Monday, December 31, 2018

Career barriers, part 4: Letting go

I was digging through my backpack a couple of weeks ago looking for a snack, and I came across the finishers medal from a Spartan race I had run…in October. Without realizing it, I had been carrying that medal around everywhere I went for the past two months. To work and back every day. Through numerous airports (surprisingly without ever getting flagged at TSA) and across over 10,000 miles of travel. It’s a pretty big medal and weighs over a pound, so definitely enough to be a burden. The funny thing I realized is that it would have actually been less of a burden if it had weighed something like 10 pounds. If that were the case, I would have noticed the weight immediately and taken it out of my backpack before going to work the next day.

One obvious and embarrassing takeaway of this story is that I need to clean out my backpack more often. However, there’s a bigger lesson here. In our careers, we often carry around burdens that slow us down, but we keep carrying them because they’re not quite heavy enough to get our attention. And, one of the best things that can happen is when the burden gets big enough to make us realize that we need to let it go. A few examples of this that I’ve experienced throughout my career include:

Fear of failed experiments. As an undergraduate new to research, I thought it would be just like the lab classes I took. Follow the directions, be efficient and you can finish in half the time, and everyone gets a pretty yellow crystalline solid. If you’ve worked in a research lab for more than one day, you know just how wrong this is. However, as an undergraduate working in lab part time and without too much at stake, the fear and frustration of failure was like that one pound weight. It slowed me down, but was bearable. This changed when I got to grad school. Research became my all-day, every-day life and the stakes became much higher – my future career was riding on successful experiments leading to research articles. The weight of my fear became crippling and I was forced to acknowledge that if I didn’t let go, it would stop me from moving completely. It was the best thing that could have happened.

Decision obsession. As a student and postdoc, my day involved making quite a few decisions: what solvent will I use for that reaction? which experiment is most important to do first? is that article worth reading? However, the number of decisions was still small enough that I could obsess over every one of them. As a new faculty member, the number of decisions I had to make every day changed by orders of magnitude. My days were consumed with things like: do I order these graduated cylinders or those ones? do we hire this postdoc or that one? do I say yes to that opportunity or not? Within the first month, I realized that if I stopped to obsess over finding the-one-absolutely-best answer to every question, my lab would never get anywhere. Instead, I had to let go and lean into the knowledge that I would make some good decisions and some bad ones, and that was unavoidable. The best I could do was to try to be wise with each choice, keep moving forward, and learn from the things that didn’t go so well.  Even though my average day still involves a tremendous number of decisions, I actually have less stress from this than when I was a grad student.

People pleasing. I’m a people pleaser by nature. That may not seem like a bad thing, but it was causing me anxiety and creating a lot of extra work. However, I could get away with trying for a long time. What finally changed this? Twitter. As I’ve become more active on social media over the past year, one thing has become evident – no matter what I say, there will always be someone who disagrees with me or tells me that I need to do more. But, twitter is not my job. It’s arguably not even part of my job. It’s something I do for fun in the spare corners of my time because I enjoy connecting with, learning from, and encouraging others and engaging in dialogue over what academic culture could look like. What started out as a mild burden of trying to respond to every critic quickly became unmanageable. I had to let go or it would start to eat away the time that I spend on my actual job of teaching and mentoring students and managing a lab. Again, this turned out to be awesome. It has forced me to learn how to see or hear someone’s problem or criticism and try to understand, but without feeling like I need to be the one to intervene. I've now brought this same attitude into my other relationships. It has turned out to be transformative to how I interact with my coworkers and family, and I’m actually a more empathetic person because of it.

As you read this, you may be starting to recognize the things that are becoming huge weights in your life or career that you need to let go of right now. That’s great. Even more so, I want to encourage you to do the hard work of “cleaning out the backpack.” What are you carrying around that’s slowing you down and you don’t even realize it? Think about how great it would feel to get rid of that burden now before you carry it through another year.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Career barriers, part 3: In search of the dream job

By: the Junior Prof

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

Thinking About Employment in Graduate School

I’ll confess to you that I arrived to the first semester of my graduate school career totally unconcerned about my future employment prospects – no one had warned me that the Humanities were in “crisis” or that landing a job post-PhD could be an arduous task. You can imagine, then, my shock when a unit of my cohort’s “Intro to Graduate Studies” class was themed around the death of the profession I thought I’d one day join. I’ll never forget fighting back tears as a faculty member in my field told me briskly that I didn’t have a prayer of getting a job in my field. In many ways, my dreams of finding healthy employment at an institution (like the R1 I had attended for undergrad) crashed before they ever took off.

