What am I doing with my (professional) life?

Last week I sat on an interview panel and discovered that, these days, job candidates research their potential colleagues just as much as their potential colleagues research them. Unfortunately for me, our candidates had not looked at my personal webpage or my Twitter feed or my blogs–all current and (fairly) lively and more or less accurate representations of me–but at, of all things, my horribly neglected LinkedIn page.

I only created a LinkedIn account because, a few years ago, I taught a “key skills” module in which I had to encourage the students to set up their own professional profile there, and I couldn’t very well  preach something that I wasn’t practicing. I log in maybe once every couple of months in order to accept networking requests, and until a couple of days ago I still hadn’t edited my profile to reflect the job that I’ve been doing for the past seven months. Armed with the knowledge that important people might occasionally look me up on there,  I forced myself to spend some time polishing up my profile and making an accurate representation of my current vocation.

Down at the bottom of the page, there is a section where you enter your “top skills”, which, in my case, were woefully out of date because they reflected none of the tasks I’ve been doing on a daily basis since 2014, when I decided once and for all that the life of an academic was not for me. My previous skills included items such as “bird banding”, “mist-netting”, “vegetation surveys”, and “paternity analyses”; my new skills include things like “marketing strategy”, “stakeholder engagement”, and “digital media”. You can only list 50 skills total, and for me to accurately represent Current Caitlin, I needed to delete Former Caitlin. The philosophical relevance of that act was not lost on me.

I am not going to lie: Even though it’s been seven years since I last touched a mist net, and I never really entertained the idea that I might ever use one again, it felt very poignant and weighty to actually remove that task from LinkedIn. Likewise, areas of expertise such as “Animal Behaviour”, “Evolution”, and “Conservation”. No matter what skills and knowledge are suggested by educational background and job history, Current Caitlin is very obviously not a scientist.

Former Caitlin, circa 2007

To be honest, I’m not sure that Former Caitlin was really ever a scientist, either. Nor was she a lecturer or a researcher or a science writer. Or, to be more accurate, she was at least moderately successful at temporarily being all of those things to varying extents, but never felt entirely at home in those roles. Former Caitlin was just waiting to figure out what in the world she wanted to do with her professional life.

The very first job I can remember aspiring to, back in my single-digit years, was Egyptologist. I was quite concerned that all the tombs and treasures would be discovered by the time I was able to join in the fun, which I’m pleased to say is not actually the case–though, of course, large portions of Egypt are way too dangerous to travel in right now, so I think perhaps I dodged a bullet there (perhaps literally).

Egyptian tomb section
I took this photo recently at the Louvre, where I made a beeline to the Egyptian section because I’m still a bit obsessed.

I don’t know what other specific careers I pondered as a child, but I do know that my obsession with birds emerged pretty early on; I was enchanted by one of my great grandmothers’ backyard bird identification books and then felt something click when I learned my first bird song. For a long time, I suppose I thought I’d end up being a professional bird wrangler. I didn’t really know what a professional wrangler would do; I just wanted to hold a wild bird in my hands and spend my days strolling through the forest, communing with nature. I thought it might look something like this:

Me with a bobwhite
Wrangling a bobwhite in Madison, Indiana, during my first field job (2001)

I had to start properly thinking about career trajectories when I began doing college applications in high school, but I felt completely unequipped to definitively declare what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. (What 16-year-old is capable of that?) I knew I liked birds, and animals in general, and that I cared about conservation and the outdoors. So, a biology degree seemed like a good idea. However, my biological education to date had been uninformative and uninspiring, and I had no idea whether I really had any aptitude in the topic or even enough of an interest in the field to want to make my livelihood in it. At the same time, I had a natural proficiency in writing and enjoyed producing both fiction and non-fiction (with occasional forays into poetry and even playwriting, heaven help me). Therefore, an English major also seemed a pretty safe bet, if not one that I found particularly inspiring.

I eventually had the bright idea that I could, perhaps, combine these two areas and do something interdisciplinary: I could be a science journalist and translate science to the masses so that they would love nature as I loved nature, and be inspired to support conservation, and vote logically because they would be educated about public policy. Basically, I would save the world through words.

Saving the world, one family of pink birds at a time

Unfortunately, this plan was totally flawed–and not just because of the idealism. The problem was that even though I am good at both science and writing, I do not actually have the temperament to be a professional science writer. I don’t want to interview people, or pump out multiple articles per week, or work to tight deadlines, or worry about the fact that people now have a two-second attention span, or stress over the feedback that you get from trolls in online comments sections. I love translating science into something that is accessible to the masses, but I enjoy it as a hobby that I can dabble in when I’m in the mood, rather than as a day job. I only realised this when I published my first article. I was proud of that achievement and definitely knew I wanted to replicate it, but I also knew that doing it full-time would suck the enjoyment out of it for me. This was a worrying revelation because that meant I needed a Plan B.

Luckily, I was in the process of doing Masters research at the time, and because it was going well, my adviser, much to my surprise, was interested in keeping me on for a PhD. I figured I’d give it a go because I liked the idea of ticking that achievement off my bucket list and I assumed that the additional qualification would open some extra doors into the realm of saving the world. By that point, I had shifted my focus to applied jobs, such as those at national parks, wildlife refuges, visitor centres, and museums, where I could either work in conservation and habitat management or develop educational outreach programmes associated with local wildlife. (I have since learned that, counterintuitively, having a PhD often renders you over-qualified for many of these jobs, and thus highly undesirable as a job candidate.)

