Friday, March 30, 2012

Where it all began, Part 6: To the present

The third year of my postdoc passed quietly.  Somehow, the original plan to do a two-year postdoc (and let me emphasize, it was a very concrete, inflexible plan when I started) molded into three and a half years.  No job offers (or any kind of interview for that matter).  No big awards.  No signs to guide my way and reinforce that I was on the right track for an academic career.  There were six months left on my contract, and I either needed to get some funding on my own or find a new job.  It should be pointed out that 'a new job' meant a postdoc or tenure-track position, and nothing else.  I had, at this point, realized that my 'career' was unsustainable, but I couldn't open my mind to the possibilities of jobs outside of academia.  What did all those people do anyway?

So, I did the unthinkable.  I started another postdoc.  I didn't have to move; I only needed to change departments at my current institution.  The new position ensured more 'applied' work and would give me exposure to a new field - one that was closer to cutting-edge science.  This solved all my problems:  I had another decent size contract (two years), it still paid better than those in North America, and I didn't have to move.  I could continue to do the things I had been trained to do.  It seemed no more decisions regarding my future needed to be made.

Just before I started the new position, all the doubts came back.  Where am I going with this second postdoc?  How did two years turn into six (including the new contract)?  Do I keep waiting indefinitely for a professorship to open up while just scraping by and continuing to pay the absolute minimum on my mountain of student loans?  I still wasn't desperate in the sense that I would consider any location for a tenure-track position.

And then it happened.  The tenure-track position that I had been waiting for opened up in the city I wanted to live in.  I immediately forgot all the concerns of the postdoc experience.  I remembered why I got into this in the first place.  At the same time, I found two other positions in cities that I didn't hate.  I applied to all three.

That was six months ago.  During that time, I finally (I should never use that word based on how I used it in my mind previously) figured things out.  I began to consider long-term scenarios.  Three large problems remained when I considered my current position:

1.  Money.  I hate to say it, but it is a huge factor.  Much of the unhappiness in my day-to-day life stems from money (or lack thereof) issues.  It was not uncommon to miss payments to credit cards and loans based on my current monthly budget.  Also, if any non-budgeted expense popped up (and we all know this happens all the time) it meant that I would have trouble eating for the rest of the month, or that I would miss a payment.  To add to the actual money problems, pursuing an academic career (or one that requires the education/training culminating in a Ph.D.) results in a sense of entitlement.  Although I try to fight it daily, I am bombarded with thoughts like: 'I have a Ph.D.  I worked hard to get here.  I should be making a reasonable amount of money because I earned it by doing all this education.'  These conceptions are rooted in the meritocracy of academia - if you work hard enough and do enough schooling, you will be rewarded.  In total, the money situation needs to change, both by looking for other jobs that could pay more in the end, and also by getting away from thoughts of entitlement in the academic world.

2.  Location.  I initially thought living in another country would be a life-changing experience.  This has turned out to be true.  There are many things I enjoy about where I am and I am grateful for having this opportunity.  However, I can't picture myself being here long-term.  I don't fit in (although I am nearly certain I won't fit in anywhere).  I enjoy the traditions, but they are not my own.  I have explored what I can.  It's a great place to be, but I never considered living here five or ten years in the future.  It is not what I pictured for my life.

3.  Future prospects: stability and advancement.  Theoretically, provided I secure the funding, I can stay in my current institution indefinitely.  But, I would never progress past a post-doctoral researcher.  I would remain at the same pay grade forever, with no chance of advancement to any higher positions.  Do I really want to be a permanent postdoc?  It is a bit discouraging to continue to do daily work knowing that: 1) nobody really cares about your research, and 2) even if it is great work, you won't be rewarded for it (apart from the 'rewards' of the academic system - reviewing more papers, presenting at conferences, etc.)  When you consider this and include the lack of stability based on available funding, the situation seems bleak.

So, I made a decision:  something needs to change.  It's disappointing because I truly enjoy my current postdoc work.  It is more applied and has real outcomes.  Day-to-day work is great.  The people are outstanding.  But when I think of the three points above, I remember why I need something else.  To change means a new job, and because there are no tenure-track positions available (or they don't want me), that means non-academic work.

