Career Questions

It’s been nearly 3 months since I last wrote. I did write a post in December, an enthusiastic review of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” but it was lost when my phone crashed, and I couldn’t bring myself to rewrite the whole thing.

And of course there were the holidays – work to do and visitors and visits to be had.

But there was also the greyness. A feeling of running in a hamster wheel. Days of happiness, excitement, and energy – followed by days of stress, worry, or exhaustion.

I’ve seen the psychiatrist monthly, and I really think my current combo is helping. In a sense, the world has gone from gray to colorful again. It’s merely that I can see intense blue as well as bright yellow.

Work is… Disappointing. I feel less of a sense of purpose and direction than, frankly, ever before. Even as my passion waned somewhat in my darker times, I’ve always known what I wanted, where I wanted to go. And usually I had the determination to work hard to find it, to earn it.

But now, I’m unsure of what I would like next. There are things that call to me, but with each there are aspects that take my excitement down a notch. I know this is common for young adults, but the feeling is foreign to me.

I know that I am lucky that I have so many skills on which I could base a career – and likely a successful one. But I feel equally pulled toward each, but unwilling to yet give up any. As of late I’ve been dreaming up ways to incorporate them all. I may have an idea, but I don’t know yet how realistic it is. But I don’t like to leap without looking. I wish to gather information.

And that’s why I’m writing now. I would like to interview people with knowledge or experience in a number of areas. It could be over e-mail or phone (or in person if you can meet in NYC). I could write a post about it, feature you and links, or I could keep it private or anonymous.

If you have knowledge about or experience in a career in any of the following areas, please contact me!

Figure skating coach – basics
Figure skating coach – freestyle/test track
Figure skating program director
Environmental eng/scientist – government regulator
Environmental eng/scientist – government researcher
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for private companies
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for government
Environmental scientist – public interest researcher
Science writer – magazines, news, or books
Science professor – adjunct (lab instructor and early undergrads)
Project manager – web company
Pro blogger
Etsy shop/home business owner
How-to writer

I’m extra interested in hearing from you if you are a mom!

Patterns in Depression and Dysthymia

Once, a few years back while in a therapy session, my doctor mentioned to me that although she didn’t like to label, she had diagnosed me with dysthymia. At the time I didn’t think much of it, figuring it was just a particular diagnostic class of depression and that I didn’t need to know the details. But for a number of reasons recently, I decided to look into what it meant. In short, dysthymia (sometimes called chronic depression) is a form of mood disorder which has similar symptoms to depression, but they are often milder and last longer, for years. For me, the symptoms could be described as varying levels of hypersomnia, hopelessness, anxiety, guilt, loss of interest, sadness, and excessive crying, although many people experience it differently.

I’ve always felt that I was particularly sensitive to environment, in that in certain surroundings and social groups, the effort it would take to pull myself out of my self-critical thought patterns and incessant negative thoughts was more than I could manage. So I carefully considered the location of my university choice so as to put me in the place I felt most comfortable. For me, that place is a big city: a place so abundant with people that although I am surrounded by them, very few of us have the time to observe our neighbors closely, care about their choices, or actually express to them that we are uncomfortable with their differences. To me, this is the place where I can be me, find others like me, and find the inner strength to not worry about whether or not I fit in and am liked by the people I encounter each day. Living in this city filled with life and energy quells my anxious thoughts and helps me to be both carefree and driven. I feel at home here, and I love to show my acceptance of all the varied people who are my neighbors. And I can find any service that I need quickly, while not having to return to the car culture that my youth was so entrenched in. I firmly believe that this is both a great place to be and a great place for me.

Dysthymic people can also suffer from major depressive episodes, in this case termed “double depression.” I think I’m beginning to see some patterns to when my stronger depressive episodes develop. This last few months, there have been similarities to the depressed period which had originally brought me to my therapist in the first place. It seems that I am very sensitive to my social environment. When I was skating, it meant my home club and coaches. In school this meant my classmates and professors. At work it’s my coworkers and bosses. While some uneasiness may kick in right after a switch (new semester, new job, etc.), I’m often buoyed for the initial period by my love of new things. To me something new is something to learn from, and I love learning. But after the newness wears off, generally 3 to 6 months in, things get bumpier. I often start to really notice the people around me, and in many cases I start to fixate on the feeling that I don’t belong.

