Thursday, June 30, 2016

5 years later, I succeeded

I defended my dissertation five years ago.

I have been thinking about this update for a long time, because I finally feel like there is a happy ending to this story. When I was struggling to find any type of job, I felt like a failure. I would second guess myself about doing a postdoc (which I skipped thinking it wouldn't help me get my career started). Even when I started working, I had incredibly mixed feelings about my work. I started in an entry level role, writing for high school students. I was embarrassed when people would find out I had a PhD, and mostly wanted to pretend I was just starting from scratch- just ignore the interminable education that no one can make sense of. I was impatient to succeed, to make it somewhere, to find my place, and be able to contribute in some meaningful way.

Comparing myself to my peers wasn't ideal, but I realized that if I had stayed on the academic track, I would have spent another five years before I got my first real job as a real professor. I promised myself that when I was 5 years out, I would be in much better shape, and this would all seem like just a bump in the road. At the very least, by the 5 year mark I might be able to name my career path. But it took my a year (a YEAR of interning, volunteering, freelancing, networking, and hustling) to find my first job. That job was fun, but I was not convinced I was cut out to be a writer. I thought I had impostor syndrome as a scientist? Ha! I cant spell, I know nothing about grammar, and I am supposed to making a living writing? Mercifully, I fell in with some good mentors and role models. I put the nervous energy about my career towards absorbing everything I could about writing for education.

A year after I got that first job, my contract expired. I got a new 1 year contract. That grant ran out, too. I was enjoying the hell out of my free time, and I was consistently making more than I would be as a post-doc. Maybe this is what most people feel like, you handle/cope with/pass the time at work, and then have a rocking real life? But I was tired of wondering if I would ever hit my stride, get a chance to settle in somewhere and make an impact. I worked with a career counselor to be more strategic about my next job hunt. My goal was to land a job that would last more than a year, and might even play to my strengths. I networked, I volunteered, I was hustling.

And it paid off. All of it. The people I met at my first job had landed at new company that was growing their team, and was doing technical training. The team is brilliant, and they were willing to hire me on to learn how to do my job. I am not bad at what they hired me to do (develop eLearning), and I have a smashing time doing things they didn't hire me to do. Next month I am giving two talks - one at a local academic meeting of process chemists, and one at a data visualization meetup.  I have two volunteer gigs I got through work helping education non-profits take advantage of their data. Its a wonderful marriage of both my education and my work experience. At 16 months, this is the longest I have ever worked in a professional job.

This job probably isn't as prestigious as being a professor, but its also not remotely as stressful as the tenure track or grant cycles. I get to learn about so many different things, and I haven't been bored since I started. My career has actually started, that I've developed relevant, employable skills that I enjoy using. Recently I have been giving informational interviews- people want to know how I got to where I am. Finally, after 5 years, that time feeling lost and anxious really does just looks like a bump in the road.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Welcome STEMinists

If you've come here because you have ready my profile on STEMinist, I'm glad you stopped by!  As you will see, I kept this blog primarily about my job hunt after graduating- and now that I have a job I've been pretty terrible at updating it. 

BUT if there is anything you'd like to know more about or people I might be able to connect you with I'm still monitoring the site and would be happy to chat with you more.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On feeling good about the job

As excited as I am to start my new job, I've had some mixed feelings about pursuing this route.  Working as a curriculum writer in career education doesn't require the exacting touch of a molecular biologist, or a PhD.  Like many people, I struggled with the idea that I might be "wasting" my education.  For a long time I was looking for jobs in industry because I wanted to believe all those years of hard work would pay off in form that I could predict.  But, the longer I looked, the more hurdles I put in my own way- I don't wanna be at the bench, I can't do sales or marketing, I'm over academia, I don't want to travel 50%... Whether or not I was aware of it, I was backing out of science.  There is something like a mourning process when you give up on your dreams- and eventhough I can't say it was My Dream to become some big deal scientist, it was certainly the path that I'd been fixated on for so long.

