Monday, August 26, 2013

The first few days

             It hit me the first day I entered my new apartment in a new city in a part of this country completely new to me. My new job as a postdoc was in a city where I did not know even a single soul. I had thought about my transition when I decided to take this job offer. How would I fit into a completely new city in the Midwest? How will I make friends at an age when none of the people my age are single, and I don’t really fancy making new friends who happen to be married and with children? How will I get used to a place that did not have a single national park or mountain, and was as flat as bread? But I decided to embrace my new life with all the positive energy I had. I felt very fortunate that I got a job months before I graduated. I knew that I was going to make this work.

            However, the transition was hard, way harder than I anticipated. I drove from VA to NE, which was my first solo longest road trip. I did stop in MD and PA to catch up with friends, but beyond PA, I was on my own. From PA, I drove for two days, stopping for the night at IA. I covered a total of 1,420 miles. Honestly, I was excited.

            Things went wrong when I reached here. Without furniture, my one bedroom apartment looked even bigger, the bare walls and the empty rooms needing work. I used to live with roommates before, but now I was all on my own. Within the first few hours, I realized that my phone network in this part of the world was terrible, and I would not have internet at home for the next 2 weeks or so. My virtual world had become so much of my real world that I could not get a grip on this feeling of alienation.

            Thankfully, the clubhouse has free internet, and for the next few days, I spent all my time there until my back hurt. Every time I got home, the smell of the carpet would nauseate me. I have a strong sense of smell, and a strong gag reflex. The strong smell of carpet was giving me a psychosomatic reaction. Those were the longest five days of my life.

            After five days, I went to a conference in San Diego. The Californian sun and sea did a lot to help me recover from my depression, but it was not a never ending vacation. The best part of the trip was taking a boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean and hiking Channel Islands National Park.

            I am back from California, for good, and I try to stay positive everyday. I am setting up my home, and having furniture at homes goes to some extent to help with depression. I miss the mountains of Seattle and the beaches of Virginia. I miss my friends. I miss my old life. It’s a vicious cycle, when you are depressed, you don’t make new friends, and when you don’t make new friends, you get depressed. I cannot wait for work to start. I have cried without rhyme or reason, everyday, lying down and staring at the ceilings. No amount of long drives or Netflixing or reading has been able to bring me out of this. Eventually, I realized that perhaps by embracing the depression, I will be able to let go of it. I cannot help myself as long as I am in denial, so I have stopped denying that I feel sad about my new life here. I am going to embrace the sadness, live with it, and deal with it. For a person who is as enthusiastic about photography as I am, I haven’t taken a single picture here. I no longer feel motivated to go out with my camera. I no longer feel motivated to write.

            A change in life can sometimes shake the most sturdy of us. I never felt this way when I moved to Seattle, considering that was a cross-continental move half way across the world, in a new country with no idea about the future. I never felt this way when I moved cross country to VA to pursue my PhD, unsure of where I was headed and if I would do well in school. But now armed with a PhD and seven years of knowledge gained by living in the US, a move to the Midwest has shaken me like nothing has done before. It could be age or lack of friends or anything. Who knows?

            I am curious to see how long I end up living here, and where my new job takes me next.


Monday, August 12, 2013

T.G.I.F. Part 2 (Finding the job I got).

The biggest issue that plagues most of us academicians training to establish ourselves in our respective fields is- “What after I graduate?” This is a pivotal and determining existential question, central to building our identity as researchers, academicians, and professionals. I have seen people in certain fields find a job they are happy doing right after their masters, for example, people who have some association with the software industry. Then there are people who graduate from renowned business schools and law schools and land up with multiple lucrative job offers. If you have been through this journey before, you will know how lonely and isolating the life of a final year doctoral student is. You are done with your classes, you are trying hard to figure out a research niche that will define your identity in the following years, writing a dissertation, struggling to get published, interviewing for jobs, dealing with job rejections, and so on. The bad news is, it is a tiresome, overwhelming, and alien feeling that requires all your energy, time management and resource management skills as well as prayers. The good news is, you just need one job at the end of the day. Yes, multiple offers will help you make a more informed decision about what you are worth in the field, not to mention a huge boost to the ego. However, all you need at the end of the day is just one job.  

The way I found that one job is an interesting story. I was applying to as many places as I could, but few of them were interviewing. Funding agencies were going through sequestrations, and it seemed that none of the people I contacted proactively everyday had anything hopeful. I was applying for both postdoctoral as well as faculty positions. There was one posting I saw in the mid-west (read: middle of nowhere) in a field that was certainly not my niche. The work looked interesting, and sure it would require me to reboot the Chemistry I learned years ago, but it definitely seemed like something I would apply to. I started applying for the job when my roommate walked in and said, “Nebraska? Who lives in Nebraska?” I had said the same thing to someone a few years ago, and that person seemed to have born in Alabama. Her lack of enthusiasm dampened my spirits, but hey, maybe this would be my backup option?

The next day, I went to the adviser for a recommendation, and faced some serious opposition. He mirrored my thoughts that my specialization was not in Chemistry, and writing me a recommendation for something I might not be skilled at will only put him in a bad spot. I asked him to focus on what I was rather than what I was not, and write what he thought I was good at, instead of making something up. He was still not convinced, and gave me a hard time about applying. I went ahead nevertheless.

A few Fridays after, I got a call for a Skype interview in the morning. Interestingly, I had another interview lined up in the evening, with a different school (which I never got, and it took them 2 months to tell me a no). During this interview of mine, we talked. She told me what she does, and asked me what I did. She asked me technical questions. It was a formal interview of course, but things were not uncomfortable. She did not bombard me with a hundred questions trying to see if I knew ANOVA from MANOVA or grounded theory from interpretivism. The interview went well.

She offered me the job by the end of the interview. Which means she had pretty much made up her mind when she scheduled the interview.

That is the only job offer I got. Which made my choices easy. After all, you need one job at the end of the day.

Lesson learned: Trust your gut feeling, and apply to as many jobs as you can. If I had listened to my adviser and not applied for this job, I’d be jobless today.

Chances are more that my story may not be your story. Usually people get many more job offers and often take time to choose where they wish to go. When I started as a teacher in Calcutta, that was the only job I applied for and got it. Then in Seattle, that was the first job I applied to, and since I wanted to live in the area, I did not look further when I got that job. This time, I applied to 7-8 places, got interview calls from 3 places, and this is the only job I got. I seem to have a record of finding that one job I would take up.


Friday, August 02, 2013

T.G.I.F. (Part 1)

Phrases like TGIF or Monday morning blues always make me frown. There is quite a bit of disrespect associated with such statements, because the opportunity to be gainfully employed is a privilege. Ask this to someone who has been unemployed, even if for a few months, and has always feared being on a dependent visa and not being allowed to work. Sometimes, people do it because other people do it, aping doesn’t take much thinking after all. However, that is not the purpose of this post.

A certain Friday months ago, sometime in February or March, the adviser told me that if nothing works out and I am unable to find a job, he might be willing to postpone my graduation, but would cut down my salary by a significant percentage. This was obviously a temporary arrangement, more so that I could legally remain in status and keep working. Money was a shortage in the lab, so this was not one of those cases of advisers exploiting students and getting work done while paying them less. This was the opposite actually. I had nothing but gratitude for him, who understood it is not possible for me to stay here unemployed. But a reduced salary? Students do not make much as it is.

For the first time in many years, I started to notice the prices of things around me. I used to do that, almost a decade ago. Since MS Office and Excel was not in vogue then, I had a hard bound notebook where I used t write down my expenses- bus fares, food, buying stationery, etc. At the end of every month, I used to calculate my expenses and draw fancy charts and graphs to compare them. This had more to do with my love for numbers and graphs than anything else. Although I earned some money through math, science and English tuitions, I knew my dad was always there to take care of any major expenses. But that was a decade ago.

Now, I was looking at a possibility, even a temporary one, of having a slash in my salary. I started noticing the price of milk and fruits at the grocery store. Don’t get me wrong, I was not planning to cut down on food and start living a life of misery. All I am saying is that the future possibility of a salary cut made me notice things in more detail. For example, if you asked me how much milk cost me, I could tell you a range, but not the exact amount. I have never compared organic versus non-organic vegetables, I just bought whatever looked good. I knew saving $20 weekly in grocery bills wasn’t going to make me richer.

That day, I first noticed the sign at the gas station with the price of gas. Again, I could tell you a range if you asked me, but I was surprised that I had actually not noticed the exact price of gas before. I know many people who use iphone apps to compare gas prices and always go to the cheaper gas stations. I always thought that it is not worth my time and effort, saving a few cents in a few gallons of oil. I know friends who never refill a full tank, and have a weekly budget. I have never thought that would be something I am doing.

For the first time, I came home and made a spreadsheet of how much I spend on phone bills, car insurance, internet, utilities, etc. I started thinking of what I should do if I run out of money. Sell my car? It was a depressing thought, since I am very closely attached to my car. But selling my car would also mean no fuel costs, no insurance costs, and even no speeding tickets. Two months ago, I got a speeding ticket. It did hurt, shelling out $125 as a penalty. Maybe I should have been more careful.

Just the possibility of a salary cut made me notice all those things I did not care about before. I have never thought how much a tank of fuel would cost if I made an impulsive weekend trip to DC. I have never thought how much this brand would cost me versus that brand. I paid more rent to live in an apartment with a big kitchen, French windows, and hardwood floors compared to carpet.

That was months ago. Between then and now, I found a job, graduated, and today is my last day here. Tomorrow, I am driving halfway across the country to my new city. What happened between now and then, and how things worked out is something I will save for future posts. So thank God it is Friday today, not because tomorrow is a weekend and I do not have to work, but because tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new chapter of my life, and will bring in lots of possibilities of a better life.