I just returned from a conference held in celebration of the 30th anniversary of one of my postdoctoral fellowships, the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program (PPFP). One of the main goals of this program is to encourage women and minority Ph.D. recipients to pursue careers in academia, and to help facilitate those careers within the UC tenure-track faculty system.
Now, in many ways, this conference could not have come at a worse time. Here I was having just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle less than one month prior, not even finished unpacking, just having started my postdoc at UCLA less than one week before the conference (which was held in Berkeley, CA), and trying desperately to get over the cold that had decided to take hold of me the day before I started work.
Back in Seattle three months ago going to the conference had seemed like a great idea, and I’d checked all of the boxes indicating my interest and plans to attend. That was before my husband and I piled into a car with our two cats, every inch of the car stuffed with our most prized possessions that we weren’t trusting the movers with, and set out on the road. Three days later, sweaty and tired, we arrived at a condo in a different part of LA than we’d lived before we moved to Seattle, and everything felt new again. A week later, the moving company still hadn’t arrived with our stuff, and going to a conference in a couple of weeks had started to seem ludicrous. I discussed the prospect of going with my husband.
Me: “[Big sigh] I don’t think I can go. We just got here. There’s just too much going on.”
My husband offered a different perspective.
Him: “Just a thought…This might be a good thing to do networking-wise. Especially if becoming a faculty member at the University of California is something you are interested in.” (I’m paraphrasing his words, but this is the basic gist)
Me: “Huh. ..Good point. I’ll think about it. [another big sigh]”
So I thought about it. Mostly I sighed some more. A lot more. Inside, my head was saying “I don’t want to network. I’m tired. I want to lay down.” But in reality I knew that my husband was right. I was a new Fellow in this incredible program, and here was an entire conference dedicated to helping me navigate the in’s and out’s of what it meant to be a postdoc – what I should be doing during my first year, and how the heck to begin to go about doing it. As it turns out, I had begun to realize how easy it could be to isolate as a postdoc. You’re not a grad student, nor are you faculty. It felt very much like this in-between stage that was unfamiliar to me. It dawned on me that this conference might be able to help me establish myself and move through those “New kid on the block” FEELINGS and into just “being on the block” ACTIONS. And it did.
This is often what happens when I talk to other people outside of my head (as opposed to the legions of people inside my head, most of whom are screaming wildly “No! No way! You can’t do that! Don’t even think about it! Did you just hear yourself sigh?”. When I talk to other people, I get a different perspective. And that different perspective suggested that in this situation, saying “Yes” might be a better idea than saying “No.”
Now “No” is a perfectly sound and reasonable answer to many questions and requests. I’ve learned how to use the word “No” with aplomb over the years, and must say from experience that it is far better to say “No” than to say “Yes” when I really meant “No” after all (and was just to chicken s*** to say it). Saying “Yes” when I mean “No” is a recipe for disaster, and at the very least, a humongous, angry chip on the shoulder. I’m speaking from experience here.
But this experience felt more like moving from “[sigh] [sigh] [sigh]” to “Well, why not?” I made the choice to remain open to the possibility that something that at the outset seemed inconvenient might actually be perfectly timed given my circumstances (and the feelings of overwhelm that were mounting as a result of those circumstances, hence my serial sighing). And I’m so glad I took that chance and said “Yes”. Tomorrow I might say “No” to the next thing, because I’ve been taking on a lot lately or whatever, and it’s the right thing for me to do. And that’s okay too.
This morning I was rushing to read, edit, sign, and print out an endorsement letter for someone’s proposal. A pretty awesome thing to have to do. My husband asked me what I was working on. The first thing out of my mouth was – you guessed it – one long sigh. Here I was again, thinking of all that I “have to” do. I heard myself, then stopped, and literally said out loud “Wait. Rewind. I get to be an advisor on this thing [blah blah blah]… and I’m sending them this letter…”
“Cool”, he said.
“Yeah, it is.”
I felt better, less like someone with a heavy weight on my back, and more like someone who is damn lucky.
Thirteen years ago I was pulling staples out of paper for a living. This music publishing company was moving to digital, so all of their paper contracts had to have their staples removed so that they could be scanned. I was one of four long-term temps hired to sit in a room with a long-handled staple remover and rip out staples for eight hours a day, five days a week, for a year and a half. It was work, and it paid my bills while I was a struggling actor. But it hopefully goes without saying that it wasn’t my dream job. My life might be busy now, but compared to those days, it’s Disneyland, Sea World, Knott’s Berry Farm, Christmas AND my birthday all rolled into one. I GET to do these things like write and sign endorsement letters and apply for faculty jobs and write research papers and teach kids about astronomy and come home to an incredible man who loves me (sighs and all). How cool is that?
For today, the sighs stop here.