As I write this, I can remember so many times when this has happened. The first instance when I felt this way to the degree that I was not in control of my thoughts was when I was 17, and my training routine at the rink had changed. I was skating full-time at a club that I had rarely felt quite right at, and I was not able to spend much time at my favorite club, the place where I really felt at home. Many of my closest friends, skaters at that club, had moved on to other things. My coaches had decided to teach exclusively at this place that never felt as homey, and I found myself surrounded by ambitious young skaters. I was unable to value the maturity and strength that my skating had, and I only saw myself as a giant among little girls in a sport where smallness is an advantage. The bulimia that had began less than a year earlier spiraled out of control, and by the end of the summer I decided to quit, thinking that taking myself out of this environment, this competitive skating world, would help me heal. At the time, I didn’t realize how long that process would take.

Years later, when I was a junior in college, it was the beginning of classes with other driven students from my major field of study that led to this place. At first I did well enough, enjoying the challenge and the new things to learn. But as the semester wore on, the attitude of my professors and classmates wore me thin. By Christmas I couldn’t bear to attend the Holiday Party for fear that my professors would secretly be laughing at me for thinking I had a place in the department. By spring, I was missing classes and homework assignments because I couldn’t bear to turn in what I thought was such poor work or even to get out of bed and face the day. At some point I got low enough to feel that I was out of control and that my school success was in danger, and I wrote an emotional, pleading e-mail to my Dean. And so began that road to recovery.

Having been acutely aware of my environment, when I found myself struggling not long after having entered my first office job, I figured it was pretty normal. I was in a new environment, a foreign environment to me, and it would take me time to learn the ropes and find my place. But now I think it’s more than that, and I’m beginning to see the similarities to other situations that have led me to this emotional place.

This time, I was nervous about the new setting and lifestyle. But for the first 3 months, I was happily engrossed in a high priority, fast-paced project. I drew energy from this and didn’t concern myself much with the coworkers who weren’t on the project. There were many instances of a coworker’s statement or behavior being an unpleasant surprise to me, but the good parts outweighed the bad, and I could almost say that I was loving my job.

Then, in July, that project’s major deadline passed and I didn’t have much to do for it anymore. My work day slowed down, and I took on more varied tasks requiring interaction with more of my coworkers. And the feeling that I didn’t belong grew stronger.

Now, It’s been 6 months since I started this job, and I’ve been feeling somewhat out of control of my thoughts and emotions for the past couple of months. By the end of August it was pretty clear to me that I was having more difficulty than normal, healthy people do. This was compounded by my period of no health insurance (I had to wait 3 months after my job began to get health benefits) and the difficulty I had in obtaining my antidepressant prescription, which I’d been on for over 5 years. I managed to get the Rx, but not without significant stress, cost, frustration, and two hospital visits.

It was at the second of those emergency visits (I had tried but been unable to find a psychiatrist that would see me, a new patient, on short notice, and my therapist was out of town) that I realized that my struggle to adjust was outside the bounds of healthy behavior. I confided in the doctor that I had cried at work almost every day the prior week, and she said that sounded like the meds weren’t working. She let me go home with a prescription and the promise that I would go to my new psychiatrist appointment the next week  and come back in if I couldn’t make it until then. To top things off, this particular visit marked the first day of our “staycation,” and I spent the whole day in the hospital (the wait was over 7 hours!). I resolved to shake the feeling that I couldn’t even properly enjoy a vacation from work, and Husband and I made the best of the rest of our time off.

Since then it’s been a struggle, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. My insurance has kicked in and I’ve found a psychiatrist that I feel comfortable with. We increased my dosage in September, and things have gotten only slightly more manageable. He said if things were still rough by this week, I should go back in and we’ll try a combination instead. So I will do that this week, and try it out for a while. Between him, my therapist, and the support of my husband and friends, I will get out of this rough patch too.

*Edited slightly from original posting

A new career direction

I’m extremely pleased to share that I may have found a new job.  A regular day job, with a salary, benefits, and vacation time.  It even has a 35 hour work week and a good helping of holidays.  What I’m most excited about is that it’s doing something good for the city of New York!  So what is it?

Well, I’ll tell you this.  It is in environmental engineering.  This is a shift for me, as I’d studied a broader, related field.  I’ve found myself wondering, over the past year, why I chose to study the field that I did.  And the answer, most clearly, is that I love the material covered in it.  But in choosing that field I neglected some other factors that are important to me: societal impact and geographic location of jobs.

