Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Part 2: Money isn’t Everything - or - Breaking up with Science

How We Came to be Here - A Story in Three Parts

This week STS will be sharing stories of coming to careers in STEM fields.  We hope we can offer three different perspectives on finding your career path, navigating higher education, and deciding how and when your journey needs to change.  We’d love to hear any and all of your stories about finding your calling or your struggles/victories if you’re still trying to figure it out right now.  Please share!  It’s important for all of us (especially those in high school and undergrad) to know that there is no single, best way to approach this crazy adventure. For Part 1, which is Rachel's story, click here.  

My name is Chelsea. I have known Meridith since I moved to Kentucky in 1996. That was 19 year ago! Before anything else, I would like to use this guest post as a forum to show some funny pictures of us together, and then I will talk about science.
Photographic evidence of Meridith and Chelsea’s especially long friendship. This was taken at Meridith’s house in 1997.
Part 2: Money isn’t Everything - or - Breaking up with Science

Prom. Chelsea in pink, Meridith
wearing aqua. I was the only one who got
the giant poofy dress memo.
I wanted to share my story of taking a break from my relationship with science to find out what really matters to me. I am writing this for those who might be feeling burnt out or unsure about their paths. In all stages of life these are completely normal feelings.

I am an American living in Japan where I work as an assistant language teacher (ALT) for the Japanese Exchange & Teaching (JET) program. In Japan I teach English to freshman high school students. But it was not always this way; I used to be a geologist.

Meridith and myself together in 2013 as full
 fledged grown ups. I met up with her during her epic
cross-country trip in Europe two years ago.

In 2009 I graduated with my BS in geology from Western Kentucky University (Editor's Note:  For those keeping track at home, this is another proud WKY alumna). That year I moved to Albuquerque, NM where I began my M.S. in Geochemistry at the University of New Mexico. I hit the ground running in graduate school with an M.S. research project that was big and sexy and proposed a major elaboration on something that very few groups had managed to achieve (foreshadowing). My proposed work involved locating nano-scale grains of stardust from ancient, long-dead stars locked away in meteorites on Earth.

Sadly, my original M.S. project was a big sexy dud. I spent almost a year and a half failing at locating said stardust and generally not knowing what to do about it. The failures were not my fault, but I internalized and agonized over every one of them. At the time I didn’t realize how common failed projects are, and that science wouldn’t quite work without the failures! However, it felt like every day I trudged into the dark lab in the basement of my school, put in my time, and got nothing in return. I was at a motivational low and the stars were just not with me (quite literally, it seems). Finally I had the conversation with my advisor that it was time to cut our losses.
WSWCGS Trying to Abandon a Failing Project

We salvaged the materials that we could and spun the thesis statement on a different axis. I still managed to scrape together a M.S.-worthy project from the dust (not stardust) of the original project. I graduated from a two-year M.S. program in three years’ time (Editor’s Note:  To all you other overachievers, 3 years on an M.S. isn’t really super uncommon.  That’s how long it took me (Rachel)). I have never published my thesis work despite having 2 fleshed out manuscripts saved and waiting (Chelsea’s Note: I realize how silly that sounds, but I’m just not ready).

A photo of me at my job as a mining
 geologist in Nevada.
In 2012, with a freshly conferred MS degree and zero regard for what really interested me, I began slinging resumes into the black hole of internet job posts for anything labeled “junior geologist” or “geologist I.”  Those of you in the market for a job know what a self-critical time this can be. Through fluke and recommendation, I landed a job with a uranium mining company in Albuquerque as a staff geologist. I had never before considered mining as a career prospect, nor did I have much interest in it to be honest. After my first month I discovered that the uranium mining industry is, unfortunately, full of good ol` boys who still think women belong in the home. My opportunities as a woman in that company were limited. In fact once an aging male superior spent 20 minutes imploring me to bring proper footwear into the field, as if I were going to go clip-clopping around abandoned mine sites while wearing stilettos because I was young and female. Soon I got that familiar it`s-time-to-move-on itch… I only lasted 9 months before I found another job.

My next job, still in mining, brought me to work for one of the world’s largest gold producers. This job was big and flashy, brought me 2000 feet underground into an active mine everyday, and came with a nice big paycheck. I signed on eagerly, ready for the next step in things I felt I was supposed to be doing. If I could say anything to my past self at that point, it would be this:
How did you think that leaving a job you were unhappy in for a similar job in the same industry you disliked was a good idea?
I lasted two years in mining job number two.

The life path of a professional scientist, in my mind, was supposed to go like this: get an undergraduate degree, get a post-secondary degree, get a fancy job, make money, be happy, end. I was doing everything that I was supposed to do. I had a good science-minded job with good benefits. Yet my happiness level and direction in life were very low. Every day I woke up several hours before the crack of dawn, boarded the company bus for my 10 hour shift at a mine located in a remote desert, spent half of the day underground inhaling dust and diesel fumes, and then came home and collapsed in exhaustion. Rinse and repeat.
WSWCGS How I Feel About a Failed Project in Industry

Like the end of a bad relationship, I felt something changing inside of myself. In the past, I had a clear vision of how science could be my vehicle for learning and change, but I no longer knew why I was doing what I was doing. I needed out, and, as this is a real break-up story and not a romcom, I had to save myself. I took out a piece of paper and wrote down the things that made me happy. It sounds silly but it can be difficult to remember every day why you are doing what you are doing.

The biggest member of my happiness brainstorm was science. Next was teaching. In graduate school I taught an intro geology lab that I adored. I later taught at the local aquarium as a volunteer and as a volunteer science educator at elementary schools. I loved the energy I felt when standing in front of a group of students and trying to help them understand scientific problems and gain the courage to ask their own scientific questions. Also on my happiness list was the country of Japan. I had visited Japan in 2008 for a conference, and I was positively itching to return.

I began to search for career opportunities that would point me in the direction of the things that made me happiest in life, which sounds obvious in writing but took me roughly 26 years of life to understand. I learned about the JET program, which allows foreigners with little Japanese ability to teach conversational English in Japanese K-12 schools. While admittedly light on science, JET gave me an avenue to combine my love for teaching with my love for Japan.   In April 2014 I learned that I was accepted for a position in the rural Shimane prefecture. Leaving the comfort, security, and paycheck of my job in mining, I dropped everything and moved to Japan in August of 2014. This is one of the most difficult and rewarding things I have ever done.

Many people were confused by this action, and many saw what I was doing as a mistake. Why would anyone want to leave their now 3-years-old, secure career in science behind to move to Japan and teach English? Well, science and I had lost our spark, and I needed some alone time to work out my issues. I needed to realign my life compass and figure out exactly where I wanted to go and why I wanted to go there.
WSWCGS - How I Feel When I Finally Graduate
Now it’s February 2015, and it has been almost a year since I admitted to myself that I couldn’t clearly imagine my future with science in it. I am happily living and working in Japan. I don’t make very much money, I don’t speak very much Japanese yet, and this job is only guaranteed for one year at a time. But I am the happiest I have been in a long time.

Interestingly, science has worked its way back into my life. I now live in a country with a drastically declining birth rate where women are feeling more pressure than ever to stay home and have babies. The UNESCO 2007 UIS database (UN statistics division) estimates that women make up just 25% of tertiary science enrolment at Japanese universities. Females in this country have very little encouragement to get involved in STEM fields, and Japan has the lowest number of registered female scientists out of any OECD country.

As a living, breathing example of a female scientist, I have assumed a very unintended science advocate roll in my Japanese school. I am known among my local JET cohort as “the scientist” and at school, even outside of classes, I often speak about science and career opportunities in science with my senior high school students and staff members. I have several sciencey-minded community activities up my sleeve. And recently I’ve had the opportunity to help coach high-profile Japanese scientists in a nearby materials science laboratory about how to give the best scientific presentations in English. And I’m having a blast.

It took some extreme career upheaval and a transpacific move, but science is suddenly fun again.  Science and I did have a connection, it just wasn’t the one I was trying to force it to be. Our connection was embedded in one of the things that makes me most happy: education. I am enjoying my time in Japan so much that I signed on for a second year with JET, but when I get back to the US I plan to begin my PhD in science education.

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