What’s Your Five Year Plan

Blogging I think, for me, is just a kind of diary that a few friends can read along with you. Perhaps suggest new ideas or thoughts to excite your mind and send you off on more pondering. There is something of an exercise in it. A writing, and introspection exercise that I believe is good for us. But, if you’re expecting readership and kudos, you really shouldn’t do it. It’s a diary task, it’s mainly only going to be yourself.

Recently I was thinking about how my career plans and life derailed some years ago. And now looking back on it I wonder if I was just foolish and my expectations were too high, or if I really did somehow derail my career plans.
A popular interview question is “What is your five year plan.” I can say I definitely had these sorts of plans years ago, back when I thought I’d be in academia working on exciting species questions (though, my focus had shifted from my aquatic insect fervor when I got about midway through my PhD (which was about systematics—classification–of species)). I wanted to know about hybridization and I wanted to know how robust these phylogenetics studies were that we were revising all sorts of species groups over—changing names faster than the rest of the world could learn them. Modern systematics is dizzying, and we’ve rapidly reached the point where the scientific names (the Latin binomials) are less stable than common names. No one working in modern systematics, that I met, seemed at all uncomfortable about the ever-changing mess. After all it’s not like names weren’t changed before. Of course they were. But it’s never been done on on the scale we’ve got it on now. Based on tiny snippets of DNA (or mRNA) evidence of which we have little knowledge about we’ve swapped names around to different genera or other groups with an almost sportive panache. For a while researchers did a lot to tie some morphology to the changes, but the latest pragmatic grad students aren’t concerned. The computer gives a result and they are ready to publish as “truth”. They want their publications and their kudos and they aren’t worried about introspection or concerned about creating problems for anyone. What happens when we have more molecular evidence? What happens when our tools (computers and software) work better? Change is a good thing, after all, science isn’t a dogma . . . this is true, but is it also true that the way science operates drives a needless cohort of young researchers into the fray to use the existing, and working, binomial naming system (a unique name for each organism is the plan) to fuel their research goals and pad their academic resumes with endless papers. Shoving the deck chairs of the Titanic around while the entire enterprise sinks in value and usefulness. I suppose the metaphor of the Titanic is pretty clear there if a bit heavy-handed. Unique names need not also reflect an ever-changing understanding of the evolutionary relationships of organisms, is all I’m saying. We can understand the relationships without the psychotic mess of renaming everything we once knew the names of.

And so if you got through that, you understand my life ten years ago. I rejected some computational results I got on my leafhopper project as unworkable. I leaned on making the classification as easy and useful as possible and the truth was the old timers who had already worked on my group did a good job. The new evidence, the molecules (DNA mRNA) didn’t give me slick answers that I thought would help our situation. And once I said that, the game was over. At least one of my advisers no longer knew how to talk to me. I could not understand what his “spin” was. He wanted me to tell a “story”. He wanted me to somehow work the fact that the morphology and the molecules did not correspond in any way shape or form and that I was rejecting the molecules as being too naive (not enough evidence) to base a reclassification on. I didn’t know it then, but that was pretty much my end point in that field.
I didn’t think it would matter that much, my life had been about doing various projects. Learning new things is what gets me excited. I’d gone from an IPM weed control project to the systematics project via an aquatic insect inventory project I’d done for the Nature Conservancy. What I gave them was a nice survey of the common aquatic insects of the area. It wasn’t exactly what they wanted, but it was good stuff, and cost them only 2000 dollars. Yeah we undergrads work cheap.
My hopes once I got my PhD were to move on to a cool project about species concepts and maybe hybridization studies. In the meantime I ended up working in a medvet lab with a terrific professor who encouraged me at every turn and tried hard to get me hired. Instead I ran him out of money, though we produced a couple of interesting papers. Then I moved onto another lab that rekindled my Integrated Pest Control background and I ended up doing a very neat survey of carabid beetles (ground beetles: Carabidae, and Ciccindellidae (which are the tiger beetles)) on local farming grounds. Then, we tried to get me an actual postdoc position and failed.

