Where we might boldly go

Today marks the 50 years since Star Trek made its television debut. For some, Star Trek is just another show. But for some of us, that fictional universe broadened our horizons.

My parents were just kids when Star Trek premiered. By the time I entered the world, the series had been off the air for more than a decade. But it lived on in re-runs and marathons. My dad would tune in as his schedule and religious observance allowed. That was my first connection to the series.

There was a fair bit of excitement in our household at the news of The Next Generation (TNG), the year that I started kindergarten. I couldn’t tell you what night it aired anymore, but I know that my family was there to watch each new episode.

Just as the original had captured my dad’s imagination, so did TNG irrevocably pull my brother and I into that universe. As we grew up, play between my older brother and I often took the form of away missions. Some time later, after we got our first computer, my brother took to writing screenplays. As portions were finished, my dad, brother, and I would huddle around the computer. We’d each take different characters, throw our voices, and read the scenes. I had my own fan-fic stories, though I kept them to myself mostly. I devoured books­, those written for my age group and those written for the adults. I crafted my salutatorian speech around the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

But Star Trek inspired more than just fantasies about space travels and aliens. It was kindling for scientific curiosity. Mine was not a household where textbooks lined the shelves or copies of scientific articles took over tables. But there were books about stars and planets and galaxies. I have little doubt that Star Trek, in no small part, drove a family interest in astronomy.

It certainly spurred my own interest in science. Beverly Crusher (the physician on Picard’s Enterprise) and Jadzia Dax (the intrepid science officer on Deep Space Nine) were brilliant characters, using data and scientific knowledge to solve mysteries. In middle school, we had an assignment to imagine what we might be as adults. The drawing was telling­–that future self was styled rather a lot like Crusher. I don’t recall what exactly I called the job, but it was certainly related to using science to improve medicine.

The truth is, at the time, I didn’t really grasp that such jobs actually existed, or that I might head down (though later leave) a path like that some day. In my view of reality, I envisioned that I would become a physician. That concept was accessible to me. Physicians lived and worked in my town. Scientists did not. None ever came to my schools to talk. Summer programs, when available, were geared toward becoming health professionals.

Yet I still carried that ember of scientific curiosity. In my mind’s eye, I think, science carried a bit of magic. It would carry us forward. In my mind’s eye, there was no reason to think that women would be any less likely to become (or remain) scientists. I really think that Star Trek had some role in that. Yes, Star Trek was fiction. Yes, even the science part of the fiction was ludicrous at times, maybe even often. But, for some of us, it sparked interests in the real thing.

There are many self-appointed guardians and antagonists of science fiction universes. There are those who set themselves up as the oracles who “know” what a story creator truly meant and who should be allowed in “their” temple. There are those who feel the need to establish what makes a True Sci-Fi FanTM. There are those who need to make it clear to everyone that some adored universe is ludicrous or not cool or completely out of step with the dominant social circle. There are those who have a sense of duty to tear into the fictionalized science for being too far removed from reality.

These worlds are not without their problems. When I watch Star Trek these days, I can see problems I didn’t years ago. It’s an imagined future that carries marks of the day. The science, philosophy, and society of Star Trek have their flaws. Nonetheless, that universe holds a special place in my heart. For some of us, it showed us a world where science had a central and visible role in solving problems. It helped create a subconscious view that gender wasn’t a barrier to what we could do or what we could become. It inspired us to boldly go where we might never have imagined before.

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(Not) finding the time

Needless to say, blogging has taken a back seat in my world over the last year or so. Why is that?

Well, it’s many things. First, it was adjusting to a new job outside in a new city. The relocation put me closer to my partner, so that now he and I are able to spend most weekends together. So my weekend time began to fill. During that first year, I was also trying to create consistency in fitness endeavors; it was something important to not just my physical health but my mental health as well. And speaking of, then I needed to take some time to work on mental health. There were seismic shifts in my personal and professional life in a short time, and I needed to address coinciding issues.

As I began to feel I was settling in, I began to feel I wanted to find some new way to contribute to communities I felt connected to. An opportunity presented itself, as I saw a call for applications for an editor-in-chief of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) newsletter. I decided to throw my hat in, and just over a year ago, I started volunteering in that capacity. Although it’s a quarterly publication, there are aspects I have to pursue and maintain in the intervening periods too.

Then there are the times I just have to turn my brain off. Or take care of laundry. Or check in with family. Or organize my space. Or…

As a blogger, I’ve never been great with posting consistency. Other things in life encroached on the time I used to put into this blog. The more recent spate came at a time when I also began re-examining what this blog should be about. I am no longer on the academic track. I’m not even a research scientist anymore. There are still experiences I want to share, that I hope someone out there will find useful. There are still many issues I care about, but the way I want to approach them – the way I need to approach them – has changed, and that approach takes more time.

I wish I could I commit more time to this space. And I know it’s more often about carving out time for the things I prioritize. So I’m going to try. I have some ideas and strategies. Now it’s a matter of implementation.

In the meantime, a few glimpses at some things I’ve been doing over the past year:

  • Finished a marathon, this time under 5 hours (barely but still)
  • Visited Paris – a week after the November attacks
  • Presented a poster at the AAAS Meeting
  • Attended the NPA Annual Meeting
  • Had a miserable half marathon (cold, wet, and slow)
  • Led a session at the ASBMB Graduate/Postdoc Professional Development Program
  • Broke 2 hours in half marathon for the first time
  • Caught up with old friends and colleagues on an impromptu trip to Boston
  • Slogged through our first ever trail half marathon – a beast that took more than double our best half marathon time
  • Took an 8-day vacation in Argentina
  • Plunged into training for the next marathon (about 3 months out)

What have you been up to, dear readers?

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Methods and missions

What do I want to do? 

It’s a question that we face time and again. At different times, it’s focused on different aspects of our lives and to different depths – from “What do I want to do for dinner?” to “What do I want to do with my life?”

How do you answer this question when it comes to your career? How do you decide what’s next or even what your long term vision for your career is?

In some ways, it’s simple. You want to apply some skill set toward a particular purpose. Your values – how you prioritize hours, pay, contribution to society, location, etc. – may draw you to or deter you from certain settings and job types. It condenses to a short equation:

skills + interests + purpose + values = dream job

On the surface, it’s deceptively simple. The inputs are four small words. Of course, if you’ve ever given more than a cursory thought to it, you know that defining each of those inputs requires considerable self-reflection. You may have to explore areas of uncertainty. You may have to confront and tear apart what you think you knew. Defining those inputs is not a task you knock out in a coffee break. And frankly I don’t think it’s a task we’re ever fully done with.

But you work on it. You make progress. You’re getting ideas about what things you’d like to do next. How do you translate them to engaging jobs and careers?

In my experience, very early in our careers, we tend to focus on the more practical or tangible elements. As grad students and postdocs, we turn our attention to what we can do, especially as we consider careers that will take us out of the lab. Many professional development workshops, talks, and articles are about how to translate projects into skills for building résumés that feature what we can do, not simply what we’ve accomplished. And this is important for identifying realistic targets and effectively connecting with them.

But there’s another key component that we sometimes neglect or lose sight of in the process.

Mission.

Mission is bundled in the purpose variable above. Mission is not only about what we want to do. It’s about why we want to do it. Mission isn’t about the tasks we’re good at. It’s about the broader impact we want to have in our communities.

When you make the decision to change the course of your career, it can feel much like you’re looking out into a vast, wild landscape with no clear paths anywhere. You know you have some tools in your pack. And so you think about what you can do with those tools. Maybe you have a machete, so you know you can hack your way through the brush. Maybe you picked up some rope, so you can make your way down some steep descents. You can make forward progress this way. But if you haven’t decided where you’re going, you may end up going where your tools can take you, rather than where you want to go.

Or, think of it another way. In the lab, you design experiments using methods at your disposal but also with particular objectives in mind. It could be validation, optimization, exploration, or hypothesis testing. But the experiment and objectives are part of a larger project that you’re working on. That project is part of a program, and that program is working towards a larger goal. Maybe it’s conserving the environment or developing new therapies for cancer. Whatever it is, though, that’s the mission. You don’t think of your experiments in that context every day. But when you sit down to write a proposal or paper, when you stand up to tell your community about your work, the mission is there. It’s how you get people to care about what you’re doing.

Work outside the lab is much the same. You get to define your mission. You need a mission to define direction, so that you can figure out where you want to go. And you need to be able to communicate that mission, so that others can help you get there. Knowing what skills you have is essential, but people want to know not just what you can do but why you want to do it.

Writing, social media, data analysis, visualization – those are skills, methods. Communication, research, policy, outreach, education – those are vehicles. Both are used in service of diverse purposes. Jobs and careers there are part of programs and organizational missions. Do those purposes and missions fit with yours? To answer that, you have to understand your own.

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Changing Course, Part 8: Looking to the next – not the last – step

Sorry for the long break, folks! Back to the broadcast…

Previously in Changing coursebiochembelle had arrived at some critical tasks and timelines for starting her transition to the world outside academic research. There was much to do – but where to start?

