The little new things at my big new job

In my latest round of “I’m really slow at announcing life updates on the blog”: I got a job!  A “real” job, a corporate job, an “industry” job.  I started two weeks ago and thus far, it feels pretty great.  I’m doing stuff that I enjoy, I’m working with good people (except for that one obnoxious intern), and I’m making a real salary doing it.

Much has been written of the difference between academic and industry jobs.  For me, adapting to the big ones has been fairly easy.  Having to get to work at 8 a.m. with no chance of napping is tiring, yes, and finding work clothes involved a lot of frustrating shopping, but those are normal parts of being an adult and they did not come as a surprise.

The surprises have been more in the little things.  At the end of my first day, I tweeted about the shock of being handed a fully functional computer on a my first day.  That seemed to strike a bit of a chord among folks familiar with academia’s approach to IT.

I’m also still getting used to a different approach to physical security.  At a public university, with class-taking students coming in and out all day, the building doors were always unlocked during business hours and there were no restrictions on who could enter.  Closing and locking one’s office door on departure—even if you were just popping down the hall to the bathroom—was therefore of paramount importance.

To get to my new office, you have to badge in once to enter the building, walk past our office manager, and then badge in through a second set of doors to the main hallway.  But once you’re in there… we don’t close the interior doors, much less lock them, even at night.  It feels distinctly weird to be turning off my lights at the end of the day and then just walking out and leaving the door open!  With our laptops right there!

About those laptops: we can take them home and work remotely if necessary.  I’ve got a little electronic doohickey with a code that allows me to VPN onto the office network.  People don’t actually do that on a regular basis, though.  The two guys on my team, with whom I share an office, have left their laptops at work every night and every weekend since I’ve arrived.  I’m sure there will be deadlines when we have to get some late work in, but it’s clearly not the standard.

Not working on the weekend isn’t horribly foreign to me, even coming from academia.  What is foreign is being completely disconnected from work on the weekend.  If I leave my work laptop in the office on Friday evening, I am entirely cut off from all work updates until I arrive on Monday morning.  I am not used to this yet.  It still feels viscerally wrong to walk out of the office on Friday and become unreachable by email for the next 63 hours.

Oh, and my boss has been giving me actual training and guidance on a new-to-me programming language.  What a concept!

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I just applied to be an astronaut

Text of email thanking me for submitting an astronaut candidate application.I just fulfilled a piece of my childhood ambitions—I applied to be an astronaut!  Or more technically, I applied to be an astronaut candidate.  (Not all astronaut candidates, who train for several years, are eventually selected to be astronauts).

I in no way expect that NASA will actually choose me.  For one, although I am technically qualified, I am relatively young and inexperienced for an astronaut candidate, who tend to be in their mid-30s.  For two, there’s the whole “we don’t send crazy people into space” thing.  Still, when I learned last fall that NASA was going to be accepting astronaut candidate applications again for a short period of time—and that they’d relaxed the requirements for people with poor eyesight—I couldn’t not apply.

The application process ended up being a fairly good use of my time.  I’ve been meaning to convert my academic C.V. into an industry-ready resume, and this was the push I needed to get started.  It turns out that when you define “professional experience” as “things I got paid to do,” I have quite a lot of it!  Which was encouraging.  It can sometimes feel like grad school has sucked all my life skills away, so I’m glad to know it hasn’t.

Anyway, wish me luck!  I haven’t the foggiest idea how we’d handle it as a family if by some miraculous chance I was accepted, but that’s not a bridge we need to worry about crossing just now.  For the moment, what matters is that I’ve tried.

Processing a conversation with my advisor

I did it.  I faced my fears, admitted my limitations, and had a serious conversation with my research advisor about my progress in graduate school.  And it went well.  There was none of the criticism I dreaded; he was encouraging and straightforward and altogether non-judgmental.  There were some tears on my part, as I knew there would be, but I’d brought along a box of tissues and said up-front that I was probably going to cry and not to worry.  Relieving myself of the struggle to not cry (a struggle I always lose anyway) was beneficial.