Throughout graduate school, I was surrounded by both institutional and departmental programming that addressed employment issues in the professoriate for Humanities PhD-seekers. Much of this was deeply empowering – I learned about the systemic issues causing the decline of the field that I belonged to; I internalized that this decline was something far greater than me and not to be taken personally; I learned to recognize the skillset created by pursuing a Humanities PhD and explored the multitude of professional opportunities that could make me happy post-degree; I embraced the intellectual journey for what it was and saved the anxiety of unemployment for another day.

That being said, the over-arching tone remained true to the reality…which was that I was statistically unlikely to ever get a tenure track job. Far less likely was that I would land a tenure track job at an R1 institution like the one that was producing me. I began to feel puzzled by the ethics of producing PhDs in my field if there were no jobs to be had and wondered if the programming I appreciated was the corporate university’s strategy for dodging these ethical qualms and retaining its source of cheap labor.

I did what any young dreamer with an interest in self-preservation would do…I talked myself out of wanting a job in the professoriate before I ever really made up my mind I wanted it; it was so far out of reach that why should I bother? This attempt at self-preservation started off cautiously as I researched the wealth and variety of postsecondary institutions across the United States and found merits in all of them. Then I explored the transition to the demanding yet rewarding possibility of teaching high school or finding a job at a government agency. I entertained editing, publishing and creative writing. I trolled hiring webpages for the tech industry’s hard-hitters (think Google and Facebook) who were looking for researchers of all different backgrounds, including Humanists. I’ll also never forget my graduate school adviser telling me not to worry because if I didn’t get a job I would surely get into a great law school and everything would be fine from there… (that’s a myth, by the way).

TAKEAWAY: Ask yourself what you want early and frequently. To clarify, I DO NOT advocate for closing doors on plan-B’s, but I DO advocate for knowing what your plan-A is. The constraints of finding professorial jobs as a PhD in the Humanities are REAL, but you should ask yourself if you want one.

Thinking About Employment While on the Job Market

I went on the job market twice while in graduate school. The first time I had funding left and wanted to dip a proverbial toe in the waters to see what came of it. My partner was transitioning in their career so it was a chance to align our geographical location. I also saw it as a chance to get my materials in order, experiment with what worked and what didn’t, get asked bizarre interview questions and strategize on how to answer them. I applied to around 20 jobs and got a few interviews. They didn’t go anywhere which, in hindsight, isn’t surprising considering I’m fairly confident I came across as very green. I tried to mitigate my disappointment by continuing my forays into exploring any and every possibility other than becoming an assistant professor.

Year two I felt confident. I had some experience with this beast under my belt and was much closer to completing my dissertation. I applied to EVERYTHING. I applied to the jobs I was “making a case for” even if it proved to be a tremendous waste of time. The rejection was starting to take a toll on my mental health so I resolved that this was the last year of job market hell. However, I know myself well enough to know that to properly grieve something and move on, I have to leave no stone unturned. So that was the strategy…all in so that I could be all out.

Near the end of year two my home institution threw me a bone and offered to let me come back to adjunct for them in the event that I didn’t get a job. I was tremendously relieved that I would know where my next paycheck was coming from but, in some ways, taking it would have felt like moving back in with my parents after I had resolved to move out. I had accepted the offer when something miraculous happened: I got a tenure track offer. It came so far out of left-field I thought I was dreaming. I took it. And I sighed with relief because I hoped it meant I wouldn’t have to ask myself these questions ever again. I was thankful that I had gotten the job so few people get and, given industry standards, relatively early in the game.

TAKEAWAY: Only apply to jobs that make sense. The desperation of employment led me to apply to so many things that all I did was effectively double the amount of rejection I faced. Applying to more jobs doesn’t mean you’ll get more interviews. More likely, it means a larger tax on mental health.

Thinking About Employment as an Employed Humanist

The prognosis for the Humanities continues to be solemn. Since getting my job, I’ve allowed myself the mental and emotional space to do the deep-dive of figuring out exactly how solemn. In the last several weeks, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published “What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers,” “Why Are Students Ditching the History Major?” and “The Real Cause of the Humanities’ Woes.” When I read these articles, my gratitude for my job deepens, but I can’t ignore the nagging question that has finally surfaced: “what do I want?”

Prognosis aside, I have found myself back on the job market a mere 6 months after getting my job. I believe this to be the unfortunate side-effect of not feeling sure I’m where I’m supposed to be. Some people might argue that it’s shamefully soon to be considering leaving a job I only just got. (I have heard that argument more than once.) I’ve come to realize that reason I’m back on the market is relatively simple: all of the hype surrounding unemployment among Humanities PhDs caused me to internalize that reality, which prevented me from ever asking myself what my best-case scenario was.

My job search this year has produced a couple of interviews which is, quite frankly, a couple more than I saw myself getting. I feel relief that I can mentally turn over the pros and cons of each job and ask myself whether or not I want it in a way I never felt empowered to do before. My current job may have produced a bit of a paradigm shift in that regard, but I still get the sense that I’m back at square one.

