Friday, June 29, 2012

Vignettes from my semi professional life

Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive after my last post, it really means a lot. It can be a little hard to explain the ups and downs of my life as a job hunter/contractor. I do still feel quite lost, but I am trying to enjoy the journey. Today felt like one of those significant days on the journey.  I'm not sure how to respond to any of it, so I will just throw it out there.

Some things that happened today:

I woke up early to finish part of a writing contract.  Have I mentioned I am really digging my current instructional design contract?  I promise to write more on that later, but yeah, it's going really well.

I was at the Hutch to interview a scientist about her job in academic administration.  Very cool job, and she is a very interesting lady.  I will be writing that up for the Seattle AWIS newsletter- I promise to link to that later.

While entering the Hutch, I was passed by a professorially looking type.  While I was filling out the visitor info, I noticed he approached a group of people centered around a young woman who was OmiGushing that she was soexcited, and sohappy, and so couldn't believe this was happening.  I figured she must have defended or something.  I wasn't paying too much attention until one of the photographers turned and said, "We'd love to get a picture of the two of you by your Nobel Prize."  Why hello, Dr. Hartwell.

After the interview, I agreed to meet a contact for lunch in South Lake Union- this is the part of Seattle where most of the biotech and research institutes are centered, and it sits right on the lake.  I was stunned to find myself sitting in a much too nice restaurant overlooking a marina and watching the float planes.  This was a "what am I doing here?" moment.  Turns out, this guy wanted my advice (MY advice) on this STEM program he is thinking about, and how it should be developed and what are the needs there.  And he bought me that fancy lunch for the privilege of my opinion.  Someone was schmoozing me!

I'm submitting an invoice for the most money I have ever made in a single two week period in my entire life.  That's right, my time and effort are valuable. 

As I said, it feels like a lot has happened.  I learned about a whole new avenue for careers, I've decided I'm actually really loving my current line of work, I miss being starstruck by famous nerds, and somehow, despite spending all week at home in my PJs, people find my opinions and my work valuable.  Huh.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Happy Birthday to my Ph.D.

I've been dreading writing this post.  Today marks 1 year since I defended my Ph.D., 1 year since I started introducing myself as "Dr. Sandlin" (I'm kidding, I never do that).  It's been a year since the idea of finishing grad school stopped being abstract.  A year ago today, I gathered all my favorite people around and enjoyed a fantastic party to celebrate all the hard work and good friends that got me to the magnificent point of potential that is graduation day.  I remember thinking that nothing could ever be as hard as graduate school was.

Confession: I did not love my dissertation project with my whole heart and soul.  It was a good project, and it was important work, and it gave me some great training opportunities, but I had not always dreamed of being a polyomavirus researcher.  As a result of my work, the world has not responded with a greater need for polyomavirologists.  So I always knew that what I was doing would be confined to my graduate school experience and that I needed to find some other way to make something of my career.  I wanted to be able to transition away smoothly, and look back confidently and say "I was right, I didn't need a post-doc to do what I wanted to do."

This marks a big day for me.  I don't have a real job yet.  I don't know what I want to do with my career, and I don't know if it will be possible to do in Seattle, even though I knew I would have this problem.  That sucks.

On the one hand, it's been a good year.  I've done a lot of things I couldn't have done if I hadn't gone to graduate school (Scientist in Residence at the Carnegie Science Center, STEM panelist, instructional design, and I get to meet people all the time).  Sometimes I hate living in the shadow of this degree, but it has helped me open doors for myself.  And I get to live in Washington, where my family and friends are (not the ones I went to grad school with-but they'll all be moved in another year or so anyway).

On the other hand, this isn't what I wanted for myself.  I freelance because it's a kind of work I can do that helps pay the bills, not because it's what I aspire to do.  After a year of looking for my dream job, it's about time to get real, and just get a real job.  To me, this doesn't mean finding a post-doc, it means settling into some non-dream career path with full-time work and waiting for the economy to turn around.  I guess it's time to admit that my aspirations are getting in the way of having any form of success.  I met someone at the UW who is looking for a virologist to help their drug discovery project.  It's not a post-doc position, it's a scientist job and I applied.

