So many feels for this tweet:
Oh hey 17 year old self intimidated by overconfident dudes in freshman physics, oh hey anxious postdoc self sure none of it could possibly work out, oh hey super overwhelmed Assistant Prof self wondering how this job is possible: I became a Professor of Physics at Stanford today.
— Risa Wechsler (@RisaWechsler) July 2, 2019
The resonance was especially strong, because I’d been giving similar mental updates to my past self during an ornithology conference last week. It was my fifth such meeting since graduating from college and my first in my new job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). Especially since we’re so conditioned to focus on what’s yet to be done, I find meetings to be good, periodic reminders to look back on one’s professional (and personal) evolution.
In my new position, I am a researcher for a multimedia department that makes videos on bird and habitat conservation. I conduct interviews, source every factual statement in scripts, and work with filmmakers and partners to produce videos for specific conservation initiatives. Some of our pieces show policymakers the economic importance of habitat protection; others are pitched toward community investment in local biodiversity. (You can read more about the program here.) I attended the meeting to present media, scout for stories, and survey the latest in bird conservation.
This has definitely been the pivot I wanted, after having swum in academic waters for so long. I had the growing feeling post-Ph.D. that academia was close but not the best fit, and watching my postdoc advisor and grad school friends establishing their new labs confirmed I’d be happier on a different path. I also realized an ideal job would explicitly involve science communication and conservation applications, both shifts from my pure research track in evolutionary biology.
But there were such stretches of uncertainty about whether such a job existed. While a postdoc at Maryland, I applied for available positions at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, community colleges in the Triangle, and NC Fish and Game. The only interview I got was for NCSSM, where I 100% blew “Tell me about yourself” because I hadn’t yet learned the expectations for that response, despite practicing for other questions.
It’s true that thanks to that experience, I got my hands on a copy of What Color is Your Parachute? and nailed my CLO interviews once the posting came along. It’s also easy to lay everything out as a chronological success story, when in fact writing this post has taken me back to the misery of applying for jobs. The thought of sinking more time and money to build the skills for a career shift was completely discouraging. But who would hire me, a person without a competitive record in classroom teaching, science journalism, or conservation practice? Should I try to create a position for myself or keep scrolling on job boards?
And why positions in North Carolina when I was working at Maryland? I haven’t told you yet about the personal side, which was that taking that postdoc launched me and my then-girlfriend into a long-distance relationship. I went to College Park; she stayed in Chapel Hill. Sooo many words on the internet about how academic moving sucks.
The open-ended nature of being apart, anticipating more moves, and reckoning with my professional identity wore us down until my postdoc advisor kindly supported my return to North Carolina to work part-time and remotely. I ran sequence analyses on the couch, navigated the job offer (it took months to become official), fell in love with two cats, and co-planned and threw a wedding. Exactly one month after we were married, I moved to Ithaca, New York to start my job — which, it turned out, I was solidly qualified for. And eventually, my wife was able to move up too, concluding our summed two years of long-distance. It’s my turn to pile empathy on her while she figures out her next career move.
In other words, we have been stupidly lucky, and I can’t believe everything turned out the way it did.
So all of THAT [gestures at above text] was what I was carrying around inside me during the conference this time. Multiply that by 800 others carrying their own milestones, most of which I will never know, during this snapshot in time: births, deaths, promotions, engagements, divorces, illnesses, comings-out. I am sure it colored each person’s experience of the meeting. For me, this conference was a triumph. The self-talk and self-comparisons were finally gone.
Oh hey 22-year-old self giving her first public talk, oh hey grad self convinced she didn’t measure up to other presenters, oh hey postdoc self despairing at the next steps: I landed a job doing the things I love, in the same town as the person I love, at the place where 12-year-old self always wanted to work. We did it. (For now.)