Now we reach the present month.  Four weeks ago, I wrote my first resume in sixteen years, including I template for a cover letter.  I started to apply to non-academic jobs, and I limited myself to positions that had a bit of a link with what I am currently doing.  Over the last few weeks, the cover letter/resume has evolved considerably, and it is a bit funny to look back on my first attempts.  In total, I have applied for 18 non-academic jobs, including one here (although that particular application doesn't fix problem no. 2 above).

And how are things turning out?  Not so good so far, but I suppose I should be expecting that.  No interviews yet, and two rejections.  I am starting to wonder how much the distance factor may be affecting my applications.  Why would they take the time to interview someone that has to fly in?  Maybe they don't care, I am not sure.  It's not like I am asking them to pay for the interview travel (although if it came up, I would definitely ask).  I have realized now that in my zeal to get applications out, some of the jobs I applied to are completely uninteresting, and I would be almost relieved to hear they didn't work out.  Of course, part of that is my 'comfort' in my present situation.  Yes, it is not sustaining, but I know the work, I am trained for it, and I really like what I am doing.  What if the next job is horrible and I hate it?  The age-old 'I'll take the devil I know' conundrum is now a definite influence.  It's a shame, really, that this is what sixteen years of career training has produced:  a wandering postdoc, with no future prospects, aimless in a sea bereft of stellar guidance.

What about the three tenure-track positions I applied to?  I ended up getting a phone interview for one.  They originally wanted to do an on-site interview, but couldn't afford to fly me out (or so they say).  A month or so later, they told me I wouldn't be getting another interview.  The second application was quicker - I got a rejection email.  And the dream job?  I am still waiting...

But I have a plan.  Something needs to change.  If the dream tenure-track job that I applied to turns out, then great!  I would be happy to keep on with what I am doing, and I also now have more knowledge about what a professor job would be like.  I won't apply to any more professor jobs.  This is the last one - the one I have been waiting for.  Although it will hurt to move on, I am prepared (and have already started) to find employment outside academia.  I am not sure what it will be, or if it will be something I want to do, but something needs to change.  I now feel in control (somewhat, anyway) of what I am doing.  I am not waiting for professorships or funding.  I am looking for a job, plan and simple.

Wish me luck!  (I am going to need it - stupid transferable skills).  I'll keep posting on my search and any updates, and good luck to those with similar experiences.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Where it all began, Part 5

It was during my third year of my postdoc that I began to submit job applications in earnest.  Postings in my discipline seemed relatively rare, and when I considered my actual 'expertise' - the field which I had been trained in - it seemed as though none of them truly fit.  I finalized my current CV, wrote a long, boring cover letter, and in total, sent off ten applications for tenure-track positions.  I excluded some positions (but not all) based on location.  I was not at all confident in my applications when I truly thought about them, but I convinced myself that I had a shot.  Someone had to get these jobs, and I had an OK CV including a prestigious postdoc coupled with a fresh desire to conquer the research world (which had taken several steps back in the last year).  I started to investigate the places where the jobs were located including housing prices and activities.  I pictured life at these particular universities and started to get excited about working there.  A couple of them I felt as though I would truly belong.  How could I possibly know?  I had met nearly no one there and had never visited, but I solidly convinced myself it was meant to be.  Ten applications seemed like a lot, and I knew I would get a couple of interviews and maybe even a couple of offers that I would have to choose between.  I came up with many different arguments considering scenarios of which offer I should accept.  What would I do if both University A and University B offered me a position?  What if I got an offer from one, but the process hadn't finalized for some of the other ones that I figured I wanted the most?  How do I go about asking for more time if I had an offer in my hand?  It is going to be tough to pick from so many opportunities!  I actually started to stress about the inevitable decision I would have to make.