So what else have I learned?  I've tried lots of things- that's what the blog was meant to cover.  Not all these experiments have panned out.  Blogging has not made me some important voice for my peers, but it has given me a nice outlet for some of these ideas.  The same for Twitter.  I'm generally too embarrassed to tell people I meet in person about either, so it's hard to connect these to my real life.  Volunteering and interning have felt useful, but neither has led to job offers.  I didn't want to become the blogger for the struggles of the underemployed PhD.  It's time to think a bit more about how some of these activities fit into my ultimate goal of being employed, and how to best use my energy to get there.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Transition story

I have been thinking quite a bit about my transition story, especially in the context of story telling.  As a blogger, I can tell stories as long and convoluted as I like, but as a job hunter I need to get this baby tamed into one tweet.  So I got to thinking about stories and how they are told.  Following a comment from the previous transition post,  I did a little research on the basic elements of a story.  A story has a character- usually a protagonist, and a challenge.  A good story has a beginning a middle and an end.  And for a short story, that is probably all I can get in there. 

At the start of my story was me, before I started graduate school.  I can go back and read my admission essay (gawdawful) and senior seminar writing assignments to remember what I was thinking about then.  What I wanted then was rather vaguely to "help people" and "change the world."  I went to graduate school because I knew that science provides the tools to that, and because I thought that I could explore what I meant by "change the world."  I never really WANTED to be a professor, but at the time, the idea of getting dragged into academia seemed inevitable and not that bad. Unlike 4 years at a liberal arts college, graduate school is not meant to be a journey of self discovery, so I never really got to the bottom of that question. 

But, I did learn several things about myself that lead me to believe I am not well suited for academia or a bench position.  I'm very much a big picture person. I need to finish things, by which I mean I like short time frames and dynamic content.  I like working with a team.  I enjoy writing.  I'm not ready for the responsibility of being in charge of other people.  Grant funding scares me.  I am happiest when I am working on several different things- like assays for two different stories, running a journal club and creating career workshops for grad students.  I get bored easily. When my experiments don't work, I feel like a terrible human being. In the context of my story, all this needs to get distilled down into something more pointed that leads me in a new direction.

And this is the part of the story I am struggling with.  In my perfect transition story, I would know where the story ends.  You know, "I went to graduate school because I thought that was the best way to cure cancer, but I have a bigger impact on how people with cancer are treated as an FDA regulator."  Or "Graduate school appealed to me because I thought I could have an impact on people's lives, but I found that teaching had a more direct and fulfilling impact."  The story I was using for a while was "I wanted to go to graduate school because science solves complex problems.  Some of the most complex problems we have right now are in policy, and I think I can bring science to bear on those problems."  This story oversimplified my interest in living in the same time zone as my family, and the challenge of a two-body problem.  While most of the story has slipped away, I now tell people that "I moved to Seattle over the winter, and I am committed to finding a way to make my career here."  That's not where my story ends, but it is where I got stuck telling it.

My view of my own career has taken a lot of collateral damage over the last year- I just don't believe that I am going to find a track to jump on and find smooth sailing until retirement.  I also don't believe that what I do next is going to be tied to what I was doing before.  For better or worse, this means I expect to pick a story, see where it gets me, and maybe write a new one in a couple more years.  I'm not quite ready to decide where my story is today, but I am closing in on a version that might look something like this.
I went to graduate school because I have always thought deeply about my own education. Rather than teaching in just one classroom, I want to bring the same kind of passion that propelled me to be a successful student of science to a wide range of students, which I why I am an instructional designer.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Editing manuscripts

I've got a contract to substantially edit a manuscript this weekend that, um, is in serious need of my services.  I'm also trying to deal with comments from my own manuscript that will be celebrating a birthday along with my PhD soon.  Honestly, dealing with the revisions of my own paper makes me feel like a terrible scientist.  Looking for old files lost in what passed as my 'organizational system,' and trying to find ways to respond to very reasonable reviewers comments is really stressing me out.  Trying to navigate this all with my old adviser and our ever growing team of collaborators just feels messier and messier as we go through each resubmission. I just got an email from him that said, "Check submission 4, we used a different supplemental figure 4 there."  Oh. Uh.  Right. I can't keep this straight because, seriously, if I believed that publishing this paper would improve my career prospects, it would have torn me to bits months ago. 