TAKEAWAY: If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to relax about the whole thing. I realize that it was the key ingredient in allowing myself the space to self-explore. Instead, I spent a lot of time stressing about things I couldn’t control.

For all of these reasons, finding employment provoked an unexpected existential quandary in me: if I could have any job, what would it look like? My obstacle now trying to shed the habit of consistently answering questions about my future with what I deem “possible” or with my impostor syndrome laden “limitations” in view. I confess all of this to you so that you’ll ask yourself what you want sooner and more frequently than I did. Sending all of you positive vibes as you search for your calling.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Career barriers, part 2: The enemy you can’t run from

By a graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

Note: if you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering.

“I’m probably too stupid to even get orgo…organic chemistry has crushed me.”
         -excerpt from my journal, while taking organic chemistry

I’m a Ph.D. student in organic chemistry, and while my students might tell you that I’m good at organic chemistry, I didn’t always feel that way. My path to this point hasn’t been a linear one, and it’s been challenging for reasons you’ve probably heard of: anxiety and depression.

Pretty much anyone will tell you that organic chemistry is difficult and demanding (especially when you’re first encountering it)—it’s a mountain of information, and it takes a ton of practice in order to develop an intuitive sense about the material.

When I started organic 1 as an undergrad, I was extremely intrigued by the material. As someone who generally processes concepts best visually, I enjoyed drawing molecules and thinking about their 3D nature. There was just one problem, however—I couldn’t seem to pick up the material as quickly as I was being bombarded with it.

The next few months began my journey in discovering that I struggled with anxiety and depression. I think I always had mental health issues, but, as is common for many people, I couldn’t see it for the longest time. Maybe I knew it was there and refused to accept it, or perhaps I was oblivious until it started having larger detrimental effects on my life—I’ll never know. What I do know is that the steps I eventually took to help myself literally saved my life.

I did not do well in organic chemistry—I skated by with C’s during both semesters (and nearly failed the first). But the worst part was that my anxiety and depression caused me to be trapped in a fixed mindset, which snowballed into a set of negative thought patterns and habits:

“I’m a f***ing idiot.”

“I don’t deserve to sleep because I failed my orgo quiz. I don’t deserve to eat because I failed my orgo quiz. I need to run more to punish myself for failing the orgo quiz”

“If I put 100% into it and still failed, why on earth would I keep trying to do this?...I suck at chemistry even though I love it.”

 “I might not pass orgo :/”

I struggled with sleeping too much, low motivation/interest in my major, and more…but was completely unaware that I was dealing with depression. Lacking a strong support group at both home and school, I felt lost, alone, and like my existence didn’t matter to anyone. Crying alone in an isolated bathroom of the science building was the norm for me, and on the surface people seemed to believe my excuses that I was ‘sick’ or that ‘my allergies had flared up.’ More than anything, I wanted someone to notice the small distress signals I was sending, and reach out.

The aftermath. Weak. Exhausted. The bully has just gotten done wreaking havoc in your mind. Everything is numb now. But at least at peace? The hurricane has passed for now. It's always hurricane season up in here. You huddled in a ball, scrunched up, weathering the storm until it passes. Feeling the brute force of it in the midst of it, hoping that maybe this time the bully will get tired of hurting you, that the hurricane will only last a short time.

Not sure what to feel. People ask what they can do to help, and you want to accept their help, but you have no idea what they can do to help... 

Exhaustion. Happy to have weathered another storm. Trying to pick up all the pieces and start again. Not sure if you can handle another storm. Trying to brace yourself just in case." 

I’m not sure how I passed that first semester—my arrow-pushing for mechanisms was illogical and I developed an intense fear of synthesis problems. I started getting testing accommodations for my organic exams (and eventually all my chemistry exams) because I had developed so much anxiety around them that I began having minor panic attacks before them. During the second semester of organic, my situation wasn’t getting any better—my negative thought patterns were imprinted in my soul and I felt completely trapped and hopeless. I started engaging in self-harm, beating my forearms with my own fists to the point where I bruised myself. I was so frustrated that I wasn’t good at a subject I enjoyed, and literally beat myself up for it. Eventually, I hated myself so much that I seriously contemplated suicide and was searching for ways that I could just make all the pain, isolation, and loneliness stop.

There's a set of railroad tracks outside where you live, and you've thought for a little while that it might be a way to go, escape. It would be sudden.

You had a nightmare at the beginning of the semester, where you were standing on those tracks, staring down the bright lights, calling someone on your cell phone, begging them to tell you to get off the tracks before the train hits you. 

You hear the deafening roar of the train whistle as it swiftly approaches. And it's terrifying and all you want to do is run but you just want it to be over and you're stuck and you cry and you're so afraid. 

