn't stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery. This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don't love. While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I'm becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin: There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones. That's the attitude I've decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research. It's been about a week, and so far, so good. To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I've put post-its around my desk. One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity. I've also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. I resolve to make the most...

Read More
Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job
Jun28

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share.  I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate.  Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it.  Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for.  In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are.  Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works.  Causes I am passionate about Activities that get me excited Work environments I thrive in My dream job(s) For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow.  Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you're passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in.  What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do.  Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it.  Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science?  A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing.  So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have...

Read More
The value of internships for non-traditional science careers
May11

The value of internships for non-traditional science careers

So I want to be a science writer. But I’m a grad student who has been working in a lab doing research for the past four years. Will I be qualified for a job in my non-traditional science career of choice when I graduate? How can I poise myself to be competitive and market myself as a science writer when the reality is that I’m a bench chemist who has been dabbling in writing here and there? Bingo. An internship. A real hands-on experience doing the work I want to do. An opportunity to make connections with people in the field. And last but not least, a little breather and some time away from the lab doing the job I can’t wait to do once I’m out of school. Since the time I started considering science writing as a future career, I have been connecting with science writers—learning about their career paths and asking for advice. I have gleaned all sorts of useful information through these “informational interviews.” Every science writer I’ve talked to seems to have taken a slightly different path to arrive at the same destination. But there was one piece of advice that nearly every science writer gave me: Take an internship. Internship— sounds great! Now just let me go ask my adviser for three months off. Many advisers, I believe, would not be thrilled. My adviser was supportive, perhaps hesitantly. But in the end he wanted me to do what I needed to do. So I applied for science writing internships earlier this year and I landed the science writing internship at a high-energy physics lab. I’ve been working full-time as a science writer for nearly a month now. And I LOVE it. I’m growing as a writer and reporter, I’m learning about all the awesome physics that the lab is up to and I’m exploring the world of web interfaces as I manage the daily news site. One particularly satisfying aspect of taking this internship has been that every day I wake up and my job is to be a science writer. No more late nights spent writing my stories after a long day in the lab (except for when I’m blogging for JAEP!). It’s awesome. I could easily spend the rest of this post gushing about how much I love my internship, and how awesome internships are, and how everyone should do them. But I decided to seek some input from other science writers and hear what they had to say on the topic. After all, everyone’s experience is different. And internships are really competitive—so I wanted to gather advice from different people...

Read More
A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing
Apr25

A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing

You may have been told at some point in your life that if you want to get a steady job in the future you should go into science, because that’s where the money is. With this line of thinking, Kelly Keating, who was just as interested in creative writing as she was science and math, opted for the “sure thing” in college and chose to major in chemistry. After a B.S., Ph.D., and several jobs that took her through academia, government and industry, she is now an Editor and Medical Writer for the Pharmaceutical Research Institute (PRI), a non-profit organization within the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY. Go figure, huh? While you couldn’t call Kelly’s path into medical writing “traditional”, I think all the twists and turns along the way make her story so interesting. And it turns out that it wasn’t a waste to have taken the long windy road to where she has ended up, because along the way she was picking up all kinds of skills, the transferrable kind I wrote about in my last post. Some people know what they want to do from the get-go and go after that. But most of us, I think, navigate and jump around from one thing to another until we figure out what we want. And that’s perfectly okay. So, as I was saying, Kelly’s story just goes to show that there’s no one way to break into a non-traditional science career. In a nutshell, here’s her career path leading up to medical writing: B.S. in chemistry (U.W. Madison, 1983) A few years of basic research Ph.D. in chemistry (U.C. Davis, 1991) Post-doc in NMR spectroscopy One year at small biotech company Visiting Scientist in an NMR group at a national lab NMR spectroscopist and lab manager for a larger pharmaceutical company Then, when she and her husband moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for his job, she started a freelance medical writing business and taught part-time at a local college. The toughest thing for Kelly initially was having no medical writing experience. It’s one of those Catch-22 things: you can’t get hired if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if you never get a job! By being willing to be flexible, Kelly got the experience she needed by doing some freelance grant and manuscript editing for the science departments at UIUC. When her husband received a great job opportunity in Albany, NY, they moved. Shortly after, she landed her current medical writing job. “And simply by luck the month we moved here the job I have...

Read More
The beauty of transferable skills: How grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path
Apr13

The beauty of transferable skills: How grad school prepares you for careers off the beaten path

Let's focus our attention now to one of the things I love about grad school. Believe it or not, I'm not all doom and gloom about all things grad school related. In fact, I would argue that there are far more things I enjoy and love (and will even miss!) about grad school than things I dislike about it. You may doubt me now, especially if you've read my previous posts on how I've fallen out of love with research and have lost interest in an academic career since coming to grad school. But stick with me, I want to prove you otherwise. One of the reasons why I'm almost certain I won't regret finishing my Ph.D. (despite the fact that I don't actually really need it to do what I want to do!) is this: I'm going to come away from this program after 5+ long years with so much more than those three coveted letters after my last name. I'll be taking along with me a boat-load of skills. Major skills. Mad skills, I might even say. No, I'm not talking about lab skills, like being able to align a laser, pipette with extreme accuracy, or isolate leukocytes from whole blood. (Those skills are far from useful when it comes to being a science writer, which is my non-traditional career of choice). I'm talking about the skills that were gained when you were faced head-on with challenges and didn't quit. When you went through ups and downs and wondered why you were subjecting yourself to such misery, and yet persevered. Diligence. Focus. The ability to fearlessly dive into new research areas, critically read journal articles, work on a team, and talk about science to a variety of audiences. Those skills that are transferable. Ahh, transferrrable skills. That's what this is all about. These skills are things that you may not realize you are acquiring day to day, but when you look back over a period of months and years, you realize that you've grown. (Has anyone else ever looked back and read their grad school personal statement from four years back and cringed? Umm, yeah, I've definitely grown as a writer!) I have to preface the rest of this post by saying that I wrote this as a charge to grad students, but really the principles extend to those scientists who work lab jobs and teaching jobs as well. I just chose to tailor this message to my fellow grad students, but for everyone else out there, I encourage you see beyond the specifics to the principles that may apply to your current situation. So, to all...

Read More