Dr-Caitlin-in-training, checking a bluebird nest box (circa 2005)

During the penultimate year of my degree, for the sake of getting practice with job interviews and investigating whether my credentials had any real-world value, I applied for a position that was pretty much my historical idea of my dream job in science outreach. I was invited for an interview and spent the entire seven-hour car journey pondering what I would do if I were offered the position. Even if I could find a way to complete my PhD part-time while doing the new job, accepting would mean definitively turning my back on science.

By that point, I had invested nearly a decade of my life in scientific training, and I was at peak immersion in the world of science–and academia. When you’re in that world, you begin to have this feeling that anything not in that world is just not quite as important or meaningful. You feel special that you have been selected for that rarefied environment, and that you are managing to persevere within it. You feel excited by all the mental stimulation, and you feel a nervous anticipation about what thrilling results wait just around the bend. You feel that a life in this world could contain endless wonderful possibilities.

Even before I arrived at my destination, I knew in my heart of hearts that it didn’t matter how my interview went, because there was no way I could accept the job. I realised that I had long since passed the fork in the road where I might head off down the path of full-time professional outreach. I knew I needed to finish that PhD and try my hand at scientific research. I have mentally relived this journey of epiphany many times in subsequent years, with the added benefit of hindsight and the knowledge that I was, in fact, offered the job, and I can categorically state that I made the right decision and have absolutely no regrets. However, within just a few months, I had yet another illuminating experience that showed me I still hadn’t quite gotten myself on the right professional track.

At my first scientific conference, Snowbird, Utah, 2005

Conferences are a critical aspect of an academic’s life, and most people love them. You reconnect with old friends, you meet new potential collaborators, you dissect all the latest research, you show off what you’ve been doing, and you generally revel in a shared love of your topic of expertise. I have always felt extremely uncomfortable at conferences, however, because I don’t like talking to people I don’t know, I hate the way that “conversations” and “questions” are often more like “challenges”, and I am frustrated by how people can focus so narrowly on one tiny topic and almost wilfully refuse to acknowledge the existence of other concepts. Basically, conferences combine and amplify all the things I most dislike about academia.

In the summer after my quietly life-changing job interview, I attended a conference at which I was presenting some preliminary results that made absolutely no sense. It’s not my fault they made no sense–that’s just the way the data were–but I took it very hard. I felt like a failure for being unable to think of a logical explanation for the patterns I’d observed, and also for being incapable of figuring out how I could present my findings in a way that, if nothing else, at least started an interesting dialogue about these weird patterns.

Even though I kind of knew I was overreacting, I also knew that there was some fundamental validity to my inkling of scientific inadequacy, which I had vaguely felt before but then shoved aside and buried away. Lots of people talk about “imposter syndrome“, but this is not what I was experiencing. I knew I was definitely a genuine scientist, but I also felt–and still feel, with certainty–that there was a ceiling to my proficiency in that area. I was only ever destined to be, on average, a mediocre researcher. I might periodically have good ideas, and perhaps I’d even have a great idea here or there, but I wouldn’t ever consistently be brilliant or cutting-edge or ground-breaking or world-changing. I was not, and would never be, in the upper echelon of my field. I did not want to settle for being average at my chosen career–there would be no long-term satisfaction or fulfilment in that–so I knew I needed to look elsewhere.

Leaving the world of academia is a pretty definitive thing; thanks to the way scientists are evaluated (publication of research papers and acquisition of grants), even a short time out can be sufficient to close that door forever. Before I took that step, I wanted to feel certain that I hadn’t simply gotten burned out from spending too long at one institution or on one research project, so I applied for a postdoctoral position that would allow me to experiment with a change of scenery.

To make ends meet until the position began, I found work with Editage, a company that helps non-English-proficient researchers get their manuscripts up to speed before submitting them for publication in academic journals. Gruelling though this work often was, it was probably the most satisfying employment I have ever had. By comparing my final drafts with the original ones I’d been sent, I could see the positive impacts of my labours; I also learned a lot of interesting tidbits from scientific fields far removed from my own. I thought perhaps that editing might be the way forward for me, but there were two problems: First, it’s almost impossible to find full-time editorial work anywhere but in large cities such as London and New York; second, the freelance option is not very well-paid and requires pretty much round-the-clock work to yield a decent paycheck.

This is a good opportunity to mention some fundamental feelings I have about employment in general. I don’t really care how much money I earn, but I would definitely prefer to make enough that I don’t have to constantly worry about paying bills and being able to afford essential purchases such as food and medication; I had my fill of that stressful lifestyle during my graduate school days and would rather not return to it. Rather than obsessing over size of paycheck, I have always been more interested in experiencing variety and feeling mentally stimulated. I would also hope that my endeavours are making someone else’s life better and/or are contributing to society in general. Finally, I’d like to have a good work-life balance, such that I can choose where I live and have the opportunity to enjoy it on evenings and weekends rather than working around-the-clock.

