Monday, November 20, 2006

Born under a lucky star or the importance of good mentors

I never thought I was going to be a scientist or a professor or travel the world on other people’s money. I never even dreamed about it, because I had never thought about as an option. My parents are well-educated and employed by the church and the national school system respectively and brought up my siblings and I in a good middle class home. They expected us to be bright and do well in school, preferably better than most kids in our generally-not-well-educated neighborhood, and go on and get an education and good jobs. I did well, according to the local standards, but nothing exceptional. I loved reading and dreaming about faraway destinations for future travels, thought I wanted to write a novel some day, was not into sports and lived in a self-made fantasy world with my best friend. Pretty much the average girl geek. In high school and early years at university I developed my social skills to the level where I did very little work and got average or below average grades as a result.

When I was working on the research for my Master's thesis I had an advisor who knew very well how to push me to do my best, but who also did not know when to stop. The part of my personality that had made me re-read every page in the textbook out loud until I did no mistakes in the second grade and spend hours a day on latin translations in the 9th grade, flourished. My perfectionism took my nights and days, ruined an anyway poorly functioning relationship to ex bf, changed my priorities completely but left me with no desire to do research ever again. But I did well - very well - and even though I started my carreer working as a teacher in elementary school - I had some vague idea of maybe being capable of something else.

Half a year into the teaching job I got a phone call from my PhD-advisor-to be, completely out of the blue, asking if I was interested in participating in the project, that would become my PhD project. On one side I had told everybody that I had it with academia, and to some extent it was true, on the other hand the nudge from someone thinking I could do it, was just what I needed to grab the chance. Long story short, I did embark on the PhD journey (slightly worried where it would lead me, but extremely proud and motivated by the fact that someone had encouraged me to do so). The first year I pretty much made a fool out of myself. I was switching subfields and was not very well prepared for the work I was going to do. My personal life was also messy and confusing at the time, and I can honestly say, I don't think I made an impressive figure in the beginning.

But things started to change. I got more comfortable and learned more about my new field. I got to know the collaborators in the research group better and I started to get new ideas. I also began to like the job very much. I got a better sense of the direction I wanted to work in and found my own place in the research group. At some point one of the collaborators asked me if I was interested in doing a post doc at his institution later. For the second time I thought I was extremely lucky that someone had picked me and saved me from the unemployment I believed I was facing without their rescue missions.

Though it seemed like it would never happen, grad school did come to an end, and I moved on to be a post doc with collaborator as a PI at his government research institute. Since then opportunities have been thrown at me at a pace I still have difficulties grasping. I had barely arrived when we started talking about putting the big research grant proposal together, that we just finished revising last week. From the moment I became a part of the group my ideas have been integrated into the research we are doing. To the point where I realised when we had a brain storming event last week that everything we intend to do over the next 4-5 years closely related to ideas I developed during my PhD. Around the same time I was contacted by someone else, whom I had once told over a cup of coffee that I would like to get more teaching experience. She wanted know if I'd be interested in this one-semester temporary faculty gig I have at the moment. Again I considered this pure luck and being at the right place at the right time.

Right before I left, it was decided from the higher-ups that all departments should have a new type of administrative position - an assistant department head. An average research position but with administrative responsibility when the department head is away or to help out when the work load is too much for one person to cover. The department head asked if I was interested in this position when I came back full-time in December and I decided to jump at it. No one else was particularly interested in taking on more work, and due to a policy of promoting women in science (I will talk about THAT another day) women were preferred. While I didn't like the reasoning behind it, I did like the opportunity (not to mention the salary increase) and said yes.

Now, as I posted a few days ago, the offer was changed to not only be the assistant department head, but to cover for the actual department head for one semester while he is on a sabbatical. I did say yes, because as always, I am too vain to say no when people trust me and think I am capable of something. But I also really think it is strange. I can probably learn the administration part, but being head of people twice my age, with an international research record and permanent positions somehow seems wrong. I mean, who lets a 32 year old with a one year track record run the business. I am seriously not sure what I think about this. I haven't told it to anyone but fiancé in my real life yet. I don't know why. It sounds weird just coming out of my mouth and I am afraid people will think I am bragging.

There is no doubt I could not have done this on my own. There is no way I alone could have created the network of people I have today, and my advisors over the years and my post doc PI have always treated me nicely and I believe they speak about me in way, so others would think I am a relatively smart and reliable person. But maybe I can finally allow myself to think, that it is not all pure chance and luck. Maybe some people actually like what I do, since they keep asking me to do more things. My mentors over the years all have one thing in common - they have pushed me forward and held high expectations, but at the same time they have shown clearly that they believed in me, not only by saying so, but by offering me opportunities to show I was worth it. That is maybe the biggest difference from when I was younger and didn't believe in my own abilities. They simply created an environment where I could achieve thing I had never believed in myself. That is really amazing, I think.

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