Note to future self

You can take the girl out of hippie school, but you can’t take the hippie school out of the girl.  At Evergreen, at the end of every term instead of traditional grades, I got an evaluation of my performance and progress for that particular program (we didn’t have classes, instead we took interdisciplinary programs).  It was also encouraged (not required, as Evergreen never really “forced” you to do anything – man I loved that school!) that you write a self-evaluation.  What were your expectations for the program?  What skills have you developed?  How have you grown during the course of the term?  I always found it an useful exercise to honestly evaluate yourself (a sentiment humorously epitomized by this Threadless shirt).  Now, some people call me overly self-critical and think I hold myself to impossible standards, but I really do think that I can always do better than what I did.  I hold my potential in high esteem and don’t think I’ve ever completely maxed it out.  Is it any wonder that I am am still in an academic setting?

I’ve recently resubmitted a fellowship application.  After such a labor-intensive and eye-opening ordeal (one that I, as a scientist, will no doubt have to go through again) I am feeling the need to self-reflect over the things I’ve learned throughout the process.

1) I am not a multi-tasker. I may even have something akin to opposite of ADHD.  I knew that I should have been working on the fellowship a month prior to the actual deadline, instead I didn’t really start working on it until a week prior.  Partly because I didn’t exactly know how to approach it, partly because I am still not totally stoked about that project, partly because I’ve added significant responsibilities to mentor an undergraduate and a junior scientist and partly because I was working on a different, yet challenging computational project.  I’ve realized that my brain has to be fully committed to think about something before I can actually work on something.  And once I’ve committed – I’ll work like a maniac to get it down.  This sort of behavior does not lead to a stress-free life, but instead of forcing myself to change I am going to try and embrace it in the future.  I think that means being selfish with my time, really blocking off the time to work on grant-writing.  Which leads me to lesson #2.

2) I think before I act. Before I can write a single word down, or even sit at my computer, I need a couple of solid day just to think about what I am going to write about.  It always feels like wasted time because at the end of the day I don’t have a single thing to show for what I’ve down.  Yet, if I don’t let my ideas percolate, than I am utterly hopeless.  I’ve known this about myself since early in grad school, but it continues to frustrate me.  I am not one of those writes that just vomits all over the page and  cleans it up later.  I need cohesive thoughts and ideas before I can write my first draft.  I am a huge proponent of outlines.

3) I am in a love-hate relationship with editing.  I love fixing a sentence, making it clearer and more powerful.  I love seeing the changes that I make to the organization make ideas flow better.  These are tangible things that I can accomplish.  I even love the act of doing it.  I admit I am not perfect at it (I never diagrammed a sentence or learned the proper use of prepositional phrases), but I think I do a decent job of it.  But it is a painful job, agonizing over wordchoice and sentence organization.  It’s the good kind of pain though, kind of like when you’ve had your hair tied up all day and you finally let it down and our scalp just screams.  I just love that.  But, what I’ve learned is that it takes time to do it well.  You need space between edits or else you lose your objectivity.  And editing is something that must be done. Nobody, myself included, writes the perfect first draft.

4) Grant-writing is all about salesmanship and language.  This was perhaps the most novel and profound lesson learned.  (And I thank my adviser for opening eyes to it).  For a long time I was struggling with how to significantly change my proposal to make it more compelling.  There was no help from the reviewers comments, aside from requests for more statistical tests and experiments with clinical strains.  They seemed happy with the scope and scale of the question, my qualifications and my choice of sponsor.  So what to change?  Naively, I focused on the science (shocking I know, as I am a scientist), trying to think of new experiments to add.  I now know this was the wrong approach.  I needed to go from “There’s nothing really wrong…” to “Wow! This is the coolest thing ever!”  And to do that I needed to change the language and the context, and not necessarily the experiments, in my proposal.  I needed to articulate and lose the passive voice.  It’s an art that I have under-appreciated and clearly did not allot enough time for (as I was working up until the very, very last minute).  I must accept that it is not just about the science – it’s how you sell it.

5)  I am my own worst critic.  And I mean that in the most un-constructive way possible.  With only a few hours remaining before the lurking deadline, I turn all of all of my exhaustion, stress and worries in on myself.  Why was I so stupid to wait until the last minute? Why wasn’t I better at time management and multi-tasking? Why don’t the perfect sentences just flow from my brain through my fingertips to the keyboard?  Will I ever (or can I ever) learn to be a salesman for my science? Why wasn’t I clever enough to get this right the first time? I am not sure that I figured out the resolution for this last one.  Though I suppose acknowledgment is a tiny step in the right direction.

Lessons learned … and duly noted for future endeavors.


One response to “Note to future self

  1. Pingback: Teaching Lessons | Puck and Kudzu

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