Those criteria leave quite a few options as far as job choice goes, and because I find so many things interesting, I have long had difficulty narrowing my options. In addition to my obsession with birds and books, I also love, among other things, technology, art, exercise, cooking, and horticulture. I have spent significant portions of my time devoted to various endeavours in these areas (sometimes professionally), have enjoyed myself while doing so, and have shown some amount of aptitude at these tasks. For example:

I enjoy doing crafts. Lots of people like me make a living selling their crafts on Etsy. Should I try that?
I like to bake and cook; I also love tea. Might I think about opening a cafe–perhaps one that caters especially to crafty types?
Abandoned truck
I love photography. Some of my work has been shortlisted in contests and used by companies in professional projects. Could I make a living in this field?
Making scones
What about combining my love of food and photography in some way? Some food bloggers have successfully monetised their online activity…
Cait with puppy
Pet whispering in the early ’90s. A petsitter-in-training since childhood?
Caitlin in Senior Follies
I can even sing! Am I the next Christina Aguilera?

Okay, so I never actually wanted to be a professional singer. But I have legitimately thought about whether those other interests and skills might be the basis for a potential career. Some of them, such as becoming a personal trainer, for example, would require more education–if not a full degree then at least some classes leading to additional qualifications to flesh out my CV a little. I could handle that if it felt like a good investment of my time, but I have always had the sense that those areas are enjoyable to me now specifically because they are not my full-time job; as much as I love them, none of them really has the feel of something I’d want to do for eight hours a day plus some occasional evenings and weekends. (Petsitting comes closest, but encounters with incontinent cats, dogs with diarrhoea, and unexpected euthanasia requirements do tend to take the shine off things.)

Options like these were frequently on my mind as I edited, and then as I slogged my way through two years of postdoctoral research. While my interest in birds and science never waned over that period, my patience with academia most definitely did. Our perverse system expects way too much of academics. They are supposed to crank out paper after paper based on complex and time-consuming research while also mentoring junior researchers, teaching, grading, reading the literature to stay up to speed on others’  work, performing administrative duties, reviewing journal manuscripts, serving on journal editorial boards, talking to the public about their work, attending conferences, liaising with potential collaborators and funders, and writing grants to fund the next round of studies. It’s obscene, and would have felt especially onerous to me given my sense that I would be putting all that time and effort into the academic life only to generate findings that were never particularly impactful.

I dabbled briefly in the life of a non-research lecturer in the interests of trying out every single available option before really and truly calling it quits. I very much enjoyed teaching on field courses in amazing locations such as Kenya, the Isles of Scilly, and California, but even those incredible experiences couldn’t change my mind. It’s one thing to love public speaking about interesting topics, and another to be good at interacting with and engaging students in order to teach them to think for themselves. They deserve better than an introvert like me who tries to slink out of the lecture theatre as quickly as possible after class, and I deserve better than a job that requires me to wrestle with my own personality all day.

This view almost convinced me to continue being a lecturer forever, as long as it meant annual migrations to beautiful places for educational purposes.

So it was that I found myself entering the world of “professional services”, the label that the University of Exeter applies to non-academic staff roles that support the university’s education and research activities. I started out as an education administrator, which suited me surprisingly well. It involved a lot of systems and rules and processes and strict deadlines, which is perfect for an anal-retentive person like me. I enjoy things that require organisation and discipline and routines, because those things are comforting and pleasing. The main problem with education admin is that there is variety within an academic year, but not so much between one year and the next; it’s a good job for picking up and honing a range of useful professional skills, but it’s probably not something that most people would want to do forever.

Luckily for me, after only one year I had an opportunity to become a communications and marketing manager–an interesting prospect for someone who knew quite a bit about a few very specific types of communication, and pretty much nothing at all about marketing. The person who hired me pointed that fact out at my interview, but then laughed and said I would learn.

The Science of Christmas — a science outreach event that I created as a nod to the annual Christmas lecture initiated by Faraday in 1825

And I have learned, though less from taking courses and reading books and more from observing colleagues and diving right in to do things first-hand. Although I rail against the jargon, it has been fascinating to find out about “customer journeys” and “collateral” and the difference between a “strategy” and a “plan”. It turns out that marketing is both scientific and artistic; it involves careful research and analysis and data-based decision making, but also the creativity associated with eloquent expression, eye-catching design, and the crafting of compelling narratives. It requires a mixture of facts and intuition, collaboration and independence, diplomacy and going rogue. It’s engaging and fun. To my surprise, I like it.

I’m not saying that I would like marketing in any situation. There’s no way I could ignore my ethics so as to help sell something dangerous or substandard or otherwise morally objectionable–no cigarettes or fast food or $500 epi-pens for me. But it feels good to know about an excellent, life-changing thing and help connect people to it. That was always how I envisioned the process of science communication, and it’s how I envision my current job. I help academics figure out how to turn their expertise into viable classes and degree programmes, and then I help potential students figure out if those programmes will help them achieve their life goals. I find ways to make scientific results more accessible and understandable to a wider range of people. I create and promote opportunities to inspire young people to pursue STEM careers. I facilitate conversations that lead to research collaborations, student placements, and maybe even scholarship opportunities. How cool is that?

Royal Cornwall Show
Our inaugural stand at the Royal Cornwall Show. I nearly had a mental breakdown organising this event, but it was quite the learning experience! Photo courtesy of James Ram.

I’ve indulged in this incredibly long-winded retrospective not because I think my own personal history is so fascinating but because, every year, at least half a dozen students approach me with questions about some aspect of my professional trajectory. How does one get published as a freelancer? How does one find editing opportunities? Is it difficult to become a communicator or go into marketing if your undergrad degree isn’t specifically focused on those areas? Are there any full-time jobs in science communication or is it all volunteer work? Is it desirable to pursue a PhD if you don’t actually want to become an academic? Am I a failure if I leave science? How do you find a job doing what you love?

