Friday, August 5, 2016

Packing my parachute

Tuesday morning, I had a meeting with E. Walking into her office, I immediately shut the down and then tried to calm myself as I sat to face her. The first words out of my mouth where "this is really hard for me," at which point I burst into tears. Something I really didn't want to do.

For the next hour E and I talked. We talked about my postdoc and how grateful I am for this opportunity to be working in the lab. We talked about long-term career goals and paths we've both taken. Then I took a deep breath and shared with E the email I received last Friday. The note from the director of a program training scientists to do curriculum development for science education.
Hi Cristy, I hope that you are well.  The Genetics positions is posting next week and already went out to the listserv and on our site.  If you are interested in applying and the timing seems right, please do! Take care,Hanna

Last Autumn, following my arrival to my current position, I attended a talk geared towards academic scientists. Titled "Pack your parachute," it laid out the realities of being in academia: the bad pay, the extreme competitiveness of securing funding and even a job and the high attrition rate. His whole message was those who went down this route should be prepared to sacrifice everything else in their lives to pursue this career.

But the most important thing this young professor said during this lecture, which left the packed room severely depressed, was that the only reason to pursue this career was because it was fun. Fun meaning that even during the bad moments you'd find yourself excited about what you're doing. Fun being that you don't have to defend why you love what you're doing. Fun in that given all the sacrifice, you wouldn't trade what you're doing.

I've known for a long time that I have zero interest in being a professor. But this lecture motivated me to really examine not only why I loved science, but what I really wanted to do with it. Initially I thought it would be working in consulting, but after a couple of encounters that left me sick to my stomach, I realized that instead of completely abandoning the path I was previously on, I needed to modify it. I needed to go back to what I had been building up over the past 4 years and even during my time in graduate school and find a way to put a new spin on it.

In 2011, just before I defended my dissertation, I applied for my first position as a visiting professor. The application was a long shot and I really didn't think I would get the position. I learned later that one paragraph my cover letter grabbed the attention of some of the faculty.
My interest in teaching came from my failure as a student. As an undergraduate, I did not perform well in my introductory science courses and was frustrated that the long hours spent studying were not effective. It wasn’t until I started working as a teaching assistant that I recognized these same frustrations in many of my students. It wasn’t long after this realization that I began working with others science educators who were modifying teaching practices in order to increase student learning.     
For the next 2 years, I spent working in a position I thought I would love. I taught courses. I ended up forming a collaboration with a colleague doing research. In theory, working at a small college was perfect. And I learned so much in such a short period of time.

But I didn't like how the administration resisted me modifying my courses to increase student learning. They wanted me to teach in a manner that prioritized memorization over practicing science. I got feedback of students being unhappy when they were challenged or asked to interpret data. I remember being told I was "intense" or "scary" because I asked questions during student presentations. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to do evidence-based teaching. I wanted my students to be pushed outside their comfort sphere as discomfort and struggling correlate with learning. Most importantly, I wanted them to learn how to be critical of data presented and how to form their own opinions.

And so I began to hunt. To look for people that were having this impact. The first group came in the form of science educators at my graduate institute. They were breeding a new field of science education and providing data for what worked and what didn't in the classroom. They were publishing too. But most importantly, they were having an impact on their students. They were reaching those who didn't see themselves as being good at math and science. And it was making a difference.

Since Spring, I've been taking the bus from campus into the medical school for meetings. A new group has formed bringing science educators together to share projects, get feedback and brainstorm. Following my first meeting, I texted Grey to announce that I had found my tribe. And so I began to interact. I began to meet independently with different members of this group, trekking across the city to do so.

Some meetings were non-starters. But other meetings left me inspired. And as I met with many, I began to get a clearer definition of what I wanted to do moving forward. Or at least where I wanted to start.

About a month ago, I learned that the search for one of these positions had fallen through. Sitting with the group before the meeting started, they talked about the candidates and their frustration that none were a good fit. Quietly, I typed out an email to the director asking her about timeline to fill. She answered telling me that they hadn't originally considered me because I had told them I needed another year in my postdoc. But that it that had changed, I should definitely apply. I didn't respond because though I was interested in the position, I didn't think the timelines would match up. After all, I had made a commitment to E. I had to honor it.

I wasn't until I had a similar offer during a meeting with a new education group that also does science policy and works with the community that I began to reconsider. After all, the goal of this postdoc was to find these opportunities as well as to learn new techniques. I have zero desire to set up an academic lab (especially now with the current political climate and lack of funding). But also, I'm tired of being a trainee. I'm tired of waiting.

E has been amazingly supportive. Without missing a beat, she told me to apply and we made a plan for me finishing up if I do get the position. She told me she wouldn't advertise for a new postdoc until I was offered a position, but we have a plan moving forward.

My letter writers have also been supportive. All of them very excited that an opportunity like this even exists. They are awaiting my application, which I need to get to them soon.

All of this has been surreal. My CV is updated, but I need to work on my cover letter and teaching statement (and if anyone wants to read, please let me know). Despite the personal invitation to apply, I'm nervous. None of this is in stone and it's possible someone even more amazing will come along and secure it. Nothing is truly guaranteed.

Still, I won't know until I try. I won't know until I assemble this application and take the purge into a world that I'm excited about. And even if there's failure, it doesn't mean this is the end. Maybe that's the most important part of this process.


  1. I am so excited that you are taking this leap of faith and can't wait to follow along! In fact, I'll probably be living vicariously through you because I'm feeling a bit bored with my work and sort of want to try something different but have no clue what (which is obviously perfect timing considering that we just bought a house so are tied to this location for a bit). I have absolutely everything crossed for you!

    I'd be happy to read your cover letter and/or teaching statement. I'm a shitty editor, but I might be able to give some decent feedback. :)

  2. Good luck! You never know what will happen until you try.

  3. This sounds like an amazing opportunity for you and in the right circle of people too. wishing you all the best! Where ever it may take you.

  4. Wow! What an amazing opportunity! I can't wait to hear what happens!

  5. Well, having seen the passion in your eyes as you spoke about reaching young students and igniting their love of science rather than squelching it, I am very excited by this prospect.

    Though I'm sad for E. ;-)

  6. Good for you for making this leap! So excited for you and this new opportunity! Good luck!

  7. Good luck! I am so glad that E is so supportive. You sound like an AMAZING science educator, and I hope you find that space where you can do what you love (and it sounds like you're really good at it). It is scary to be challenged in a presentation, but that's such great experience. You should be able to defend your stuff, for lack of a more academic word. I am rooting for you and hope that the timing and the application process all works in your favor!

  8. This is so awesome Cristy!!!!! I hope this works out. A lot of July b changes for me lately and although scary, it feels good. I felt I was going to disappoint a lot of people by stepping away from my original path, but it's been worthwhile and so not as scary as I drummed it up to be. Funny that people aren't actually as caught up in what I do in life as I am haha! Good luck!!!!!

  9. This all sounds exciting. I'm glad you have supportive mentors. I'm just entering the finishing my dissertation and figuring out what I really want to do phase. Following closely to see how you navigate the process. Hoping all the best for you.

  10. OK, I haven't read ahead to see if you've heard anything yet, but this all sounds incredibly exciting and right up your alley. So excited for you!! & so glad that E. is being supportive. Even if you don't get this particular position, it definitely sounds like a step in the right direction & a learning experience. Good luck!!


Design by Small Bird Studios | All Rights Reserved