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!

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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?

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!

Congress wants more female science professors

But I’m not sure they have any idea what would actually increase the numbers.  I got to this article from a new commenter, avacodo in paradise, who mentioned the article here.

A draft bill introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, would promote the use of workshops “to increase awareness of implicit gender bias in grant review, hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for other honors based on merit,” according to a news release issued by the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.

Although specific details on the bill or the workshops it proposes have not yet been given, I am skeptical that this would be the most effective way to change.  Having workshops that people are required to attend, I think, often leads them to harbor resentment at the group that they perceive as needing special treatment. Additionally, such workshops are often only held annually or less, which doesn’t give nearly as much emphasis on the issue at it should. Personally, I think actual policies would do a better job of effecting change – policies that support the hiring and retention of women, and policies that support the needs of parent workers.

There were no actual scientists at the congressional hearing, but the one academic who was there had similar ideas. Donna Ginther, an associate professor at the University of Kansas who conducted research on women in academic science, suggested

The best way Congress could help women in academic science, she said, would be to improve their access to child care. She proposed allowing universities to support child-care facilities with the indirect costs that they take from research grants made to faculty members.

That’s a great idea.  Now can we take it a step further and offer real incentives for those universities to do so, such as, I don’t know, legally requiring it? Or perhaps we could actually offer subsidized childcare to all citizens, like they do in some of the more progressive countries in Europe.  Imagine, society as a whole taking on some of the burden of raising the next generation!

Books for and about women in science and academia

I came across these through a commenter, Emily, on the May Scientiae Carnival. Emily’s book, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, came out recently. She’s set up a blog where she hopes to encourage discussion about how we combine motherhood and science. I haven’t read the book yet myself, but once things settle down and we have some meager amounts of cash, I’ll probably go right out and get it!

Through Emily’s blog I also found out about this book: Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. It will be released later this year and looks like a promising collection of essays about combining motherhood and academia. This book also has an accompanying blog at MamaPhD.com.