Career choices, identity, and being many things at once

Fuck, you guys. Just…

Fuck.

I’ve been having a really hard time lately in deciding what to write about. If you’ve been around awhile, you know that this is not exactly a new problem for me, but lately it’s felt particularly urgent. To get at why, I’ll have to back up a bit and fill you in on what has been filling my days lately: work.

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I haven’t been at the new job long, but I’ve already learned a lot. I’ve learned about the things I’m researching for work, of course–chemistry, material science, cutting-edge technology–but right now I’m more focused on what I’ve learned about myself as a researcher and writer.

I’ve learned that I kind of love googling and typing my days away, even when the subject matter is not entirely of my choosing. I love filling my brain up with facts, ideas, and stories, and then trying to organize it all into a somewhat coherent whole. It’s a place where I feel very comfortable and confident–and where my years of experience as an enthusiastic student serve me well–but where I am also somewhat challenged. I love my dual monitors, my dozens of browser tabs, my legal pads covered in chemistry notes and outlines, and my Evernote notebook quickly filling with links and pdfs. I babble easily with coworkers about the history of mass cadmium poisonings and novel compound semiconductors. There’s a print of a vintage french periodic table hanging over my desk, for fuck’s sake. This is very much my domain.

I’ve even started to get used to pounding out a few pages of content every.goddamn.day, and I’m continuing to get better at the quieting of my inner perfectionist necessary to pull that off. I’m improving my ability to write in a prescribed style without feeling so hemmed-in and fake that I second guess myself constantly. Somewhat ironically, the relatively formulaic writing I’m doing is making me more aware of my own style, voice, and writer-ly tics, and I could be kidding myself, but I think it’s good for my writing skills overall.  I’m forced to pay attention to words and turns-of-phrase that I’m overly reliant on, to decide which habits are useful and which are distracting.

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The point to all of this, of course, is that I’m good at this work, and I like it. That isn’t to say the job is perfect; it has its annoyances and downsides like any other, but overall I’m fairly pleased. I think I could happily do something like this work for a long time.

Given that, I’ve been trying to think about shaping my career. What are my short-term and long-term goals now? What are my dreams?

This is where things get tricky.

In my dream researcher/writing job, I’d be a lot more self-directed.  I’d get to dig into stories more deeply, ideally extremely deeply–spending weeks or  months to produce research papers or long-form journalism, or even years on a book. Right now I think I’d probably lean more towards biological or medical topics, but I can easily see that changing over time.

And I have a rough idea of how I could make that particular dream happen.  I could leverage my education and recent experience into opportunities to do more journalistic or narrative writing, either at my current company, in another job or internship, or by [gulp] practicing pitching stories until I could convince someone to pay me for a freelance project. I could both practice and potentially attract work by writing in-depth pieces on a blog or on a site like Medium. It wouldn’t be easy and there would be networking and luck involved, but I could get there, totally.

Alternatively, I could see being pretty happy doing research for a company, non-profit, or government agency, and producing primarily summaries for in-house use, or whitepapers, or what have you, given the right topic/set of topics and work environment. And I can see building that sort of career by stringing together “researcher” jobs or internships. In this scenario, I think the dream ‘endpoint’ would be working at a non-profit involved in science, health, or education programs/policy… the Gates foundation comes to mind.

Where as just a few months ago, I was pretty much despairing about my career prospects, now I see a lot of opportunity. I’m starting to have some real ambition again, though my goals and plans are still more modest than they once were.

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But here is the question: where does my personal writing fit into all of this?

I mean, I already worry about having just about ANY kind of career when googling my name brings up detailed, personal writing about my past professional failures, insecurities, struggles with mental health, thoughts on queerness, and so on. Of course, stigma is a concern, but so is just a general desire for professional distance. Typically, coworkers at an office don’t have access to this level of intimate detail about each other. What if the fact that I write about this stuff openly on the internet makes people concerned that I’ll let personal issues inappropriately affect my work, or that I’ll be one of those people who constantly word-vomits unwanted personal information in formal or professional contexts? I am, in fact, quite aware of normal social protocols and entirely capable of establishing appropriate boundaries, but I do of course see how people could get the wrong idea.

In the past, I’ve always come down on the side of defending openness and vulnerability, and from the “what if it makes people think less of me” perspective I just discussed, that’s still basically where I am, though I do have plenty of moments of feeling panicky and exposed. But when I start thinking about the networking and “personal brand” building I’d have to do to pursue my career goals, I do worry that, just from a practical perspective, people will have a hard time getting a sense of who the fuck this Keely Chaisson person is, and what she cares about. Is she interested in mental health, or science, or politics, or random navel-gazing, or what?

And beyond even what other people think, there’s the problem of what the hell I want and how I choose to spend my time. Is my personal writing just a hobby, or do I want to build it into something more professional? Either way, can I realistically spare the time and mental energy necessary to maintain a personal blog while also pursuing more professional-writing-style side projects? Currently I’m really struggling to find the will to come home and write MOAR STUFF for “fun” after spending my day at work typing away, but is that a solvable problem, or not?

If I do have to choose, where do my priorities lie? If I could publish one book in my life, would I rather it be personal essays/memoirs or a popular science narrative? Or to go in an even crazier direction, do I still aspire to write fiction at some point?

I really don’t know.

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I do know that I will never stop writing personal things; at the very least I’ll always journal, because it’s incredibly useful to me in just understanding myself and my thoughts. But it does take more effort to turn personal writing into a form I’m interested in sharing with the world, and I could choose to stop doing that.

I think if I did stop entirely, I would miss it too much, but at the moment I’m really struggling with the sense that I’m stretched way too damn thin. I have so many ideas and only time to play with so very few of them.

So what in the fuck do I do about all that?