Get To Know A Bullish Reader: Meet Katie!

In our latest installment of Get To Know A Bullish Reader, Haley spoke with Katie, a ballsy bullicorn balancing multiple jobs with completing her PhD. When Katie told us that she had received her first paid blogging job as a direct result of reading Bullish, we knew we had to talk to her and find out exactly how she did it.

How did you first find Bullish?
I’m not exactly sure from where, but I got linked to Bullish Life: Be a Crazy Awesome Bitch Like Angelina Jolie, As Per Her Former Assistant on TheGloss sometime around last February. Once there, I found the archives and the rest is history.

Was there a particular column that resonated with you?
Hands down its Bullish Life: What To Do When You’re Surrounded By Lazy Idiots (and Sweet, Fragile Simpletons). I grew up in rural Washington state – it was not even a town, it was a postal district. We had more elk than people, 1 bar, and 1 post office. From a very young age I knew that the only way for me to be successful was to get out and somehow go college, which I had no ability to pay for. As a result I was an oddly focused child (I talked my middle school principal into letting me skip the 8th grade and go straight into high school) and I worked very hard in high school to build a record that would get me enough scholarships to go to college. This put me in a bit of a Tom Williams situation where nobody around me seemed to have the same goals that I did. That’s been a theme through college and in my personal life ever since.

It was nice to read that article and know that I’m not the only person who has faced these kinds of frustrations and had to move on from people and places in our lives and that this is, in fact, a good thing. I had a weird amount of guilt for feeling like I had outgrown a lot of my friends and not taking time out of my busy week to call them. This article helped me be more comfortable in realizing that I wasn’t obligated to stay in contact with people who I no longer had anything in common with and were over 1000 miles away.

How did you get your first paid writing work as a guest blogger? Tell us exactly how you found the position, pitched yourself, negotiated pay, and what the job is like now.
I started blogging in March of 2012 on my site. After a few months I came into contact with a site that provides advice to graduate students and I felt like I could do that, so I pitched an idea and they liked it. I had four columns go up over four months and then hit a snag with scheduling articles. The editors required me to take on more writing duties than I was comfortable with (for free!) in order to get access to scheduling. I actually quit submitting articles to the site so I could focus on my academics. After a month of silence I got an e-mail from the head editor asking me to become a paid contributing author on a monthly basis ($25 for a 500 word article). I start writing in January 2012, and after the first article the pay rate goes up for negotiation. Since I’m only writing one column per month instead of the standard two (I negotiated for only one column a month due to my workload) I plan to pitch for a pay-per-word format so that I will be compensated for spending the extra time on larger (1000+ word) once-monthly columns with more content.

Tell us about the blog in your field. Is there an existing community for microbiology bloggers?
After reading my first few Bullish columns, I decided that writing a blog in my field would be a good way to develop my personal brand independent from my actual PhD research and develop skills that will give me a advantage in applying for non-academic jobs. The old adage is “write what you know” – I just so happen to be familiar with what I consider a really interesting, diverse body of knowledge. Everybody gets sick and we all have to deal with microbes at some point.

There are also a lot of really bad interpretations of research out there done by armchair scientists who don’t have a strong grasp of the underlying fundamentals of what they’re talking about. There is a significant need for people who are good at communicating this science to the public to make sure that certain key elements are not lost in translation or overly sensationalized.

I try to write about interesting and relevant subjects in the news and give good solid information as free from non-scientific bias as possible while still engaging readers. It’s not always easy. I try to source material directly from publications and it often takes a lot to translate a figure into something understandable to a general audience. I think this push for understanding is important because we really are at a new microbiological frontier as a species: there are more people more densely packed than ever before, new disease are constantly emerging as we push further into untouched land, and many microbes are mutating and evading our therapies faster than we can develop new ones due to decades of antibiotic abuse. We need a concerted effort on the part of scientists to communicate to the general public as well as policy makers since we we will be facing new challenges this century that HAVE to be dealt with in rational, scientific ways.

There is a small existing community of microbiology blogs, which is great. A lot of these are written by scientists for a more general audience and I find it genuinely inspiring to see how other people can communicate so well with a public audience. It’s also nice to be able to talk to people in the field on-line because it is a small field and you can really keep in touch with people in your particular niche of research. It’s great to be able to talk to other people about challenges they have in the field with research or getting grant funding and it ends up being a really good support network to have.