As my career path shows, you can do a fair bit of meandering and still wind up at a pleasant destination. Just because it isn’t the destination you’d set off for doesn’t mean it’s a bad place to wind up. You can have lots of interests that are great for pursuing in your free time but aren’t necessarily what you would be happy doing professionally. What you think you want to devote your life to may involve lots of behind-the-scenes stuff you don’t enjoy. Your personality may not be suited to the job thought you wanted. The career options you’re aware of at any given time probably only represent a tiny fraction of all available possibilities, so your dream job may be something you don’t even know exists.

These days, the average worker will have something like twelve different jobs over the course of his/her career. That gives a person plenty of time to experiment. Yes, that may require a lot of CV updating and application submission and interview stressing and moving around, but those are small prices to pay for the ultimate goal of doing something satisfying. Meanwhile, you pick up all sorts of skills that you’ll be grateful for one day; those quirky little things are often what make you stand out from the crowd.

I don’t know that I’ve found my final professional home in the world of marketing, but I do finally feel that I (mostly) know what I’m doing and am able to make a useful contribution. I feel comfortable the way I felt comfortable as a petsitter and an editor, only my current job has less repetition and more creativity. I don’t regret a single step of the journey, even though it has been a circuitous one, and I’m also no longer phased by the idea there may still be some twists and turns to come. I may not be 100% certain that I know what I’m doing with my (professional) life, but at least I feel like I’m on the right track. And whatever I don’t already know…I’ll learn.


In case you were wondering, I am a feminist

I really love the Internet because it has so many things to offer. It’s where I go to read about current events, and find great new music and books, and search for crochet patterns, and look up tasty recipes, and learn new photographic techniques, and browse thought-provoking essays, and just generally lose myself in an amazing array of information. I have had a great deal of happiness from the Internet. But lately it has shown me some very sad things.

There’s been this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 15.26.28

…and this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 15.27.46

One of my favourite bloggers, The Everywhereist, recently wrote about a horrific, sexist experience she had while traveling, and earlier this week writer Sara Benincasa penned an inspirational essay after being asked by a male fan why she’d gained weight. Benincasa’s comments prompted comedian Eden Dranger to follow up with some remarks about her own appearance, and her blog post has now also gone viral.

As you might expect, all of the above have resulted in a fair amount of trolling–itself the focus of some recent online attention after Joel Stein wrote a thought-provoking piece about it in TIME. More importantly, the things I mentioned above–which, you’ll notice all involve women–have opened the floodgates to an outpouring of support and love and understanding and acceptance. Much of this involves some form of “I know how you feel because I have been there too”, which I find terribly disturbing but not at all surprising, as I myself happen to be a woman and, yes, have been there too.

A friend of mine shared something earlier that nicely summarises some of the challenges associated with being a modern lady:


This cartoon focuses on appearances, but you could easily make another one of these that has to do with being career-focused/sporty/forthright/sexual/independent/childless/and so on versus whatever opposites of those traits women are “supposed” to be according to those who judge them. Basically, it is absolutely impossible to be a woman and do it right. This is not to say that it isn’t sometimes difficult to be a man and adhere to all the often-equally-imprisoning standards that society decides are appropriate for males. The problem is that women seem to be policed to a much greater extent, and hounded when they step out of line and find success and enjoyment in simply being themselves (see first photo above).

Sometimes the hounding becomes physical, and/or is targeted at the physical vessels in which we live, and to me that is a barrier that should never be breached. There are few things in this world that are well and truly mine, and even fewer things that I can control. But my body and all that it contains and makes possible–my brain, my personality, my emotions, my womb–is my domain. As far as I am concerned, it is not ever permissible or acceptable for:

  • someone to treat me unfairly or unequally because of the shape that my external shell happens to take
  • someone to make assumptions about me because my body looks the way that it does
  • someone to decide what is right or wrong for me based on the way that I look, or what is the right or wrong way for me to look
  • someone to do something to my body that is against my wishes

Those things should never happen, and yet they all have, on numerous occasions, just as they have for countless other women (and human beings in general–again, I’m focusing on ladies here because I am one and know that reality best, but I’m well aware that a range of people have been, or are, in the same boat at some point or another; it’s equally egregious no matter who suffers these indignities).

I will give you an example from my own life. This is a photo taken of me back in my high school days by a male friend of mine:

Photo Disk 2 342
(uploading photos of myself to the internet before it was cool)

He was a computer nerd and was showing me his brand new web cam, which was pretty snazzy technology at the time. I was wearing a bikini because we’d been in his hot tub with some other friends, who were also there, as were his parents, and the entire situation was completely innocent. The photo wound up online with some other photos of all of us having fun in the summer holidays, as one does when one is a teenager.

The image sat around in cyberspace doing nothing for a good year or two until someone felt the need to point it out to my mom and ask whether she wasn’t scandalised by it. She wasn’t, of course, because she is not a Puritan and knows that a) the human body isn’t anything to be afraid of, and b) you judge someone’s character by means other than photos posted online. However, having to consider this question gave her pause, just as it gave me pause when she asked me about it. For just a moment, it made me feel guilty, and dirty, as though I’d done something wrong. I was ashamed of…of…of what, exactly? Having a body? Wearing a relatively chaste two-piece bathing suit in front of others? Being comfortable enough in my own skin to allow someone to take a photo of me? Being uninhibited enough to allow that photo to be posted online without thinking anything of it?