Lists can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they provide a clear view of what needs to be accomplished and reduce the cycle of things floating in and out of consciousness. They provide a focal point and free up some mental space. On the other hand, a long list of tasks can look daunting, and it can be tough to figure out where to start.

For me, contacting my PhD advisor, Larry, was a top priority. We had maintained periodic contact since I’d finished my work in his lab. I hoped he would provide a letter of reference for my fellowship applications. But he’d also been a great mentor, even after I’d left his lab, and I wanted him to hear about my career decision from me.

I drafted an email – updates on what was going on, an attempt at a brief summary of my decision, a request that he serve as a reference. I hit “send.” Within a few  minutes, I had a reply – an auto-reply that he was traveling and might be slower to reply to email.

Then a few hours later, he replied, “Let’s talk when I get back.”

A wave of anxiety hit. Did he think this was a bad idea? Would he try to talk me out of it? Would it make a difference?

Plans and contingencies

It was a week or so before we talked. I was apprehensive as I rang his office. We caught up quickly. Then I launched into my pitch – why I felt it was time to pursue a career beyond the bench, what I was interested in, how I’d arrived at this. When I finished, I think I may have literally been holding my breath.

I relaxed a bit as he responded. He understood that the academic path wasn’t everyone’s choice, and the current market presented additional challenges. He recognized that there were many directions that a scientist with a PhD could pursue.

Then, with a mix of encouragement and reality, Larry noted that the AAAS policy fellowships were competitive. What are your plans if you don’t get a fellowship?, he asked.

I was looking into policy fellowships with other organizations, I replied. I also intended to start applying for jobs in a few months. I realized stepping out of a postdoc and straight into a dream job was unlikely. So I was considering posts where I thought I might gain experience that would be useful for building my career beyond the bench, work I could envision doing for at least a couple of years – tech transfer, medical communications, technical writing…

As we talked, Larry said something that struck a chord: “At this point in your career, your next job isn’t going to be your last.”

Next, not last

I had understood this intuitively. I had talked about my next job vs my career path, recognizing that my next position would likely be a stepping stone out of academia. And yet there was something in those words.

…your next job isn’t going to be your last.

Thoughts began to crystallize, over the following days and week but even as we talked.

In academia, after finishing PhD and postdoc training, people can and regularly do spend their entire careers at one institution. Their titles change. Their research and teaching topics transform. Their responsibilities shift as they pick up and set down administrative roles. There are no doubt upswings and downturns and curveballs. But in many ways, the tenure-track faculty post seems to involve doing many of the same things, often at the same place, for years or decades.

We were talking about something different. We were talking stages and transitions. to explore, to build experience, to find direction, to expand networks. We were talking about taking a position with the expectation that I would likely move on after a year or two.

It was certainly not a novel concept. It was certainly part of the reality for many outside academia and outside the sciences. But after focusing on and being embedded in the academic research track for so long, it was a big change in thinking for me.

At one point, perhaps mere months before, the idea would have been nerve-wracking. But those words actually allayed some anxiety. The next step didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t have to commit the rest of my working life in the next job. If it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I could move on in relatively short order. It was a waypoint.

We continued talking a bit. Beyond the routes I was exploring already, industry could hold some positions of interest. Some trade organizations had divisions that focused on science policy. When we ended the call, I had a few more avenues and contacts to pursue.

Message vs. source

As trainees, we often presume that our academic advisors have little to contribute to discussions of careers beyond the tenure track. Sometimes it’s based on experience with them. Other times, it’s based more on assumptions – our own and others’. Although it’s true that faculty may not know the market we’re heading into or can’t coach us in getting the job we want, it doesn’t mean they have no value to add.

My conversation with my own PhD advisor was insightful. It reminded me of the networks academics build outside academia, through collaborations, consulting, and previous trainees. It also illustrated how a mentor can crystallize and strengthen important points that had perhaps been troublesome or amorphous before.

Very specific advice should likely be validated with those working in sectors of interest. But, as I found, conversations with academics can offer new ideas and insights into our own process. When we decide that academics can’t possibly offer any insight and thus we won’t even bother, we may do them a disservice and deprive ourselves of benefits. True mentors want us to find success in the endeavors we choose and can help us realize those goals, even if our objective is far removed from their own path.

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Changing course, Part 7: Moving forward

There’s this sense that, by the time you’re 30, you’ll have your life figured out. At least there was for me. It wasn’t really conscious, for the most part. It was just there.