Working as a temp in university life means you get fired every so many months for a month and a half and then you have to reapply for your job. I’d already done this a number of times and it was getting harder to get the job back as the professors were being given less leeway with being able to ask for particular students / workers back. Around 2011 I just decided not to come back and instead focus on building a business with my martial arts experience.
Trying to build a business without celebrity in anything is rough. Marketing requires money. And I just presumed I’d get some other job eventually. But after loads of applications and a fair number of interviews I’ve never landed anything really supportive. I’ve been lucky to have good friends who’ve helped me out. Even with part time positions at their own companies. But, in the end, I can’t afford tires for the (2002 that replaced last year’s 1998) Jeep (bought by my jiu-jitsu students) or even sneakers (I just tossed out the pair I bought several years ago to replace the older pair I’ve been forced to switch back to!).

I did have plans. The plans fell apart. It’s been a painful decade since graduating with my PhD. Maddening sleepless nights staring into an abyss of wondering how to solve the problem. I now have a bunch of young friends who scoff at education. How can I recommend it to them. I still say it’s a good thing, it just didn’t pay off for me. Young men roll their eyes, they haven’t got time for that shit. In the end, I don’t know what my plan is. The question of what your five or ten year plan is reveals a definite disconnect from the economics of real world job hunting and suffering without means. It’s a kind of insult to the struggle people like myself have undertaken. At this point, my plan is to land any job that will give me a middle class living with which I can begin to pay back what I owe in student debt and actually get health care (North Carolina did not expand the medicaid with obama care- not that the GOP plans to take care of that with Trumps “amazing and awesome health care plans”).

In the meantime there have also been health issues. I won’t stipulate here, but there have been a couple of hospital stays, and I got very lucky in meeting a dentist who pulled the three rotten teeth out and treated me for the massive infection I had in my mouth three years ago all pro bono. He likes jiu-jitsu.

Interviews are strange things. On the one hand there’s really only three things you want to know and the interview isn’t going to tell you them. The first is are you able to do the job. This can possibly be gleaned from recommendations and resume. But just the same most jobs have to be learned on the job. And so, it’s your willingness to do the job that matters, and that is number two. Do you want the job? The last bit is the trickiest. Do you fit in? Are you going to be easy or at least reasonable to work with? It’s a social evaluation that is always going to be tricky with hulking men with graying hair. I was once told I needed to slouch more so that I’m less imposing.

I’ve also been told that I should dye my gray. Ladies do it all the time and they don’t think much of it but it irked me. I couldn’t do it. If I’m not getting hired because I’ve got gray hair—and I suppose it’s possible—I’m just not going to get a job. If I’m not getting a job because of some quirky discomfort with my size or shape or vocal style—and again, it’s possible—I’m just not going to have a job. But if in fact I’m not hired because of these things I can feel nothing but severely disappointed about the trifling senselessness of it. I’ve been on hiring committees. I’ve watched people interview. They don’t do anything special to get hired. I’ve done as well or even better. My knowledge base is generally strong, but I don’t pretend to know the job before I’ve done it, and I honestly say so. I’m not a bullshit artist and I don’t think anyone serious is looking for that. Also, I hate canned answers. You can go on youtube and learn lots of canned answers to the most popular interview questions, including the five or ten year plan question.

The truth is not a sell. My plan is to land an income so that I can survive. Whatever job I get, that’s where I will dedicate myself for as long as they’ll have me. At this stage of my life there will be no retirement, nor any social security money. Forgive me if I sound grim and practical about this. None of this is my plan. And I get it, sure, retool, think outside the box, reapply your skill set–Churchill and Roosevelt, and economic national disaster, this isn’t that bad, right?

I read Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, E. O. Wilson, they all told me to do this. They all worried about the lack of technically trained people the world was definitely going to need (right about now). And I got my PhD money from a grant called P.E.E.T. (Partnership for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy) that argued that there weren’t going to be enough taxonomists in a few years, and that a disaster was on the horizon where we wouldn’t have people who know what organisms were because we weren’t training them. In the end, it’s me and I’m standing on the roadside with my thumb out. There isn’t a person in America who needs my enhanced expertise.

How can you begin to understand what my plan was?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *