He is the man I met 5 years ago! Does he recognise me?!
That’s a dumbass question for me to ask. Of all the (valid) things you can say about my appearance, “quickly forgettable” isn’t one.
It’s August 2017 and I’m at the ACS National Meeting in DC. The stress-fog of my PhD has risen – it’s only been a couple of weeks since my lab & PI moved to a new university, leaving me behind to write up my thesis. It now feels like the end of the grad school line, and I need to strategise my next steps.
I had time to kill, so went to book a drop-in resume review at the Career Fair. By chance there was an ACS Career Counsellor waiting around when I signed in. When I saw his badge I recognised M from a workshop I’d attended at the ACS Meeting in Philadelphia – Fall 2012. Before I’d been admitted into any PhD programs. We’d chatted about PhDs and career options, then exchanged some emails afterwards.
Given M’s reticence as we sat down, I figured he was probably trapped in the same etiquette twilight zone as me (“I recognise her! Does she recognise me?!”), so I spoke up.
“…I, um, think we met at an ACS meeting a few years ago…”
“So we did, Claire.”
If you remember the career advice someone gave you 5 years ago, it’s worth asking them for more.
I started to talk about the intersection of writing and science as the place where I thought I wanted to be. M remembered I told him the same thing 5 years ago. I know people whose “dream career” changes every month. My plans shifted in focus, the details jigged around…but the central notion remained consistent: I wanted to write.
The drop-in resume review didn’t cost anything, but M then asked the question that would have made our chat worth the money: “Well, have you talked to any science writers at the conference yet? There are plenty of them around.”
The question provoked mild outrage, put me on the defensive, and was answered with a lame excuse. I didn’t feel READY for that kind of commitment. ‘PhD Student’ was my comforting umbrella label. It was broad and amorphous. It wasn’t a label that pigeonholed or restricted. If I was going to walk around introducing myself as an “aspiring writer” then that’s what I BECAME. I lost the freedom of future career ambiguity. I couldn’t roll back self-identification mid-way through meeting someone important.
And yet by the end of the conference I’d cornered and pounced on a science writer. I knew M was right. Even if I was making a career mistake, I could never become a professional writer if I refused to identify as one when it mattered. The science writer advised me to get some articles published as a base to chase higher-profile opportunities. Student newspaper science stories counted, they told me. As you can see in my “portfolio” blog tab, I took their advice. It worked.
It will be a while before I can tell you if I chose the wrong label…but that’s not really the point. I’m grateful to M for challenging me – I needed the shove. If you don’t commit to a career track you’re never going to move far along it.