I had just turned 31, and I was tossing the plan I’d been working toward for about the last six or seven years. I needed to build a new one.

The mechanics of planning seem simple enough from the outside. Explore options. Find an overlap of what you’re good at and what you think you’d enjoy (or at least tolerate) for some indefinite period to time. Develop/demonstrate skills as needed. Apply for jobs. Presto! You’re on your way!

Of course, the reality is very different. It takes time, energy, and occasionally money to explore and develop and apply. Often you have to manage this process on top of continuing your day job and whatever other responsibilities and interests you’re prosecuting.

All this can be overwhelming. But you know you have to start somewhere. Sometime.

Timeline

I knew I wanted to apply for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which placed deadlines and markers on my calendar. The application deadline was about six weeks away. There were three rounds in the process, and the start date for selected fellows was September 1, just less than a year away.

I also had to consider the possibility of rejection. These fellowships are prestigious and competitive. What would I do if I didn’t land the fellowship?

From chats with my PI, I knew my position was secure for about a year and half to two years.

I knew people who were searching for or had found jobs outside academia. For some, the process took a few months. For others, it had been a year or longer.

I knew I would be restricting my search to a couple of cities. I had no idea how abundant (or not) the jobs that interested me would be in those cities. And I didn’t want to be in a place of accepting a job primarily because my time as a postdoc had run out.

I set my timeline. It was now late September 2013. I wanted to be in my next position before the end of 2014. I decided that September 1 was a good target, whether I got a AAAS fellowship or not.

Tasks

I’d been thinking in terms of the “big picture” mostly. It had been necessary for finding some direction. But now that I had some general ideas, I needed to start making tangible progress.

I started thinking about things I could do and needed to do – beyond “Decide what to do with my life.” I needed clearly defined tasks that I could complete. I simply made a list as ideas popped in my head, and often as one idea came in, I could build off it.

Looking back, here were the things that landed on my list.

Making contact

It was time to call on my network.

I needed letters of reference for my fellowship apps. I wanted to talk to people who’d gone through the application process. I had questions about policy fellowships through other organizations. Of course, those inquiries would also give me an opportunity to let my contacts know I was changing paths and, in some cases, to learn more about the type of work I was interested in.

There were also contacts unrelated to fellowships – people who could tell me about their work outside academia, people who’d told me to get in touch whenever I was starting to look for a new job, and people who’d provided great support and feedback to me over the years.

Restructuring the CV

For several years, I had been working on refining a well-crafted CV – for academic research.

Now that I was heading off another direction, I needed to overhaul the CV – and likely try to convert it to a résumé for some applications. The focus needed to shift. Information that was less (or not) relevant for research could be beneficial now.

Once I had revamped my CV, I would need people – outside academia – to review it. And then I’d better plan on a few more rounds of restructuring and review.

Building up my experience

I had some work that I could point to as evidence of certain skills – organization, leadership, writing. But I knew that some corners of the market were very competitive. So I considered ways that I might further demonstrate skills relevant to the work I wanted to do. I knew of a couple of opportunities like a freelance editor opening or a good chance to pitch an article. I added those to the list and committed to keeping an eye out for other opportunities.

Defining my mission and my professional persona

I had been working this out in my own head. The vision was starting to come together. But I had to figure out how to communicate it to others. In other words, I needed a personal statement. Beyond the abstract exercise, I actually needed to craft personal statements for fellowship applications. And I knew this would also come to bear in cover letters.

Searching for jobs

It may seem counterintuitive to begin looking for positions before you’ve entirely sorted out what you’re planning to do. But I knew there were multiple options I would consider. And I knew that this could be a long process. So I wanted to get an “early” start setting up alerts, finding organizations, and using available resources to improve my search attempts.

Doing

After spending an afternoon asking myself tough questions, I was determined to make this career transition. I had generated this list of tasks. I had a timeline in mind. Now it was time to really get to work.

Some part of me wishes that I could tell you that I took an elegant approach. That I explicitly prioritized the list of tasks. That I sorted them into categories. That I had planning calendars and color-coded categories. That it was organized and efficient.

But no. I didn’t explicitly prioritize the list. But I knew at a glance which things were priorities and which were “great if I get to it.” I marked absolute deadlines (i.e. those defined by applications) on my calendar. I had vague ideas in my mind of when I’d start searching and applying.

I don’t necessarily recommend this on-the-fly approach. But I had a full plate. And obsessing over organization a tried-and-true procrastination tool.

I had made a clear decision. I knew what I was going after. I needed to be sure I didn’t get in my own way.

It might have been a pretty plan, but it was one I could work with.

To be continued…

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