This is why editing someone else's manuscript right now is fantastic.  Their manuscript is pretty rough.  The manuscript came with comments from two previous submission- one in 2006, one in 2008.  Both said the language needs help, but also such silly comments as, "it wasn't clear until halfway through the paper that there would be two drugs tested" and "You need to include the IRB approval" and my favorite "Please discuss the limitations of this study."  I'm not very far into this paper, but I suspect the experiments were well done.  They have just not been presented well at all.  And if THESE people can publish their paper, with it's outdated references and scattered presentation, I've got a shot for sure. I often feel like I must be the worst scientist ever.  Being an editor means I get to see other people's work before it is polished, I get to see the weakness and struggles they have, and it's nice to know others go through that too.

My manuscript is, in the scheme of things, probably pretty close to publication.  I'm looking forward to being done with it because I feel like I never really finished grad school while this keeps coming back into my life.  I'm completely resigned to the fact that it won't change my prospects at all.  Other, more interesting papers have come out in the last year.  And much more importantly, I'm able to get paid to do stuff that has nothing to do with small molecule inhibitors of polyomaviruses.  I'd like to talk more about this later, but I'm pretty sure I am not going to be employed to continue my grad work or anything like it.  So finishing it up would be a HUGE relief.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interview with a Former Molecular Biologist

This networking thing is still a real challenge for me.  I'm working hard to introduce myself in terms of where I am going (I'm a freelance editor and I work in instructional design) instead of where I was (I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology).  When you start with the second one and then say, "I am looking for a job," you get a look that says 'how smart do you think you are?' and someone suggests you get a job at a University.  'Uh, I had one of those,' and I usually get too flustered trying to explain why after 10 years at the bench I would walk away form that, instead of focusing on what I am doing to develop better communication skills.  I had this problem again at a networking event for Women in Science that was part of the Seattle Science Festival recently.  It was a great mix of people in outreach (ALL the museums were there), trainees and working professionals.  One of the people I met there introduced herself as a "Former Molecular Biologist."  Fortunately, she agreed to meet with me after the event and tell me a bit about that path.

She realized in graduate school she wasn't going to stay at the bench, and ended up working at Science Magazine.  Some of her experiences won't be relevant to the current job market, but she understood that.  For example, she said that science writing these days is possible to break into, but it can be a bit dicey to make a living at it.  Places like Wired Blogs or SciAm blogs make it easier to have a voice, but they don't cut big checks.  From there she transitioned into her current position as a usability expert at Philips.  They design new products, and she helps engineers make them impossible to use incorrectly.  We actually talked very little about her current job, although I'm curious about it now.

What we talked about instead what how to make that first step away from the bench.  She is fortunately very well connected to many people who had moved away from bench science at various career stages, and had a lot to say about what worked well for them.  Her biggest piece of advice was to create a transition story for yourself.  A good story can save you from that flustered babbling in and scenario.  And I need a story that shuts the door on a career as a scientist.  Not burn the bridge, just make it clear that I am going somewhere else now.  These days I feel like grad school is a bit of a black hole- I just can't move beyond the clutches of having a Ph.D. and the trappings of an academic career path. 

In her case, she enjoyed the challenge of research, but wanted much more human interaction.  She had a friend who was often in an organizational role in lab, and moved from a post-doc to an Operational position.  Her partner took a couple classes in bioinformatics and enjoyed the computation, and ended up in a support role a tech company.  See how that works?  And no one  says to them, "but your dissertation work seemed so promising..."

