Monday, March 28, 2011

Driven by the pursuit of proficiency


I am looking for a job, and as this is only the third time in my life job hunting, I have sought advice anywhere I can get it. Like most universities, Virginia Tech has a Career Services office, so I consulted their website to help get things rolling. They suggest beginning with a self-assessment, and the very first item of this self assessment bluntly asks, "What do you want to achieve in your work?" While this question is frustratingly broad, it is fair game; one could expect such a question in an interview, and one certainly must have an answer ready.

I have never felt guided by some vision of how my life should be. I mean, sure, when I was 8, I wanted to fly an F-14 Tomcat and shoot down commie MiGs because that made you a hero, and when I was 13, I wanted to be a Marine Biologist because of National Geographic and NOVA PBS shows, and when I was 18 I wanted to be a physician because that's what all biology majors intend to be. Each one of those were fantasies—spurious projections of the possible me, based on the immature and incomplete value system I held at the moment. When I gave up on the gauntlet of medical school my junior year at UGA, I also gave up pretending I could calculate long term career trajectories. Despite blowing off this central tenant of many a cookie-cutter career book and commencement address, I've thus far avoided becoming a complete and utter catastrophe of a human being, so I continue to make without.

Now I'm a grad student in computational biology—the result of a few simple ingredients: 1) I've enjoyed computer programming since high school, and 2) I've found biology fascinating since the days of reading Zoobooks at the dinner table. I have also loved video games since grade school, but I didn't take the career path of a video game programmer because I didn't feel like I would make a substantial contribution to humankind. In contrast, I quit trying to become a physician—a career in which I would have had a direct and tangible impact on other people's lives—because I saw the competition was better than I was at jumping through the med school application hoops. (I also love playing guitar, but let's be realistic—although I've re-evaluated that option and there are worse things.)

According to motivational speaker Dan Pink, motivation boils down to three needs: mastery, autonomy, and purpose (video below if you are unfamiliar with Pink's theory). From that standpoint, I didn't feel a sense of mastery in my quest to become a physician, and I didn't feel a sense of purpose in my pursuit of game programming, but with a decent grasp of biology and a propensity for programming, computational biology seemed a good fit. Now the question stands, has it been?

From the standpoint of fulfilling the need for purposeful work, I have to say I have certainly experienced a boost in motivation after switching research groups, due in large part to shifting the biological subject from bacteria to in vitro liver tissue culture systems, which has more immediate implications for human health—a subject which still motivates me.

Considering proficiency, though, I feel very uncertain about my path in research. My RSS feeds continue to fill up with table-of-contents from journals faster than I can screen them for interesting abstracts. Also, although I don't reading through literature in the field as much as before, I still just dislike doing it. I think this indicates a major obstacle to a career in research because it breaks the virtuous cycle of positive feedback: what we like, we do more of, so we get better at it, which makes us like it more and do more of it, which makes us better at it, and so on.

It's not clear I've grown much as a presenter, either, though it's not for lack of opportunities. I've given at least one presentation a month, sometimes several, mostly to my two research groups, but with some conference and departmental talks, as well. While I've gotten better at recognizing the work pattern that goes into preparing a presentation, I don't feel I've been able to reduce the time it takes to prepare them, and while I feel I've improved in delivery technique, I feel disappointed at how little I've improved given the amount of time I've invested. This said, I have discovered I enjoy delivering a presentation for which I've prepared adequately, which I attribute to the performance aspect.

If we take a look at the most important currency in academia, publications, I'm far from flush, with one co-authorship on a book chapter, one second-authorship on a collaboration paper, and one first-authorship on an original research article (Open Access, yay!). I'm working on another paper currently, and should begin another one prior to defending in June. It's not a sparse record, but it's unremarkable. If I have learned anything from The Dip, it's that I want to do remarkable work.

I really want to become proficient, but after nine years of working in academic research from undergrad, to research tech, to grad student, I feel it's escaping me in this pursuit. My research experience feels like long periods of slogging, largely devoid of any feedback, let alone positive feedback (which is rare and fleeting). I want a research experience that breaks that mold, but I'm willing to accept I might not find one, and I'm becoming more enthusiastic about switching tracks to a career where I can make a genuine success of myself. I want that virtuous cycle of positive feedback. I want to get excited and make things!

So, to the future interviewer who asks, "What do you want to achieve in your work?" I answer this: "I want to achieve remarkable proficiency." Why settle for less? Life is short; let's find a way to become awesome while we still can.