Tonight I’m assembling an appendix to my thesis. Plot some data; bring it into Illustrator to clean up the formatting; write a caption and add it to the LaTeX document. Rinse; lather; repeat. I’m using an egg timer – I can handle 45 minutes of this boring stuff if I get to blog when it dings.
I’m writing a Master’s thesis; I wasn’t originally expecting that. While I am fully capable of enumerating its many flaws in a multi-paragraph bullet-pointed high-pitched single breath, I’m still proud of what I’ve produced. I wasn’t expecting that either.
Let me give you the soap opera summary: I burned out during undergrad. Dazed, packed with angst, and convinced I was too stupid for a research career, I crawled out from under the mountain of popcorn* with B.S. in hand, swearing that I would never go back.
Within a year, I was thinking about grad school. And within a year of starting grad school, I was thinking about leaving. This time, I’m swearing that I will only go back after I have figured out what’s behind my love-hate relationship with academia. I am convinced that I’m smart enough for any career I want, including a research career, but at this point I can barely even remember what it was like to want one of those.
What do I want? Oh, lots of things! I like to solve problems, especially technical ones; I like to feel helpful, which seems to mean that I do better in more team-oriented work environments; I like to learn new things and explain them to others. I am largely indifferent to which things I am learning, exactly – or rather, I am interested in almost everything. The process of choosing just one or two good questions to focus on has not been my favorite part of science.
My long-term goals have been useful things to cling to when my career is feeling stormy: I’ll work on skills that can be transferred to a job as… a ballerina unicorn! I would be such an awesome ballerina unicorn, you have no idea! But the fact that a goal keeps me afloat doesn’t mean it is anything more than handy flotsam. During calmer periods, I feel kind of dumb, grabbing my flotsam with cramping hands, and… okay, this analogy has run its course.
Anyway, the point is, I have found that clinging too stubbornly to long-term goals is actually bad for me. Not because the goals themselves are bad, but I tend to become emotionally overinvested in them, and then I freak! out! at the slightest threat to my success. Learning to keep things in perspective has meant, for me, appreciating that lots of things can happen between now and the completion of my Five-Year Plan. I might finally figure out how to hold together an exercise routine, or win the lottery, or suddenly hear my biological clock tick, or find out that I am sterile. Life would go on. I might also die in an earthquake, in which case life would not go on and I would very much regret any sacrifices I’d made that had not yet paid off.
Instead of planning for a long-term goal, I am planning for change. A good career choice is one that seems interesting in the short term, pays a living wage, and promises to provide varied and interesting opportunities a few years down the road.
So. Now that I’ve just myself seem like a really excellent long-term human resources investment… know of any interesting job openings in Seattle?
*I don’t know what that means either; it’s a metaphor. And also a Real Genius reference.