A month passed.  I became acquainted with the academic waiting game - the confusing process required by applicants as committees are formed and candidate profiles are reviewed at an incredibly slow rate because no one cares to fill an academic position quickly.  I remained hopeful, and my days were continually highlighted with the prospect of receiving an email inviting me for an interview.  I continued to picture myself moving to one of these places - some days I knew I would be a perfect fit for University A, and others I knew it would be University B.  I had the world by the tail.

Four months passed.  No emails came.  The F5 key on my keyboard was starting to wear from constant use.  Every time I walked past my computer, I checked my emails.  Every time I walked by my mailbox, I checked.  I got stressed when I couldn't check constantly, and when that happened, I felt a strong surge of anxiety/excitement to open up my email program.  There had to be something there now...

It ran my life.

I couldn't concentrate fully on anything else.  I needed to be moving into the next stage of my life.  I did receive one letter in the mail stating that ' the competition was fierce for this position and we received many excellent applications including yours.  Unfortunately...'  Oh well, at least they wrote a letter and tied it off for me.  Sometime after, I started to forget about the applications.  F5 got a break.  My mind felt 'healthier' again.  The problem was, I had learned nothing, other than I hate waiting for things to happen in my life.  I settled again into my postdoc work, and believed I could make the best of it as the job it was, with no means to an end.  It was just a job.  I don't have to look for something else, I just need to do my current job, and that is it.  Of course, this type of rationalizing only serves to suppress the problem and hide it away in the recesses of my mind.  Over the next few months, constant reminders abounded, prodding the painful problem to begin to resurface.

There is no future.

You can't stay here forever.

But where is there to go?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Where it all began, Part 4

Let me start off by saying this:  in terms of the academic route and my particular field, my postdoc position was the dream job (I am trying to look objectively here).  It paid slightly better than comparable positions in North America, I was living in a beautiful city that was not excessively large, some of the most notable names in my field were working there, and my contract was for an initial period of two years with no teaching required.  I figured I could finish up in about a year and half, move back, and finally reach the entrance of the career I was trained for.  These advantages are all still true, and I couldn't have asked for a better path, but semi-random circumstances in life still have a way of conflicting with our ultimate goals.

My postdoc started great.  My colleagues were incredibly informed and knowledgeable, and always approachable with new ideas.  Unfortunately, mostly due to rushing out of my Ph.D. program and partly due to the slow academic publishing process, I still had a bunch of papers to finish from old work.  Not only did this bring a constant rehashing in my mind of previous events, I now had to work on two separate projects that did not mingle well.  About a year after my Ph.D., I finished up the last of these papers (via submission, and of course, this is not really finishing but introducing more work down the road).  It was truly freeing to have cut ties with any of the old stuff.  I could now work solely on my new project, and try to 'double my output' that was necessary to be competitive in finding a tenure-track position, as I alluded to in a previous post.

The initial year past.  I was nowhere near producing anything tangible, and I needed to start thinking about applying to jobs so that I could have a position when my postdoc was done.  My CV wasn't terrible, but it was not in the shape that my Ph.D. supervisor advised me it should be for getting a faculty job.  I also compared myself to others in my position - people I had graduated with, and those present at my current postdoc job.  Although I didn't have concrete information (I did have a look at some of their CVs), I felt I was not competitive even with my own peers, so how could I compete at an international level?  I didn't have a good feeling of the current job market as I hadn't even looked for postings, so I still didn't know how many jobs were around and the typical qualifications.  Doubling my output during two years was obviously not an attainable goal, so I figured I should just take some more time.  Once again, I had made a completely uninformed decision, although I did not make it lightly.  First, if I didn't start looking early for a job, my contract would expire and I would be stuck looking for another quick postdoc somewhere else.  Second, why did I expect in another year that things would improve drastically (in terms of my CV)?  I suppose I thought I just needed more time to adjust and realize some results of my project, which was true.

Another year passed, and technical difficulties, a euphemism for an incredibly slow research process, prevented me from writing anything more than conference abstracts.  Luckily, I was able to extend my current postdoc contract for a year, so the pressure was off for a bit.  I was entering the third year of my postdoc, and I finally started to appropriately visualize my situation.  Many thoughts began to swirl around in my head, and I experienced periods of time when I was so excited about my project I knew I was meant to be a researcher, followed by an equally long duration categorized by feelings of doubt and isolation.