This transition might have felt easier if I had any certainty about where I'd go instead.  There were lots of options, but I was resistant to admit I was backing away from science, and equally unwilling to back away from science completely.  Maybe I could find work at the science center?  Or as a medical writer? Or something that would use my science in a way that I felt more comfortable with?  Does such a job exist?  And even though I had tons of misgivings about traditional careers in science, it was easy to be nitpicky about other careers as well.  Work at a non-profit?  The pay is terrible.  However, I felt like I was living with the pressure of using this PhD, and I tried to let that go. 

Over the spring, I recognized that I didn't have a hard time convincing people I should be able to write well.  This was part of my internship, part of my dissertation, part of my contract work, and something I was enjoying.  Fortunately or not, just being able to write doesn't paint a clear career path. Meanwhile I seemed to have a really hard time convincing anyone I would be a good scientist- there was always some technique or experience that I didn't have yet, like ADME or animals or even clinical trials. By this point, I felt desperate to work and figured I should reconcile myself to working outside of science. And contracting with this new client was going well.  I like the work- thinking about teaching- an awful lot more than teaching itself.  When I thought only about the job, I loved it, it felt like a great fit, but when I would think about keeping it for any period of time I felt guilty that I wasn't doing something in my field (whatever I believed that to be anymore).  Eventually I decided I'd rather be someone who "failed to be a scientist" than someone who "failed to get a job, ever."  I expect these feelings of guilt to pass.  I'm good at my job, and not everyone can do this type of work, which does make me feel like I am using my education and experience.

Even as I felt better about this transition stick, I started to have more criticisms of any potential employer.  Specifically, we create educational models for schools and teachers who can afford to buy them. Does this undermine the public school system?  Does it really help teachers and students?  Although I actually think we do more good than not, my client's work was in a flattering piece by Fox News, which certainly gave me pause. Is this work that I should do? This feeling surprised me a lot.  Finding a career that I felt comfortable with was one thing, now I was feeling skittish about actually taking a job?  After talking with some friends, I realized that there is usually some component of the work that seems.... not quite right.  I know someone who selflessly works at a food bank that buys their supplies from Walmart since they have the cheapest prices. A physician charges people for medical care, just because they lost the health lottery. I rationalized that even if I were working to cure cancer, I'd eventually wonder about the ethical sourcing of my suppliers (all those plastics come from China), the footprint of my lab, or whether my work was taking money from other more promising projects.  It's just the reality of the working world.  Like I said, I really do think that this type of work provides support for rather than undermining public schools.  Working with start-ups, I realized I preferred the honesty of admitting that "we have to make money to stay afloat" compared to the nebulous assessments that result in success for grant funded operations.

Really, for me the emotional journey had three major hurdles: the idea that I needed an Important Job because of the PhD, the idea that the PhD was a waste if I wasn't in science, and the idea that I needed to work (as a saint) for saints.  Getting over that has helped me find a job a like in a field that interests me.  I'm not using my "science" persay, but I got the job in part because I can learn and write very quickly.  The PhD wasn't a waste, and I expect in the long-run may allow me more upward mobility.

Monday, October 15, 2012

I got a job!

I've been waiting to write this blog post for longer than I've been blogging here.  It's a pretty big day!  I accepted my offer letter and am officially going to be a curriculum writer with one of my favorite clients! 

I've got lots of reasons to feel good about this (it's a job!), but I wanted to walk back through some of the key choices and experiences that helped me actually get into a position to take a job I'd never hear of in an industry that didn't exist when I entered school (Lo', those many years ago...).

I struggled a lot with the idea of really moving into a field that is very distant from my previous work.  The job (write a HS curriculum about vocational programs) is certainly not something I need a PhD to do, or a background in virology.  I'll write more about that struggle later, but there were some  things I did in grad school that did help me get this job.  And not just the "hard work and transferable skills" stuff.  I designed a course for undergrads that I taught one semester.  I enjoyed designing the course, but was petrified as an instructor.  That made me think I didn't want to get into education (one reason I hesitated to pursue this).  I also wrote a lot, and made an effort to develop that as a skill.  This was mostly just a couple manuscripts and a dissertation, but while I had colleagues who would rather die of papercuts that put words to paper, I enjoyed the process.  (Although I did totally hate parts of it too).  I hated revisions, so this made me think I was too sensitive to let writign be my primary skill.  By the time I left grad school, I knew I didn't want to be at the bench forever, and I was scared to teach or write.  Nifty.

