• Becca Dzombak

corona-tine dispatch 13: one year

OR: How One Year Of Working At Home In The Last Year Of Grad School Helped Me Find My Path As A Science Writer, Become More Extroverted, And Up My Caffeine Intake


Well, it's been a year since my last day in the building. My labmate defended her dissertation on that Friday; only her committee members and a select group of students were present, and we cringed every time someone coughed, sniffled, or just breathed a little too loudly. Afterwards, we popped a bottle of champagne, speculating about the future, the uncertainty weighing on all of us. When I returned to the office for the first time a couple months ago, the empty bottle was still sitting on the spare desk, unused cups stacked next to it. The lights were off and it gave the whole place the feeling of a tomb, or a memorial, or time stopped because of a nuclear meltdown.


I walked over to my desk. My notes from my friend's defense, dated March 13, were still scattered on the top, along with long-forgotten to-do lists and moot reminders. At some point, probably eight months prior, a graduating officemate had apparently left me some tea and a nice note. My moss balls completely filled their glass jar on the windowsill.


I turned on just my desk lights, the warm little lamp and the twinkling string of LEDs I'd draped above it. I imagined myself sitting there during all the weeks past, working to complete my fourth year and enter my final year of grad school. All the little moments I'd missed with my friends, coffee breaks, quick science chats, a little department gossip, in that office. The cozy late evenings where I'd be the last one there, typing away with the fluorescents off and only the yellow glow from my desk. I'd been fine with working from home, really, but in this moment, I felt deeply sad at what could have been, and at what would likely never be. With the trajectory of cases and the rate of vaccine development, I sensed my last grad-school days in the building, surrounded by my peers, were behind me.


A lot has changed in the last year—in the world, but for each of us, individually. I have been extraordinarily lucky in that I have had a job, health care, and a safe place to work at home (undisturbed other than my cats' incessant demands), and that I have not lost anyone to COVID. While I haven't hugged my parents in over a year now, they live close enough that we have been able to visit frequently (outside). I've stayed connected with my siblings and even talked to some distant friends more often. For each of those things, I am incredibly grateful.


The biggest shift for me has been in perspective and deciding what I want out of life. That's probably normal for anyone approaching the end of grad school (or any big transition in life), but I think that being at home with a lot of time for introspection amplifies that thought process. Since I started writing on the side a couple years ago, I've felt increasingly pulled in that direction; exploring topics outside my own narrow research focus was just interesting, and I found that I immensely enjoy interviewing people—which definitely came as a surprise, as I've always considered myself to be pretty introverted. Writing about science, the people behind it, and the ways it intersects with society became my favorite productive procrastination method.


Then working at home in the pandemic, with its sudden adjustments to my priorities and mental efforts, writing became The Thing that I had the energy, motivation, and focus to do. Not only was I motivated, but I was motivated enough to dive into pursuing this career track alone, from my office, with only virtual networks of friendly writing strangers to help me out. I discovered that "networking," which had always elicited in me a shudder, suddenly became... fun! (Turns out, when "networking" is just "talking with people who share your interests, passion, and curiosity and getting some great advice from nice people," it's quite enjoyable.) For the last several years, I vacillated between wanting to give academia the good ol' college try—it seemed like I could be successful there—and watching my talented, brilliant friends go through the terrible process of finding (or not) postdocs and tenure-track jobs or deal with very poor interpersonal relationships within academia. The time at home, effectively alone with my partner, gave me some much-needed space from it all; when I'm not immersed in that world, it turns out, it quickly fades into the background. It's just not the life I want. Unlike the faculty and some highly-driven grad students I know, my desire to carry out research and publish the Latest & Greatest in Geology does not extend to late nights or weekends.


But my love of writing and learning does.


Which is why, as I schedule my Ph.D. defense for late May (knock on wood, fingers crossed, etc.), I'm not scrambling to get another postdoc application in. I just watched my best lab-friend receive a prestigious NSF Postdoc Fellowship. I could not be more proud of her, and I feel absolutely zero academic FOMO. Instead, I'm trying to juggle pitching articles, submitting fellowship and internship applications for a range of outlets I'd die to work with (HCN, if you're reading this, it's you!!), and editing for a couple places while wrapping up my Fellow responsibilities with GSA and, oh yes, write the last chapters of my dissertation and plan a probable move to the PNW, where my partner's mom lives.


It's a lot, to be sure, and I love it. When I allow myself a fleeting daydream of being done with my Ph.D., of no longer trying to make the final push through academia and only having to focus on writing/editing work, it's like a weight is off my chest. I'm well-aware that journalism, especially freelance work, has its own issues; any job does. But that doesn't dampen my excitement. I can't wait to have time to pursue all the stories I've had to put on the back-burner over the last year or so, to not have to let a juicy pitch go because I have to write a research paper, to really put all my weight behind this career transition.


So I feel lucky, in a way, that I've worked from home for the last year. I do wonder what would have happened if I'd gone through my final year in the office. Would I have been persuaded to apply to a few postdocs, just in case? To take one, just to wrap things up? To apply to faculty jobs, to see if I could make the cut? Or would I have made the same decisions I made? It's impossible to say, but I feel like the past year has allowed unprecedented self-reflection and centering my priorities.


All the extra caffeine probably helped, too.

A mosaic of coffee cups creates one big image of a coffee cup, full, viewed from above. The cup is white with a blue rim, sitting on a brown table.
I took a photo of (almost) every cup of coffee I had working from home and made a cheesy mosaic. Enjoy!

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