It wasn’t a tidy back-and-forth conversation.  I basically just blurted all the important stuff out at the beginning, and we went from there.

Here’s what we talked about:

I’m painfully aware of how long it’s taking me to produce results.  It’s embarrassing and it makes me want to avoid talking to anyone about my research.  It feels like everything takes so long to get done.

My advisor really didn’t seem worried about my progress.  He didn’t try to make me feel better by offering excuses as to why I was slow – and I likewise didn’t try to make excuses.  He was simply unperturbed.  We discussed how to keep moving forward, including how to get some short papers written to build momentum.  He seemed to think that once I had some results to talk about, it would get better.

We also considered how to touch base more frequently, with me gently pointing out that he’s terrible at responding to email.

I feel like I’ve had to pretend that everything is fine in order to prove that I was worth taking on as a student.

He never outright contradicted my fear that I wasn’t living up to his expectations, but he did something better: he just kept advising me.  There were a few compliments on my potential, but they were not said in a way that me feel like I was fishing for compliments, nor (thank goodness) in a way that put more pressure on me.

But I have a confession: I don’t love [this subject].  I also don’t want to move around multiple times and not have a permanent job for a decade, so I don’t think academic jobs are for me.  I do want to finish this thesis project, because I’m committed to it, and, well, I want to, but …

This was especially scary because my advisor is somewhat of a big name in his subfield, and, like most professors, he tends to assume that a postdoc position is the default next step for a PhD candidate.  But it was OK.  Maybe he was a little taken aback, but he was very understanding; professors, he said, don’t really talk about other jobs because they don’t really know about them.  He’s under the belief that there are lower-profile permanent jobs still available in this discipline, which I somewhat doubt is the case nowadays – but it was still reassuring to hear that such jobs wouldn’t be considered a failure.

Rather surprisingly to me, he admitted that he wouldn’t really want to be a professor at an even-bigger-name-than-ours university; while he loves the work here, he’s busier than he’d like to be.  (This coming from a person who appears to never need to sleep.)

He encouraged me to finish the PhD, mentioning that it would be a sign to any employer that I can apply knowledge to new problems and complete independent projects.  While I’m aware that overqualification can be an issue, I think that “spent N years in graduate school with no degree” probably looks worse on a resume.

I have to have a thesis committee meeting soon and I don’t know what I’m going to tell them about my progress.  

I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, but we commiserated about how thesis committee meetings are kind of useless (and the faculty as a whole send very mixed messages about their importance and function), and he gave me permission to keep it short.

I’m worried that folks are going to expect me to apply for postdoc jobs in the fall (when the academic job cycle begins anew) and I don’t want to take the time to do that.

“There’s no point in applying for jobs with no papers out,” he said.  Stated the wrong way, this could come across as quite harsh.  However, it was stated the right way, and was a huge relief – he’s not expecting me to spend a month writing applications.  Apparently a previous student received the same advice, applied anyway, didn’t get any offers, and was quite discouraged; the next year, with more publications, she was awarded a fellowship at a great school.

Moreover, my advisor told me that it was OK to take N+2 or even N+3 years to finish (where N is the number of years I’ve been in grad school, and N+1 is the number of years most students in the department require to graduate).  Turns out that a visiting speaker this week was someone who’d taken N+5 years.  That was a bit long, but it hadn’t hampered this person’s career.  My advisor himself spent a relatively long time as a postdoc before finding a job as a professor, and he sympathized with the feeling of watching other people advance more quickly.

So.

I’ve made as much of a decision as I need to, for now.  I’ve decided not to quit grad school.  I haven’t quite decided to leave academia afterward, but I’ve put my feelings about that out in the open, and the world didn’t come crashing down.  There is still a never-ending pile of work to be done (free-writing is helping), but maybe I can put the angst aside for a while.

For those of you who’ve been reading along: thank you.