Sunday, November 12, 2006

Career Goals and Statement of Purpose

Someone sent a note today asking for advice on how to write these stupid essays for fellowship applications.

I still think it's bizarre that they ask you to do this, since someone who writes a great essay might have a ridiculous research plan, but it seems unlikely.

More often I think it's the other way around- the advisor helps with the research plan, but doesn't even want to discuss career goals with the student, so the essay on career goals is horrible.

It's rare that anyone really excels at both, and it's equally rare that the essay being bad is going to keep you from getting the fellowship.

Most people just write the same bullshit anyway. So basically you just want to sound like a real person, but it's okay if you don't say anything too original, because most people are only going to give the essay the most cursory read.

Here's my advice: Think hard about what you want to do, and why you want to do it. Be honest. And get someone else to read it.

***

It's funny because I was just thinking about this again today. One of my role models is having a rough time right now, and I'm feeling abandoned because she's worried about her own career and doesn't feel qualified/doesn't have time to help me with mine.

So I was thinking again how, while there are things I admire about her, I hope I've learned how to avoid making some of her mistakes.

But part of me just thinks, well here she is, quite a bit farther along with her career, and she doesn't feel any more secure or satisfied, really, than I do now.

Is this really what I'm signing up for? Lots more years of battling other people's malformed expectations, passive aggressive crap, and a constant feeling of uncertainty?

Last week was so good. Was that my one good week for a while? Lately it seems like I can't have more than one in a row.

Maybe I should hire Nancy Pelosi's astrologer.

***

So as an example, I've posted my career goals here before, but it never hurts to think about them again.

I want my own lab, and I want to run it my way.
I want to work on my ideas, not someone else's.
I want a team of people to work with me on my ideas. I want to do the hiring and firing.
I want students who have their own ideas.

My top career goal right now is to get a faculty position and funding. That's all. I can't think much farther ahead than that.

The purpose of my research is to ask good questions and figure out the most direct, practical ways to ask them.

The purpose of my research is to keep me from getting bored.

The purpose of my research is that it's a non-boring way to pay the rent.

***

Lately I'm hearing more and more that the way to get a good job is to find the job you want and target it as you would an all-out attack. Do lots of research on 2-3 places that you think would be good for you, and put all your effort into making contacts, and making your application suit the slot that's open.

My problem right now is, I'm afraid the job I want doesn't exist. And I'm afraid that, the more I research the possibilities, the less certain I'll be that there is a place out there that I would ever fit.

If you keep squishing me between a rock and a hard place, can you make me fit a mold that wasn't made for someone my shape?

***

It's funny because here I tend to vent my fears and frustrations, and here it's probably evenly split between people telling me to quit and people telling me not to give up. Though admittedly, I've never really run a poll and counted.

But in real life, people who know me, or even people who barely know me, say they feel certain I'll succeed in achieving my goals, that they're not worried about me, that I seem to be on top of my game.

You do? I will? You're not? I am?

My question now is, how much help is it reasonable to ask for when people think you shouldn't or don't need it? And how do you convince them you do need it, when you're in a culture where showing signs of weakness just means the sharks will smell blood and come out to eat you?

If I didn't really need any help, would I still feel like I do now?

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4 Comments:

At 4:52 PM, Blogger PhD Guy said...

"More often I think it's the other way around- the advisor helps with the research plan, but doesn't even want to discuss career goals with the student, so the essay on career goals is horrible."

So very true. When I was writing the essay for myself, it felt as if they were very interested in knowing my goals and seeing how a PhD would fit in to my scheme of things. However, after I've entered the program, personal goals seem to be the last thing on the faculty's mind. PhD students, it seems, are only supposed to think about tasks assigned by the advisor, and think no more...

You hit the nail on head when you say "... you're in a culture where showing signs of weakness just means the sharks will smell blood and come out to eat you... " I wonder when - and hope that some time soon - things would be better!

 
At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would say, ask for as much help as you need to get the job done. How do these other people know that you shouldnt need help?

Say for example that you were like my sister, dyslexic, but its 15 years ago before it was really recognised. Then you would ask for help but people would'nt really be able to give much, or want to. But nowadays, when it is realised that dyslexia is a real problem, you can get useful help.

I like the "Keep me from getting bored" bit.
I have sympathy for your feeling that the job you want doesnt exist right now. This leaves you wtih some options. Such as make the job yourself, even if it means moving to another country. Or Live with it, and never do anything much. Or live with the probability that your ideal job might never exist, but also that you knwo that you have been wrong before and could be wrong again, espcially about something as coplex as finding a job like the one you want.
Maybe admitting some frailty to those who think you are on top of your game would be a good idea.

As for weakness- forget it, everyone is weak, its just some of us are better at hiding it than others. And those who run around trying to look tough are probably not the kind of person you want to be.
guthrie

 
At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. This helped, and the application is in the mail! I def. feel like my career goals are shaped towards what the application wants. For example, apply to the Environmental Protection Agency and mention you'd like to work in a government job and help determine public policy, apply to American Association of University Women and talk about how much you want to mentor young women scientist. Really I'd like to do both of these things. And my real career goals don't look good on paper. I don't want to be a professor because I'd like to have a real life. They seem to work too much as they have to teach, write grants, advise students and do their own research on the side, oh and serve on committees. I don't even think my advisors saw his kids grow up. I love coming up with my own ideas and seeing the project work, but I hate writing so I feel as though I'd like to have a job where someone tells me what to do, like maybe a technician. But then I can see myself getting stuck in a boring rut. So really, I guess I’m not sure of my career goals yet, except 1) work 40 hr weeks 2) conduct quality research based on my own ideas 3) have others write the results (I like to present results at conferences).

 
At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My problem right now is, I'm afraid the job I want doesn't exist. And I'm afraid that, the more I research the possibilities, the less certain I'll be that there is a place out there that I would ever fit. "

My dear, i know how youfeel all too well but you don't have to find the job that fits you, you can make the job that fits you. You said you want your own lab, you want to hire and fire people, you want students involved who want to be there. Well all this can be done, it will however take more work than finding a job that suits you. it will though, be much more rewarding and the work will i think be more personally gratifying as you see your own creation florish. If you know what you want to do, if you know what you want to study or resaerch, if you know how you want to do all that, if you know who you want to do all that with, and even if you don't have all the complete answers to these you still can.

I have been trying to figure out for some time now what i want to do with this bio degree i almost finished earning, as well as my passsion for writing and my love of teaching children and to answer the call of Africa that never leaves my soul since the first time i set foot on the earth there. I too thought i had to "find a job" that would fit all my criterea and assets. then i realized i don't i can put it all together on my own, use my creativity to come up with a project/job/career that incorperates it all and leaves room to grow and submit my proposal to every institution i deam worthy partners in the causes i am combining. it may not be the conventional career with a ladder to climb and accolades to earn but it answers the little voice in my head that says "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover" And thus i have come up with my own job of creating documentaries of my research projects at biodiversity hotspots in Africa. instead of searching for that elusive perfect job i only have to find the funding for my passions.
My friend i wish you the best of luck in your path in life. May the road rise to meet you becasue you rise to meet the challenge!

 

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