What do you do for your husband’s business exactly? Does he help you in your career ventures or in any other way as well?
I’m currently an assistant at my husband’s business. I fill in for the production/manufacturing and paper work. I’ve just started learning filing for the upcoming tax season, which actually isn’t as bad as I imagined. Since his company does manufacturing, I’ve learned all the parts of the process that I can do without investing a crazy amount of my time.

My husband is a professional glass artist with way more than his 10,000 hours in, I cannot catch up to the man without getting another PhD in glass. I know how to run our sandblasters by myself and am pretty comfortable doing that and other parts of the cold-working and finish process when he needs me. This frees him up to work on sales projects, websites, or just make more glass to expand the business. It’s not a huge burden of work for me (maybe 2-8 hours a week in the evenings and weekends depending on the week), but it’s enough to allow us to get more done for less right now without adding another employee to the payroll, which is huge when you have big aspirations and a small budget.

Less tangibly, I make it a point to be an effective sounding board for new ideas. We spend hours every week hashing out marketing strategy, website design, sales goals, product development etc. I’ve really learned how his business works and can bring in a different perspective to situations where it can be useful (it turns out my years of working for small business owners before college paid off). It’s also had the added benefit of making me a better listener and communicator in all areas of my life and work.

My work on campus is really technical and highly specific, so there’s really no way to directly help me with my thesis research. More importantly though, my husband is my rock for days when I come home upset that experiments aren’t working or I just feel dumb for whatever reason (this happens a LOT in a PhD program). I’ve learned that there is a lot of overlap in the feelings that you encounter as an entrepreneur and academic trying to navigate uncertain challenges and learn new skills to deal with them. There is no road map to where either of us is going so we really help each other to understand what is going on in our work lives and how best to respond to it. Having him to talk to is invaluable and has been a cornerstone of me maintaining my sanity in school.

You have a LOT of jobs and commitments. How do you balance all of them? How do you make time for leisure and recreation while balancing all your responsibilities? Be as specific as possible. What does an average day look like for you?
My usual work day starts at 7:00. I get up and mindlessly do dishes while my husband makes coffee or tea. I a big fan of Jen’s advice to do non-brain things when your brain is at a lull. After coffee I usually make breakfast and then read the news and check my e-mails as I eat because it’s hard for me to just sit and eat breakfast. At 8 my husband’s employees show up and I’ll spend a little time going over a side project like learning Spanish (I’ve been using Memrise to learn vocabulary), blogging, or learning to code.

I’m usually on campus from 9-5 Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends for an hour or two. Because I’m pursuing my PhD in Microbiology the bulk of my time is dedicated to “bench work,” or all the different experiments that I have to do to complete a body of new research large enough to earn the degree. This means I could be doing something as easy as running a DNA sample a gel, or as difficult as isolating neurons from mice, or working with live samples of West Nile virus. Depending on the experiments being run I can have a very erratic schedule and have to go in at 10 pm or 6am to deal with time points, but those are not as common. I actually stopped a few months and made an agreement to with myself to submit to the demands of my degree and not try to fight them in order to go into this with a better outlook. Many students get resentful of late time points or heavy workloads for infringing on their personal lives, which is completely understandable, but I try to look at in terms of working hard now so I can have more time later. I’d rather come in after hours or on the weekend if it means graduating a few months earlier and moving on to a job that pays more than my current student stipend.

With the way I schedule experiments, I can usually set it so something is running hands-free in the lab for about an hour and I’ll use the time to go to the campus fitness center. I don’t do this as often as I’d like (1-2 times a week at the moment), but it is a habit I’ve been working on with some success so far. I’ve found that I have to carve out a certain amount of time to do something physical or else I really start to feel the consequences. I gained 15 and then lost 25 pounds in my first 15 months of grad school, which I do not recommend.

I usually get home around 5pm, at which point I enter what I call the vortex. This is the time where I still get things done like dinner, laundry, working with my husband on business projects, and blogging or reading research articles (in a bubble bath! with a beer!) but I don’t have a set structure, so I always run the risk of sitting down to relax with a Netflix show and then somehow losing multiple hours (this happens more than I like to admit). This is the area of my day that I’m trying to figure out right now because I know I can use it better.

