I didn’t always know what I was doing. Scratch that; I still don’t really know what I’m doing, but at least, these days I mostly look like I do. There was a time when I didn’t even look like I knew what I was doing. That time started during my teenage years, and carried on for approximately 15 years.
I wandered into psychology because I thought optical illusions were cool, and cognitive psychology experiments and tests seemed like games you were allowed to play as an adult. I chose my undergraduate institution blindly and blithely: after applying to a range of universities and getting into all of them, I crossed them off the list one at a time for absurd and arbitrary reasons. York University, for example, seemed too “strict” because they did not allow first year students to bring cars on campus (I did not know how to drive, and was not planning on learning). I ended up with Warwick University, and only after I had accepted the university did I find out that it was the lowest ranked for Psychology of my 6 choices.
During my undergraduate degree, I did the absolute bare minimum required to get a 1st (highest grade in the UK), which, after a grueling high school experience, was a walk in the park. I drifted through the first couple of years of university, mostly drifting from my halls of residence, to the union bar, and back. As there were no attendance requirements, I tested out each class one time and then only continued attending those classes that I found interesting and/or essential for getting the required grade (for the others, I was able to get by just by doing the assignments).
Then I got bored – really bored. I decided that I really wanted to go back and pursue my true passion: languages. A year in Paris sounded appealing, but unfortunately, there were no exchange programs at my university that facilitated this for psychology students. And unlike in America where it is very common for students to take time off from a degree and come back to complete the required number of “credits” across any number of years, in the UK you are really supposed to do the 3-year degree in, well, 3 years. But when I went to ask my tutor’s permission to take a year off to go to France, he shrugged and said “sure”.
So, off I went. I spent a year in Paris learning French, which sounds a lot more romantic and purposeful than it really was. My French, stuck in intermediate purgatory, plateaued after the first month, and I made no French friends, and certainly no academic connections of any kind that could have helped further whatever career I might have been envisaging for myself – probably because I wasn’t really envisaging anything. Paris was much more expensive, and much less inviting, than I had expected based on my many trips there as a teenager. I spent most of the time broke and lonely. When I got back to England, I thought I might try my luck at the publishing industry. I did a few weeks’ of work experience, heard horror stories about the lack of jobs in the industry, applied for an entry-level position at Penguin, didn’t get it, and gave up.
I returned to Warwick for my last year of the psychology undergraduate degree. At some point, while sitting staring at my e-mail (some things haven’t changed since then!), I received an e-mail sent to my whole tutor group, from the tutor mentioned above (Evan Heit). He was looking for a Research Assistant. I believe the pay was £10 an hour, and I was a hustler. I ran to his office. Amazed that I had managed to magically appear in front of him not more than 1 minute after he had hit “Send” on that group e-mail, he hired me on the spot.
A lot of my work for Evan involved handing out reasoning questionnaires to unwitting students who were trying to relax in the student union. Being a socially awkward introvert, I couldn’t stand it. Sometimes, much friendlier friends of mine took pity on me and approached the unwitting, grumpy students instead of me. But I got the work done, and then I had the great pleasure of entering the data – much more my cup of tea. Even better, Evan and I discussed the experimental design and results, and he listened to my suggestions. Meanwhile, I was also doing a thesis on false memory with Kimberley Wade, and this whole research thing was getting pretty fun.
But graduation was in sight, and I had no plans. I wandered into Evan’s office, and asked him what he thought I might do. “Well, of course you need to do a PhD! And I have just the person for you – David Shanks. You should apply to do a PhD with him.” Applying to do a PhD turned out to mean that I had to construct a research proposal. I had no idea what I was doing. Current PhD students at Warwick reassured me that I would not be beholden to this proposal, which I put together based on very minimal understanding of research and the field I chose (imagine my surprise when I ended up doing exactly the experiments I originally proposed!).
The PhD interview was the hardest thing I had done up to that point (perhaps because it was actually hard, but also because I stridently avoided hard things – a habit I continued to embrace for another decade). It was 20 minutes of being grilled about the proposal and my intentions for graduate school. “So, Yana. You’ve applied to the combined Masters + PhD program. Why did you do that? Why didn’t you apply directly to the PhD program, which will take 3 years instead of 4?” “Err… I didn’t even know what was possible…”. I was, again, clueless. But somehow, I was handed a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council studentship, which I didn’t even know existed. This meant that I could concentrate on research rather than TAing, unless I wanted to do that on the side – which I did of course, remember I’m a hustler! I then quickly got started on the experiments I had proposed. Doing a PhD was fantastic: I was getting paid to play. I had no idea why other students around me were complaining. It was like I was living in an alternative universe from them.
Towards the first year of my PhD, I applied for and got a Bogue Fellowship to go to the US for 2 months and work with Roddy Roediger at Washington University in St. Louis. By this point, perhaps it might look like I was “on track” for an academic career – oh, I just remembered I even got a prize: the Cecily de Monchaux Research Prize, which, as with the BBSRC studentship, was not on my radar until I received an e-mail saying I had won it. But if you looked at my online activity during my 2-month stint at Washington University in St. Louis, you might have thought otherwise. I divided my day in half: half the time was spent on academic work, and the other half on furiously replying to e-mails regarding an event planning company I had just launched in the UK (sorry, Roddy!). The event planning was wonderfully exciting, and I would have continued it for longer than 6 months had my partner not gotten too busy to sustain the momentum we’d gathered.