The day I stopped working I started volunteering at the Carnegie Science Center.  I believed that I probably had some workplace competencies that etc.) my adviser would not be able to speak to (showing up to work on time, dressing appropriately, and I wanted some structure in my long, tedious days of job hunting.  This transformed into a much more responsible position that I had been able to predict, and I was able to (among other things), write and execute scalable demos (for 1-many students, and for all ages).  I did handle a small budget and some other project management skills, but developing demos was the key.

I made a HUGE effort to build up my LinkedIn profile.  I did everything anyone suggested there, including improving my profile to include all my skills and experience, not just my science background, and joined tons of groups.  One group I joined (Possibly a subgroup of Science Jobs- the Freelance group), someone asked for help writing some science lessons.  It didn't sound like anything I'd done before, but I wrote some letter with hubris that said I've got a PhD, I worked at the science center, I can totally smash you lessons.  This lead me to my first client, Words & Numbers.  Work there was sporadic, and after having tried plenty of other routes, I realized I had months of experience in this field (curriculum development), and there seemed to be a lot of off site opportunities.  While I was trying to amass more clients, I ran across an ad for a local company in this industry and applied- again with a letter I thought was ridiculous.  I've often that that I should amend this entry to say that as crazy as I thought the letter was, it was read, and I got the job- well, not the job I applied for but I was able to quit working at the bank to take on writing full time.

After working with them for several months, telling everyone there how much I enjoyed it and how interested I was in more work (and several contract renewals), I decided to take matters into my own hands and told the guy who hired me I was looking to apply to another job at the company.  This prompted a discussion about how I could continue to work with his team in a more permanent basis that VERY SLOWLY (I sent that first email in August) turned into a full time job offer.  Tada!

Obviously, I couldn't have predicted this combination of things, and a lot of the other stuff I was doing prepared me to respond well to what turned out to be the key opportunities.  A few things turned out to be help for me.  I never got good at 'leveraging contacts' to open doors to invisible job opportunities.  I did met loads of folks who gladly shared information about their careers, but I decided that the easiest way to impress someone was by doing the job- that's why I volunteered and took contracts.  And that did give me a chance to impress the people who gave me my job.  And of course, I work for a company that makes online curricula for credit recovery and educational development.  5 years ago the publishing industry wasn't prepared for ebooks, and now there are any number of companies making mixed media learning tools.  It's just not a job I could have gotten prepared for by any traditional route. 

I promise at least one more write up on the internal components of getting and taking this job as well. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's negotiable?

Lately, I've been trying to learn a bit about negotiation.  Specifically, what is negotiable at the start of a job.  I have a general sense that the starting salary is, but I don't know how I would ask for that.  I've also heard plenty of internet blabber that Everything Is Negotiable.  But at the very least, no one is going to want to sit down with the new hire and negotiate every little dumb detail about the job before they are clear you are pretty much onboard.  So I surveyed some friends and colleagues to see what is common to expect from a professional job, and what/how to ask for other things.

Basically, everyone said you should negotiate your salary, and this was across the spectrum of "Take'em for all their worth!" to "it never hurts to ask."  What was interesting to me what what was suggested as things to factor into this number.  A friend said, you have to get out of "Ohmigosh, I'll do anything to work for you!" sucker mode, and move quickly into, "My skills are valuable, and valued at X price."  But really, if you think of yourself, your potential, you as The Whole Package, it can be hard to distill all that into one number, especially when it's hard to gather objective evidence about your market value.

Several people (with enough work histories I am inclined to believe them) said vacation, health insurance and retirement aren't usually negotiable.  But I need to find out about them so I can adjust the required salary accordingly. Terrible health plan?  I'm going to need extra cash to make up for the fact that your competitors would include this in my package.  Several people recommended I look at and to be sure that the number was in the range for the position, and use this as the start point to add extra salary on to.