There was no future.

Answers to my persisting questions depended on my mind's current placement either on a 'hill' (optimistic, my work is great) or in a 'valley' (this sucks, I am going nowhere).  Some of the things I thought about were (with corresponding answers from my mind viewing the situation 'from the outside', from which you can figure out my mood at the time):

Q:  Why are there so many postdocs with incredible CVs and more experience/seniority still working in a postdoc position here?
1.  Because this is a world-renowned institution, and who wouldn't want to work here?  Plus, that must mean you are pretty great to be working here, and of course an opportunity will open up soon based on your pedigree.
2.  Because there is nowhere else for them to go - they grabbed the first thing open to them because they were applying for all kinds of positions, or they know they can't get anything else.  Don't think for a second that you didn't luck out getting this job.  For some reason, you slipped through the cracks and they were scrambling to fill a position.  You shouldn't be here.  These people are smart.

Q:  Why have none of the postdocs in my graduating cohort found a tenure-track position?
1.  There is absolutely nothing available.  They are far more trained than you are with more papers and books, and they still can't find anything.
2.  The postdoc process can take some time.  They are in the same boat as you - waiting for a few more papers and enjoying their current situation - you are in good company.

Q:  Why do I think a little more time in a postdoc (i.e. more papers, grant writing) will help me find a job?
1.  Because that is just the way it is - you need X number of papers to get a job, so you just need to stick it out until you get there.
2.  Because you are a moron.  You really think you can begin to compete, from a behind position, with all of the highly trained postdocs out there?  You would have to massively improve your CV, which is not possible, and make sure that you get some funding so it looks like someone wants you.  By the way, what is the current acceptance rate for grant applications?
3.  You are doing OK, and hopefully someone will need your specific discipline for a specific job.  Still it is good to get more papers in that area to be completely prepared.

Q:  Why are even senior scientists struggling with funding?  It seems as though that is all they talk about.
1.  That is all they talk about.  They are barely scraping by and their CVs are huge.  They can barely get grants.  You will never get a grant.  And by the way, you are a moron.
2.  They are partly administrators and need to make sure they look good in front of the directorship by providing more projects and contributions.  You just need a little experience, and just remember that a lot of the proposals get rejected - that is just how it goes.

In most cases, all of the answers have a piece of truth to them, but the state of 'reality-check' was starting to sink in.  I was no longer enamored with the academic process of grant writing and trying to get a tenure-track job.  This was in major opposition to my previous romantic thoughts of the senior scientist on the brink of discovery.  Of course, I already knew this was not the case, but the unrealistic dream had, up until this point, permeated my subconscious mind.  I evolved.  I began to develop a  political mindset - this is how things are, and you need to be able to manipulate situations in your favor.  Journal articles and grant writing are necessary evils which will accomplish the end goal.

But wait, what is the end goal?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Where it all began, Part 3

Picking up and leaving for grad school in another city was actually quite easy for me at the time.  I was headed, just like my undergraduate degree experience, to a higher-education institution to pursue scientific research.  It seemed I had no real reasons to stay where I was - my program was over and I wasn't really tied down.  I was somewhat familiar with the city and university where my grad program was.  In retrospect, I gave up a lot.  I was renting a house (albeit rather small) for a good rate from a friend in a decent neighborhood, I was close to family and friends, and I knew the city well.  But these luxuries did not concern me in my ill-founded pursuit.  So, I took out some more student loans (which would be easy to pay back with the secure, well-paid job I would get later) and headed out.  I even cut short a decent summer research job by three months to get a jump on my new position.

This type of thinking - the constant rush to get things done and move onto the next stage - would become a familiar motif (i.e. plague) throughout the next stages of my life.

