What’s Next?

Today’s post is going to be a sort of rambly stream-of-consciousness sort of thing. I’ve said before…in…places…maybe on Twitter or Facebook…that my life motto the last few years seems to be “what’s next?”

I’ve seen a few blog posts and tweets lately that got me thinking about my career, where it is, how it got here, where it’s going…many folks talking about what you do when you get tenure, what it means to be a “mid career” scientist, and a few about Imposter Syndrome. And I have thoughts. Here they are:

So, Imposter Syndrome: Yesterday, on Twitter, I saw the following, tweeted by @Dr24hours:

Why do we obsess so much about imposter syndrome? It’s ubiquitous. It’s not special in comparison to other personal mental challenges.

It got me thinking. Partly, because he’s right: Imposter Syndrome is nearly ubiquitous, among scientists anyway. We all keep watching our back for the day people figure out we’re just not that good at what we do.

And that’s what I always tell my students: we ALL feel that way. We all think we’re not good enough. The solution to that is to pretend you’re all that and a bag of chips anyway, and keep working. Because, at some point, the Imposter Syndrome goes away.

(Side note: that’s why we talk about it, or obsess about it, if you prefer that word. Because it actually helps to know that the people you think are absolutely amazing…also worried constantly that they were just skating by, with nobody noticing that they sucked. My students are always stunned to find out that I used to feel that way. Which is flattering, in itself.)

On that note, then: my own Imposter Syndrome went away sometime in the past five years. Not exactly sure when, but it’s gone. Mine was interesting. I got this job, which is exactly the job I wanted, in exactly the place I wanted it. It’s like being the one kid who thought they’d grow up to be Stephen Curry who actually DOES wind up playing for the Warriors. My initial reactions: YAY! HOLY SHIT! HOW THE HELL DID I GET SO LUCKY? And then..oh, shit.

But I had faked my way through 7 job interviews in two years; I could fake this, too. So I did. I set up my lab – and felt like a kid playing dress-up. I had to do all the things that I knew needed doing. I had to make a stock list. Order supplies. Spend my startup. Get people to work in my lab. Have lab meetings. But…I’m not a grownup. Someone’s bound to notice.

(Fun story: that first week, one of the senior faculty mistook me for an undergrad. Yay.)

So I did the things. And some of the things worked. And most didn’t. And I still sucked. I wrote a grant…and it was funded. On the first try. How the hell did I do that?

I taught. I got more students. I fired at least one employee. I finagled my way into the biggest lab space in my department. I got great student evaluations. I got multiple small grants funded. The students in my lab were happy and doing science. Stuff actually was going…okay.

I wrote a paper, the first one that was ALL my work, ALL data produced by students from my lab. I submitted it, and…it was published.

That was the day I realized I hadn’t felt like an imposter in a long while. I just kept working until I wasn’t an imposter anymore.

So, where am I now? I have just published another paper. I have three more in production on my desk. I have two grants, one from the NIH, and one from the NSF. I am the chair of committees at every level of university service. I am the Graduate Coordinator for my department. My colleagues like and respect me. My students, too. I have a unanimous vote for tenure and promotion from the College committee, and (counting my chickens) I don’t really expect any problems at the university level. I am insanely overworked at times. When things go wrong, I get pissed off (at myself or someone else, depending on what went wrong), then I move on. By all reasonable measures, I’m a success.

I am still stunned. From time to time. But it’s a nice sort of, “Wow. All those folks were right. I’m pretty good at this.”

So. What’s next?

Well, I’m about to be senior faculty. Whoa. I am looking forward to tenure (again, counting unhatched chickens). The reason? Freedom to choose what things I really think are important and do them, with respect to service. Freedom to work to change stuff that I really dislike about my job without worrying about reprisals. On that level, “What’s next” is “choose something new every year to try to fix, especially if it will help the folks coming up the track behind me”.

In terms of research: same as always. Do the experiments. Write the papers. Write the grants when I need to. Be glad I chose to work in a cheap organism at a university where my career doesn’t depend on continuous funding.

Teaching…ditto. I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, and prep a new course every few years.

I am looking forward to a sabbatical, though I’m finding that you NEED a sabbatical to figure out what to do ON your sabbatical. I have lots of ideas, and can only really use one of them, so I need some time to work that out.

I want to spend more of my time mentoring younger faculty. We have a couple of new hires, and will have several more in the years to come. Helping younger faculty to navigate the early years is something I’ve become rather fond of.

I want to take a bigger leadership role in my department. Yeah, I think I do want to be chair someday.

Overall, to use my friend Karen’s phrase, I am ridiculously fortunate. I have a very nice set of ideas about “what’s next”, and am enjoying where I am now. With luck, I will get the next five years to do the things without worrying a lot about doing things in order of “what will get me tenure”.

Work life is good. Life life is also good, though that’s another post.



1 Comment

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One response to “What’s Next?

  1. I get it. I so get it. All my life I wanted to write, then I started calling myself a writer even though I didn’t feel like one. Just started calling myself an author, not sure I’m there yet. But, baby, I want it. So, I’m going to fake it until I make it.

    I wanna be like you when I grow up!

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