The end of my PhD rolled around, and I was once again at a crossroads, with no plan. I had recently started doing some data analysis for a consultancy (Decision Technology), and they offered me a job. I went to David Shanks and asked him what he thought of this idea. He was furious. I’d never made him mad in almost 3 years of working him, so this came as a big surprise. “If you’re not going into academia, at least do something worthwhile, like go study law, or SOMETHING!” Law? I didn’t want to do that. Academia it was. I wrote to Roddy Roediger asking how I might go about looking for postdoc positions in the US; He wrote me back with an offer to work with him and Kathleen McDermott on the huge Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice grant.
If everything sounds like it was easy up to this point, that’s because it was. But don’t worry – things got hard soon after. When I arrived at Wash U (for the second time), I realized that I was woefully behind the senior grad students, even though I was supposed to be a postdoc. I allied myself with new grad students, and basically spent the next 2 years trying to catch up. It was a pretty humbling experience. By the end of the 2 years, I had more or less managed to catch up – at least, enough to be named as one of the Association of Psychological Science Rising Stars. But then, I freaked out. It was, in theory, time to go on the job market, but the odds and the uncertainty terrified me (turns out, I was actually underestimating how awful it would be). I started dragging my feet and looking for an easy out. My postdoc advisers tried their best to help, but it was hard for them to know how to help me because I didn’t know what I wanted. At some point, I even made a commitment to go to a different country for a second postdoc, and then changed my mind. I was a mess.
Somehow in this mess, an unusual opportunity arose: Tom Oltmanns, professor of a Personality Disorder lab, was looking for a “data manager”. I was way over-qualified for the position, which required only a BA with optional MA (remember, I was PhD +2 years at this point). Graciously, Tom hired me under the title of “postdoc” even though it was tacitly agreed that I would focus on data management, and only write papers “in my spare time” (this yielded 5 co-authored publications in one year, so I can’t complain). In my “other” spare time, I also continued to publish with Roediger and McDermott. So while my productivity continued, the sideways move to a completely different field looked weird on my CV. My prospects were dwindling.
Then, two things happened: Tom did not get funding for the following year, and I got pregnant. So I had no job the following year, and no right to stay in the US without a job (I was not married, and on a J1 visa). Panic kicked in, and there was only one option left: to throw myself full-swing into the job market. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of applications, I applied to 50+ schools, and I legit got addicted to the Psych Jobs Wiki. Many hours went by when I would just sit there refreshing the Psych Jobs Wiki looking for news (which, on that website, could only be bad news: someone else got an interview to a job I had applied for). By the way, no, I am not exaggerating, and no, this isn’t normal behavior; turns out there’s medication for that, which I’m now gratefully taking.
Months went by without anything from any of the jobs, aside from one interview in the UK where they said there would be no time for me to do research. The pay was also equivalent to what a friend of mine was earning as the office manager of a cabaret club after a high school education. I received the offer, and I declined 30 minutes after receiving the offer.
Finally, I got two interviews in the US. At this point, I was 20 weeks pregnant, and desperately hiding it because I had suddenly discovered that the world was, in fact, biased against women (I came to this realization a little late at age 28). I was also starting to believe in the idea of an academic career: writing that research and teaching statement, and putting together a job talk, will do that to you. One of the places I interviewed was a bit of a dud, but UMass Lowell (which I hadn’t even heard of before I applied, to be honest) was truly amazing. I cannot express what a miracle it was for me to get a job, on the East Coast, with a low teaching load, friendly and collaborative faculty, and no expectations of large grants. It was the unicorn job I never knew existed. I’m still not sure how I managed to get this job, but I am eternally grateful.
I threw myself into the work of a good faculty member as soon as I arrived – designing classes, starting all sorts of research projects I wasn’t sure how to finish, and serving on too many committees. I loved it, but with a small baby, it wasn’t easy. I mean, it was fucking hard. I regularly had mini-breakdowns, leaving my daughter’s dad …and later, her stepdad… to pick up the pieces. (If not for the afore-mentioned medication, I’m sure I would still be having those breakdowns.)
I desperately prioritized my work over everything. I wanted to succeed, and by this I do not mean “get tenure”. I wanted to prove to the world that I could do good research even though I had not been hired by a R1. I wanted to do research that mattered and helped people. But I didn’t know how. I applied for grants, but no-one wanted to fund my work. I felt like my research was stupid and pointless, and I doubted my ability to do anything impactful. In my third year on the tenure track, suddenly it felt like “now or never”. I could either fade into oblivion, or I could make my mark. I didn’t know how, but I had to give it my best shot before giving up.
And then…the Learning Scientists “happened”. That’s really the only way I can explain it. It just happened, and evolved – continues to evolve – organically. And for me, it changed everything. I went from just plundering along, following random ideas until they died a disappointing death in the lab, either due to bad design, my lack of statistical skills, or the vagaries of science – to doing work that felt meaningful and was actually useful to real people. I also managed to find a way to tie my passion for languages into the work – with support from IDEA Education we’re translating our posters into many language, and just today I gave my very first academic talk in French! After just over a year of this, I finally feel like I have “arrived” as an academic. I feel pride in my work, and I feel like it has value. I even feel like I finally know what I am doing… some of the time. Though, mostly, I’m still just making it up as I go along.
You may have noticed that this story has two threads. The first thread, which is the one I originally sat down to write, went something like this: “you may not always feel like you know what you’re doing, but one day, things might just click.” However, the more I wrote, the more another thread came out: “everything was easy… until it wasn’t.” And in some ways, that’s the more important thread – more of a cautionary tale, than a happy, uplifting one. Because at some point, regardless of how easy you’ve typically found academics, there will come a time when you are suddenly and painfully humbled by the competition around you. (Perhaps there are some people who are lucky enough to sail through their ENTIRE academic careers without hitting that bottleneck – but I am yet to meet someone like that!). But there’s also a third, hidden thread that you may have missed. Did you notice it?