I didn't stop to enjoy where I was, or to think about where I should be and how I could get there.  I just wanted to start the next step, and so I did as quickly as possible.  My first year in grad school was quite an adjustment, but I didn't find it too difficult.  I had a few courses I needed to take, both in my new 'applied' field and some others oriented to pure science 'relevant' to the discipline.  I also had to teach six hours a week.  At first, I enjoyed the teaching.  I was optimistic and I knew I could develop new materials and presentations that the students would really enjoy.  I would be nominated for the best student instructor - it was just a matter of time.  Of course, after a semester or two, these feelings waned.  The incessant marking and class planning and student excuses of why they couldn't hand in a particular assignment on time became a constant irritant.  Attendance in the classroom was mandatory, and we were supposed to dock ~10% from the overall grade of a student for each lecture they missed.  This resulted in many resourceful reasons why a student wasn't present on a particular day.  I can still remember one student in particular that couldn't make it to class because they forgot to change their watch to daylight savings time.  It didn't help the student's cause that the conversion to daylight savings happened a week prior to the class - they were compelled it was a reasonable excuse.  And so it went, on and on.  I was also introduced to the inherent inflation of grades in order to make my classes seem reasonably 'smart' or that they achieved a certain level. As an instructor, I was forced to maintain a class average of 75%, and it didn't matter how terrible the students actually were, that was the average or else my teaching was not effective enough.  For the types of courses I taught, this was completely unreasonable, and it also instilled in me a mentality of 'who cares?'  The course design intended that no one should fail the course, and it was a huge procedure if someone was actually borderline failing.  So what difference did all my marking and intensive instruction make?  I didn't put it together at the time, but now I find it odd that it may have been acceptable to fail a student for missing too many classes, but not for academic mediocrity.  Needless to say, teaching turned into something I had to do to get paid, and that was all.  I taught the same courses over and over again for a period of five years, and after the first year, I never made any changes to the instruction like I had planned.  I had run into one of the cornerstones of the late academic institution:  the students were paying the university to go there, so we need to provide them a service (in the end, a piece of paper), and the bureaucrats were intent on making this as streamlined and profitable as possible by filling all available seats irrespective of standards of performance.

I had a 'good' advisor.  Obviously, this statement comes with certain qualifiers.  My supervisor fit me well in that he didn't push me too hard but was around if I ever happened to stop by his office (which was very intermittent).  At the time, the guidance he gave me was sound.  I needed X number of journal articles published, and then I could graduate.  Then, I would go on to do a postdoctoral fellowship, and I would need to double my output in order to secure a tenure-track position.  Almost every time we met, these were the discussions we had, with little focus on what I was actually doing.  It worked at the time to keep me going with some goals to achieve.  I didn't mind my research, although it was no where near as 'applied' as I thought it would be originally.  Unfortunately, I also picked a really outdated research focus which was eons away from current hot topics.  The rationale was that my proposed topic was poorly researched because it was difficult theoretically and didn't have direct implications in industry.  Several senior faculty members in the department had once (circa ten years prior) worked on this project, and had since moved on to other things.  I thought, 'Who better to take the reigns and conquer this obstacle?'  Some flags should have been raised in my mind at this point, but I figured that it wouldn't matter in the end as long as I got my degree.  I quickly went through the procedure to skip my Master's degree (everyone knows you need a Ph.D.) and get into a formal Ph.D. program.  I floundered through a couple of years, not sure of what to do next or why I should do it or what I was doing it for.  After three years, I submitted my first paper, which was promptly rejected.  After all that my supervisor had said (and not to mention the countless revisions he had, which means that he basically ended up writing it) and all the work I put into it, I felt like the previous three years had been a colossal waste of time.  But wait, I could just make a few changes and send it to another journal, right?  So that is what I did, which was promptly followed by another rejection letter.  Hmm, maybe I should have switched fields, or looked into the academic process a little more at this point, but I didn't.  I fixed up the paper again, and after the 27th revision, re-submitted it and finally got it accepted (after major revision).  I had my first paper!  I justified my long path from original submission to acceptance by: 1) I was new and didn't know the ropes yet (which has some truth to it), and 2) my topic was not popular and it was difficult to understand.  Still, I kept going with no light at the end of the tunnel.