I will give you another example. Here is a photo that I posted on my first ever personal webpage–which, incidentally, I coded from scratch because sometimes girls are computer nerds too:

Photo Disk 2 340
(i never anticipated this pose might be considered suggestive or sexy in any way)

It’s another completely innocent shot, taken (I think by my grandmother) during a moment of relaxation before heading out on a day trip somewhere. I used this image in my autobiography section, which included a link to my e-mail address in case anyone wanted to get in touch. For the longest time, I only ever received messages from my high school friends, until one day when there was a delightful missive from a (male) stranger who described all the things he’d like to do to me on that bed. My autobiography clearly indicated that I was in high school, and was underage, but of course that was of no concern to my troll, because these things never are–as Emma Watson could tell you.

I was surprised, but not hugely, because I had long since learned the rules of engagement. I was only eleven years old when I first–knowingly–received sexual attention from a man; he turned to his friend and complimented my ass in a stage whisper while both men grinned lasciviously, and threateningly, at me and the friend I was with. I was scared and, again, ashamed, feeling that somehow this encounter was one that I had brought on myself…by innocently feeding ducks at the zoo. Even at that young age, I had already absorbed this horrible notion we have in our society that the victim–particularly the female victim–is always at least partly responsible for whatever comes her way.

High school was even more educational. There was the time when (male) runners on the track team took bets about whether or not my prom date could seduce me into giving up my virginity on prom night (nope). Then there was the time I refused to perform sexual acts on a boyfriend and so he started a variety of–untrue–pornographic rumours about me. There was endless catcalling when I was out on training runs for cross country. (On an unrelated note, after receiving a call of complaint from some prude, our coach decided it was inappropriate for girls to run in sports bra tops, but totally fine for guys to run shirtless.) It was during high school that I received my first (of many) un-asked-for gropes, as well as my first full-on physical assault–pinned against a wall while someone tried to yank my clothes off.

That last one scared the bejesus out of me and made me fully aware of the perils of being smaller and weaker than approximately half the population. That’s when I enrolled in weightlifting classes with the goal of making life harder for the next–and I knew there would be a next–jerk who tried to take more than I wanted to give. I had no grand illusions that a little extra muscle would suddenly make me rape-proof, but I hoped, at least, that it would give me a fighting chance. What it actually gave me was greater athletic prowess, which was an unexpected but pleasant side effect. This may seem like a tangent, but bear with me–I promise I’ll eventually weave all these strands together into a glorious feminist tapestry.

indoor track
(mistress of the indoor track)

I didn’t know it at the time, but being good at sports was something that would come to enrich my life and keep me sane. There is nothing better than feeling your own strength, successfully guiding your muscles through complex coordinated movements, striving to push harder and achieve more and then succeeding through the force of your own willpower and stamina. My chosen arenas–the cross country course, the track, and the field–are particularly wonderful for this, because really it all just boils down to you, the athlete, and what you can do with your body. This eventually made me happy with, and proud of, my physique, but it has been a long, slow journey.

By the time I joined the running teams in college, I’d become acutely aware that my body was not like other bodies. I wasn’t shaped like the lithe long-distance runners and high-jumpers or the powerful throwers or the wiry sprinters. If you drew a Venn diagram of these three groups–the folks I spent most of my time around and knew best–I was somewhere in the overlap of all of them. This is why I eventually found a home in the heptathlon, but until I did, I just felt confused and dissatisfied. I was bigger and denser than nearly all the other runners, who seemingly subsisted solely on salads and carrot sticks and the white parts of hard-boiled eggs. Clothes didn’t fit me; my waist and my hips and my thighs were all the wrong dimensions for each other because of my musculature. I had bulgy biceps and prominent veins. When I tried on outfits in shops, things didn’t hang on me the way they hung on the mannequins. I felt like an unattractive freak.

(me at peak muscle, weighing in at around 160 lbs)

None of this was helped by my boobs. I can’t forget about those, because the world won’t let me. I remember standing up in high school once to give a presentation in front of the class, and one of the guys called out, “The turkey’s ready to come out of the oven!”–referring, of course, to my nipples, because I was cold and they were mimicking a thermometer that pops up when a roast is done. Another witty phrase I heard all the time was, “Your headlights are on!”

Those were the days when my breasts were only just getting started. They kept growing and growing throughout college, to the point that I couldn’t run unless I was wearing two sports bras, and I kept having to get rid of perfectly ordinary tops that suddenly began to look pornographic. It was a major pain–sometimes literally–and brought a lot of attention that I really didn’t want. Staring. Commenting. “Accidental” brushing up against. One of my (male) coaches talked about my boobs once, and also the “junk in my trunk”, and also my menstrual cycle, as though any of these things was a topic that had any bearing on my abilities (because, unlike Fu Yuanhui, I am not and was never going to be an Olympic athlete, so analysing the potential impacts of these things on my performance–especially given the tone and terminology my coach used–was wholly unnecessary).

His remarks felt horribly inappropriate, but he’s hardly the only one to feel perfectly natural talking about my assets. Men, women, friends, strangers; over the years, many have commented on the size and shape of my bits and pieces, as though I were an animal up for auction, as though it were somehow relevant. Sometimes people even thought they were complimenting me, but, collectively, they were making me feel that I was nothing but a piece of meat.

(a bendy piece of meat)

So there I was, wanting desperately to just be an interesting, multilayered person who was valued for her intellect and talent and generosity of spirit, someone who was comfortable being herself. Instead I felt horrifically awkward in my own body and frightened of the ways in which that body made people interact with me. It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do, what I wore or didn’t wear, what personality and achievements and actions went along with that body. It all seemed so fraught and impossible.

