27 and a PhD

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I’m employed, the process and the wait (Act 2)

This is Act 2, recounting how I got my new job. Act uno is here.

So, I swallowed (some of) my pride, emailed the guy from the ad and, in a couple of sentences, talked about my training and some details about my previous (and current) scientific life. I asked if the search committee would even consider someone like me (because I was/am still new(ish) research wise), and waited, and waited and waited. The guy wrote back, asked for a full application packet, but couldn’t make any promises. That was enough for me to get a glimmer of hope, maybe all was not lost. One of my 2011 resolutions was to get out of my postdoc lab, with or without a job. I didn’t want to go back to the lab after new year’s, I wanted out.

While waiting for signs of life from the search committee, I probably filled more than 50 applications to all sorts of jobs in North America and parts of Europe. After one particularly discouraging bout, I was ready to give up. I hadn’t been updated from any of the jobs I’d applied which were in areas compatible with my training and I didn’t know what was going on. Then out of the blue, I got a call from the ad guy. He wanted to see if I’d be up for a phone interview. I did, of course and we spent almost an hour talking about my previous research experience and accomplishments … but it felt as though all I’d done was babble on and on (brings to mind an entry from Dr. (now Prof) Becca). I was out of breath for the first 10 minutes, and my hands were shaking uncontrollably, I thought I’d hang up accidentally or something worse. Of course I didn’t hear from the guy for sometime, again. Eventually I got an email from a place in the south …. and on that same day I also got an email from the ad guy at new job city … somehow I’d convinced people at new job city that I was worth the invitation. After a few weeks of non-stop interviews, and considering the possibility of moving to Rainbow Lake, Alberta, I went for my interview at new job city. I’ll spare most of the details, but basically I had a full day of one-on-one interviews, a job talk and dinner (please be gracious and accept any sort of EtOH they provide, it will help calm your nerves, trust me).

I got back to Canada, and waited, and waited, and waited. Hon kept saying that I should email the people at new job city. I’d gotten a very generic email from my (now) new boss thanking me for my visit, and he mentioning that the committee still had other candidates to interview. With every day that passed a little bit more of hope kept fading. By this time I’d learned that I wouldn’t be moving to Rainbow Lake, or anywhere else for that matter … all my offers had fallen through. I was very sad and angry. I also made my mind, I wasn’t asking my boss for an extension. I was ready to go, with or without a job offer.

I emailed a guy at school, asking him if he was looking for someone. He was, but the guy was very busy, so we never got to talk about anything concrete job-wise. A part of me wanted to stay close to honey, be at the same school, just for a wee bit of extra time. I had some pretty good ideas for experiments and approaches I could try if I joined this lab … but a part of me really didn’t want to go back to protein biochemistry. It was as if my love for computer-controlled everything won over biology and biochemistry (apparently this is more common that I originally thought … especially if all you do is purify protein, after protein, and set up trial, after trial). I really couldn’t see myself holding yet another flask full of 2XYT, making another buffer, or running 6 gels at once.

I’d also given up hope from ever hearing back from new job city. I decided against writing a desperate email or something similar. All I wanted from them was to write back with the negative, I needed an answer to put this all behind me. 

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What’s up?

I know, I know. One of my NY’s resolutions was to write more often. Looking back at my archives I realize that I usually post once a week, and during rough times or when I was doing a gazillion things, it may be once every two weeks. This semester is no exception. By the time undergrads are heading home I’ll be out of work. I’m struggling with the decision(s) of staying in science and doing another postdoc closer to what I know, or attempting to go back home, and hope I can get a job there. But this is no easy feat. I’ve  been looking and looking and looking. I’ve contacted profs, got on mailing lists about job posts, written to department heads. Nothing. I did have an interview while I was visiting the family. The prof was impressed by my previous work and didn’t even bother asking why I wanted to leave my current job. He’s looking for someone with a background in biology to help with a project that’s combining engineering and biomed research (he’s an engineer with some kick ass results in treatments for cancer). The thing is, this type of project is cool, but again, not around my alley. It would pay well, have awesome benefits, and it would be stupidly close to my folks. But based on how bad I’ve felt during this postdoc, this constant worry about not being competent enough (despite my previous boss’s assertion that once you have a PhD you can learn and teach yourself anything), away from what I know and love, I’m not sure I have enough emotional strength to try it. What is I fail like I am now, and I am out of options? I’m also attempting to get in touch with the head of my UG department and see, if by any chance, there’s an opening or a way to get in even if it’s just teaching.