You don't have the guts to commit suicide.

Trains don't really sound the same to you anymore.

Paralyzing fear. But it was just a dream. A sickeningly horrifying dream."

I can’t even describe the amount of pain you have to feel in order to consider suicide as an option—it’s unfathomable. Even as I write this, an intensely deep, visceral pain rises to the surface and almost takes my breath away.

Miraculously, I landed a summer research position in an organic lab the following summer—I usually attribute it towards the ‘aggressive enthusiasm’ I had towards organic lab work, which I did well in, but at times I’m still not sure how I got in. I enjoyed the research I was doing, but felt more like a fraud than ever (what kind of prof takes a student that got C’s in organic lecture???). This was exacerbated by a male colleague of mine, who, unbeknownst to my PI, was treating me in ways that caused me to doubt myself even more—constantly asking ‘why are you doing that? Why would you do it that way? Why can’t you just look at the spectrum and analyze it on the computer; do you really need to print it out and analyze it?’ At the time I didn’t realize that it wasn’t okay for me to be treated that way, and my PI honestly had no idea it was happening until a year or so later. But at the time, it just provided more fuel for my anxiety and depression to feed on: find an isolated bathroom, cry as quietly as I can, hit myself for being so weak, put my mask back on, repeat. All the while wondering if it was worth it.

The steps I took to help myself did not all happen at once, nor did they help immediately. I started getting counseling consistently, but my counselor seemed inauthentic and invalidating of my emotions and experiences. The year after I took organic chemistry, I began medication for depression, but it made me so tired and exhausted that I had no motivation to study and would accidentally sleep through my classes. It takes trial and error to reap the benefits of seeking out resources to help yourself—but I’m eternally grateful that I’ve made a habit of going to counseling, because it’s helped me work through some of the toughest moments of my life. I also finally found a medication and dosage that has decreased some of my anxious/depressive symptoms and helped me work at my greatest potential.

My passion for organic chemistry never faded, thankfully, and it was through TAing organic labs and discussions that I realized I wanted to obtain a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and then pursue an academic career. I still struggled with self-doubt, anxiety, and depression, but I had the overwhelming support of my PI, who told me just before I left for grad school: ‘If I thought you weren’t capable at excelling in grad school, I would have steered you another direction.’

The first year of graduate school was not without its strugglesevery  day I'm here I have to face the triggers that ultimately caused me to consider suicide in the first place. I had a panic attack after the first time I was quizzed at the board in group meeting, and I’ve escaped to the bathrooms a few times to let myself work through the trauma responses I’m experiencing. And when my depressive symptoms started to show again, I accidentally set my hood on fire and subsequently learned that it’s okay to take a mental health day. I still go to counseling consistently, which has helped me address and work through the trauma I incurred upon myself in undergrad. I’ve been working on mitigating my trauma responses to organic exams (and especially those synthesis problems…), and I’ve gained a lot of confidence my first year. I’ve been so fortunate to have a PI that is aware of my situation and is patient enough and willing to give me the support and mentorship I need to get through it. Now, as a second-year graduate student, I’m working on cultivating my growth mindset further and learning as much as I can while doing the best I can at research, teaching, and coursework—which is all anyone can really ask. And even though I still shed tears as part of a trauma response to my past circumstances, it’s not a sign of weakness—it’s a display of immense strength.

"My ultimate goal? Becoming an organic professor one day.

I. Won't. Give. Up.

...And that, Rage Journal, is all I've got for now. Until the next time my emotional rage paints itself in words across these pages (which hopefully will be a very, very, VERY long time from now)...or maybe until my next musing of life's intricacies occurs."

Wherever you are in your career path, if you struggle with mental health issues, know that you are not alone. While everyone’s experience and struggle with mental health is unique, there are aspects of the struggle that several people can relate to. And please always remember: You are loved. You belong here. We need you here. Science benefits the most from teams of diverse people working on problems together—and your experiences give you a unique perspective of the world that we all benefit from hearing. You should never feel afraid to get the help you need—just as an athlete heals an injured muscle through physical therapy, someone with mental health can generally heal injured thought patterns through counseling. Needing medication for mental illness is also not a sign of weakness—it may take a bit of time to find what type/dosage works for you, but it’s completely worth it if it benefits you. If you need help, there are resources you can look to:

If you have not struggled with mental health, try to take some time to learn more about it—chances are you already know someone/will encounter someone who has these struggles. A place where you can find personal accounts of people sharing their experiences with mental health (and a variety of disabilities as well) is And watch out for the people around you—you’d be surprised at the number of students (and others!) that are sending out small distress signals, waiting for someone to notice them and reach out.

The author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous. If you would like to communicate your thoughts or let the author know how this story has impacted you, please leave a comment here or email them at