Slowing the fuck down

As you all may or may not have noticed, it’s been over two weeks since I last posted here.

There is a very good reason for this–I’ve been quite overwhelmed lately.

Here’s the thing…

Ever since it became clear that I needed to leave grad school with my master’s, my life has been in a constant state of upheaval. “Getting my PhD” had been my plan for at LEAST the next three years of my life, and suddenly I had no plan. Having no plan at all made me terribly anxious, and so I became determined to, and somewhat obsessed with, getting my entire life in order as quickly as possible, preferably before I stopped being paid by my graduate program. “Getting my life in order” was supposed to include the following tasks:

  1. Figure out what the fuck I want to do with my life.
  2. By whatever means necessary (begging for work, volunteering, part-time/freelance jobs, courses), obtain the necessary experience to be a decent candidate for either an entry-level position in my chosen field or a full-time position in a related field that would get me further necessary experience.
  3. Be all set to move out of university housing and in with my girlfriend.
  4. Rearranging my social life to accommodate my new job/living situation.
  5. Starting regular posting at a science blog to gain experience writing.
  6. Getting over the ‘grad school ending’ thing at least to the point where science doesn’t usually make me sad and where I have some reasonable level of confidence in my abilities.
  7. Start making enough money to completely support myself at a level above what I was making for all of graduate school.

…there were probably some others in there, and the list is not at all in order, but you get the rough idea. Essentially, I had the idea in my head that there could be no (or at least a very small) gap between my graduation and having a solid plan to follow in order to obtain the perfect career. And my personal life had to be all in order. And I had to be making good money, and preferably be at a “real” job, with benefits.

As you might imagine, I was asking a little much of myself.

How things went in reality

I stressed myself to the brink of insanity, and it wasn’t even helpful.

I was scrambling for a job, but to what end I don’t really know. I really don’t know yet what I want to do exactly, and I’m not sure whether the best route in will be freelancing or an entry-level gig or further educational training of some kind.  So I was really just scrambling to apply to anything that sounded like it MIGHT be a fit, figuring that I’d try some things and see what stuck. That in itself wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea–I would have acquired useful skills in most of the positions I applied for, and just getting an idea of what options were immediately available to me was certainly a good thing.  But I didn’t get any of those positions, and my search kept me frantically busy (or guilty about not being frantically busy) in the final weeks of my graduate program. I didn’t give myself any time to breathe.

Since I finished school and started teaching and searching for apartments with my girlfriend (thankfully, I was able to move out of grad housing into a friend’s guest room for a month, to give me a cushion of a month without rent and time to look for apartments), I’ve kept up with the habit of trying to be frantically running in all directions at once. I was trying to write here, to draft posts for a science blog, still continuously applying for other positions and trying to land freelance/volunteer projects to gain experience. And oh, just to add to the madness, I had a good friend from high school scheduled to come visit for a week. We had an absolutely lovely time and I don’t regret that at all, but it was yet another thing on the list.

And frankly, in the past two weeks or so, I’ve been a bit of a mess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still showing up to my teaching job and kicking ass, and I did find an apartment and sign a lease with my girlfriend… but all of those sorting-out-my-life/career projects that I was supposed to be spending my free time on… I wasn’t getting anywhere on those, because I was a big ball of anxiety and stress… but I also wasn’t giving myself any time to relax.

I knew things were reaching a breaking point when this past weekend, I found myself hiding in my room during a game night/party at the house where I’m staying because I was just too on-edge to handle socializing with so many people, even though I love these people and usually look forward to our gatherings all week. I broke out my anxiety meds for the first time in ages.  And this is when I realized that I’ve been pushing myself too hard and that something had to change.