On the other hand I’ve signed up for a few workshops throughout the semester to keep me busy and current with some of the programs I know but haven’t used in a while; continuing-ed or professional development if you will. I figured that since the cover is almost 0,  and things run until a week before my contract expires, I’d better make the best use of what’s available. I’ve attended one of these already and it was rather refreshing. I think that, as much as keeping up with literature, blogging, tweeting, etc, the best thing a scientist, of heck, a professional for that matter should do, is to every now and then refresh his or her mind and step away from all the sciency stuff and go back to the basics. I went to a communications in science workshop and it was very cool. I brushed up on changes in grammar and sentence construction (last time I took a language class was in the winter of 2000), and on how to do better while writing, especially abstracts and sections of a manuscript. Next in line is one on the new Office and then one about project management. I figure that it never hurts to be current on these things, and as much as I like the new software and know how to do with the new one what I mastered with the old software, I may as well see if there are any tips, tricks or shortcuts, or heck, options I haven’t explored. Since I can’t enroll in an UG or MS program at this stage of my life here, I’d better make use of whatever is available.

The last “surprise” is that I may be a guest lecturer in a structural biology course offered to grad students (MS and PhD) in my department. I got in touch with one of the profs here and told him about my former area of expertise. I told him a few things and tricks I knew and turns out he liked the idea (and taking off that burden off of his shoulder for 1 week). I got the syllabus a few days ago and I’ll be doing a lecture in a couple of weeks. You have no idea how exciting this all is. I am attending the class as well and have learned about some techniques or combinations of techniques I’d never seen before.

All these things and more are (hopefully) in store for this semester. I’m very excited, but also cautious because I don’t want to jinx it; hence my silence for the last couple of weeks (and why very few people in my lab know about it). I’m also learning a couple of programs on my own and using a very tiny amount of the stuff I did in grad school to apply to my current project. I’m not sure I’ll finish something meaningful on my project. What I have are scattered pieces which will, in all likelihood, not be included in a paper. So, to compensate, I’m trying to beef up other parts of my life (and resume) and keeping my eyes open for any chances I see in the horizon, regardless of whether they include science.

A few days ago I had a sort of epiphany. Hon had mentioned, in a very heated discussion we had a few months ago, that it seemed as though I was idealizing my experience in grad school and that it all had a beautiful glow and I had no memory of the nights I was too stressed to sleep. Or when I had to answer to the drunken ramblings of an overbearing postdoc from another lab complaining about our use of a shared facility. Or when I logged on from whatever part of the world I was in to schedule jobs, or answer to emails from our IT people regarding a chunk of cancelled stuff. Hon said that is wasn’t all peaches and cream and that I had my bad days. To which I reminded him that I loved my area of research. I loved collecting  the data and showing the stuff at meetings and being proud of my work. Now, well, not so much. But that attitude has definitely had its impact on my current position. All this brought to mind that I’ve done what I loved and truly interested me for 6 years. I studied biology because I liked it. Sure, I wanted a career with a respectable pay, but I liked it. I loved learning how my body worked, how and where things originated, what types of reactions and changes happened all over the place so I could taste, smell, see. And when I did my PhD I did in something that caught my attention as an undergrad. I wanted to do it from the first day of grad school, and I didn’t even know that my former boss had a lab working on the exact two things that I had my eyes set on.  It was bliss. In the purely scholar way of thinking about academia and education, I have done what I love. It is done and over with. I can’t repeat my grad school years.

I hear postdocs and sometimes profs say how much they hated their masters or PhD work and how glad they are they switched fields. I am so happy I did my undergrad in biology and my PhD in one of the many branches of structural biology. But, from a purely capitalist point of view, I feel like an artist who has chosen passion over what really puts money on the table, regardless of how boring or dead-end it is. All these things have led me to the point of being open about moving away from science and consider other areas where I can combine some of the transferable skills I learned and have a better pay and benefits. I am trying to find something related to what I did and loved, but if it doesn’t happen, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, admits it’s enough, that I’ve fought the good fight and move on. Maybe I can do a master’s in something else that allows me to reach that level of peace, in which I can help get my family out of the hole my dad dragged them all in due to bad financial decisions, help pay off my debts, start a retirement account, take care of my aching feet, be close to all of my family, and help pay for the rest of my dreams. It may or may not be this way, but if I have to kiss science goodbye for help achieve that, then maybe that’s the way to go, and that’s OK. So dear reader, in the next few months I hope we find out whether I can stay in science or not. I hope you don’t think I’m betraying my (possibly former) field or my love and interest for science. I have truly loved what I’ve done. I’m proud of my publications, my covers, the citations and the excited looks I get when I explain what I used to do. I look at it fondly. But maybe, this is it for me. I hope I can live (happily) with that decision, if/when it comes to it. Care to stay tuned?