Monday, December 30, 2019

Adversity: A new New Year’s wish

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re about to start a new decade! I’m sure your social media timelines are filled with wishes for what this decade will bring. To be honest, I personally had not thought much about it until last week. But, what I’m hoping for in the new year and in the new decade might just be different – and might just be more likely to come true – than most of the wishes that you’ll hear, so I wanted to share.

At this time last year, I had the opportunity to contribute on PhD Balance, and I decided to write about adversity. You can read my story here, and the main point is that the things I’ve accomplished in my life are not despite adversity, but rather because of it. I had no idea how much more I would come to appreciate that over this last year.

When I wrote that post, things were going almost perfectly. And, 2019 has indeed been one of the most exciting years of my life, filled with many fun and unexpected opportunities that have taken me places in my career that I never imagined. However, without realizing it, I had slipped into a mindset that said “Sure, I got to where I am because of all of those challenges, but now I get to enjoy smooth sailing from here on out.” Wrong. I had fallen into the fallacy that whatever is happening right now will keep happening into the future. Worse, I had started thinking that I had “paid my dues” and had now earned the right to have things be easy. A key lesson that life has taught me is that as soon as you think you’re entitled to something, you’re already on the path toward losing it.

Things did keep going well…for a while. Then, something happened that turned this fall into one of the hardest seasons of the last decade. As you might guess from the paragraph above, I did not handle it well at first. Despite knowing how much I’ve gained in the past from walking through adversity, I went into this struggle kicking and screaming. Thinking about how unfair it was that I had to deal with this. Hadn’t I paid my dues? Didn’t I deserve to have a year where I could enjoy all of the exciting things that were happening in my life? Shouldn’t I get to feel confident and happy, not afraid and alone?

Alone. That is where the story changes. Every time I started to feel alone, I realized that I was not. I realized that I was in fact surrounded by people who care about me and who support me. They couldn’t make the situation go away, but they could offer strength for me to keep walking through it. And I did. I still cried at times, but I rarely cried alone.

I’m thankful to be able to say that things are now getting better. Similar to going out for a run on a beautiful day and then being caught by a surprise downpour, I’m still running and I’m still soaking wet, but the clouds are parting and I can feel the warm sun on my face again. And, the holiday break has offered the perfect reprieve to unpack and think through all that has happened over the past few months and how I have grown as a result.

First lesson learned – adversity never goes away. No matter what we make it through, we never earn the right to evade future struggles. It’s great to enjoy the times when things are going well, but putting hope in the idea that it will continue that way is a guaranteed path to disappointment.

Second lesson learned – adversity always has something new to teach us. I will never hit a point where I can walk through every day of my life being the person that I really want to be. However, if I’m willing to learn from adversity, I can come out of each struggle more humble, compassionate, and confident – caring more about the people in my life and worrying less what the rest of the world thinks about me.

Third lesson learned – what adversity takes from us in comfort, it gives back in relationships. While having things go well is a gift, the even bigger gift is the friendships forged and strengthened in times of struggle. I’m convinced that the value of my life will not be measured in awards or accomplishments, but in relationships. Adversity reminds us that we’re not alone – that there are people in this world who we love and who love us back, who we can lean on in difficult times and who we will hopefully have the privilege of supporting in return.

I was texting last week with a close friend who has had a front row seat to much of my struggle over the past few months. As I was about to say something like “Hoping that 2020 brings better days,” it struck me that that’s not actually what I’m hoping for. Adversity is not something that we can prevent. As I pondered this point, I realized that my actual New Year’s wish is not for a lack of adversity, but rather for what can be found in it. So, as we head into a new year and a new decade, my wish for all of us is this:

When adversity inevitably comes our way, may we grow in ourselves and grow in our relationships, and in doing so find the richness that life has to offer.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Collaboration: Competing together is better than competing alone

I’m super excited to now be sharing my thoughts and advice on navigating academia via my monthly Office Hours column in Chemical & Engineering News! I’ll be posting unedited versions of my columns on delay here on my blog, and you can catch the best and latest versions (and ask your question!) at my C&EN Office Hours site. As always, comments welcome – these topics impact us all, and we should all be part of the dialogue!

The Boston Marathon is arguably one of the most prestigious and exclusive distance races in the United States. In order to qualify, runners must complete another marathon with a finish time below a specific cutoff. And, making the cutoff still does not guarantee the opportunity to run in Boston – competitors who qualify must still wait and hope that they don’t get bumped out by someone with an even faster time. So, what does this have to do with being a postdoc? The power of competing cooperatively on the job market.

Qualifying for Boston is one of my personal goals, and as an amateur runner, finishing under the qualifying time requires that I run my best race on that day. As you might expect, there are several runners at any given marathon who share the same goal and know that they will have to perform at their best to succeed. What may be surprising is that many of these runners (myself included) choose to race together in pace groups – organized sets of people who are all aiming for a specific finish time and cooperate to stay on track and encourage each other along the way. This might seem counterintuitive, as we’re all in theory competing against each other for a spot at Boston. However, we also recognize that we’re competing against thousands of other runners at every marathon across the US and that working together can help everyone in our small pace group succeed in achieving our goal.