Sitting here over a decade later, I’d like to say that I have learned that, in fact, it is not fraught and impossible, but I haven’t. It actually is fraught and impossible. That’s why all this recent stuff online has disturbed me and sent me off on many a meandering contemplation. I’ve worked hard to find myself a relatively safe space and am lucky to be surrounded by relatively safe people; as a result, I’ve been able to minimise the extent to which I suffer from the sorts of events and situations that plagued me in the past. Do I still get catcalled, and groped, and followed in the street, and talked down to, and ogled? Of course; it just happens less. I think this has allowed me to feel that we were making progress as a society, but I suspect it just means that I’ve been insulated.

Being a woman–especially, god forbid, a woman of colour or a lesbian woman or a trans woman or an ambiguously gendered woman or whatever extra twist you want to add–is complicated and difficult. We can achieve the same things as men, or even do better than men, and still not receive the same level of respect and attention:

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We can engage in activities associated with intellect, diplomacy, business acumen, eloquence, and other cerebral skills, but still our looks are dragged into the equation as though they impact the ability of our brains to function:

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(note: i in no way support carly fiorina, but i also don’t think her appearance would have impacted her ability to function as president)

Even if we are physically beautiful and graceful and poised and elegant, it’s often deemed insufficient or inappropriate somehow–often relative to some other feminine ideal held up on high:

(seriously, WTF is this and why does it exist in the 21st century?)

In 30 seconds of poking around online, you will find memes that will make you want to leave the Internet forever, and they’re all about looks–women who are too fat or too skinny, with eyebrows too thin and drawn on, wearing clothes not appropriate for the body type, engaged in activities inappropriate to body type, and so on, and so on. Why? What bearing do those things have on a person’s worth or legitimacy? And why are there so many more of them for women than for men?

One last personal anecdote. When I was a senior in high school, I went to a photo studio to get my senior portrait taken. I was asked to bring a few different outfits and a couple props. Here are two of the resulting photos:

senior photo 1

senior photo 2

While taking the first of those photos, the photographer said that I looked nice in that outfit and that he hoped I was enjoying it as much as I could then, since I wouldn’t be able to wear those trousers when I was older–the implication being that I’d pop out a few kids, since that’s what women do, and get pudgy around the middle, since that’s also what women do. You can tell from the expression on my face that I was not loving the conversation. At no point during the second photo did we discuss the fact that I brought the guitar because I play it–just as I play several other instruments, sing, write music, and perform onstage. I guess those talents are irrelevant next to my ability to show off a decent figure.

I wish that I could wind up this essay with a resolution of some sort, but it’s not that kind of a piece; I don’t have the answer to this problem. Well, actually, I do–we should all be kind and treat each other with respect and realise that all humans are equal regardless of our various cultural and physical differences–but I don’t know how to make that happen. Humans have been struggling with these issues since the dawn of civilisation and I could probably write a whole book on the biological underpinnings of this but it’s outside the scope of this piece. I would like to say that we’ve made progress on these issues since, say, my mother’s era, but women still don’t earn as much as men even when we do the same jobs, we’re still fighting for rights to make decisions for our own uteri–not to mention dying because men are preventing access to appropriate facilities–and we’ve got armed policemen telling us what we can and can’t wear, as if they know what’s best for us.

So why have I written over 3,000 words just to reiterate that, yes, women have it rough? For two reasons, really. The first is that I’m sick of this debate over what feminism is and whether it’s needed and who is/isn’t a feminist and whether “feminism” isn’t just a nice way of saying “man-hating”. If only we sank as much time and effort into issues that impact women and their bodies–such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, arranged marriages of children, access to birth control, maternity leave, and, while we’re at it, legitimate prison sentences for people who attack women.

The second reason, which is more important, is that there is power in sharing. It’s not until you hear someone else’s opinions and experiences that you realise you aren’t alone. I have wasted time envying friends for being taller or thinner, having prettier hair or a better complexion, rocking a six-pack or a J-Lo booty, and meanwhile they wished  for my curves or my muscles or my earlobes or my who-knows-what. While I was obsessing over my own pet insecurities and thinking that everyone else was totally perfect, they were doing the same thing, and none of us realised that actually we all have something to be proud of because we are all gorgeous in our own ways–not just how we look, but, more importantly, how we act, what we achieve, and who we are fundamentally.

As the responses to the Everywhereist and Sara Benincasa posts show, we not only deal with the same sorts of raging insecurities about our bodies, but also the same susceptibility to attack–both physical and emotional. We ladies are resilient creatures, leaving our homes and navigating the world each day knowing what is lurking out there. We harden ourselves to the comments and the threats and the actions, and we learn rules about where we can go and when we can go there and how we can act so as to minimise the likelihood of unwanted attention or attack.

We become so used to these protective habits that it’s all too easy to forget how insane it is that we should have to cultivate these behaviours in the first place. You think it’s just you, or just that one guy, or just your town, or just your country, or just your culture, but pretty soon you hear enough of these stories from all sorts of women in all sorts of places, and suddenly you realise: This is a real thing. This thing is a problem, and it needs to be fixed, and it needs to be fixed now.

haverford graduation party
(surround yourself with good people who inspire you to do good things)

The amazing thing about the Internet is that even though it’s highlighted some real ugliness this week, it’s also underscored the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of other people who agree that we can be better. These people are willing to provide support and encouragement and assistance in order to tackle this problem. Many of these crusaders are men, who can benefit in a variety of ways when women are treated more equally. (Incidentally, gender equality also improves education and the economy and even the environment, and leads to social changes that improve life for other disadvantaged groups as well. Yay!)