In conjunction with my recent insight into academic publishing, I overheard (it was impossible not to with the office layout) my supervisor discussing grant funding with other faculty members on several occasions.  They were very scared that they would not be able to fund grad students or operating costs and that their salary top-ups would not continue due to a major restructuring of one of the major funding agencies.  I also learned that roughly 80 contingent faculty would be terminated sometime soon.  Apparently, they were not contingent in the strict sense, but their contracts depended on funding from this particular source, and without that funding...  Anyway, it didn't concern me, because soon I would have my Ph.D./postdoc, and I would get the job anyway, and as far as my supervisor, he was already making lots of money as a professor, right?  Losing a top-up couldn't equate to that much.

During my final year, my 'let's get onto the next step' thinking truly kicked in, and I plotted a whirlwind course for finishing my program and getting a postdoc.  There were very few postdoc positions around, and I narrowed it down (or circumstances narrowed it down) to four possibilities, and I sent my applications out.  I was mildly aware prior to this point of a horrible business practice that is prevalent to academics that was grounded in me with the postdoc application process.  That is, academics are terrible, and I do not say this lightly, at communicating promptly.  Whether it be returning emails or phone calls, it is common practice to respond incredibly slowly.  In my current position, this has not changed, and I find it abhorrent.  Even if you don't consider job/postdoc application processes, it is not uncommon for an email to an academic to go three months without a response, if you get a response at all.  Digression aside, only two of the places I applied to replied, and I went to an interview at one (paid by me, of course) and ended up being accepted.

Somewhere during the last stages of my grad school program, it blurred into a combined Ph.D./'look for postdoc'/'get ready for postdoc' program.  I had four months left including my defense and I moved out of my apartment to live with family to save money for the trip to my new postdoc position.  I commuted three hours twice a week and worked 16-18 hour days while I stayed at a friends house (or slept on the floor/desk of my office).  It was terrible.  I wanted to be done.  Once again, I was rushing things.  My postdoc position was planned to start two weeks after I finished my Ph.D.  My postdoc was halfway across the world in a country I had never visited (other than the interview) and in a different culture with a different language of which I hadn't the slightest grasp.  I had to pay my way there (moving, flights, connection charges, whatever).  I didn't sit back and take a few months after my defense to think of jobs, or to think what I wanted to do.  How could I pass up a postdoc in a world-renowned research institution, with some of the brightest leaders today?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Where it all began, Part 2

My first couple years at university were spent figuring out how to study (or get away with doing as little work as possible) and trying different courses and programs.  I went through three or four different changes to my major, as my high-profile first-choice program wasn't all I expected it to be.  Even after one year, I still had no true direction regarding my program, and the last thing I was considering was the job I would be doing after university.  I was content with being a university student, and with that came a certain level of prestige; I could tell everyone I was going to university and doing some hard-to-explain science stuff.  During my second year, I finally came upon a couple of science courses I really enjoyed, and so I changed my major again and never looked back.

Of course, it was still pure science, and I didn't consider what I could do with my degree at that point.

The following summer, I did a co-op placement (doing co-op was supposed to increase your chances of getting a job after your degree because you would then have 'real world' experience), which I utterly hated.  During that time, I focused on the future - getting back to the university, where I belonged and could learn important and new things in class.  Looking back now, that co-op job was not bad at all and I was merely blinded by the bright lights of my previous (and soon to be continued) forays in the academic world.  On coming back, I studied hard and applied myself like I had never before, and ended up graduating second in my class.  (Granted, there were only about thirty people in my class, but I still thought it was quite an achievement. Also, this is not meant to enlighten everyone on how brilliant I was, but rather to convey my situation and how it affected further choices and prospects.)

I had no exposure to anyone with a degree in my field other than the professors in my department, and so I believed that, in order to be competitive for any kind of job, I needed to get my Ph.D.  Actually, at that time, I never even considered getting a job.  I was already investigating graduate studies in my final year.  I was informed by academics though, that it is not possible to get a job with an undergraduate science degree, and that you need to do at least a Master's to obtain employment.  I know I heard this directly spoken to me, and in other cases, it was very implied.