Even if you never try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, as a postdoc you will be venturing into the job market and thinking about some ambitious goals of your own. And, you may be acutely aware that several people around you are competing for those same jobs. When the choice arises whether to compete alone or cooperate with those around you, what do you choose? While the answer to this is personal, it’s important to recognize that while you may be competing against the people closest to you, you are also competing against a much larger group of people at universities around the world. And, similar to the runners who work together to keep pace and encourage each other, there is much to be gained from working together with a small group of people who share your same career goals and ambition level. After all, there will be more than one winner in the competition for jobs, so there is plenty of room for you and your colleagues to all be successful. 

What does this look like on a practical level? That largely depends on where you are and what type of jobs you are aiming for. You may be surrounded by other postdocs who have similar career aspirations, or you may need to look outside of your current institution to find your cohort. You may have a formal group in your department to help bring you together or you may have to take the lead to organize. You might even want to be a part of more than one group. Most importantly, you get to decide what type of resources and help you want to share. Identify the key challenges you are likely to face in your job search and discuss how you can work together to tackle those challenges. In the case of an academic job search, a key challenge may be the “hidden curriculum” of what your job application should look like. Sure, the job ad tells you that you need a cover letter, CV, proposals, and teaching and diversity statements. But, if you can work together with friends to gather and share successful examples and offer constructive feedback on each other’s applications, you’re much more likely to hit the mark. In the case of publishing careers, a key challenge may be the lack of central repositories for job ads, and working together involves setting up an email listserv to share job postings that you find. While your group is likely to start out focused on practical support, as you work together, you may also find yourselves benefiting from mutual encouragement and emotional support as you share stories from your job search process.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you that competing cooperatively can give you the best shot at success as you venture into the job market. And, you can apply this concept across all stages of your career. Whether you are a graduate student trying to make it through your qualifying exams or a mid-career faculty member thinking about how to take your research program to the next level, there is little to be lost and much to be gained from joining forces with a group of people who share your same goals. And, the friendships and collaborations that you build now might just continue throughout your career, providing collective success and professional satisfaction!

Decisions: Why is what matters most

I’m super excited to now be sharing my thoughts and advice on navigating academia via my monthly Office Hours column in Chemical & Engineering News! I’ll be posting unedited versions of my columns on delay here on my blog, and you can catch the best and latest versions (and ask your question!) at my C&EN Office Hours site. As always, comments welcome – these topics impact us all, and we should all be part of the dialogue!

How do you decide a PhD is not for you and that perhaps you should downgrade to a masters and leave academia? -Natasha

Anyone who has completed a PhD has probably thought about leaving. Possibly multiple times. I certainly did. What is highly variable are the reasons why we might want to leave. In my case, I had burned myself out as an undergrad, then taken a four-month break to recover, reassess my priorities, and live out my “dream life” snowboarding every day. I started grad school excited to get back to research, and instead was confronted with classes and the looming threat of prelim exams, the exact type of high-stress situations that I didn’t ever want to put myself through again.  As a result, I spent my first year of grad school informing my research advisor of my plans to leave on what felt like a weekly basis. My advisor helped me to see that much of my stress was arising from unrealistic expectations I was placing on myself, and that the research I deeply enjoyed would be the major component of my days as a PhD student, at least after I stuck it out through the first year. Most importantly, he helped me recognize that I would need a PhD for the career options that best aligned with my interests. The important point is that every situation is unique and earning (or not earning) a degree is a career-changing decision that should not be made lightly.

Before we dive into how to approach this decision for yourself, I want to tackle the idea that earning a Masters degree is a “downgrade” from a PhD, or merely a consolation prize. Many reasons exist for why you might want to earn a specific degree, and I would argue that a primary reason should be that it will allow you to pursue your desired career path. Thus, no degree is inherently superior to any other–there is only what is best for you and will most effectively help you achieve your goals. So, this brings us to the real questions that need to be asked: where do you aspire to go in your career and what degree do you need to successfully get there?

Of course, these are not easy questions to answer. But, they are extremely important to consider on a regular basis. This is in fact why I sometimes recommend working in a full-time job for a few years before deciding to pursue an advanced degree. Spending time in the “real world” can be extremely clarifying when it comes to career goals. However, if you’re already in grad school and not sure about your career goals and why you want a PhD, then now is the time to start figuring that out. Some steps you can take toward this include:

Take a personal inventory. What are your strengths and what matters to you? What do you like about your current situation and what do you want to be different in the future? A variety of online assessment tools and career planning books are available to help with this. One resource specifically designed for graduate students and postdocs in the chemical sciences is ACS’s ChemIDP, which can help you identify your strengths and create goals and plans for growth.

Research your options. Make a list of careers that align with your strengths and interests, identify people in those careers, and reach out to see if they would be willing to talk with you. Ask questions such as: How did you get to this job? What do you like about it? What do you dislike about it? What advice would you give to yourself at my career stage? ACS’s College to Career website can be a good place to start, and if you’ve built a network on LinkedIn, now is the time to tap into that. If you’re an ACS member, you can also speak with a volunteer ACS Career Consultant.

Make a plan. Figure out which degree will serve you best in pursuing your top career choices. Consider what qualifications your future employers will want, how much time the degree will take to earn, and what skills you will gain from the experience.

I also want to talk directly to faculty–as mentors, our responsibility is to help students and postdocs figure out what career path is best for their future and then point them toward opportunities to gain the skills and experience they need to successfully pursue those goals. Many students are afraid to admit that they are even considering “leaving with a Masters” because they fear that this will call into question their commitment to research or their future career. If we are truly invested in the success of our mentees, then our job is to stay open minded, ask questions, and help each individual arrive at the best decision for them. I’m here because my mentors did exactly that.