None of us knows how many days we’ve got on this earth or which one will be our last. Why waste precious time agonising over unimportant details and being cruel to others? Let us all stop being so hard on ourselves and on each other. Let us stop worrying about what we look like, and pay more attention to what we achieve and who we are. Let us look for and praise the incredible kindnesses that humans are capable of in our best moments, and then engage in more of those. Let us all be the sort of people that we would like to encounter in our own lives. It’s a miracle, really, that each of us exists at all, and that those of us who exist now happen to be doing so at the same time in the same place. Why not celebrate that miracle with a bit of kindness for our fellow man–or woman?

Farewell to cancer

I haven’t written about cancer for a while because, let’s face it, life is short and there are better things to do than waste your time thinking about potentially fatal illnesses. There are books to read (I’m on my 30th so far this year), albums to listen to (I’ve racked up at least 219), new tattoos to acquire, and so many other endeavours worthy of my time. I pretty much only think about cancer when I run into someone I haven’t seen for a while and am asked for a recap and status update. Even as I stare in the mirror at this crazy new bedhead that has been appearing lately and fight the temptation to put the clippers into action once more, I don’t really reflect on the fact that cancer is the reason I shaved my head to begin with. I itched for a year and doped myself up with chemo for another six months, and yet I almost have a big blank spot in my memory where the lymphoma should be. For better or worse, I do remember everything from that period, so it’s not as though I’ve had some sort of protective selective memory shielding me; it’s just that I find cancer boring to ponder. I had it, I got treatment for it, I’m now in remission and hope to stay that way. Time to move on.

Or, I should say, almost time to move on. It feels wrong not to provide some closure to the cancer adventure, so here I am with a few last comments–a sort of eulogy for the lymphoma in order to bid it adieu.

I’d like to start with a few graphs that I whipped up to explore the changes in my blood work over the course of my treatment. I’ve been pondering whether it is narcissistic or just nerdy to create graphs from one’s own medical data, and all I can say is that you can take a girl out of academia but you can never take the academic out of the girl. It’s hard to say no to a good time series. Let’s start with haemoglobin, shall we?


Haemoglobin is the protein in your red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen; anaemia is a condition that results when you have too few red blood cells, which is common in cancer patients for a variety of reasons. As you can see from my handy graph, there were a couple of times when I was nearly anaemic, but, overall, I was in pretty good shape throughout my treatment.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I didn’t keenly feel the loss of my friendly red blood cells. Lower haemoglobin levels can result in a faster heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, and difficulty engaging in athletic activities. I experienced all of those symptoms at various times, sometimes panting after just a few steps on a staircase or after summiting the tiniest of crests. I tried to distract myself from the struggle by imagining that I was an adventurer acclimating to altitude at an exotic base camp somewhere high in the mountains.

leu and neu

Leukocytes, otherwise known as white blood cells, are an integral part of the immune system, earning their keep by fighting off infection. Neutrophils are a particular type of leukocyte–the most abundant type, to be exact. The neutrophil count is derived from the leukocyte count, which is why the curves in the graph above mirror each other so closely; the neutrophil values are merely a percentage of the overall leukocyte numbers. As you might guess from the general pattern above, chemotherapy kills off white blood cells, which is why my counts drop precipitously after my first treatment and then rise exponentially after the last. I’m not sure about the cause of the increases and decreases in the middle, since I can’t think of why my white blood cells would rebound roughly every month despite the fact that I was getting chemotherapy every two weeks. Something to ask about at a future consultation (more on which below).

Having such low leukocyte levels–though mine didn’t ever fall too far below “healthy” levels–can result in an increased susceptibility to infection. For this reason, I was told to buy a thermometer so I could keep track of my temperature and immediately respond to a fever. There were signs all over the haematology clinics advising patients not to enter if they were ill (particularly with gastroenteritis), and I subsequently became the most obsessive-compulsive hand-washer that ever was. Despite being convinced that I would wind up catching every cold, flu, or gastrointestinal bug that made the rounds in my department at work, I actually never had a single transmitted illness during chemo. Go figure.


Platelets, or thrombocytes, are responsible for helping blood clot. My platelet count took a nosedive after the first chemo session and still hasn’t recovered. However, “normal” levels are anything from 150 to 450, so I’m not exactly in the danger zone. Having a lower platelet count can cause you to bleed for longer and bruise more easily, but I can’t really comment on whether I suffered these side effects because I don’t normally experience much bleeding or bruising except when prodded by phlebotomists and subjected to cannulization. *ahem*

All of these counts were done before each chemo session to ensure that I was healthy enough to receive treatment. Sometimes the levels drop so low that chemo can do more harm than “good” (it’s all relative here but you know what I mean), and a patient needs to reschedule. That never happened to me–in fact, my doctor told me that my values were frequently better than those of a normal, healthy person–but I did encounter some folks for whom this was a recurring problem.

