It’s difficult to choose a single favourite part of my trip to Ireland; whenever I attempt to make a shortlist, I keep thinking, “but what about…” and then adding more stuff until I wind up with a long list of pretty much everything I did. The best I can do is recognise that some of the places I visited had a particularly strong (positive) effect on my mood, and therefore have a special place in my heart. One of these is the Lady’s Well at Lisheens, on the outskirts of Kealkill. I visited it on my way to see Kilnaruane in Bantry, but it gets its own separate treatment here because it was so lovely (and definitely not because I had technical difficulties uploading photos previously).
I had seen signs for the well while driving through town, but I didn’t immediately realise it was the same place mentioned in Jack Roberts’ Antiquities of West Cork; that’s because it’s simply referred to as “Lady’s Well” on the signage, but as “Lisheens / Parish Church and Holy Well” in the booklet. I’m still confused as to what “Lisheens” actually refers to. My best guess is that it is like “Tremough” in Cornwall; that is a historical name for a hill in Penryn, so it is equally accurate to say that the buildings in that area are “at Tremough” but also “in Penryn”. You won’t see “Tremough” on any signs because “Penryn” is what’s used on all the official paperwork, but you will definitely hear people–particularly locals and older folks–referring to the place using the traditional name. It was mighty confusing to try to locate the “Lisheens well”–which, on paper, is nonexistent–but there is something very satisfying about (maybe, if my theory is correct) knowing the “true” name of the place I visited. I kind of feel as though I’ve been let in on a secret.
As I mentioned in at least one previous post, sites that have importance to Catholics today typically were also sacred to followers of earlier faiths before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. Wells are a good example; places where contemporary Catholics now visit shrines to the Virgin Mary once were important to generations of pagan worshippers who communed with various other gods and goddesses associated with that body of water. Evidently, one of the hallmarks of Celtic Catholicism is that it involved a pretty seamless blending of the old and new faiths; although stories and traditions often evolved to reflect a hierarchy where Christianity was at the pinnacle, other beliefs and practices were still maintained alongside, without much conflict, into the 19th Century–at which point the Church finally had enough centralised power to crack down on this relatively wild and unruly outpost of its empire. Even now–or, should I say, especially now, since there has been a recent revival of interest in pagan ways–you do still find evidence that practicing Catholics are seeking out wells, stone circles, monoliths, bullauns, and so on in order to, shall we say, supplement the accepted means of requesting divine assistance.
I didn’t really know what to expect of Lady’s Well, partly because Roberts’ guidebook describes it as being in a “church yard”, by which he evidently means “graveyard” but which I interpreted as “area around a church”. I thought there would be a little chapel, with maybe a small stone trough nearby, fed by a trickle of water. Instead, what I found was this:
The cemetery is on a hill that rises up from the road and the car park, so I couldn’t see much of anything as I arrived. As I walked up the path, more and more rows of gravestones rose up in my vision; although the area wasn’t weedy–and in fact had been recently mown–it was clear that the grass had been allowed to grow very long before the trimming, and I had to trudge through ankle-deep piles of cuttings. The graves were all well taken care of–hung with rosaries, decorated with flowers and statues of Mary and these weird little terraria / globe / fishbowl thingies–but, overall, it didn’t seem like a place that got much traffic. I was thinking that perhaps the well was going to be yet another site so old and obscure that it was never visited and would be impossible to find. But, no. Not at all.
One of the many remarkable things about my experience at the well was the way in which my expectations kept changing and surprises kept emerging. When I caught my first glimpse of the shrine from afar, I realised that I had been wrong to expect a church; okay, mental picture readjusted. After I saw the white structure, I imagined, I don’t know, a pump or a tap or a shallow depression in the ground within that little hut; then I approached and found a gigantic Virgin Mary, but still no sign of water. All…right. But then I could see a staircase and I could hear a stream, so, again, I recalculated. I next expected something that was maybe like a toned-down version of this:
But, as I followed the path down some steps and around a corner, this is what I got:
I’d spent so much time visiting and reading about ancient sites, and thinking about how old sacred spaces were “gently” repurposed, I had never, for even the briefest of moments, considered that the LADY’S Well (hello, the name says it all!) might be super Catholic. And I know that the Virgin is a pretty sympathetic lady, while the ancient pagan goddesses could be pretty intense and intimidating, but good heavens was it unsettling to stand in the presence of all those little figurines.
The place was–and I mean this in the true, original sense of the word–awesome. The number and variety of statues and tokens–at an out-of-the-way place in a small town off a remote road, where you wouldn’t expect lots of visitors to naturally just happen by–conveyed how important the well is to people. You could almost feel the reverence and hope in the air; it was, to use another totally inadequate descriptor, powerful.
