Right when I was experiencing my non-academic identity crisis, my PhD advisor, Tarek, told me that the Biomedical Engineering (BME) Chair had asked if I’d be interested in a potential job opportunity at Yale’s Center for Biomedical and Interventional Technology (CBIT), which he had co-founded. CBIT, which connects Yale’s Medical School, hospital, School of Management, and Engineering departments, was looking for an Engineering Director to teach Yale undergrads, oversee numerous interdisciplinary projects, and (guess what!) organize community-building events like hackathons. While I certainly was intrigued, I told Tarek that I was committed to my postdoc so unfortunately would have to decline ….but then I asked him to give me a night to think it over and let him know.
That evening, I composed a list of pro’s and con’s of pursuing this CBIT job (and weighted them for calculations, like any logical engineer). Then I listed answers to the potent question ‘what do I want to do in my career?’
I also recorded that my strength is translating science into formats that are clear and engaging to non-scientists, not actually generating the data. I wrote that it’s time that I became more courageous and self-aware to paddle against the flow and that I will not allow myself to languish in academia.
I barely slept that night. I was wide awake excitedly envisioning what it would be like to talk about science all day to various people. What if my affinity for spreadsheets and efficiency systems were actually useful in my job? What if I could help vet ideas and connect people with the right partners and resources to launch their projects? What if I were encouraged to run huge events and amplify people’s energy and creativity? What if I could get paid to be The Sociable Scientist?!?!
The next morning, I texted Tarek to let him know that yes, I’m interested in discussing this potential career opportunity. Two days later, I launched this website on the 1-year anniversary of my thesis defense, and I was blown away by the enormous response I received online and in person.
A week later, I met with the BME Chair to get more details and determine if we could structure this job transition, as I wanted to make good on my 1-year postdoc contract. What followed was a whirlwind 2 weeks of 4 interviews with the key CBIT players; I liked each person I met more and more, and I became more and more excited about the Engineering Director position.
My favorite interview was with the head of the Yale Cancer Center (and the director of the hospital), an intimidating man with credentials longer than most people’s resumes. His no-bullshit style was immediately present when I walked into his office; he asked me “why are you here?” to which I responded “because I made an appointment and I keep my appointments.” Momentarily satisfied, he then asked for my life story, and we engaged in hour-long rapid-fire banter that required me to think deeply and quickly.
When things are going my way, I see numerous car licence plates bearing permutations of my initials (ALS – yes, like the disease). After that interview, I saw a record 7 AL/AS license plates on my mile-long bike ride home, which was tremendously heartening. After my 4th and final interview, I passed a truck that was emblazoned with ALS in giant letters, and I gratefully laughed out loud. I couldn’t have asked for more auspicious signs that I was on the right path…
Though I felt energized and excited about the CBIT opportunity, I tried to temper my enthusiasm, as there was a solid chance that I would not get the job. Since I knew that my interviewers would be meeting on the evening of 4/1 (yes, April Fool’s Day) to decide my fate, I expected to hear from them sometime in early April. Those weeks of limbo were really tough, as I tried to be productive in my current job yet noncommittal for long-term experiments without revealing my hand. I also worried that I might get the job offer but would be required to start asap, meaning that I would be unable to productively finish lab work and burn bridges with my academic colleagues.
During that limbo time, I sought counsel from my mother’s best friend whom I’ve always admired. A brilliant, strong, beautiful woman who has built a wonderful personal and professional life, Ingrid left her successful career as a Civil Engineer to pursue nursing after her husband passed away from cancer. She graciously agreed to speak with me about my career, and after listening attentively and asking poignant questions, she offered the following gems, which I’d like to pass along:
- don’t live by fear or allow regret
- jump into what feels right and don’t be dissuaded by perceived difficulties
- never underestimate connections – each of the highly-connected people I’ve already met has an enormous “hidden” network that I could tap into
- think about where I want to be in 5 years (loosely – as in do I want to be in a lab, or in a leadership position? Do I want to focus on details or be a high level generalist?) and back-calculate the steps that will get me there
- you will always have the skills and experience you already have. Doing the same thing for a longer time does not broaden your repertoire
- take leadership opportunities that offer a multitude of next steps
I was surprised to get an email on Saturday 4/2 (1 day into my cold shower experiment!) to set up a meeting for the following week. “If they want to meet this quickly, that probably means I didn’t get the job, since it would take longer to put together the paperwork for an offer…” I thought, dismayed. I scheduled a meeting for Monday 4/4, and I resolved (in the cold shower, of course) that whatever happens, this was a valuable experience since it showed me that academia isn’t for me right now, and then I tried not to think about it too much during the weekend…
On Monday afternoon, I nervously entered the BME Chair’s office and made awkward small talk about the Jackson Pollack paintings on his walls. He began telling me about the potential timeline, which projects I would take over first, whom I should meet… and then I stopped him. “Wait, are you offering me the job?!” I asked incredulously. “Yes of course! We all want you onboard and are hoping we can make it work for you!” he gently exclaimed. After I zoned out in happiness and relief for a few seconds, I expressed my gratitude and excitement. I said that I was in, if we could get the logistics right. When he offered a salary figure, I’m proud to say that I negotiated.
Unfortunately, too many people, especially women, shy away from negotiations; to be real, negotiating certainly incurs a few awkward moments, but I’d rather endure an awkward 10 seconds than feel resentful for a lower-than-expected salary for years. I told him that that salary was lower than I had expected (he almost looked apologetic revealing me his opening offer), and then he asked what I had in mind, and I gave him a salary range (fortunately, I had done my homework and had a reasonable number to offer). Realizing that I had key info, he said that he would ‘see what he could do,’ and I’m happy to say that CBIT came through with the salary and vacation time that I was seeking. If you find yourself hesitant to negotiate, please know that I was able to get an additional $15,000 and another week of vacation just by pushing back. Don’t leave that money and time on the table!
I’m extremely excited to start this new role in mid-July after I finish my postdoc on June 30. The job description doesn’t sound like work to me; it sounds fun. Yes, it will be intense, but my naive optimism has enabled me to start difficult adventures like a PhD and Tough Mudders. I believe that this role will light me up and bring out my strengths and passions, and I’m incredibly thrilled and grateful to take my sociable scientist initiatives into my professional life 🙂
So what does any of this have to do with Secret Santa?! For 5 years in grad school, I organized Secret Santa (along with a friend in a neighboring lab) for our building, which comprised of several BME labs. My fear that this activity, which I brazenly started when I began my PhD, was seen as a silly distraction was allayed when the BME Chair told me that he appreciates my commitment to community building. With his endorsement, I continued running Secret Santa, which brought funny experiences, reasons to consume lots of cookies, and some pretty great gifts.
The person who recruited me for Engineering Director at CBIT is the same guy who sanctioned my Secret Santa activities years ago. While I cannot incontrovertibly prove that Secret Santa landed my dream job, I do think that his noticing my self-motivated project management and community building helped queue up my name when he was looking to fill this job. If you accept this whimsical, unsubstantiated claim (that I can make now that I quit academia), then take my story as encouragement to keep doing the random things that make you happy but may seem unproductive; these things that you can’t not do just may advance your career 🙂