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What’s next??? (Part 3)

I have a few days left in my current contract with no idea as to what comes next. This will be the first time I do not have a job or have not been in school since I was 15. I am not even sure what to do with myself when I am not doing either one.

A few things that I do have planned:

  1. I will be visiting Colorado State University for a brown bag lunch to speak with grad students and postdocs about mental health awareness.
  2. I will be a panelist at Seismological Society of America annual meeting for a discussion titled: That Poster Is Just Fine And So Are You: Maintaining Self-Confidence and Balance in the Uncertain World of Early Career Science. Chris Rollins played an critical role in the planning of this event. I am excited and nervous to be involved in this event that is a first of its kind – we will be discussing the less glamorous aspects of graduate students and postdocs.
  3. Becoming a SCUBA dive master and soon after an Instructor.
  4. A road-trip around the country my pups.

As for the last part…to prepare for this adventure I have reduced my life to what fits in a 5 x 5 storage unit. This means selling, donating, or trashing almost everything I own. I will be traveling with my two pups, camping and hiking gear, and some clothes…and my computer. It is quite liberating, I have never really thrown caution to the wind in such a manner – I am a planner after all (enters anxiety). I have a loose travel plan, which includes lots of hiking (my goal is 30 miles a week if someone wants to keep me accountable), national parks (very happy to have my annual parks pass on hand), state parks, history, and, most importantly, friends. It is moments like this that it makes me incredibly sad to leave my scientific career behind…indefinitely. Maybe I will decide to still be involved in science in some manner, but I really don’t know. It feels a little bit like part of me is dying, that I am grieving the loss of the life I lived for the last 12-13 years in academics, the only thing I have ever wanted to do. I also feel fortunate to have made friends, some of my best, and definitely some of the greatest, friends along the way, who have been supportive during some of the toughest times, have had so much fun with at Foley’s and The Bank every AGU, students I mentored become so successful, and to have helped me make it out alive.

A few colleagues asked or offered to have me talk a bit about mental health in academics – this is something I have done a fair amount of research on in the last year trying to understand how pervasive mental health is in academia and how it is being handled, if at all. . I also can draw upon (and share) personal experiences that many students/postdocs feel but may not feel comfortable talking about. Hell, I am not sure I feel comfortable talking about, but I also know we need to start talking about the tough stuff, the real stuff that we (grad students, postdocs, and other academics) go through – it doesn’t matter if it is with each other, a partner, a close friend, an advisor, or a counselor. If you are reading this and would like me to do something similar at your university, email ecisuncensored@gmail.com.

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What’s next? (Part 2)

What’s next??? (Part 2)

What I first came up with this title, I intended to write something like this:

What’s next???? This question or some variation of it has followed me (and likely every other academic), arguably, since being an undergraduate student and making the decision to go to graduate school. What is next, the workforce or graduate school? Which graduate school, and what next, a master or a PhD? What’s next, a faculty position, postdoc, USGS, oil and gas, mining, etc? You are going to work in the private sector? For how long? Are you going to come back to academics?

Admittedly, I am just as guilty of asking this question of others or at least I was until I realized how much anxiety is attached to that simple question. Nowadays I consciously do NOT ask this question of others. Not only because it gets super annoying after awhile, but with the one question comes anxiety galore! It is incredibly stressful to constantly think “what’s next?”

With that said, it the also the only question I have been asking myself lately, which both annoys me and invokes anxiety. T-minus ~4 weeks until the end of my contract. What’s next? First up, I will be in Denver for a panel discussion about some of the challenges and more taboo topics in academics, including mental health. I am also going to Colorado State University to talk about “The Good and the Ugly of Academics”. Then the future is unknown. I can truly say for the first time that I do not have any idea what is next. Some days this is liberating, some days are I am scared shitless and full of anxiety.

However, I recently became a SCUBA Divemaster Candidate…more on that later.
I would encourage everyone to think twice before asking “What’s next?”. Instead, focus on what about science or the graduate student/postdoc experience as a whole (e.g., research, teaching, science communication) excites the person you are asking. Realistic discuss the challenges that are associated with pursuing an academic career (e.g., decline in faculty position, reduction of budgets at all levels, hiring freezes). Provide suggestions and be supportive if they chose a different path.