Although the weather grew tempestuous later in the day, it was fairly calm during my visit to the cemetery. The area was still and the dominant sound was the stream rushing past the well and shrine. It was a reminder of what the site would have been like in pre-Christian times, juxtaposed against the way it looked now with all the contemporary elements. I had a real sense of continuity rather than replacement; I could both see and hear the pagan and Catholic elements blending together, and it was not hard to imagine how the early Christians could have, over time, made a few small tweaks to their routines in order to embrace both the old and the new.
I know why the Catholic church frowned on this, but I have to say that I admire it; I think it acknowledges that life is rarely black and white. Some religions explain and address certain things better than others and have gaps that can be filled by other belief systems in ways that are not necessarily contradictory. Why not inhabit a grey space that combines useful elements of the various options on tap? That is, after all, pretty much what we do in other areas of life where we learn and grow, so why not also with religion? (I do actually know why not with religion, so this is a rhetorical question.)
As you can see, the well is a pretty impressive and moving place to visit–even for someone who is neither a practicing Catholic nor a believer in the power of special water. It was a peaceful and calming place to be, which, in its own way, was very healing and uplifting. Of course, that’s how I feel about most of the great outdoors, but the human elements at this particular site–the statues, the carefully positioned seating, the care that had been taken to keep it tidy, and the real sense of history–added a little extra something.
My outing to Lady’s Well was initiated almost as an afterthought, a serendipitous little discovery meant to be a quick trip in and out. Perhaps my lack of preparation and my low expectations helped make it the delightful experience it was. Or perhaps it was divine intervention. Either way, I will always remember it as one of the loveliest things I did during my trip to Ireland.
Near the end of 2015, I read a couple of articles about people who set themselves a daily challenge for the year. One woman crafted a miniature chair; one man sought out and consumed a different flavour of taco. I had previously completed a year of collecting one-second video clips each day and was looking for a new creative but bizarrely obsessive way to mark the passing of time, so the idea of doing something a bit more engaged and therefore challenging appealed to me. So, while other people were resolving to spend 2016 reducing energy consumption and producing less waste and becoming more active in charity efforts, I pledged to listen to, and review, a new music album each day of the year. We all give back to society in different ways.
Throughout the year, people who were aware of my quest kept asking the same question: Why are you doing this? This is, really, two questions: First, Why have you decided to spend the year doing a particular thing each day? and, second, Why is the point of this thing? There are many answers to the former: I enjoy being creative, it feels good to set and achieve a goal, having a routine helps keep you motivated on days when you’re feeling lacklustre, doing this ensures I will have at least one thing to blog about this year, and so on.
I originally thought that the latter question was simpler, and had only a single answer: I have a ridiculously large music collection and this will a) justify my ownership of all those albums and b) encourage me to finally listen to things that I’ve never even played once. Almost immediately, though, I began to realise that there was a lot more going on underneath the surface. I had hoped to encourage brand new musical adventures and the revisiting of albums I didn’t feel had received sufficient attention, but I found myself pushed and pulled towards particular songs/albums/artists/genres on particular days or in particular situations. My head might say, “You should listen to the Frazey Ford you’ve never heard,” but my heart would say, “Nope. I want to wrap that Loreena McKennitt around me like a warm blanket.” Some days I could barely force myself to listen to anything at all, but on other days I had a near-continuous soundtrack from my first cup of tea until I turned out the light at bedtime. I thought perhaps there might be some sort of deep and fundamental truths I could unearth by reflecting on all this more systematically, so like a good little scientist I began to collect data. Let’s take a look, shall we?
One of the very first things I noticed–also commented upon by friends who followed the progress of my project on Facebook–was a consistent generosity in my ratings:
Over the course of the year, my ratings averaged out to 7.5 out of a possible 10, with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 10 (not that I gave too many of either of those two extremes). The most common rating, also the median, was 8. Obviously my sample here was biased, because I was predominantly listening to music I already own–which, given the amount of research and sampling I typically do before committing to an album, probably meant I was pretty fond of the record itself, the artists, or both, by the time I made the purchase. On top of that, despite my initial interest in exploring the neglected corners of my music collection, I couldn’t help but feel drawn towards albums I knew and loved; I was cherrypicking the best ones and, for the most part, avoiding the stuff I’d deemed unworthy. Finally, I tend to be relatively generous whenever I give marks to anything, so in addition to focusing on the best of the best, I am probably guilty of inflation caused by over-enthusiasm. I know all of these things are true, but I prefer to think that I just happen to own really excellent music.