So how does the transition story come together?  She suggested I go back to what motivated me to go to grad school in the first place, because that probably hasn't fundamentally changed.  Then think about where I want to go, and weave the story so that my transition to this new place I am going (that suits my motivations and values) is inevitable.  In her case, she loved the process of solving problems, but found bench work was too small scale for her.  Helping teams catch and solve problems is much more inline with her interests and abilities.  She said most people have had a transition of some sort, and if you tell the story with optimism, they can identify with it.

What does this mean for me?  I'm still working on my own transition story.  More on that as it develops.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Perks of working from home

There are parts of all jobs that suck.  I think finding a job where the parts that do suck are manageable is really important to finding career happiness.  For me, part of that is recognizing the parts that don't suck.  I don't love working from home- spending so much time with my cat makes me feel like a crazy cat lady.  But taking editing contracts for foreign scientists and writing curricula from home are the jobs I keep getting. I used to have really fun coworkers and went to work in a very interesting neighborhood and I'd like to have all that again (but get paid more to work less).  Until that job comes to my door, there are some really great things about working from home.

1) I set my own hours.  Even working on an hourly contract, I just put the hours in where they fit for me.  Today is too beautiful and I gotta take a long walk?  Fine.  My sweetie is gone for the evening, I'll put some hours in.
2) No commute.  I quickly realized that my 20 hr a week bank job takes at least 25 hours of my week, including a 30 min drive on both ends.  No commute give me that time back for whatever I feel like.
3) No dress code.  Yeah, I am one of those freelancers that works in my PJs.  At least until I feel like a mid-morning shower.  For the bank job, it takes me almost an hour to go through the ritual of showering, and putting on make-up, and getting dressed, and packing a lunch.... Add another 5 hours a week to that 20 hour a week job.
4) No workplace drama.  Yes, I miss my coworkers, in no small part because it's good to have a cohort you can share those stressful experiences with.  Can you believe the department chair did that?  Who took the last of the free seminar food? As another off-site worker told me, "There is no one at the office that I don't like."
5) I set the play list.  My old lab had the best taste in music, don't get me wrong.  But sometimes when we would turn the music up too loud the department chair would just turn off our radio.  As I was blasting some sweet tunes this morning, I was relishing that no one was going to turn them off for me.
6) Contracts are low commitment.  All that phobia about what might suck about a job (terrible coworkers, awful work, tedious tasks) seems more manageable when it's only for a few days or a few weeks.  It also means I've done a lot of different things in the last year.
7) All I need to work is an internet connection.  I could work from Starbucks, or the library.  I'm currently planning to go to my parent's house for a week and work there.  My client doesn't care- they just want to see the work done.  (I have mixed feelings about combining working and vacations- it makes work more fun, but it is much less like a vacation when you are looking for 40 hours to get some work done).
8)  I'm at my house.  I don't live in a super trendy neighborhood with fun shops and restaurants, but my office is the same place I cook, it's where my garden is, it's where my mail gets delivered and I sign for packages.  We need to schedule a repair guy, no big.  I want to get some laundry started, cool, I'll take a break.  Especially for a dual career family, it's nice to have someone who is/can be at home.
9) Time worked = Dollars earned.  Science is frustrating because hard work is not always tied to success.  For a pretty simple definition of success (financial reward), I just put in the time and out comes the money.  It's easier to feel detached about doing the work when you get the pay-off that way.
10) I like to talk to editors by email.  I'm not sure if it's because editors make their money from writing, or they understand that our relationship is based predominantly on written communication, but they clearly go out of their way to be polite and professional.  When you see your coworkers/collaborators all the time, it's ok to send brief, unfriendly emails "Here's the figure you wanted."  It's hard to interpret that as passive-aggressive if you just shared a laugh over coffee.  My editors don't have that luxury, and they seem to put a lot of context into their email. ("Great questions," "I appreciate you asking about that...," "Thanks for pointing out those problems.")  I always found it hard to take criticism in person, even though that is a big part of professional work.  "The figure is unintelligible.  Please make it better by doing the following...."  It's a lot easier to write the email that says, "Great, I will incorporate those suggestions," than to try and say it while not pulling a face.
11) My editors understand the challenge of being a contractor.  They treat me like I am doing them a real favor to be on their team, and try to make all the other stuff (getting paid, understanding the task, understanding deadlines and expectations) as clear as possible so that the only hard part of the job is the job itself.  Of course, this just shows I am working with some really great editors right now.
12) I enjoy this work.  At the moment, I don't have any single employer to fill my time, I am compiling most of my work from a variety of sources.  Basically, I get to find projects I like and work on them.  I can't say every one has been as much fun as a pony ride, but I also can't think of any that have been as miserable as a day in the cold room that ended in colossal failure. 
13) Comparatively, I can make a lot of money (compared to doing the same work in grad school).  I make money now for editing scientific manuscripts and designing courses.  These are activities that I actually would have scheduled to do outside of my normal working hours as a grad student.  In fact, the course I designed and taught as a grad students occurred almost exclusively outside the normal work day.  I'm currently editing a 6 page paper for 354RMB (or about $50), and working on a contract with a pay rate of $45/hour.  All this for work I would have done outside of my real work.  Nice!
14) This job doesn't have things I disliked about other jobs.  Examples include brutal protocols that needed to be repeated ad nauseum, and then rehashed in yet another painful lab meeting.  Or irate customers.  Or fickle equipment that is prone to failure.  Actually, I would say that I like how much more of this job is in my control compared to being a grad student or working at the bank.

