I’ve had a bit of a weird week.
I’ve been looking for work since I came back from vacation this summer, and it’s hard. I’ve been doing some freelance work in the mean time, but that hasn’t been enough to live off, and I had to give in and admit that I qualified for Employment Insurance. I don’t like living off government money for doing nothing, and I’d much rather work.
When I defended my thesis in December, I told myself that I’d take one year of freelancing to figure out what I really want. At the time, I said I didn’t want to do a postdoc, but I was afraid that it might have been too inspired by a lack of data and frustrating experiments during my PhD, rather than a real desire to do something else. A year should be enough to get some perspective, and was still short enough that I could find a postdoc if I changed my mind.
When you’re in grad school, there is this one path laid out in front of you, and that path leads to a postdoc, and then probably another postdoc, and a tenure track job in the far, far, foggy distance. Leading off from that path, left and right, are scary, dark alleyways. “Teaching”,”med school”, “business”, “law school”, “editing”. There are stories of people who strayed on these paths. Many of them are never heard from again. They “left science”.
And I “left”, too. But people have some vague idea what I’m doing right now, and the kind of jobs I’m applying to. I got an e-mail a few weeks ago, from someone I used to do volunteer outreach stuff with. I had run into her at graduation, and told her I was looking to move to science publishing. She e-mailed to tell me that she heard a rumour that someone from my old institute got a job at Nature. The rumour was so vague that it didn’t come with a name, and she had to ask me “Was that you?”
Sadly, no, that wasn’t me. But it says something about the culture of “people who left” that these stories are passed on from person to person, losing information like a game of Broken Telephone. It’s special, and it needs to be talked about. Who cares who it was, someone got a job at Nature! It can be done!
In the alleyways off the brightly lit path that leads to postdocs, is a rogue gang of deserters looking for alternative ways to science happiness. And we’ve got each others’ backs.
Another girl that I also ran into at graduation e-mailed me this week to say that a medical writing company she worked for is looking for more freelance writers. That came just a week after I got a contract for about 70 hours of work with the writing company of the husband of one of my exam committee members. Meanwhile, I’m still applying to science editing jobs, I’m networking a lot, and Jenny is casting her editorially trained eye on my CV.
Everyone has just been really helpful. I was in a slump about not finding work, about being bored, and feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, but I do belong somewhere – I just don’t have a permanent full-time employer right now.
The real turning point came, as turning points so often do, on Friday night.
I had been invited to a friend’s birthday. I know this girl through a group of local blog friends who since scattered all over the place, and I didn’t know any of the other people at the party. I sat down at a table with a group of her coworkers. They were all media professionals, but with an entertainment angle rather than science. (My friend writes sarcastic reviews of TV shows for a living.) Of course they asked what I did, and I said “I write about science.”
Earlier this year, I had a minor panic attack every time someone asks me what I did, but I found that the common feature of everything I do is some form of writing about science. Whether it’s a thesis or comments on a student essay or a press release or a job application – I write about science.
“Science, cool! What kind of science?”
“Well, my PhD was in Biochemistry, but now it’s more general. Mostly biology.”
“Wow, you have a PhD?”
Another guy joined the conversation, and pulled his chair up a little closer so he could ask me all about the H1N1 vaccine. Did I, as a scientist, think it was a government conspiracy? “No”, I said, “I think they’re just being very careful about pandemics these days.”
The waitress brought more beer, and we raised a glass: “To science!” my table mates cheered.
When they all went out for a smoke, I moved my chair to the next table, and met one of my friend’s former classmates from her journalism program. She and her boyfriend were also excited to hear about what I did.
“Cool, science! Did you hear that, she’s a scientist!”
I explained what kind of jobs I was interested in, and to her, it made perfect sense to look for something in publishing. To most people, I am no less of a scientist if I am pursuing a career outside of the lab. Science is science.
And with that, and two new writing assignments to work on, my week changed for the better. I left the birthday party confident that I was doing the right thing.
Just then, I heard glasses clinking at the other table. The smokers had come back inside, and cheered amongst themselves: