31 January, 2015

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

I was talking to some friends last week and a thought-provoking question came up.

"If you could talk to 18-year-old you, what three pieces of advice would you give them?"

We all have things in our past that we regret. We all have made bad decisions. We all wish we could go back and do some stuff over knowing what we know now. It is funny this came up in conversation, because I've been having some of those thoughts lately. Which leads me to

Piece of advice number 1.

Cs may get degrees, but despite what you think right now, you will want to go to grad school at some point down the road. I graduated with an embarrassing 2.5 GPA. I can give you a laundry list of excuses, some of which are legitimate, about why. My parents are not academically inclined- my dad has a sociology degree and my mom never went to college. They were just thrilled I was in college- they knew nothing about navigating academia. My academic advisor for my major was absolutely worthless. He never  talked to me about my career goals, never told me about getting involved in academic research or internships, never counselled me about my low grades. I wasn't savvy enough to ask about these things. When I met with him the conversation pretty much went like this: "Looks like you're on track to graduate. Keep it up." I worked full time and played in the band. I was busy and I didn't devote the time to my studies that I should have. I slid by and didn't apply myself. After graduation, I landed a job at a well-known medical reference laboratory.

After a few years of working in a clinical toxicology lab, I grew tired of the constant routineness of the job. Following an SOP every day and not getting to actually fix problems that arose drove me crazy. One of the research and development scientists was kind enough to let me help her with some projects and I decided I really liked the R&D end of things. I liked being able to use my brain and solve problems, not just go through the same motions all the time. I worked on an immunoassay validation and the company who provided the kits paid for me to attend the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT) conference in Oklahoma City, where I presented a poster detailing my project. That kind of sealed the deal for me. In my spare time in the lab, I worked on little side projects here and there. I learned as much about immunoassays and mass spectrometry as I could with the few resources I had.

In order to move into R&D, I knew I'd have to get a masters degree, but my GPA would hinder that. I applied once and failed to get in, though I was not surprised. Fast forward a couple of more years and the perfect job opportunity fell into my lap. The medical director over the lab I was working in received a grant from the university. He needed a research assistant with great laboratory skills who knew about time-of-flight mass spectrometry. I totally fit the bill, got the job, and got myself out of the clinical lab. I was stupid lucky. I was able to move into R&D with a bachelors degree and no publications to my name. I've been working hard  and learning a lot over the past 18 months, but to truly further my career, I really need to obtain an advanced degree. Now I can only hope that my professional accomplishments in the past 10 years will overshadow poor decisions I made in the past. By the time I apply, I'll have a few first author publications to my name and I'll be a middle author on a handful of others. I need to take the GRE and get a really great score, but I'm not too worried about that. I'm not all that worried about good letters of recommendation, either. I have good relationships with people who can write me strong letters. All of this could be for nothing if the graduate committee cannot see beyond stupid things I did 10-17 years ago.

TL;DR If I worked hard and earned good grades during my undergrad, I wouldn't have to be busting my ass now and praying to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that I get into grad school.

The second piece of advice.

Pay your damn bills and do not get in debt. Learn to budget and save. I had way too much of a laissez faire attitude about everything when I was in my early twenties, it would seem. My rather stupid approach to my finances was "I'll remember the fun I had, not the debt." Ugh. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. I defaulted on stuff. I ruined my credit. I am 35 and am just now climbing out from under those mistakes.

The third piece of advice.

Don't be a bitch about your brother's wedding. I was an ass. I refused to be in the line because I didn't think they should get married. I still think at 21 they were too young to get married, but they are still married and I am still single. So what do I know? All I needed to do was stand up there in an ugly dress and smile and I wouldn't do it. I still have a hard time grinning and bearing it when I have to be involved with something or someone I don't agree with, either personally or professionally. I am stubborn, but I dislike confrontation. My coping technique is avoidance. I am working on it and I am also getting better at keeping my mouth shut, but man is it hard.

So there you go. My three pieces of advice I wish I could give my past self. Now I just need a TARDIS or a Flux Capacitor or whatever they did in Star Trek IV to save the whales.

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