Yes, I am giving myself a pep-talk about how much fun I'm having at this job, but in the interest of fairness (and for the benefit of others who might be wondering about the lifestyle), there are some fundamental ways that being a contract laborer is different (and arguably less ideal).  The downside:
1) It's all me.  I find my own contracts, I set my own hours, if the work doesn't get done, it's my bad. No pressure.  And when the contracts as short, it's hard not to feel like each on is an interview to see if they consider giving you another. 
2) I'm a LOT more involved in my own taxes.  I have a small business license to cover this work, which means that I pay business taxes.  I also have no withholdings in my paychecks- so what seems like a lot of money now is going to feel like a lot less come April.  I am also buying my own health insurance and retirement plan.
3) Invoicing feels much more tedious than just filling out an hours sheet, or better yet, being salaried.  The form takes a little more time to fill out, but it takes some of my clients 45 days to cut me a check.  That's a big lag between doing work and getting paid.  This is annoying for me, but manageable because I don't provide the primary income at our house.  If I did, I'm not sure I could swing this career step.
This list of perks is still much longer, and looking over them, we can say that I like to be in control of my day to day.  Interesting insight.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Interview with a Medical Writer

At an AWIS event recently, I met a woman who is a Medical Writer.  That is one of the jobs that I am told people with a Ph.D. can do, but given my non-medical background, I wanted to know more.  She generously agreed to tell me more about the position: how she got it, what it's like and why it's great.

First, a quick background on her; she has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and realized towards the end of her time in graduate school that she didn't want to be at the bench and wasn't sure where else to go.  She joined American Medical Writers Association, and started looking for jobs.  Although she said she had not special training for the role, I think that the membership is the magic piece that helped her get the job.  The job she eventually was offered she found on Monster, although she applied for other jobs on the HittList and other places.  She started on site at a pharmaceutical company in Chicago, and for personal reasons has moved to Seattle as an off-site contractor with the same company and position.

Her job now is a combination of writing tasks.  Sometimes she writes 'primary literature'- data is provided in the form of polished figures and she writes manuscripts to tie them together.  Sometimes she writes 'content' for clinical trials.  When a doctor recruits a new patient, the patient will be given a brochure with all the legalese and descriptions of the trial methods.  Sometimes she helps in filings, which she says makes her feel less like a writer, and more like an aggregation.  Other people have done most of the writing, and she copies and pastes bits of documents together to make a new document.  She has more of a management role on some projects as well.  She said she likes the work because it changes, and she never feels too married to any of her work to take criticism.