As for these other things, what can a professional still expect these days? Healthcare is a yes.  Hopefully details of the plan can be made available before just accepting that "Health Plan" = "Good."  There should be a 401K, with matching, most people said matching at 5% was standard (still), although it may take time to vest.  I heard 3-4 weeks of paid vacation.  I find that odd, since my husband only gets 2 weeks of "vacation time'" but he also gets another 10 days of holidays during the year.  I suppose it all works out.  The idea is, if an offer is lacking in any of these things, you ask for more salary to make up for it (since that makes for good leverage).  No one addressed how to respond if these were all above average- probably thank your lucky stars and keep your mouth shut.

I also asked about other things like parking, bus pass, gym membership and other random perks.  Most people said it's ok to ask for and about those things, but I should wait until the salary number is already lined up.  When the question of salary is still on the table, it seems like you might walk.  And it would be weird to turn down a job because you had to get your own bus pass, right?  Or worse, if you are fussing about the parking, you are cool with the crappy salary number, right? You often have more leverage for those little things at that point.  By the time an employer has gone through the HR hoopla to get you that far, they are keenly aware of how much they want you and need to make you happy to get you. Of course, if it was generally considered that these perks were valued by employees and available, they might think to mention it during the hiring process.  That being said, the corporate goon who hires me might not be aware of how amazingly liberating I think it is to work flex time, so I will ask rather than assume someone will tell me about this nonsense. If I have learned anything in looking for a job, it is that what is important to me as a job-hunter is not what is important to a potential employer.

And then tactics.  With luck, the employer will make the first offer, which gives you a number to start from.  Countering with 5-10% more (and valid, sound reasoning), seems pretty much expected.  Since I am terrible with arithmetic under pressure, I would make a table of annual and monthly salary numbers to compare with.  I also heard that it is ok to take day to think about it- do your due diligence, and prepare a thoughtful counter offer.  (Seriously? That's allowed??)  And the valid, sound reasoning for your counter offer should include other offers, previous salary, the accepted salary for the industry etc., not so much personal budget issues (I've got this HUGE mortgage).

That's what I've learned so far about negotiations.  This seems like a pretty key moment to have a spine and stick up for yourself, which isn't a good time to decide you dont't need one.  I should probably practice this stuff.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Blogging Professionally: Interview with Chemjobber

One of the things that I have realized while job hunting is that there are plenty of ways to do important, professional things that aren't paid, which means I have a lot more choice about participating.  One model that I really look up to is Chemjobber.  Chemjobber is a blogger who writes about jobs and the job market for chemists.  Chemjobber follows the movements of the American Chemical Society, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and various commentary by science writers on this theme.  It's all very thoughtful stuff, and the blog attracts equally thoughtful commentary and readership.  You don't have to spend much time there (or be a Chemist) to feel like this provides an important place for a community to discuss the under-discussed issue of chemist unemployment and under-employment.

And Chemjobber? He's not paid to maintain this blog, he does it because he wants to.  And actually, that got me curious.  So I asked if he would be willing to talk to me about it: why blog? And of course, he was glad to. I was SO pumped about this conversation before and after so I wanted to share here.

Chemjobber is a really nice guy, the kind of guy who would dedicate hours a week to writing about the issue of employment even though he actually has a job. He sees average chemists struggling, and a lack of dialog about that issue and uses the power of his blog and pseudonym to address it. By blogging, he can collect resources, add to (or start) the dialog and be a fact-checker for other writers.  All this helps get thoughts in order, it allows for ideas to be shared with a critical audience, and sometimes it's even a service.

When asked if it's worth it, he told me that as a scientist he has learned to take his wins very narrowly.  He's been able to connect a few people with jobs, or be an ear for someone navigating some career mystery, and that seems equally, if not more important than being quoted by famous bloggers, or even print journalists.  For him, connecting people with information and elevating a dialogue about the very scary struggle of the average chemist is important.  Worth dedicating time away from his family for.

To be honest, I probably could have guessed most of that about Chemjobber, although I was surprised to learn that he didn't choose to write about this issue because he had experienced unemployment.  Seriously, he just writes about it because it seems important for the community. He's just that kind of guy.