I’ve always felt that the fundamentals of the field were principles needed and worthy of understanding and study, but the ends to which these principles are put to use left me feeling something lacking.  While society could not function as it does without practitioners of this field, they most often are found in corporations working towards profit, profit which is mostly seen by shareholders and executives.  Meanwhile these corporations often have large lobbying components and are parts of industries that I see as being corrupt or under-regulated.

So as I dove further into the subject and the field, I found myself drawn towards continuing academic study or teaching.   By working in that part of the field, I could work in a city (industry jobs are largely in rural or suburban areas, where there is land for the sprawling corporate campuses and industrial plants, but I am uninterested in living outside of a city).  By working in academia or teaching, I could make an impact by helping future generations, or by moving the edge of science along.  But I found that I don’t like much of the culture and requirements of academia, nor do I care for the scarcity of jobs and low salaries available in teaching.  I came to this realization mostly over the course of 2008, when I left graduate school and, in the fall, taught lab courses at a local college.  There were parts of that which were great, but, as a full career, I’m not sure that it’s quite right for me.

In December, I found myself looking back at a year in which I’d seen a lot of changes.  Husband and I, working hard at our startup company, were living sparsely.  Bill collectors were calling often, we were constantly declining when our friends proposed nights out in the city, and we found ourselves once again unable to share more than love, friendship, and thanks during the season of giving.  We had, and always have, our love and companionship, and I was still happy. But I was also tired and stressed, and by the end of 2008 I finally felt like it was time for me to start planning what was next.

I was in the fortunate situation of having multiple directions to choose from, and I barely knew where to start.  I perused job postings and the career website from my Alma Mater, looking at a few different career paths that seemed possible and at least somewhat interesting.  And I discovered that environmental engineering might hold what I was really looking for – the interesting topics, rigorous problem solving, and teamwork that I found in my previous discipline, but with the important added aspects of a positive societal impact and jobs in urban areas.  On top of that, the field looks poised to grow as the green movement gains strength and political support. I’m enthusiastic about the potential in this new area, but I still only know a little bit about it.

Nonetheless, I had the good fortune of a successful job interview a little over a week ago, and now have a tentative job offer, which is going through the steps of paperwork approval.  It even appears I negotiated for a top salary in the department for my position!  I’m very excited and immensely looking forward to learning about this new area for me.

Readers, does anyone have any advice about the field or great books to recommend?

Settling in to the summer

The last few weeks have seen an interesting hodgepodge of demands on my time, but I think I’ve managed to secure enough babysitting hours to stabilize the financial situation a little bit until we get our next cash influx, which should be a few weeks away now. Financially we’re in what Husband is calling a “famine cycle,” but I think I’ve succeeded in keeping it from getting as bad as it has been in the past. I pulled in all the cash from any savings account we had, enough to bring our bank account in the black again, and now I can put enough cash from babysitting into the account to keep from bank fees and bounced payments when some of our unavoidable bills are processed. This feels a little better, although it’s still really stressful as a significant portion of our bills are going unpaid, and thus our debt is just growing further.

I found a new occasional baby sitting gig, watching a 2 month old. I’m happy to be around a baby again, as the toddlers at my other gig are now 20 months and 3 1/4 yrs old. And so far, the baby seems to be a pretty easy baby, although I haven’t spent too much time with him yet. His parents are both musicians, and I’m going to be helping out while his momma gets some practice time in. So I get to listen to some great classical piano while I’m working, too! It’s pretty soothing. So far the baby and I seem to interact well – he likes my smile and my laugh.

So this is what my weekly schedule is shaping up to look like: 5-10 hours with the 2 month old, 10-15 hours with the toddlers, unknown number of hours in the lab (I’m a “part-time staff associate” for the summer), and 10-20 hours on the startup company. I’ve been taking time off from lab work the past few weeks to focus on helping to get the business pitch ready for our next attempts to secure funding, but I begin lab stuff again this week. We have some new summer undergrads who I will be meeting on Thursday and begin training on Friday. I’m looking forward to new potential mentees!