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The light amidst the darkness

First, I want to thank everyone who reached out after the last post. While I realize I am not alone in this struggle, it was overwhelming to receive such positive feedback. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

Last week I was reminded of one of the most rewarding aspects of my time in academics – my students or “kids”, as I affectionately call them (since I don’t desire to have children myself), or “minions”, as one of my former students fondly named the collective group, I have mentored over the years. I don’t mean either terms, kids or minions, in a negative way AT ALL, so don’t freak out about that.

As a graduate student, I mentored several undergraduate students because many of the faculty did not seem to have time to do so (or maybe they just found me more approachable). There are so many incidents that I fondly look back on during this time from a group of undergraduate students bringing back a 6 pack of Polygamy Porter from field camp in southern Utah (which was cracked open when I submitted my dissertation) to them all showing up for my dissertation defense (I have not seen a turnout of undergraduate students like that at any other dissertation defense while I was in graduate school) and then celebrating with me afterwards (hopefully those pictures never surface). There were also random emails, phone calls, or office visits to ask for guidance, and one even designed a tattoo I got in remembrance of the loss of my first dog – this meant more to me than I can ever describe in words. To that student, you know who you are, I am forever grateful for that fact you did that for me. Two of these students are nearing the end of their PhDs at great graduate schools, where they are working on projects that they really love. Two others went on to receive Master’s degrees, where one works in the oil and gas industry, while the other is a hydrologist overseas.

As a postdoc I formally advised or co-advised 3 undergraduates, and informally mentored several other graduate and undergraduate students. The students I formally advised both went on to great graduate schools, one even received a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship. I ended up serving as the senior thesis advisor for one of my interns, in which he earned best thesis that year at the department’s banquet ceremony (I blame United Airlines for missing his senior thesis defense, which I desperately attempted to attend), and we published his work his first year in graduate school. He defended his Master’s in 2016, which I was fortunate to attend, and now has a permanent position with the USGS. The third student I advised was during my most recent postdoc, where I served as his Honors Thesis Advisor on a qualitative science education research project. I was informed today, and yes I literally mean today, that he just obtained a job as a hydrologist.

Then there were those I informally advised, while I was a postdoc. Some were graduate students – one received a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and is now a research scientist at a great university; another is a geoscience education professor at another great university. One of the undergraduate students I helped advise recently got into the graduate school of her dreams, and is working on a project that has taken her to Indonesia to study volcanoes. Another went on to obtain an analyst position with a state survey where she excelled in ways I always knew were possible, even though she had hesitations about her abilities due to a less than great performance as an undergraduate (many of us have been there, and I wish academics would stop judging students on their performance as an undergraduate…we are all young and dumb and make mistakes – but that is for another time) and the fact that she would be a minority in a RED state.

All of these examples come from a time where I was embedded with students on a regular basis, but it is what came next that really fills my heart with joy.

One such incident occurred at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Annual meeting, when I ran into one of my former undergraduate students from while I was in graduate school, and who was approaching the end of his PhD. He stopped me and asked if he could schedule a time to speak with me sometime during the week. I said, “Of course! What about?” He replied, “Just wanted to catch up and chat about stuff.” I was not sure what he meant, not that it mattered, of course I would make time for my minions;) When we sat down at our scheduled time he preceded to talk about some of his options for the future, how he was feeling about academics, what he liked and didn’t like, and simply wanted to talk things over with me because he “trusts me and my opinions” and thought I could help provide some sort of insight. We spoke for quite some time; whether I actually helped him or not, I cannot be sure (seriously, what do I know at this point), but he thanked me for taking the time to speak with him… of course I would. After I left that meeting, I was struck by how much it meant to me that he sought me out even after several years had past because he truly valued my opinion and guidance. I saw him again this year at AGU, and he is almost done with his PhD and excited about the plethora of opportunities he has on the horizon.

That same year I was given a save-the-date to the wedding of one of my other students.

And remember the minority in the RED state… she is now moving on to a great position in the private sector, and I could not be more proud. She lacked the faith in her ability to succeed, but I always knew she would go on to do great things, because at the end of the day she has a passion for science that runs deep and that is worth something.

I am not sure how to properly end this post, but to say that even though I have struggled greatly, and, particularly recently as I constantly question why I chose this road and wonder if it was all worth it, there are definitely moments when I know it is/was. To those students whose lives I have affected (and I know there are more than those I mentioned here…and that is not to sound like a narcissistic a$$hole), thank you. Your continued hard work and success gives meaning to all the struggles.

