Friday, March 27, 2009

Tough Crowd

"Hello," I said, sincerely pleased, and watched one of our more vocal customers pause to shake my hand. He had been reaching to put his arm around me and, perfectly comfortable with such a gesture from faculty members, I likely would have cuddled against him with affection. It's as if academics recognize their own, even if I happen to have left their environment. The comprehension of their work - and respect that must follow it - are deeply ingrained. I listen when they speak because I've been trained to do so. I ask questions when I don't understand because I've slowly grown confident enough to admit I didn't get it the first time but am likely to catch on soon.

"You cut your hair," I noted, while gripping his hand with my own. "It looks good." Then I grinned when he winked at me before introducing my travel companion. Said colleague was promptly grilled while the scientist sent warning looks in my direction when I tried to intervene. I returned his gaze calmly, easily deflecting some questions and answering others in defense of one of our employees who travels infrequently and is unused to the inherent criticism and complaints. I patted his arm when we walked away, assuring him he'd done well.

I did the same in our meeting, facing multiple faculty members, each with varying issues and requests and focusing intently in order to ease their concerns while retaining credibility. "I will not," I've stated with varying degrees of emotion over the last few days, "promise something I know I can't deliver." So I guided conversations and took copious notes and directed the young scientist beside me as topics shifted and questions remained.

"They had really good comments," he said as we sat in the airport later that evening. I nodded in response, mentally exhausted and wanting only to nibble at orange chicken. "They are important customers," he decided and I nodded again before taking a sip of soda. "Did you work here?" he asked and I shook my head, quickly running through my pedigree before asking after his.

"You did your undergrad in China?" I asked, attention caught by the name of the university and he nodded. I almost asked for his name, but paused while wondering if that was impolite. I've always felt twinges of discomfort around the idea that some international students adopt another name while in America. I know a Julie, Dan, Steve, Joe, Mike, Shannon. I also know any number of people who use their given names, patiently repeating them until I can parrot it correctly. Either way, I end up feeling like a stupid American who is either considered incapable of pronouncing a name or who is proven to need practice before being able to reliably call someone correctly.

"Do you think you'll go back to China?" I inquired, ever curious once roused from weariness. He nodded immediately, spoke of jobs he could do and opportunities for advancement. He ducked his head when I smiled at him, but I nodded approvingly.

"I came back home," I confided. "There's something inherently comforting about it for me - looking around and feeling that elusive sense of belonging." I shrugged. "It's not important for everyone, but I needed it." Struck by homesickness, I was happy to board the plane and hurry back to the Midwest.

Given the importance of the customer, he speaks directly with my boss's boss. (For several odd reasons, I'm artificially high in the hierarchy. You'll have to trust me when I tell you it doesn't mean I have the power to do much.) I paused to chat with our leader today in the hallway and he informed me that our difficult customer thinks I'm one of the best hires in years. I have energy and intelligence and give people hope for the direction we're going.

"Keep up the good work," I was told and smiled before ducking my head modestly.

I was letting the various threads weave together into some acceptable conclusion when I frowned in realization. The academic environs are comfortable for me. I look around and have this odd yet powerful sense of belonging. And given my travel schedule, I'm constantly tugged between interaction with those beloved and respected PIs and the corporate folks who now call me their own. I talk to important people - scientists who are powerful and inspirational and sometimes seem impossibly wise. And returning to the office and its 'let's impress the boss!' mentality and 'what's the bottom line?' focus is nearly distasteful. I remember interviewing in California and looking at the mountains so near the ocean and thinking it was beautiful. But it wasn't right. So when my colleague says he wants to eventually go home, I can easily make sense of that.

Far less clear is my own path. Much as I miss and admire academia, I do not wish to return. I want to do this - be good at it and grow increasingly effective - but I'm concerned (read: terrified) that I'm fighting a losing battle. That I'm trying to convince people to call me by a different name that I keep forgetting to answer to. That I'm overwhelmed and exhausted and heartbreakingly sad because this just isn't right. And that no amount of time to adjust is going to help.

Weeks slip by at dizzying speeds. My days are booked so solidly that I lose track of what happened when, where I was when I last wore that shirt or who asked me that question I meant to answer. A conference is approaching - the same one where I was so miserable last year because I didn't think I'd find a job. The lesson, I think, is I should learn to relax. There's a constant supply of worrisome sources, but all appears to go right in the end.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

It sounds like you're kicking major butt-- way to go! I hope that you find some ways to take some time for yourself soon; you deserve it!

Ewan said...

Y'know - I love this blog, but the more I follow you the more I am confused as to what you actually *do*.

I know that this is psueudonymity - fair enough - but it's hit the point of confusion for me..


Jenn, PhD said...

You know, sometimes it's comforting to know what your DON'T want to do, even when you're not sure what it is that's right for you... try to think of your time here as at least a chance to develop some new skills, experiences, and find out a bit more about what you need from a job. Maybe, in the long run, you'll find out it is something you'd like to keep doing for a while. It sounds like you're doing great there, and as long as you're still enjoying it more than you're suffering from it, you should stay. I'm not commenting much these days, but I'm still here, reading along.

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