Despite the biases mentioned above, I did actually try to facilitate diversity and variation in my listening. When I’d had too many top-ranking albums in a row, and especially when I kept choosing the very same score again and again, I would deliberately select something I was less familiar with or that I’d previously dismissed as substandard.
To some extent, you can see this reflected in my listening pattern over the year (above). Although the bulk of ratings are clustered in the 7-8 band, you can see regular peaks and troughs, especially after a little plateau. There was more variation right at the beginning of the year, in early April when I did my painful survey of Cat Power albums, and then in early September when I was short on time while traveling and therefore chose albums predominantly based on their length (where shorter = better) rather than their quality. Basically, I think this graph shows that, despite my best intentions, I was fairly consistent in prejudicially choosing tried-and-true albums throughout the year. [It’s worth noting that the “0” towards the end of the year is actually an “n/a” associated with a novelty album. I don’t think I own anything atrocious enough to merit a real 0.]
I do feel guilty about failing to explore certain overlooked albums. When I started #366daysofmusic, there were specific records that I wanted to listen to; Joan as Police Woman’s “The Classic”, Sara Watkins’ self-titled album, and the aforementioned Frazey Ford all spring to mind. I listened to none of them. I also feel guilty about inconsistencies in my rating methodology. On the day that I picked a particular album, I might listen to it once or multiple times, after either having never heard it before or heard it many times previously; sometimes I already knew the artist and was predisposed to be positive, but other times I was unfamiliar with the performer and probably more likely to be skeptical. I knew it wasn’t really fair to consider all of these listening experiences equal, especially considering that many artists, and even entire genres of music, provide an experience that needs to be repeated and pondered–nurtured, even–before you can be fully appreciative. All those albums that have, or might have, grown on me over time were given short shrift in #366daysofmusic. Given that it wasn’t a full-blown scientific study, I think I can forgive myself, but the point remains: It pays to be a patient listener who doesn’t dismiss things too readily.
I am also all in favour of being open-minded when it comes to genres. I’ve always considered myself to be a fairly eclectic listener. There are certain genres I don’t own in droves or listen to routinely, and, on the flip side, others that I strongly prefer. I like all sorts of styles, however, including those that blend elements from different periods and disciplines and cultures. Did #366daysofmusic reflect that variety?
To the best of my abilities, I assigned each of my chosen albums a genre, and the resulting graph (above) shows that I do, indeed, listen pretty widely across the musical spectrum. When people ask me what my favourite genre is, I tend to default to “Americana” because it is an easy way to summarise that I like earthy-sounding stuff that draws from predominantly country, folk, bluegrass, traditional, and early rock influences. Basically, I like what my voice sounds good singing; I am also a sucker for the haunting sound of melancholy melodies and eerie reverb. Harmonic, moody music.
I find myself groaning in aural pain every time I turn on BBC Radio 1, so I never would have guessed that I listened to so much music best categorised as “pop”; then again, “pop” is short for “popular”, so I suppose its prevalence kind of makes sense. The peaks associated with “indie” and “rock” also caught me off-guard because I though that I dislike those genres. I suspect the mismatch results from the fact that I am inordinately fond of, and own all the albums by, certain artists within those genres–Alt-J, for example–but view those as exceptions to the rule. There are many ways to be “rock” or “indie”, after all, and it is possible to like the decor within a particular room but not like the overall style of the house in which those rooms are found. Or something.
In order to see whether my ratings were kinder in some categories than in others, I produced the following graph that breaks at least a half dozen data analysis rules:
At first glance, this suggests that there is a slight gradient across the genres, with some getting consistently more favourable reviews than others. I’ve left off the label of the bottom axis because it’s a riot of words, but the genres towards the left, more favourable, side are things like “folk”, “soundtrack”, “pop”, and “indie”. The ones towards the right are things like “reggae”, “hip hop”, and “electronic”. There may be kind of a legitimate pattern here: The genre with the highest average rating is “traditional” and the genre with the lowest (discounting the “blues” outlier driven by a particular album I really dislike) is “jazz”; I do, in fact, really love traditional music and really dislike jazz, on the whole. But, as I said, this particular sample was generated by very biased data gathering techniques, so further music listening would be required to explore this pattern further.