Running far too fast for far too long

I’ve done a lot in the past few years. A rough timeline:

  • April 2010: got admitted to and decided to attend a grad program at UCLA, very far away from where I did undergrad
  • May 2010: got engaged to Evil Ex, graduated with my B.S. in Microbiology from Purdue University
  • August 2010: moved to California to be with Evil Ex at his place in northern California until grad school started
  • End of September 2010: moved to LA, started my PhD program
  • Sept 2010-Jan 2011: ridiculous stress over school and epic fights with the fiance.
  • February 2011: broke my engagement with Evil Ex, initiated a year’s worth of harassment via phone calls [til I changed my number] and emails
  • April 2011: started dating again (way too soon for anything long term to come of it, but that wasn’t my goal. The guy I dated was also recently out of a long-term thing that wasn’t awesome, so we helped each other re-set our expectations for relationships. We broke up a few months later, but he’s still a good friend). I also joined my lab and started working my ass off on what was supposed to eventually be my thesis project.
  • May 2011: the kidney-infection saga begins. I spend most of the rest of the year having tests done and having weird health issues.
  • November 2011: started dating my now-girlfriend
  • April-ish 2012: my boss starts cracking down on me harder than ever, freaking me the hell out and eventually launching me into a state of constant anxiety that lasted until…
  • October 2012: my boss asks me to leave her lab, and within a month I exhaust my options for other labs to join and realize that I will have to leave my PhD program
  • November 2012–March 2013: I finish the requirements necessary to leave with a master’s degree.

So that’s the last three years, ish, and it’s been intense. I’ve worked my ass off, I broke my own heart and those of other, I got seriously physically ill, I fell in love, I got kicked out of my PhD program, and I got my master’s. And through most of it, I have been a bundle of nervous energy, constantly working to keep it all together and please people who were impossible to please, all while still working on the usual early-twenties business of figuring out what the hell I want from life and how I’m going to go after it.

And that’s just the last three years. I wasn’t exactly a super chill human before all of that either. I’ve basically been driving towards my academic goals pretty damn hard since I was 16.

Slowing the fuck down

I’ve decided that I need a goddamn break. I need to relax a bit on constantly chasing every job opportunity like I’m desperate, and I need to give myself permission to screw around with personal projects and to think and write a lot, so that I can figure out my next steps.

Here’s the deal.  For the last three years, I’ve lived on approximately $2,200/month in Los Angeles. Because I’m moving in with my girlfriend, I’m going to be able to keep my living expenses approximately the same.  So all I really need to do to get by and support myself is find some way to bring in roughly two grand a month. (I don’t even need a job with benefits in the short term, as I’m fortunate enough to be able to still be on my parent’s health insurance.) All the other things–figuring out long term goals, obtaining experience to help me towards those goals, making decisions about whether to get more formal education of some kind–those can wait for a little while. For the next few months, I’m giving myself permission to focus only on bringing in enough cash to pay the bills, getting settled into my new place, and generally being a happy and healthy human.

"do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive"

I’m pretty covered on all this until my current teaching gig ends in June.  This summer, I intend to spend as little of my time and mental energy as possible on whatever my primary paying-the-bills gig ends up being. I may be teaching some kind of summer courses/tutoring, but I am going to do whatever lowest stress, least-distracting job I can find that will cover my expenses. I am not going to be ashamed if that ends up being something completely useless to my long term career goals–including service jobs like working at goddamn Starbucks. For now, I’m giving myself permission to stop fretting about a ‘career’, and instead just have a job.

What am I going to do with my free time? I’m going to decorate my new apartment. I’m going to cook healthy and delicious meals, and unhealthy but amazing baked goods. I’m going to go on runs and do yoga. I’m going to attend weekly parties with friends and spend many hours cuddling with my girlfriend. I am going to write a lot, and perhaps play with some other creative projects I have in mind, in hopes of starting to figure my shit out… but I’m not going to put myself on a strict posting schedule here or anywhere else unless I feel I can easily do that without burning the candle at both ends. I might take on some volunteer or freelance work if I happen to stumble upon opportunities that I actually find myself excited about.

By fall, I want to be at least beginning to get some idea of what direction I’m heading, and start pursuing that with greater focus. But even then, if I have to work at Starbucks for awhile while I work on online courses or building a freelance business… then I’ll let myself be okay with that.

Getting to acceptance

I’ve written here repeatedly about my impatience to be “over” my shitty grad school ordeal so I can get on with the rest of my life. What I’m realizing now is that my intense desire to alleviate my anxiety by fixing all my problems all at once was actually causing me to act entirely counter-productively.  I’ve spent months constantly stressing about ALL THE THINGS, instead of working on problems in manageable chunks. I was also unwilling to give myself TIME, because I thought that made me weak, and because I was worried that if I didn’t jump right into the Next Big Thing, I’d end up settling for some shitty job I hate and getting stuck forever.