As for my mental and physical health, I’m struggling, but fighting hard. I’ve been a revolving door of various infections, viruses, and other stress-related sickness. I feel the pull of the bed, with the comfy covers and the promise of sleep and dreams, but I’m managing somewhat to get myself to do work. Last week I felt myself wanting to sleep an awful lot, but on Thursday I fought hard against the desire to stay in bed, and it was a good step. I went out and ran some errands in the neighborhood and then went to Starbucks and did some work there, and by the time I returned home I felt somewhat rejuvenated. When I get stressed out too much, I try to meditate and relax. When I feel like sleeping but know that I’ve had enough sleep, I try to get out and just do little things to get myself going. It’s these small skills that I’ve been cultivating to fight depression, and I’m definitely getting better at it. These struggles with depression and anxiety haven’t been easy, but I am definitely able to see progress in my ability to deal with everything and to fight my way out of the depressed state. I know that I’m dealing with everything that’s going on now in a much, much stronger way than I would have even two years ago, and for that I’m proud.

Check out these women in science posters

Check out this poster project site.  You can see thumbnails of the posters and even order some or all of the set for your office or school corridors, so that future students will have visual evidence that you care about and support women in science!

And if you happen to be in the NYC area, you can come and attend the opening celebration and panel for the “Women in Science Poster Project.”  I’m going to try to go!

What: Opening celebration and panel of an exhibition of the poster project.  The panelists will tell personal stories about becoming a scientist and visualizing science.

Where: Columbia Teacher’s College Offit Gallery in the Gottesman Libraries at Columbia University.

When: The opening starts at 6PM on Wednesday June 4th, with a panel discussion to follow at 7:15PM.

On failing the quals … again!

I failed the quals again, on my second try, and now I must leave the program. I learned this on Friday, May 2nd, (it started with an ominous e-mail late Thursday night, leaving me unable to sleep or relax or frankly function well at all until I met with the committee chair on Friday) and was sort of reeling from the information for a while. I originally began this post the weekend after that, but I was busy dealing with the actual life decisions and the immediate need for fun and relaxation, and I forgot to come back to it until now.

I’m still pretty shocked and fairly pissed at the faculty of my department. The other person who had failed the first time and been encouraged to stay and take it again also failed this time around too; I ran into him on my way home from meeting with the committee chair and he was on his way to meet with him. Perhaps I had misinterpreted, but I had thought when they asked me to stay and try again that I just needed to show a good faith effort to do better this time around. After all, I had to stick around for an entire year in order to take the exam again, including a semester after receiving my Master’s degree. And for that year they funded me on a departmental NSF grant. They had invested in me and they had been the only ones to educate me (I stayed at the same school as I did my undergrad). They had accepted me into the graduate program even after my struggles with depression throughout my undergrad years, and they had encouraged me to stay and try again when I failed the first time. I really thought that I’d be fine as long as I studied hard. And I did study hard – but I still failed.

So, you may be wondering, what happened?

Things I don’t know:

  • Whether they deemed my performance better or worse than last time (i.e. what they were looking for). I took a different approach to studying this time around. I started studying before anyone else who took the exam this year, and it was my second time taking it so I had a better idea of what the experience would be like (but apparently no better of an idea of what they were looking for me to do). After I failed the first time, I was left with very little feedback. I asked to see my exam, but it wasn’t allowed. While he offered me some details about which subjects I had performed better and worse on, I had no idea if I had actually gotten things wrong, if they were unhappy with the place(s?) where I had to write “This is what I would do if I had the equation to start,” or if it was just that I hadn’t finished enough of it. This time, I felt more prepared and knew more material going into the exam, but there were still gaps in my knowledge. I felt (and still feel) like it was somewhat of a crapshoot, and all I could do was hope they’d either keep it to the most essential topics or that I’d be lucky enough to have recently reviewed the more obscure topics.
  • Whether I got things wrong on the exam or merely didn’t finish enough of it. This time, I’ve been somewhat unable to think about and exam my exam performance too much. It’s just too painful. So I didn’t ask any questions when I met with the committee chair.
  • What kind of departmental politics are going on and how they may have impacted the faculty’s decision to fail myself and my peer. Earlier this year, the faculty considered getting rid of the qualifying exam. Apparently some of the faculty think that we should still have it, but that it should be extremely strict, with no room for “Well he did better than last time” or “She’s a great researcher.” Those faculty think that in the past they had sometimes been too lenient. They cite departments at other schools (Princeton and MIT) where 1/3rd or more of the class is cut after the quals. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the faculty advocate completely getting rid of the quals. Some of these arguments and views may have been formed after last year, when 11 people took the exam and 3 of us failed. One person was taking it for the second time and passed, but I heard their performance was only marginally better. Of the three of us that failed, 2 of us were encouraged to stay and try again and the third was just told to leave. Later, there were complaints of politics playing a role in who got to stay and who didn’t, and I think this may have led to the viewpoints that it should be stricter. Meanwhile other professors saw that those of us that had failed were excellent researchers and had of course passed (and done fairly well in, I’m sure) the courses on which the exam was based. My understanding is that it is still possible they will get rid of the exam next year, or at least change its format.

