NASW Snapshot: The career advice is good, too

Worker Bees

Until the National Association of Science Writers annual meeting in Columbus this month, I’d never realized that I have a CEO mind and a worker mind. It turns out that’s a really useful thing to know.

One of the best parts of the NASW meeting is the chance to see so many friends and colleagues in person. I’m sure this is true for most writers, but it’s especially true for those of us who rarely have the chance to get coffee or beer with colleagues.

However, my very first morning at the conference I was reminded that the professional development aspect of the meeting can be pretty useful, too. When I walked into my morning session, the first thing I heard was Christie Aschwanden asking the audience to think about how the projects they were working on filled what she called their “tasty buckets.” After I got past the initial mental images, I quickly figured out what she meant. The buckets were things we wanted to get out of our work: money, the experience of working with a great team, prestige, good editing, independence. Each person’s list would be different, but the point was that no bucket got to have a label like “byline in the New Yorker” — the idea was to dig into the specific tangible things we valued in a job.

This focus on the specific serves the obvious goal of not tying one’s definition of career success to a specific and difficult-to-obtain byline, but it does more than that. Christie and Anne Sasso [bio], her co-panelist, noted that defining what they wanted to get out of their work helped them decide which projects to drop and which to chase.

Like much good career advice, it sounds obvious once you’ve heard it… but you need to hear it before you can say that. I’m in the midst of a career transition right now, and thinking of potential gigs in terms of tasty buckets helped me cut some things from my schedule.

I asked other Scilancers for their favorite conference tips.

“It’s far too easy to overthink: sometimes the best way forward is just to stop planning and start doing,”  said Robert Frederick [bio], noting that lesson came up in two different panels. “It’s useful to me because I’ve always been a big planner, and I have to remember that while I’m making plans, the rest of the world keeps moving on. It’s not that I mind being left behind — I still don’t Tweet, for example —  rather, I need reminding not always to be so careful.”

Emily Sohn [bio] noted another Christie Aschwanden point: “Envy is an opportunity to assess what it is that person has that you want and to figure out how to get it, too.”

I liked Anne and Christie’s time management advice, as well. At one point Anne asked us to break down our goals into the smallest possible chunks. I looked around the room and we were all scribbling in our notebooks. Then a few brave souls shared their goals and Anne helped break them down further. And then she explained the next step: we should each take our broken-down goals and put each individual piece in our calendars. Like, block out the slot from 11-12 on Tuesday with the words from one attendee’s list: “research writing workshops in my area and make a list,” which was part of a larger goal of improving her writing. Calendering, Anne explained, would help us keep our to-do lists manageable. Because if you can’t fit your to-do list on your calendar, then your list is too long, Christie explained.

That was another embarrassing ah-ha moment. Most of my weeks this fall have involved a big to-do list on Monday morning and a big frustration on Friday afternoon. But there may be more to that than the size of my lists. I’m also spending too much time in my CEO mind. That’s the frame of mind that’s good at mapping out goals and coming up with a strategy — aka my favorite activities.

“But you need to get into the worker mind to get things done,” says Christie.  The calendar can help with that, as well, by reminding you to just sit down and get started. Because if you want to get things done, you can’t always be CEO; sometimes you need to be your own worker bee.

Image credit:  Flickr user Marin Labar


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In over a decade as a freelance journalist, Robin Mejia covered health and science stories for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post Magazine, Wired, Science, CNN and many other outlets. She uncovered problems at the FBI crime lab, covered controversies in epidemiology, and profiled Nobel laureates. Her work has won several national journalism awards and been anthologized in the Best Technology Writing series. In 2010, Robin returned to school to deepen her understanding of research methods and data analysis, earning an MPH from UC Berkeley in 2012. As this book goes to press, she’s working on a PhD in biostatistics.

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