8:30-10:30 pm is my time to unwind with my husband, eat dinner, and get ready for the next day. This is time that doesn’t go to any other projects at all except maybe crocheting (which is like a weird form a meditation, but it works for me). I need lots of sleep to function as a full human being so getting to bed at a reasonable hour is important.

I also make sure to have one “down-day” a week where I don’t check my work e-mail, don’t go to campus, I read books for myself, and do things that I normally feel like I don’t have time for like painting my nails. It’s also my drink-lots-of-coffee-and-clean-the-house-day. I often let all the little things go throughout the week and I need a certain amount of order or I get distracted and can’t focus. I’ve done this since I was an undergraduate and it seems to work pretty well for me.

Somehow, this schedule leaves me with a pretty decent amount of time for leisure activities like going to the zoo or taking an aerial acrobatics class. The hardest things for me are still getting to the gym and structuring that 5-8pm block of time. Thankfully, I’ve gotten some good advice from different Bullish articles that I am ready to implement this year and see if I can make some headway.

Do you have a favorite Bullish article?
Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE. This article pretty much sums up how I’m looking at the 2nd half of my 20s. It really confirmed my feeling that I have to go into the cave to get a PhD in a timely manner and not spend 6+ years faffing around the lab.

What are your future financial goals? What are your future career goals? Be as specific as possible.
My future financial goals fairly straightforward. I’ve really worked to separate the acquisition of material goods with actual accomplishment, so I don’t think that I will need huge sums of money in the future to have a satisfying life. Short term (next 18 months) is to take more control of my personal finances, start paying off my student loan, and start a separate emergency fund of cash while raising income from side projects to 10% of my current take home pay. Middle term (2-5 years) would be starting an IRA for retirement, paying off the student loan, and getting my will written. Longer term I want to be able to take care of my mother when she is older (and potentially my own kid) and have a job where I can take time off to be with her if I need to. It’s really important to me to make sure that she will always be okay. She worked so hard for me when I was a child and I’m not comfortable with nursing facilities, so I need to plan to cover the costs of in-home assistance. Right now that means really establishing my career so that in the future I will have the power and resources I need to do that.

My future career goals are somewhat harder to define. The traditional academic path would be to finish my PhD, go on to a post doctoral position, move on to assistant faculty, then tenured faculty, then do research until I retire in my very old age. I’m a bit hesitant to fully commit to that path, especially since it is notoriously hard to do that and have any sort of family if you’re a woman and trying to make tenure through your 30s. As a result, I’ve been giving serious consideration to doing research in an industry setting, potentially through my own start-up if I happen to generate a viable business idea during the course of my PhD.

No matter how it goes though, the goal is to run my own research program where I do translational research on human viral pathogens while maintaining my work in scientific outreach efforts to the public.

If you could give any advice to other Bullish readers, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to push outside of your comfort zone and really own your abilities.

Almost every great event in my life is a result of taking that next step even if it happens to scare the crap out of me. I’m not arguing to do stupid things in the name of YOLO, those decisions can be really counterproductive to having a good life. Sometimes though, great opportunities are in difficult or scary situations and the only way to get them is commit to dealing with that discomfort while pursuing what you want.

I’m upfront about the fact that I have major bouts of imposter syndrome related to my academic life and have had trouble feeling like my input is valuable or credible even though I know that I’m highly qualified for my work. By pushing outside of my comfort zone, I ended up starting a blog, which as morphed into a vehicle for learning to own and trust in my own voice and abilities. I feel like I know what I’m talking about and what I’m doing more than I ever have in the past. I really can’t overstate how important that mental shift has been; feeling that I’m at a point where what I say has weight and value. I speak up in journal discussions more, I’m not afraid to talk to faculty about ideas or questions, I pitch and spearhead projects now, I’ve gotten more involved in mentoring, and I’ve even gotten to a point where I feel confident enough to write publicly about what I know. It’s been a big transition for me in the last year and I’ve definitely grown as a person as a result. There’s a lot outside of your comfort zone worth pursuing.

Do you want to be interviewed by GetBullish? Get in touch via our Facebook page!

For more in this series, read:
Get To Know A Bullish Reader: Meet Divya!
Get To Know A Bullish Reader: Meet Zelda!