[Courses] [Careers] Maria finds academia

Maria McKinley maria at shadlen.org
Fri Feb 25 17:54:00 EST 2005

Hello all,

Its funny. I've never thought about having a career, but here I am.
I am currently a scientific programmer and a sysadmin. I am a full-time
employee, but my time is split between two different research labs in 
the physiology department at a University.

My first computer experience was with an osborne that my dad
brought home when I was around 12. I played around a little with it,
learned some basic, and that started my periodic interest with
computers. While still in high school I realized I had neither the
grades, nor the money, nor the maturity for college yet, so I enlisted
in the US Army as a mechanic. I chose to be a mechanic, because I 
thought it was something I could do in the army that would be useful to 
me once I got out.  I was sort of correct.  It's useful to know stuff 
about cars, but most of that I learned, I learned from being around 
people that worked on their cars, and not so much from what I did in the 
army.  And the training certainly does not easily transfer over to being 
a civilian mechanic.  I quite liked being in an all guy environment, and 
proving to the boys I could do anything they could do, but the sexual 
harrassment and discrimination did get to me. (I never noticed it very 
much in academia even though I was also usually in a mostly guy 
environment there as well.)  And the bottom line seemed to be that the 
army and I had a personality conflict.  Not to mention that I am a 
pacifist at heart. :-)  So, I moved on.

After the army, I did a bunch of working class jobs, and decided that I
really wanted a job where I used my brain, so back to school I went.  I
had been taking classes here and there ever since leaving high school,
including a computer class here and there, so going back to school 
wasn't a big deal.  I knew I wanted to do something in science, and all
science degrees seemed to require first year physics, so I started off
taking physics and math classes.  I liked physics well enough, so I 
decided to make a go of it.  While earning my physics degreee, I started 
playing around a little bit with computers again, but mostly just as a 
tool to get my work done, with a tiny bit of programming here and there. 
  The deeper I got into physics, the more I realized it wasn't for me, 
and I started leaning toward biophysics.  One of the last things I did 
before I graduated was an undergraduate research project, where I did 
some programming for a professor doing biophysics.  It was quite fun, 
but then I got diverted by a class I took on molecular biology.  I had 
an excellent instructor, and thought that it might be fun to pursue. 
Since there were many biotech firms in the area, after I graduated, I 
first looked around for a job in biotech.  I figured I could just 
convince them that if I could learn physics, I could learn anything, but 
nobody even wanted to talk to me.  It turned out they really wanted 
people with some experience, and the biotech boom was starting to wain. 
  Which is all for the best, because since then I have learned more 
about what working in molecular biology is really like (for the people 
who aren't PI's (primary investigators - the ones who actually design 
the experiments), and I know I would have hated it.

So, I started following that annoying advice, and networking.  Asked
around to see if anyone knew anyone that was hiring.  After 8 months of
being an unemployed single mom, with just a few temp jobs to tide me by,
I wasn't being picky.  A friend from physics had given me a lead to
someone in the phsyiology and biophysics dept. at the university that
was looking for a part-time programmer, so I talked to him.  I really 
needed a full-time job, so he told me he was going to ask around in the 
department for someone else looking for a part-time programmer.  I
mentioned this to another friend and she told me she use to be in this 
same department (never know what you'll find out when you start asking 
around!), and she pointed me to her old advisor.  I talked to him, and 
they decided to hire me, and split me between the two labs.  I really 
had no idea what I was doing when I started.  I had to learn the 
programming language (matlab, which I had never programmed in), basic 
information about the research they were doing (neuroscience), the data 
structures, and how data was acquired and analyzed.  Fortunately I was 
very eager to please, and didn't think too much about how much there was 
to learn.

Originally, I was hired to do mostly programming, but after a while one
of my bosses hired my boyfriend as a consultant to set up a network for
him, and pretty soon most of my duties in that lab were sysadmin.  I
learned everything on the job.  I really didn't know the first thing
about linux, or command lines, when I started.  I have now worked in the
labs for going on 5 years, and I have learned tons.  For me, academia
has been a perfect fit.  My schedule is completely flexible (including 
being able to do quite a bit of work from home), and the environment is 
very intellectual and stimulating.  In addition to learning sysadmin and 
programming stuff, I have learned tons about neuroscience, and am now 
planning on applying to grad school in neuroscience.  The pay isn't as 
great as industry, but I do pretty darn well, and don't have to deal 
with wierd corporate culture stuff.  I got a very lucky break after I 
had been in the position for a couple of years.  I had just asked for a 
raise, and my bosses had agreed to give me one, and were in the process 
of figuring out how to do it, when the university decided to 
re-structure all of their IT people.  They sent me a survey asking me 
what all I did, and since I was doing so much system administration 
stuff (by this time in the one lab, we had a firewall, file server, mail 
server, web server, and tons of linux machines and macs), I got a hefty 

Academia is a great place to get started.  Since they usually can't pay 
terribly well, they are willing (forced!) to hire people with little 
experience, and then train them, so it is one of the few places you can 
get hired without very much experience.  It still definitely helps to 
know people though.  Asking around about hiring before graduating is 
definitely useful.  Something else I have learned is that you never know 
how or where you will get a connection.  I once met a very useful 
connection in my field (led to a summer job) at a party for students in 
the Germanics dept, because his wife was a professor in the Germanics dept.

Well, this has been long, but hopefully useful, or at least interesting.


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