Things I know:

  • I struggle with this exam format. I’ve written about this before. It was a closed book exam, 4 hours long. There were 6 questions, giving us about 45 minutes per question. Most of the questions were very detailed, and I just couldn’t work through them fast enough. I left some serious chunks undone because I ran out of time. Also, my subject uses math heavily, and while I’m good at and enjoy math, I’ve never been good at memorizing equations (or memorizing anything). For most of my undergraduate education (at the same institution with many of the same professors who wrote the qualifying exam), exams were open book. That worked for me because I’m very good at using the available tools and information to solve problems, but I don’t see the point in memorizing anything that isn’t used so often that I memorize it without trying. This time around, I had written out about 100 flashcards of equations I thought I needed to memorize to be prepared. While many of the questions on the exam were fairly central to their subject matter, about three of the six were what I’d consider to be detailed specific cases which ended up requiring the use of equations that hadn’t even made it into my flashcard pack. One of the questions began with and required an equation for a special case that I had not memorized, and I was left completely crippled on that question.
  • I succumbed to the pressure during the exam. I had been studying for months, and I knew this was my last chance at the exam, and there was a lot of pressure. As I was working through the exam and finding it challenging, I began to get increasingly flustered to the point where I did shed some tears and I considered handing it in unfinished and walking away. I was distracted by how upset I was and unable to focus on trying to solve the problems in front of me.
  • I’m a great researcher. I’m organized and self-driven. Because I began researching in my advisor’s lab as an undergrad, I’d made significant progress on my projects and we had thought I might be able do the degree in a shorter time than average. As a member of a small lab group, I’d managed as many as 4 projects at once, while most of my peers were only in charge of one. I’d voluntarily taken on managing and mentoring the undergrads in my lab. And I’m first author on a paper with my advisor that was published in the main journal for the subject area last fall. Many of my peers were struggling to come up with a project and to write their thesis proposal, and I already have a draft from a year ago when I used a class project to write it. And my first poster drew compliments not only on the science but on the easy organization of information and appealing visuals.
  • Some of the faculty are sad to see me go. I know this because they’ve either told me directly or they’ve told my advisor.
  • I contributed significantly to the department. I’m the founding president of the department’s graduate student association; in fact I was the ONLY grad student to even respond when the committee chair was looking for students to get a GSA started, and I went and recruited others to work with me. I’ve interacted directly with the graduate committee chair and the department chair, and I’ve often contributed my ideas and insights when they were looking for feedback or evaluation. Also, whenever prospective students visited I gave them tours and made them feel welcome.
  • There are lots of places I can go from here. The graduate committee chair who gave me the news reminded me that I could still apply to other programs and that it wouldn’t go on my record or anything so it will just look like I just left with my MS degree. If I ever want to, I can return to grad school in the future, and I will be better able to choose a department that fits me.
  • I am looking forward to trying out other directions. I wrote about this before the exam in my post on my career path, but I am excited about exploring other research areas (perhaps some women in science research?), popular science writing, teaching and tutoring, or maybe research or project management in industry. I’m also considering working full-time for Husband’s company in the fall, doing a combination of marketing, project management, financial management, and online community building.

Overall, this was a pretty bad experience, but certainly one that I’ve learned from. Some days I am happy and excited about exploring other opportunities. Other days I get a bit down from the shock and emotions of it all. Always, I have my husband, family, and friends supporting me, and for that I am both happy and thankful.

Science Fairs and socio-economics

I’ve been loosely following Science Woman’s live blogging of the International Science & Engineering Fair, and in particular I’ve enjoyed the discussion in the comments section of this post. I’m particularly interested in the socio-economic status of the students who compete in the fair, and recently Podblack Cat discussed that in her post “Girls Got What? Competitions, Science Careers And Benefits.”  She asks:

Of course, the selection is made without knowledge of the backgrounds, but how many of them came from enriched environments? How do we factor in mentoring by grad students / faculty or even parental support?

Her post is interesting and informative, so go check it out.  And be sure to check out the posts and discussion on Science Woman‘s blog, too!