I also wanted to know about the pseudonym, and not just the funny story about how he picked it (someone should make him explain it).  Does a pseudonym protect you?  Give you different freedoms?  He sighed when I asked about this, and said a pseudonym is never better that writing with your own name.  Instead, he uses it to divide this hobby (blogging) from his work.  This is a little surprising, he rarely mentions his work on the blog, and he told me few people at work know he is Chemjobber.  People often don't trust the pseudonym (and this is a good rule of thumb). When he has been contacted by reporters, they can't credit him as a source.  And I think that is part of the reason he maintains the strict difference- the journalist will site Dr. Jobber, chemist at ChemCo, and that isn't really who he represents as a blogger.  Even though we may never fully understand the motivations of the pseudonym, it seems to provide the space for Chemjobber the blogger to be thoughtful, critical and objective (and prolific) in a way that he might not if he thought his employer might read it.

And this got us into the subject of blogging generally.  Chemjobber had lots of thoughts about how to develop a following and encourage discussion with a generally positive community. (Hints: Write lots, and don't pick fights.)  Using a specific mission statement, there seems to be an unending amount of content, but he hasn't seriously discussed women in chemistry or immigration and jobs.  He's found the chemistry community to be dominated by other thoughtful, objectively critical folks who make the dialogues much more engaging (and man, I wish people left such great comments on my blog- seriously, go look at some of that stuff). We talked about how there isn't a similar blog covering the issue for Biologists, or even all of STEM.

My purpose in my own blog so far has been simply to document what I am doing, it's very autobiographical.  I thought it would help me to collect my thoughts on my job hunt, and possibly provide a record for me to share with others, and it certainly has done both.  But I'm coming to a point where I might not need to blog about job hunting anymore.  Would I blog about looking for clients or contracting? Could I do that in a meaningful way, or would I have stumbled on a topic even less likely to spark discussion?  As Chemjobber told me, "It's not nice to write about people on the internet" and I don't want to be whining about my editors or clients. I like blogging, but I think this iteration may have run it's course.  Do I shut it down?  Change course?  Talking with Chemjobber certainly got me thinking about using my blog as a forum to discuss the science policy issues I am interested in.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Work and Life and Balance

In the desperate throws of job hunting, I found it really hard to consider work-life balance.  I mean, you need a work life to have that problem, right?  But endless hours surfing the web and lining up interviews with strangers made me realize that neither of these activities makes me appear like the thoughtful, bright and engaged person I want to be as a professional.  I don't like having deadlines and to-do lists hanging over my head, but I'm a lot better at dealing with those things when I have taken some time to collect myself.

Working from home moves the work life-balance into a much starker contrast.  Aside from being in a position to micromanage every single aspect of my career (Which client is worth spending the time to impress?  Who is more likely to send me lucrative contracts in the future?), I'm also faced with the immediate consequences of those choices.  I literally get to choose: should I continue working or go do something fun with my spouse? 

However, being able to micromanage my work-life (I tend to have a pretty good idea of how long it should take me to write certain documents, so I can work on various projects for a set amount of time) I also notice when I'm not as sharp as I need to be.  It's been illuminating to notice that when I start working too many hours, or working on too many different things during the day (there is an energy cost to switching tasks, perhaps?) I'm way less productive.  The work I produce takes longer and often isn't as good.  It's tempting to just say, "I can't write at my best when I am busy! I have so many things going on!"  But I'm a professional.  I get paid to produce decent (not Pulitzer prize winning) writing.  My editors don't really care that I have a lot of other things on my plate right now, I've committed to producing things for them. 

It's been refreshing to realize that, for me, at this time, work-life balance means that I have to limit the amount I work so that I can be better at the work I do. Seriously, I have to go do something fun, with other people, and make sure my home is dealt with (I am no domestic goddess, but the absence of clean clothes and dishes is distracting), or I can't work at my best. I'm sure this was true in grad school as well, but I wasn't attuned to it in the same way. That internal sense of dysfunction just seemed like part of the sacrifice I was making for my career, not that I was failing to be my best. It's liberating to get away from the guilt of "not working enough;" having a social life contributes in a meaningful way to my ability to do my job and advance,  it's not a distraction.

I still have occasional fits of "there might still be work to do" panic, but for the most part, it's getting easier to clock out when that time of the day arrives when I remember that I need to.