There are no jobs for an undergraduate degree in science - you need at least a Master's.  And it stuck.  I didn't come to the realization suddenly, but rather over a period of brainwashing and propaganda.  Not once were alternative (why are they even 'alternative'?) careers mentioned - but I probably wouldn't have listened anyway.

I was a student of science.  What better way is there to learn science than continue in a formal program?

In my last couple of weeks of undergrad, the department head called me into his office, and I had no clue in advance what it would be about.  As it turns out, a company had contacted him about recruiting a couple of would-be graduates to come and work for them.  The pay at the time was much better than what postdoctoral fellows make now (although I didn't know that then).  I kind of thought, 'Are you kidding me?  I just got a degree in science, and I am going to grad school soon - if an employer wants to sway my course, they had better put a '0' on the end of that number, because after grad school, that's what I will be making.'  That was definitely a major oversight on my part, with no information to back it up.  When did I even check any job boards to see what a science Ph.D. would be making, or a professor for that matter?  Did I ever even talk to a career counselor?  Of course I didn't do those things, I had three offers from graduate schools in my hand, and they were going to pay me to go to school!  I wouldn't have to pay tuition!  (But I forgot I also had to live on the measly stipend plus play tuition, so the job I was offered actually paid around 5 times as much, and not to mention the experience I would have gained...).

Do you see the obvious flaw in my logic?  If there are no jobs available with 'just' an undergrad degree, why was I offered one?  My mind never considered the possibility, and the job I was offered was not a 'job' in the truest sense, but merely impersonated an equivalent position, summed up with:  "Would you like fries with that?"  I am an academic!  I am prestigious!  This thinking also accounted for my lack of insight regarding the stipend I would be paid at grad school.

I ended up picking the intermediate offer (in terms of money) for grad school, as it was a more recognized university with a better program and facilities.  Really, what did I know at the time?  I had little tangible experience in my grad school field (only from a small project in my last year).  However, the field was labeled more like 'applied science' than pure science, so there would be definite connections and more doors opening in the future compared to those stuck in obscure fields.

Or so I thought.  In the end, did it really matter?

Off to grad school...

Friday, March 16, 2012

Where it all began, Part 1

Throughout high school, I knew I would go to university.

I had no specific plans in mind - I didn't have a specific career I was striving for like a lawyer or doctor (in the medical sense, of course!).  I didn't even know how university related to getting a job at the time, and maybe that is how most high school students think.  I did have some friends that seemed to have long-term ambitions, but I thought I would figure it out when I get there.  It was university after all - a place to explore new opportunities and find my identity, and the romance began...

I had aspirations, but no direction.

During my junior year, I started to request information about programs across North America.  I sent out countless emails from a small, ancient computer at my high school, and looked forward to checking the mail (physical, not electronic) every day.  I couldn't wait to find a shiny brochure about a top-level university that was mentioned daily on the local news.  At this point, it was all about quantity, and I didn't really care as long as I could look at a new calendar from a new university every week.

I only ended up applying to two schools that I requested information from, and they were the closest to my home town, so I settled on comfort.  I suppose I was scared to even think of applying anywhere else, mostly because of the distance from the familiar.  When I think about it, I was pretty terrified to actually 'go' to university with all the other students that I thought would know what they are doing there.  One thing I did know - I was good at science, and I knew that I would be majoring in a science field.  I looked at the calendars again, and picked out some programs that had the catchiest name or that seemed to be the highest profile, without any interest in what I actually thought I should be doing.  I ended up being accepted at both schools and agonized over the decision for a while, but picked the university with the best ranking as reported by a popular university ranking service (which is, of course, completely unbiased and quantitative in its approach, right?).  And off I went - to live by myself in a single-bedroom apartment in a city where I knew no one, a university that I had not even visited, and a program with a name I couldn't really comprehend.  Naturally, it was only for four years, and after I would have the dream job that I was perfect for with a substantial signing bonus.

And so life at the academy began...