I need to give myself more credit than that. I’m exhausted and still a bit beaten-down right now, and that has sapped much of my ambition, but I know myself–that ambition is far from gone. I’m not going to stop caring about doing something I find meaningful, and I’m not going to stop working towards the life I want. It’s okay to give myself permission to step back for a little while and figure out exactly what “what I want” means for me now. It isn’t giving up–it’s taking needed time to heal. I need to fully make my peace with what has happened in order to go peacefully into the next stage of my life.

Final thoughts

So what does all this mean for this blog? Well, I plan to keep writing as much as I find it fulfilling to do so. During busy weeks, like when I’m in the midst of moving into the new place (the final moving day, when we’ll rent a van and move all the furniture, is May 11th, and we’ll be doing the rest of the stuff between now and then), you may not hear from me at all, or may only get links/brief comments on facebook/twitter. Or you may get a ton. I can’t be sure.

I will try to take you along for the ride, because writing here has been amazing for me. The fact that writing about my own struggles and strategies has helped other people makes it so much easier to keep going. So I’m not sure exactly what I’ll have to say, but I know there will be plenty.

P.S. You may notice the addition of a tip-jar in the sidebar of this blog. I know this is a somewhat presumptuous move, given how young my blog is, but I have had a few requests for “ways to thank me” for helpful posts. The biggest things you can do for me are just telling me that something I wrote meant something to you, and sharing links with other people who might enjoy them. That said, if you have the means and the desire to toss a few bucks at me to help lessen the financial pressure this summer, I would of course be incredibly grateful. Thanks.

P.P.S. As I work on getting my shit together, this song is my anthem, as well as my source for the above quote. Enjoy.

11 thoughts on “Slowing the fuck down

  1. I love this, Keely! I’m glad you’re stopping to focus on yourself for awhile and not worrying too much about what will happen next. I’m not a big subscriber in the idea of fate or destiny, but in times when I’m at a crossroads, I’ve had windfall opportunities blown into my path. “The Universe will take care of you” or so the people say. I’m a skeptic, but I’ve certainly experienced so well-timed and lucky things in my life. Sometimes, as long as you put yourself out in the world, the right apartment, right job, or right person will find you. 🙂

  2. Heyy Keely. *hugs*

    Consider the end of grad school the first hurdle? And this next year as your gap year to enjoy yourself and work things out in a low key way? (That’s my plan for next year anyhow.)

    Most importantly, congrats on getting an apartment with your girlfriend! Hope you two have lots of fun decorating it this summer. 🙂

    The best careers-related conversation I’ve had was with my Aunt who is senior civil service these days but started out in politics. I asked if she’d always wanted to do what she’s doing now but she said it just kind of happened, moving from one thing to the next, picking jobs/roles she enjoyed without an end goal in sight. She also said that most of her friends and work colleagues were the same. Point is, I’m wondering if the “you must know what you want to do with your life AND have a career plan for the next five years/forever!!!!” pressure is just a load of bunkum? Designed to keep up slaves to ‘what other people* think’?

    *you know, those mysterious “others” who have a mountain of expectations for your life, but who you’ve never actually met, because your family/friends love you just the way you are.

    Anyway, I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog and looking forward to whatever you get around to posting. Take it easy hon.

    1. Aww, thanks. A gap year might be exactly what I need. I wanted to take one after high school but didn’t want to live at home and didn’t know what else to do with myself. I wanted to take one after college but I thought facing grad school would be easier than facing the economy as it stood at the time as a new grad. Maybe a gap year now is exactly what I need.

      I’m flattered that you’ll keep an eye on the blog. Hopefully I won’t disappoint. 🙂

      1. I think it’s the attitude of the gap year that’s the thing. It’s a year to mess around, experiment, try things out and just have a breather before plunging into the next thing.

        I tried and failed to find the post about 2013 being the year to spend in the library, which I think I found originally via CA. I’ll have another look for it later because it was so encouraging and is definitely relevant. 🙂

          1. Glad you found it again! I’d bookmarked it but didn’t have access to my bookmarks this weekend. Sigh. I love that post so much, and it brings a tear to my eye. *sniff*

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