A quote from one of my minions: all your efforts and accomplishments did not fail as they live through your minions.

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The purpose of this site

I envision this to be a safe place to “really” discuss what it is like to be an early career scientist. Openly talk about (1) the grad school experience – the candidacy process (passing and failing), struggles (e.g., with advisors, lab mates, imposter syndrome), successes (i.e., first paper published, first proposal funded); (2) the postdoc experience – loneliness, rejection, imposter syndrome, mental health, finally getting a job; (3) finding permanent employment (hopefully) – private sector, faculty position, or something completely different (e.g., struggles, successes, work-life balance, changing paths, etc.). In reality, these struggles occur at every stage of one’s career. I wanted to spread the word that there was a safe place to share stories, exchange ideas, ask questions, celebrate successes, and exchange experiences. Maybe we can all help each other.

Do you have an experience you would like to share? Feel free to do so anonymously or not, whatever makes you most comfortable. Additionally, I have created a slack discussion forum: https://ecisuncensored.slack.com/messages/general/details/

Remember this is a safe place to discussion early career experiences!!!

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What’s next??? (Part 1)

I have had several ideas rolling around in my head about this next post. I have several titles about topics I want to write about, but cannot seem to come up with the right words. Instead I am going to try to share my current state of mind (fair warning it is not great).

WARNING: This is a dark rant, but I actively work to take care of myself, so there is no need for concern.

I wake before dawn daily, long before an alarm has the chance to startle me awake, with trembling hands, a tightness in my chest, and sick to my stomach. Another anxiety attack or a long, continuous one that is only numbed at night by a cocktail of prescribed pharmaceuticals that one day I hope to not need?

I wake with questions swirling around in my head…what am I going to do when my contract ends? Am I making a mistake by walking away from everything I have ever wanted for something completely unknown (if that is what I end up doing)? Where am I going to live, because I know I can’t (or don’t want to) stay here? Should I sell all my things or put them in storage for a short time? How am I going to make money?

As this contract ends, without a “what’s next?” plan, I have never felt so lost. I have sat through workshop and seminars that explain the breadth at which our skill set can be applied. However, I have only had one offer in 5+ years since graduate school. Maybe I should have accept it, and I wouldn’t be here now, but the reality is the job did not feel like the right fit.

I feel like part of me is dying. The scientist that I have worked so hard to be, no longer exists in the same capacity as it once did. For the last 12+ years, that is what I call myself, it is a large piece of my identity. I gave up a lot (including my sanity) to follow my dreams. But let’s be honest, academics has become like an abusive relationship. That may be an bit extremely, but honestly I don’t think it is that much of a stretch. I can’t take it anymore.

There is a more pleasant way to look at the time ahead – the simply act of in not having a plan, to have a chance to hit (a partial) reset. This is oddly calming and supporting my flight response to stressful situations. I don’t seem to have the fight response. However, the anxiety disorder makes it so difficult to (1) NOT play every permutation of what could or is going to happen; (2) manage the stress of letting this life go, the scientist life; and (3) determine what is the right thing to do. I no longer trust my own judgement. It all makes me physically ill.

Again, I apologize for the darkness of this post. I had so many other intentions, but this is what has been consuming me lately. So I thought in effort to document not only the good of academics, I would share this. For others who feel similarly, you are not alone. I know I am not alone, even if it feels like it sometimes.

The Struggle is Real

As I type this entry I realize it very well may ruin whatever is left of my career as a scientist, but (1) I am not sure there is anything left; (2) other early career scientists need to know they are not alone; and (3) maybe it is for the best. I promised candidness and honesty about the experiences and struggles of an early career scientist, so here is my story…so far:

It has been a little over 5 years since I finished my PhD. I have since moved 6 times, had 5 temporary positions, worked hard to develop early career initiatives and organize panels at annual meetings that focused on the needs of early career scientists, and attempted to persevere through some, what I consider, extremely challenging circumstances. I explored several different options with respect to career opportunities – internship with a major oil company, 2 prestigious research scientist fellowships, a semester as an adjunct faculty member, and most recently science policy. I have applied for 150-200 jobs that I thought I may be qualified for or looked moderately interesting (I did not limit myself to academics, at least not in the beginning). In total I received a whopping 5 interviews and one offer, which after much consideration I decided was not a good fit for me. I now find myself 2 months away from being unemployed, which will also likely leave me somewhat homeless since I am not sure where I will go or what I will be doing, if anything.

