Thursday, December 13, 2012

How I Got Here, Part 2: Crisis

In part 1 of this series I described how it was that I came to obtain a PhD in chemistry despite my neither liking chemistry much nor being all that good at it. I’ll pick up the story with my job search and its results.

1984 was a good year to graduate with a chemistry PhD; all the major chemical corporations were hiring, courtesy of Reagan-era easing of pesky “restrictions on the productivity of business” that had lifted the US out of an energy-related economic recession at the cost of many working-class jobs. As a woman seeking a research position I had an advantage: businesses were under pressure to increase diversity among their workforces. Since the percentage of women working in research positions was still low, I could provide them not only with the research to help them keep the new products and higher profits coming, but I could also make them look as if they were socially responsible while doing it. I still had to get through the hiring process, however, which included a presentation on my research project as well as personal interviews. Fortunately my research director had been an avid debater in high school and college, learning through debate clubs and meets how to make effective presentations. I’d never been interested in debating myself, but I do enjoy speaking in public. That trait, combined with my director’s instructions on how to prepare and make an effective presentation, helped me make a better impression than my level of understanding warranted. What helped me with the personal interviews, in addition to decent social skills, was my pride in the work I’d done, not so much for the sake of the work itself but because I knew I had helped my director get a lot of research done when it needed to happen for him to get tenure. (He did in fact receive tenure a couple of years later.)

I wound up with job offers from three of that era’s major chemical corporations as well as an offer to do a postdoc with a well-known research laboratory, the offer my research director wanted me to accept, as much because it would look good for him for one of his students to be working there as it would be beneficial to my career. I didn’t take the postdoc offer as I had no desire for an academic position, something I’d taken care not to reveal to him until then because I thought it might lessen what he was willing to do on my behalf. All that remained to do was choose which employer to chain myself to. For various reasons I picked the one headquartered in the St. Louis area, moving here in June of 1984.

Making the change from student to corporate research scientist proved quite difficult. For one, I wasn’t working in a field I had training in (I started out working on catalysts while my training was in spectroscopy), so I was immediately faced with learning the field on top of learning how to work within a corporation. At least I was working in the corporate research laboratory so I didn’t have too much product pressure on me, but the goal remained to make the company money, a goal that I soon learned didn’t mesh well with my own motivations. I still don’t know why the company kept me on past my first year or two, though it might have had something to do with a management potential they saw in me based on the volunteer work I was doing with an internal organization helping young scientists like myself get acclimated to the organization and also for the local section of the American Chemical Society. (I’d joined the latter because I realized that building a network of colleagues would be essential to my obtaining another position should the company come to its senses and get rid of me.) I think it also had something to do with the wealth pump of empire still being functional at that time. They could afford to keep me on while they and I figured out what kind of research I could do that would benefit them, even if it took a few years. I was at least improving their workforce diversity, if nothing else. 

A friend of mine within the corporation had told me early on that one of the big hurdles facing many graduating students upon entering the work force was finding a goal to strive for. During our student years we didn’t have to think hard about what our purpose was, as the degree we worked toward provided an obvious goal. Once we began paid employment, however, we were faced with finding motivation within ourselves and setting goals based on that, not always an easy thing to do. He was right. The only thing motivating me for the first few years was keeping enough money flowing in to afford the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. In due course I had a car and a condo as well as the job and the volunteer work. I’d achieved everything I had worked for to that point: I was supporting myself. Problem was, I was miserable. Besides not enjoying the work and not doing an especially good job at it, I hated being inside an office or laboratory for so many hours. Though I endeavored to spend as much time on the weekends as I could with friends, at area gardens and parks, or riding my bicycle in the nearby river bottomland or on day tours, I could not get away from the knowledge that I’d have to be back in the lab come Monday morning. My life was dominated by paid employment and the extracurricular activities I had to engage in to keep that employment, activities which were increasingly at odds with anything I found meaningful or even enjoyable.

It was a setup for a crisis. That crisis hit when I turned thirty. While it was precipitated by a series of poor relationship choices, the problems went much deeper that that. By that time I was far from living in alignment with my values. To get back on track I needed help from a therapist to see how a deep sense of not being “good enough” propagated into my choices in all of life. I was grateful to be earning enough money to afford the therapy and in enough of a crisis to be willing to do the personal work needed to face some of my shadow aspects. During the course of the therapy, I met the man who was to become my husband at the home of mutual friends. The connection was instant, but it took the insights I gained through therapy to not screw things up when the relationship got serious fast. We were married eight months after we met.

Mike’s background is quite different from mine. While I grew up in a solidly middle class household, Mike comes from working class stock. Though his high school counselor wanted him to go to college, Mike had had quite enough of formal schooling by the time he graduated from high school. After a few years of working for small camera stores, he went to trade school and got a degree as an electrician, turning that into a factory maintenance position with an even larger multinational corporation than the one I worked for. Mike had the good sense to not get his identity tied up with his job. He put in his time at work and did a good-enough job. His off-work hours were spent on his varied personal interests, including music and reading (he’s always enjoyed learning when he can choose the subject). He’d bought a small house in the North County suburb where he’d grown up, only because he was tired of continuous increases in apartment rents, not because he had a big desire to own a house. The house came cheap because it needed a lot of cosmetic work. Mike had gotten the required work done to bring it to code but didn’t have sufficient motivation to do the cosmetic work. When we became engaged and started to discuss where we were going to live, Mike proposed a deal: I could decide on whatever kind of work I wanted done on his house if I would be willing to move there. He had no interest in living in my condo in West County, a much too middle class area for his taste. Generally in a situation like this both parties sell their respective dwellings and buy a different house together, but we knew his house would not sell quickly or for much money while my condo was nearly new and much more salable. I liked the idea of moving into his house, not just because of the chance to take charge of the details of the cosmetic work and because I could finally have a small garden of my own, but because living in Jennings would be a chance to get out of the middle-class rut I’d gotten myself into. The decision to sell my condo and move into his house was to have much farther reaching consequences than either of us could have guessed at the time.

It looks like I’ll need more than three parts to tell this story and that it will drag on into January. So be it. I remember I promised to discuss low-cost ways to start seeds and it’s about time for that post as well; if need be I’ll interrupt the ongoing story for the seed-starting post.

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