“So what do you do?”
I get asked this question a lot, as an obvious 30 year old and as the partner of a successful, renowned architect. At dinner parties, at casual drinks, at official functions.. All I can do is stammer, “Ah.. Well.. I used to be a scientist…. And now I am not sure what I am… Unemployed? Poor struggling student?” Neither of which are particularly satisfying nor reflective answers.
My partner, bless his heart would then interject cheerfully, “he cured cancer!!!”
Which is sweet, but not quite true…
Where do I start when it comes to the topic of my career? What terms can I use to couch it so that it doesn’t sound self pitying and as though I am wallowing in my own sorrows, like the jazz singers of old?
The facts are; plainly and starkly presented, that I did have a career, once in a previous life. I was a scientist, full of idealistic naïveté, wanting to make a difference, save lives and all that jazz, but the travails of academia soured my youthful enthusiasm and turned me into a bitter crone who just wanted to sell out and go corporate.
I can hear my partner in my head going, “hmmm, perhaps that isn’t the best way to sell yourself… How about you talk about your career highlights!!!”.. In a tone that is all at once chipper and enthusiastic.. He’s so adorable..
So here goes, the positive spin:
I worked in cancer research, starting out in haematological cancers before branching into prostate cancer. I worked on the cancer that Delta Goodrem had* and my work was actually licensed by a pharmaceutical company (!!!!), [sight pause for acclaim from assembled multitudes]. As a prostate cancer researcher, I once pipetted 60 plates in two weeks, [pause again as assembled multitudes’ eyes slightly glaze over], which is close to what a robot can do, which means, I am part robot (!!! And said with a tone of maniacal glee). [longer pause as some of the assembled multitude begin to back away slowly wondering if I am some kind of nutjob]
See what I mean when I say I have issues with my elevator pitch…
The truth is obviously more mundane:
I got my PhD, worked for a bit as a post-doctoral researcher, impulsively decided I didn’t like it, took a pay cut and became just a lowly research assistant, and performed robotic tasks for three years before deciding I wanted to be able to wear suits to work and that there was no point wearing a suit to a lab since mice aren’t actually cognisant or appreciative of a good dress sense… So I decided to go back to university; but in my infinite wisdom, decided I could do both full time work and a full course load, which I hasten to add, did work out for a semester, before the strain of trying to do both things concurrently sent me spiralling into a vortex of exhaustion and self pity, whence I would spend my three hour seminars thinking of sad weary songs in my head as the lecturer droned on about bonds and ‘portforio’s’ (she was Asian.. Trouble pronouncing ‘l’s’…)
But wait, there’s more! I then decided that I would give up full time work and the salary that went with it so I could focus on my studies. Which would have been an OK to great decision, except one is not likely to perform well in ones exams if one spends the entirety of the lecture picturing oneself as a down in the doldrums, lip syncing jazz singer.. And of course, with the terrible grades, come the uncertainty of whether or not this particular course is the right one, which leads to more wallowing and soul searching, which leads to a terrible case of the ‘woe is me’s’ [an actual disorder.. Look it up… On Wikipedia.. ]
Here I imagine my partner giving me awesome side eye and muttering “pessimist” under his breath..
My partner believes I am amazing. He looks at me and sees this wonderfully gifted gay man who is so smart and so intelligent and so good in bed. His words, not mine..
What do I see? I see someone who is average… Who isn’t the worst, but isn’t the best either, (coincidentally what an interviewer said about me). Someone who could be something great, if he could just stop wallowing in the past and look towards the future by doing something concrete, like writing about the Serious Issues of today and getting his name out there. I see potential, in other words.
But I also see someone who isn’t quite sure what he wants. Who balks and balks like a stubborn horse because he doesn’t quite know what road to choose and in doing so, chooses to let the opportunities that he has wither away, much like Esther in The Bell Jar…
What is special about me? What have I achieved that others haven’t? One time, I modelled for a teen magazine.. It was a contest.. I won a set of the ugliest clothes ever… (Plaid shirt and terrifyingly ugly grey pants which didn’t fit because I lied about my waist size). I have a PhD… What else? I have a very good memory for pop culture and song lyrics.. I learnt the words to the Les Mis song The Docks (Lovely Ladies) in a day… So I could market myself as a PhD, who once modelled ugly clothes and who recalls lots of song lyrics and pop culture trivia… Except, where’s the niche for these skills?
Here’s the thing, I do know, in my heart of hearts, that I am more than capable of succeeding in whatever career I end up getting into. I know that I have the skills, I know I can do the work. The issue is more about whether or not I will enjoy the work. Also, not screwing up job interviews by breezily writing off my past scientific experience as ‘irrelevant’ (I am so good at interviews…). Although, as my mother would say, ‘happiness at work? That’s bullshit. Nobody enjoys working. You just go to work and you do your work well and you get paid and then you come back and put food on the table for your terribly bratty and ungrateful kids who then whine about not having a good childhood because they don’t have toys.’ (Yes, my mother actually said that. Why she never won Parent of The Year, I will never comprehend…)
Where to from here, one might ask. And if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this..
Here are the options:
By some miracle, one of my job applications actually works out, I get an interview which I don’t screw up and I get a job as a patent lawyer or a high powered pharmaceutical medical science liaison and I live happily ever after with my knight in shining armour, in our palace with white and brown speckled horses. Oh, and a household staff of 20 and a walk in closet, whilst I am fantasising..
I go back to uni, finish the course to the best of my ability, get into a graduate program, (which isn’t looking all that likely, given my poor grades and the fact that all I remember about portforio’s and bonds are the lyrics to sad jazz songs.. ) and then I live happily ever after with my Prince Charming in a penthouse, with a cleaning lady and a closet full of Tom Ford suits..
Hmm.. There are less options than I thought..
Yes, yes, I know that both option 1 and 2 can be done concurrently; not exactly a Sophie’s Choice in that I can apply for jobs whilst studying and one of the applications might actually work out.. So essentially, I have inadvertently devised my future plans whilst writing this..
*Not exactly true, but as my dearest partner would say, “who needs to know that?”