Changing Course, Part 9: Making meaning of deadlines

The last year and a half haven’t been very active for the blog, as my “free” time shifted to other things like editing an association newsletter. But I miss writing, taking some thoughts out of my head and putting them into words, so I’m trying to reclaim some time for that. A while back, I started writing about changing course from being a research-focused postdoc to being… well, something else. You know the ending (I got a job, which I’ve now been in for 3 years), but this is about the experience of getting there. After the slow realization that I didn’t want to become a PI anymore, I had to decide just what I did want to do and how I would get there. My postdoc adviser—who’d been supportive of postdocs pursuing the career path they chose—was taken aback by my consideration of a career outside academia. So I approached a call with my PhD adviser with some trepidation—and instead found a receptive ear and some valuable advice. And that’s where I last left you…

Sometimes deadlines are just dates when things need to get done to avoid negative outcomes. Submit this form so you can keep getting paid. Send in your payment so you don’t get fined. Those are just part of the background. Other deadlines mean something more intangible, even though you may not realize it at the moment.

Earlier in this process, a deadline I kept missing prompted me, in part, to really re-evaluate what I wanted to do. My postdoc adviser and I had a plan for me to write a career development award proposal. There were 3 cycles per year, 3 possible deadlines to aim for. Yet I just couldn’t seem to get started on the proposal. I’d fiddle with some specific aims, but I was making no headway on the core of it. Some of this was related to my mental/emotional state. Marital dissolution stress and some accompanying anxiety and depression were not conducive to deep focus and thinking. But as the cycle of prepping for a deadline and missing a deadline continued, I realized that the deadlines I met might be telling me something about my priorities. Writing a proposal that could be the next step in my academic research career was looking like it wasn’t one of those them.

Those missed deadlines, in part, prompted me to take an inventory, which started the process of changing the direction of my course. Another deadline helped me along in a different way.

I’ve talked about this before, but one thing that immediately captured my interest was science policy. The deadline for a major policy fellowship was just a few months away. Unlike the research career development award that had multiple deadlines, the policy fellowship. If I didn’t get an application together quickly, then I’d either be taking the fellowship off the table as an option or putting my career plans on hold for a year. I wasn’t prepared to do either.

So I got to work. I had clear tasks that needed to get done for the fellowship application. With a hard deadline, I couldn’t just leave it to whenever I “found” the time. I had to be sure I was protecting time to get those things done.

On the surface, a fellowship application might seem like a niche output with little relevance to anything else. But the core element of the policy fellowship application was the personal statement. This statement was meant to capture the essence of what you wanted to do, both during the fellowship and in the long term, and to outline what you brought to the table. I’d been thinking in broad terms and keeping an open mind. But this forced me to articulate, with some degree of specificity, what I saw in my future and how my past experiences were logically leading me there. The application also called for restructuring my CV.

The policy fellowship deadline kick started tangible actions. When I submitted the applications, I had an arc for narrative and a CV that was starting to look more like a resume. As I’d planned, in the weeks after submitting the fellowship applications, I started dipping my toe into the job application process. Without that proximal deadline, it would have taken me considerably longer to get that ball rolling.

Deadlines took on two valuable meanings for me in this transition process. One deadline missed served as a cue that I needed re-evaluate my career goals. Another deadline met served as a catalyst for moving forward in my career change.

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