Most people who are medical writers are not Ph.D.s, many have clinical backgrounds.  This may make them better at navigating the medical lingo, but as far as writing up figures, methods or any research stuff goes, she felt completely prepared to to do the job.  And she loves it- the work is interesting and challenging, and the pay is great.  According to AMWA, the average Medical Writer makes $92K annually.  Starting salaries are high for those with Ph.D.s and there is room for career advancement.

It sounds like a great gig to me.  Although I am loathe to work off-site, a well paid job with a contract route of entry seems achievable.  I like writing, and could be happy having someone else tell me what to write.  I've joined AMWA ($160 annually), in hopes that might legitimize my application to these types of roles.  Now I just need to find them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

New Contract and a Leave of Absence

Some interesting opportunities have opened up, and I want to document some of the choices I've made and why.  In another fit of "Maybe I'll just apply for some OTHER crazy job!" I put my hat in the ring for a position as a developmental editor with a curriculum development company in Seattle. Remember, I wrote a ridiculous letter and put in for a position that a hundred people had already applied for?  Well, I got a call back the next day (Ha!).

The call was from the director who confessed that he was too swamped to hire a developmental editor because they were behind on writing.  It's a growing company with some very interesting projects, and the just need some extra hands right now.  Would I be willing to take on a writing contract?

My feeling on writing contracts is that they are a good way to make money, but not really a career. When you work off-site, you don't hear about things like new openings, or extra work or other things that would make it easier to advance your position.  They are a growing company, but will I get a chance to grow with them?  And frankly, I find working off-site boring.  I miss having awesome coworkers.  That being said, I've also come to realize that contract work is what is developing my CV these days, and frankly I do like the work.  And the money.

So I agreed to take on a 5 week writing contract.  But it sounds like a 40 hour/week position.  (Oh, and I'll be paid hourly, unlike my work with Words and Numbers where I bill per task).  I consider contract work one of 3 jobs I juggle currently, and so I knew I'd need to push back on the other two.  I notified my internship I was going to be away, and that I am planning to send them a status update this week.  The scary conversation was to tell the bank I was going to need some time.  I'm just a teller, so I didn't figure they would be interested in making concessions for me- but for a 5 week contract, it seems stupid to walk away from a steady pay-check. 

I thought a lot about how to have this conversation- I knew I needed to ask for something, so I tried to ask in a way that made them feel like they were generous to offer (not that they OWED me this- Here's to negotiation training!).  And I also tried to be really clear about what was already decided, and what wasn't.  I have accepted a contract.  It is a great opportunity for me.  It will take up all my time.  I don't want to leave you guys in the lurch, and I am not sure how to do that best.  To his credit, my manager was very excited for me, and was able to give me everything I need to make this work.  I'll be at the bank for 2 more weeks, and then I am going on a leave of absence.  In August, I'll get back in touch and get my old position back.  I may be at a different branch when I come back, but I shouldn't have to reapply for my job.  I'm glad that I asked for that, because it makes taking this contract much less intimidating- as I said, it's a contract, not a career. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Doing what I like so I can do it more

My dear friend the Blobologist recently wrote about a meeting she had with a science writer- they were talking about navigating your way to a successful career.  She was sharing her worry about how to break in, and where to break in, and this guy told her that
When you change careers, everything is going to be very difficult at first. Why bother going through all that hassle for an area you’re not interested in? Why not start with what you like?
 If it's going to be a long haul to get the right experience, meet the right people, do the right things and just BE the right candidate, we may as well find something enjoyable about the struggle.

On that note, I am headed to the Seattle Science Festival EXPO today. I'm going to be enjoying myself to bits for the morning, and then volunteering at the NWABR "Thank a Researcher Booth," which sounds like fun.