The last graph I made looks at whether I exhibited any temporal patterns in terms of what genre I listened to when:
I randomly assigned each different genre a number between 1 and 22, so what you’re looking for here are clusters of neighbouring lines of the same height. For me, the most noticeable trend is that I started off with admirable variety over the first few weeks of the year, hopping from one type of music to another as I made my way through my collection. At the end of the year you can see a little cluster of genre 20, which was “holiday”. In between, you can see groupings of similar genres interspersed with brief forays into something different. As with the plot looking at quality over time, I can’t help but interpret this as evidence of a tendency to retreat into a comfort zone that I have to consciously work to prod myself out of for the sake of exploration and variety. I’m just relieved to see that there are peaks and valleys, and that I do sail off into new and uncharted waters occasionally. I hate to think that I may be missing out on something amazing simply because I’ve fallen into a rut.
The graphs are an amusing way to visualise my #366daysofmusic adventure, but they fail to capture the most interesting and important things I learned. I found that my mood really influenced what type of music I was willing to listen to. If I was feeling stressed, I wanted some soothing classical piano or Loreena McKennitt. If I was bummed, I was drawn towards Lana Del Rey or Bon Iver. If I was feeling energetic, I might play Lady Gaga or The Black Keys. I noticed that my choice of music could either reinforce how I was already feeling or help me actively combat it: Wallowing in some lugubrious Lera Lynn is perfect for savouring a sensation of gloom, whereas Mark Knopfler is balm to a suffering soul. Singing along always made the listening experience more enjoyable, and dancing around further augmented the happy mood. Even though I might not want to crank up the trance when I’m in a grump, I discovered that it’s likely to do a lot more good than drooping around with some Carla Morrison or Chelsea Wolfe (however much I may like their albums).
I also noticed that I continue to have very strong associations between certain songs/artists/genres and particular memories and sensations. Once your mind has established links between specific tracks and specific people–especially people you’ve been in a romantic relationship with, and especially especially people you’ve broken up with–I think it must be nigh on impossible to erase them. I’ve gotten to the point where “The Sound of Silence” is no longer ruined by its connection to the ex-boyfriend who first played it for me, but I still can’t play it without having at least a fleeting thought of that idiot; how annoying. Country music always reminds me of summer, and hearing it makes me picture driving down a midwestern US highway with corn fields on either side. The soundtrack to The Matrix brings back scenes from my high school track meets, and “The Electric Slide” will always time-warp me to middle school dances.
If you’re lucky, you begin to know yourself better as you grow older. You refine your tastes and you hone your abilities to pinpoint exactly those experiences that will bring you the greatest pleasure. Part of this probably has to do with growing wiser, and part of this probably results from necessity: You have to spend so much time and money doing super-important grown-up things, you have to figure out ways to avoid wasting precious seconds and pennies. On the one hand, this means you can accurately predict that if you like Artist X or Album Y, you will also like Z (increasingly intelligent algorithms also help with this). On the other hand, you risk becoming blinkered and missing out on those joyous moments of unexpected discovery. It is a tricky balance to strike, and I was surprised by how reluctant I sometimes was to strike out on a little auditory adventure. If music is a microcosm representative of the rest of my life, I will obviously have to be ever-vigilant of my feet-dragging tendencies.
The final lesson I learned is that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing–even music. After obsessing over my daily selections for the entirety of 2016, I hit a wall in 2017. I needed silence. I needed birdsong drifting in through an open window. I needed the music produced by my own instruments and not somebody else’s. I needed to focus on thoughts rather than noises. I needed to seek enlightenment and enjoyment through some other medium (hence #poetic2017). This abrupt desire to take a hiatus may have been unrelated to #366daysofmusic; I did also overindulge on the La La Land soundtrack shortly after Christmas, and perhaps that was the last straw. Regardless of its origins, the need for silence was strong and lengthy and I am only just returning to normal. I have gained a deeper appreciation for people who review music for a living; I do not know how they manage to listen as widely and deeply as they need to for their jobs without going crazy from lack of peace and quiet.
What I haven’t gained a deeper appreciation for is music itself, because that would be impossible. Even when I wasn’t listening to it recently, I was still playing it (as in, on my instruments), and reading about it, and buying tickets for concerts. I don’t remember the time before I learned how to play piano, and some of our earliest family films feature me singing fearlessly and with great aplomb right into the lens. Lasting friendships have sprung up with fellow music performers, not just because of a shared excitement about particular genres and artists, but because there is a special sort of bond that develops when you join together to create beautiful sounds and rhythms using your own bodies. Music has provided a soundtrack to my life that has augmented my very highest moments and helped to rejuvenate me and fill me back up at my very lowest and emptiest. It provides a sort of spiritual sustenance. It has been a constant companion, not just for the 366 days of 2016, but also for the approximately 12,700 days that preceded it. However many more thousands of days are left to me, I hope that they, too, are days of music.
By happy chance, Susan Maury curated Real Scientists during #366daysofmusic. She has some amazing wisdom to share about music psychology.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.