I would be really interested in comparing the during-chemo data with the values from the blood work I had done prior to my diagnosis, as well as the readings I will continue to get every two months at my follow-up visits…

…which brings me to my second main point: where I am today. Several weeks after my final chemo session, I underwent a CT scan to look for any signs of rogue cancer cells hiding out in my lymph nodes (or anywhere else in my body, for that matter). The CT facilities in Truro were under construction and I hadn’t officially transferred to my new hospital in Devon after having moved to Exeter, so I had no choice but to take the train allllll the way from Exeter St David’s to Penzance so that I could be run through the scanner at the West Cornwall Hospital. The cherry on the top was that the hospital was, at that time, experiencing an outbreak of the norovirus, and patients were being advised not to visit unless absolutely necessary. Luckily, the adventure was worth it; the results showed what my doctor was anticipating, which was that I am in remission.

As much as I was ready to walk out of Treliske and never return, I was sad to say goodbye to Dr Forbes. He was everything you could ever ask of a doctor: charming, kind, funny, honest, intelligent, engaged, reassuring, patient, and just generally wonderful. What do you say to someone who could legitimately be described as having saved your life? How could “thank you” ever encapsulate the full extent of all that you are grateful for? We had an extremely short conversation and then I whisked out of his office, relieved but not surprised, hoping never to see the inside of the Royal Cornwall Hospital again but also wishing that didn’t mean that Dr Forbes was handing me over to someone new.

The handover itself involved a referral letter that triggered a series of other letters and phone calls that eventually resulted in my having a new consultant at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. His name is Dr Claudius Rudin, who is no Dr Forbes but is still someone who suits my personality rather well. He was quite matter-of-fact and willing to discuss everything scientifically and in detail, which is exactly what my inquiring mind requires. He reiterated two things that Dr Forbes had already told me: 1) The follow-up visits are more for my mental health than anything else, since a recurrence is more likely to be detected by me than by blood tests or gland palpations; 2) If the cancer does come back, I’ll probably experience the same symptoms all over again, i.e., the dreaded itching.

Dr Rudin confirmed that the blood tests I get now are, statistically speaking, useless for making any sort of cancer-related diagnosis. This has actually been proven by research, but because haematologists are sadists, he’s going to have me continue to visit the phlebotomist anyway. Cruel. He also said that he’s quite the hands-off doctor and while he’s happy to answer any questions I have at any time, and investigate any symptoms that make me nervous, he’s equally happy to do the consultation over the phone or deviate from the every-two-moth schedule if my calendar dictates. Like Dr Forbes, he was referencing current literature left and right, and that makes me feel very good; I like people who know their stuff and communicate their knowledge plainly. Also, he’s very tall and Germanic, so he’s quite authoritative. You can’t not believe what he says.

I’ve saved the most important point for last. I wish I had an image to accompany this, but there was no way for me to get one because of photography restrictions inside the hospital. So I’ll give you two shots of chemo Caitlin instead:

Wearing all the kit I'd been given to monitor my heart palpitations...which vanished as soon as I was hooked up, of course.
Wearing all the kit I’d been given to monitor my heart palpitations…which vanished as soon as I was hooked up, of course.
Taking the train to the hospital on my last day of chemo, looking exhausted but feeling smug.
Taking the train to the hospital on my last day of chemo, looking exhausted but feeling smug.

Looking at my face–and particularly at my eyes–in those photos, you can see that chemo is not an easy thing. I felt calm and positive throughout my treatment, and I never once had a moment of doubt that I would reach the light at the end of the tunnel, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the trip through the darkness. Those are serious drugs with serious side effects, delivered in an unpleasant way to tackle an unpleasant condition. Other than finally having an excuse to shave one’s head, there is nothing good about having cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t goodness to be found in the situation, and as amazing as Dr Forbes was, as unbelievably friendly and cheerful as the haematology clinic tea cart volunteers are, there is nobody on this earth who can compare to the haematology nurses. Those women are as near to saints as I think I will ever meet in my lifetime, and I simply do not have the words to describe what they meant to me, how indebted I am to them, and how inspirational they are.

Their faces are indelibly etched into my memory, as are the conversations we had during the endless poking and prodding and administration of drugs. We talked about Pilates, birding, deeper meanings of dreams, what it’s like to be an immigrant, British culture, places to go when visiting America…you name it, we covered it. They all learned my name and could greet me personally. They remembered where I liked to sit and which techniques worked best for getting my cannula in. They helped me count down to my final treatment and celebrated when they said goodbye on my last day.

I have been among their first patients in the morning, and was once their very last patient at night, and I can confirm that there is no point in between that they stop smiling or encouraging or caring or helping. They never have a moment’s rest; they sometimes receive abuse from grumpy patients; they have to deal with some of the most unpleasant of bodily functions; they often are trying to help patients that they know are dying despite their best efforts. It doesn’t matter. From the second they enter the ward to the second they leave, they give everything they have to make you feel better. I have never seen such selflessness or positivity in the face of adversity. They are truly remarkable.

I am not the sort of person who thinks that things happen for a reason, so I don’t think the cancer was sent my way to effect some great change in my life. However, there is a difference between something’s having an intrinsic meaning and something’s being found meaningful, and I will readily admit that I have indeed found meaning in this experience. It has shown that people can be kinder than you ever imagined. It has revealed that a positive attitude really can make a difference. It has proven that you truly can eat so much pizza that you lose your taste for it. It has demonstrated that if you write a book about flamingos, everyone you know will send you a get-well-soon card with a flamingo on it after you’re diagnosed with cancer. And, most importantly, it has confirmed the validity of Emily Dickinson’s great observation:

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”

So don’t waste time. Go out and live it while you can.