Hello all--I'm back for another installment in the new adventure. And no, I haven't run off to a foreign land to "find myself," despite what many people probably expected after reading my last column. I'm a little calmer this month. I no longer feel like the crabby 4-year-old throwing a tantrum because my mommy won't buy me a toy, or something. Now I feel like a slightly more intellectually developed 4-year-old: I still don't like that I can't have what I want, but I won't throw a fit about it.
A heartfelt thanks to all who took the time to respond to the poll in the last column; although I haven't been able to respond to each of you individually, your experiences and your advice are greatly appreciated. For those of you who missed the poll, the question was whether I should
1) Stay in my current position,
2) Try to switch research gigs in the same organization,
3a) Flee to another lab,
3b) Leave research for another field--maybe even outside science—or,
4) Start doing some volunteering or informational interviewing to satisfy my curiosity about other things and explore my options.
In the responses I received, there was no overwhelming consensus about what I should do. A lot of people voted for options 3 (a or b) and 4, most with colorful, woeful, weird, liberated stories attached. A number of readers pointed out that after the intellectually demoralizing beat-down most of us receive during graduate school, it's hard to get rid of all the self-doubt. But pick ourselves up we must if we are to wrest control of our lives and careers from the clutches of uncertainty.
A few comments came from readers who chose option 4, mainly by doing informational interviews. Some of these folks chose to stay and others chose to go, but in all cases I heard about, networking helped them shake off some of the self-doubt and debris that had accumulated in their old lives.
Making a difference
As a side note, one reader made the observation that I seem to feel the need to make a bigger splash in my professional life, and I would have to agree that the current drip-drip-drip isn't quite working. It's not that I want to be "famous" exactly; it's just that I want my work to make a difference, and at the moment, I don't feel as if I've made a bit of difference to anybody.
Why do I feel this need to make a difference? Partly, it's just who I am--but part of that is that I am a black woman, and there aren't very many people like me in this profession. As such, the internal and external pressure to be a role model, to make a difference, to fill the leaking academic pipeline, and to be visible often looms large. "Live your life for you!" you say, but it isn't that simple. I should be able to focus on doing great science, or whatever else will give me satisfaction, but I've got all these other notions running around in my head to complicate things.
So what am I going to do? There are a number of items on the to-do list.
* Sometime in the next 2 months, my PI and I will have some conversations; many correspondents demanded I do this now. I need to find a way to constructively discuss the fact that what I'm doing isn't what I planned to be doing and isn't what I want to be doing. What, if anything, can be done to remedy the situation in a reasonable period of time? I don't want to languish.
* I've been in contact with the PI for project 2, the one with the disappearing money. PI #2 and I will discuss how--and if--I should apply for outside funding for the project I would have enjoyed working on. There are complications, so this may not work out. But if it does, the opportunity to write a grant proposal would be useful; even if I don't stay in academic research, grant-writing is a good skill to have.
* I'm working on a list of careers I find interesting, and I'm making contacts in each of these areas. Included in this list at present: Science Writer/Journalist (some of you mentioned this as a potential career path for Micella), Public Information Officer/University Relations, Entrepreneurship, Science-Policy Wonk, University Administrator, International Relations, Sustainable Energy, Technical Analyst for a venture-capital firm, or Finance/Consulting/Investment Banking.
* I'm already involved in some alumni and professional organizations, but now is the time to expand and extend my professional/social networks. For job-hunting purposes, small, regional conferences can be just as useful, or more so, than the massive international ones, so I'm starting to sample some of those. Some of the other organizations mentioned in your letters included the Association for Women in Science, the National Postdoctoral Association, and the National Association of Science Writers. I'm starting to make some connections here and there.
* There are some short fellowships that may be of use for testing the waters of new careers. Many of you probably know about the Science and Technology Policy fellowships offered by AAAS and sponsored by other scientific societies. These--along with fellowships from the National Academies--offer the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., in a variety of agencies on science-policy-related matters. There are also opportunities to explore science journalism through the Mass Media Fellowships from AAAS.
* Another interesting point brought out by one of the readers is that I need to figure out what I need from my mentors--and ask for it . Of course, it would be useful if I had more people who I thought of as mentors rather than mere advisers. I've always thought that you need more than one mentor--a board of directors as it were--but this board needs some basic operating instructions from the CEO for it to be effective. Some of us assumed that mentorship would come to us (because personally, that's what I did for other people), but I'm finding out that we have to seek what we need from these relationships. It takes some courage to say, "I need help, and even though I don't know just how you might be able to help me right now, if you could try, I would really appreciate it." Asking for help can be especially hard if you feel you're supposed to have it all together. It's time to get over the fear of seeming inadequate.
* The other thing I'm going to have to learn is to be more patient with myself. Just because our computers have gotten faster, that doesn't mean our emotional and intellectual synapses have followed suit. Some things must be worked through, and that takes time. Right now, I'm working through this situation.
As you can see, I have a lot to do. In addition to the items mentioned here, there are a few others that might make me a little more productive: A) minimize TV; B) get off the couch and out into the world; C) minimize the sulking. But hey, I said baby steps, right?
* * *
Finally, a word of condolence and sorrow for the lives lost and forever changed at Virginia Tech. If you're keeping up with the news, you know there were engineering graduate students and professors among the victims. I know that the overwhelming sense of loss to their families and friends, the VT community, and their disciplines will be felt for a long time. I hope we can find inspiration in their memory.
Thoughts? Comments? More responses to the poll from Chapter 3? People with careers outside of academe who have time to talk to me? firstname.lastname@example.org
Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym, obviously.
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