I thought I had done everything right: (1) I chose an amazing PhD advisor; (2) my dissertation was innovative and in an “new, exciting field”, which was also quite different than my advisor’s background; and (3) involved myself in outreach activities that were (and still are) very important to me; and (4) attended workshops and conferences to attempt to start new collaborations and make connections (apparently, I like to number things).

Now, as I write this, I feel like a complete failure. I have worked tirelessly to follow the dreams of a little girl – I have wanted to study earthquakes in a way that would be beneficial to society since my first earthquake when I was 7 years old. Now I am 2 months away from unemployment and feeling completely alienated by a field I have dedicated the last 12 years of my life. The dreams of a young girl are crushed.

Moreover, I have been told (to my face by multiple people) the reason I could not find a position in academics was because I put too much effort into outreach, which, forgive me, I thought was very important even if it was not science proper. There are potential other reasons, like I did not receive my degree from the “right” university (see articles below). The landscape of academics has changed a lot since many of our advisors finished their degrees. Fewer and fewer PhDs find jobs in academics, yet that is the only thing graduate students are trained to do. I thought it was important, along with my science, to be sure the next generation of scientists were more knowledgeable about the opportunities outside academics, how to find a work-life balance (something we all seem to struggle with), and learn about the different types of academic jobs, not just R-1s, from a variety of scientists and faculty members.

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/02/how-many-phds-actually-get-to-become-college-professors/273434/

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2015/02/university_hiring_if_you_didn_t_get_your_ph_d_at_an_elite_university_good.html

https://chroniclevitae.com/news/929-academia-s-1-percent

Throughout the last 5+ years since I finished my PhD, I put myself “out there” in ways that made me increasingly more uncomfortable. See, I struggle from severe social anxiety, which often results in varying levels of depression. I am not just saying this for sympathy or anything else; I took the time about 2 years ago (and lots of money) to get formally diagnosed to do what was best for my mental health. For those that may know me, or think they know me, this may come as a surprise. I often appear quite social and friendly, but what is not seen is the sweat that forms in all the wrong places, my heart racing in ways that it feels like it is going to explode out of my chest, the shortness of breath, the trembling of my hands. While I have worked really hard to get my anxiety (and associated depression) under control and manageable, it is not always easy.

With that said, I am not looking for sympathy. I have always known that I was not the only graduate student or early career scientist that struggled with some variation of mental health issues. Some of us doing it openly, others not so much. But much more likely we suffer in silence. We slowly cut ties with people we love and who love us. We isolate ourselves, which is incredibly easy particularly as a postdoc. Sometimes it is much too expensive to seek help or, for some reason, we feel ashamed in doing so. I could come up with a lot of excuses for not seeking help, and there is increasingly more literature about mental health problems within academics.

https://qz.com/547641/theres-an-awful-cost-to-getting-a-phd-that-no-one-talks-about/

This issue has become even more personal in the last year, and not just because I increasingly feel as though I am barely holding on to whatever is left of my sanity. In the last year, I have lost one of my closest friends (and fellow early career scientist) to suicide, and a close colleague watch as one of his fellow graduate students had a mental breakdown and had to be institutionalized.

Now I am taking steps to be sure that mental health issues among young and old scientists alike begin to be part of a dialogue within the scientific community. At the 2016 American Geophysical Union annual meeting, I gave a talk (to all of about 15 people) about the work I started in the early career community with the help of IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology), and ended my presentation with a call for more focus on mental health issues and developing more resources for postdocs who seem to suffer the most (this is just a guess…so please don’t quote me on that). While I am unsure of the exact direction that IRIS will be moving with respect to early career initiatives, I, personally, want to concentrate on these issues. Which brings me to why I started this site. I have also attempted to start a podcast to talk openly to early career scientists about their successes and struggles. Admittedly, I have let the podcast fall by the wayside, in large part because of the personal inertia (or anxiety) it takes for me to overcome to put myself (particularly my voice) out there. I hope to start this again soon, and if there is anyone out there that would like to talk to me on the podcast…about pretty much anything, please email me at: ecisunsenored@gmail.com. Additionally, I have created a slack account to discuss any and all things related to scientific career struggles and successes: https://ecisuncensored.slack.com/. If for some reason you can’t join, please email me or PM for an invite, and feel free to invite your friends to join the discussion.