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Down at the bottom of the page, there is a section where you enter your “top skills”, which, in my case, were woefully out of date because they reflected none of the tasks I’ve been doing on a daily basis since 2014, when I decided once and for all that the life of an academic was not for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.