I moved to California in April 2019, leaving behind friends and family in Texas for a job at UC Davis. I lived in Davis briefly, but I didn’t enjoy the suburban lifestyle or the climate. On a whim, I visited Lake Tahoe and by mid-August, I was living in Truckee because, as John Muir put it, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”
I used to think that working remotely was the greatest invention ever, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think I got cabin fever in Davis and Truckee because I was spending time at home when I was working and when I was alone and bored with no social life. This turned into a vicious cycle of never knowing when to work and always feeling like you should or shouldn’t be working when you aren’t or are working. Sigh.
For a variety of reasons, I decided that getting a part-time job would provide structure to my week, get me out of the house, and help me make some desperately needed friends. Over the past year, I’ve held three successful seasonal jobs. Each experience has been a source of valuable life lessons, strategies for project management strategies, new friendships, extra savings, and positive health benefits. Perhaps, if you are experiencing the postdoc blues or cabin fever, you might see it as a potential solution.
Teaching assistant, Northstar Ski and Snowboard School
One lonely evening in October 2020, I went by myself to Alibi Ale Works in Truckee to get a beer and listen to some music. By chance, I sat next to the manager of the Northstar Ski School. I told her I was looking for a part-time job, and she offered me a job as a teaching assistant on the spot. The next morning I submitted my application, and by Thanksgiving, I was an employee of Vail Resorts with lift tickets good at dozens of resorts all over the world.
During a two-day orientation, I learned the values of the resort and the rules of the mountain. I remember thinking that they put a lot of time into marketing and that the organizational leaders wanted those values to be embodied in their employees. I started thinking about what I could learn from this strategy and how it could be applied to other communities. I remember sending a message to my colleague Serah Rono to see if she had created icons to accompany each of the core values she had written for The Carpentries, and a few weeks later she had created this webpage with community approved values and icons. I felt good to know that the ideas and experiences I had from teaching snowboarding were applicable to teaching bioinformatics because both are communities of practice.
I was intrigued by the structure of the day-to-day operations. From 7-9 am I helped with check-in. From 9-2, I worked in the cafeteria cleaning up after kids during lunch and two snack breaks. Then from 2-4 pm, we helped get all the kids back to their parents. I thought the program was managed quite well, but I also have a lot of ideas stored in my brain about how I would run a ski and snowboard school if I were in a management or leadership position…. I liked that I had the potential to relate my new experiences teaching and learning snowboarding to teaching and learning bioinformatics, but I quickly found myself over-worked.
Years ago, I started tracking all my working hours with Google Calendar Hours to know when I am working too much or too little. Here’s an image that shows how much time I spend each month working on my postdoc, volunteering for the Carpentries, or doing my part-time job. Indeed, in January of 2020, I clocked 2nd most working hours in all my 29th months as a postdoctoral researcher. I knew I needed to scaled back something, so I took a leave of absence from volunteering for The Carpentries. Some weeks I was able to log 40 hours on my post-doc and maintain a separate job, but I did regularly request paid time off during the pandemic. I may not have been as productive this year as in previous years, but I don’t think that having a part-time job was a major contributor.
Blue-collar worker, Rock N Rose Landscaping and Nursery
After being quarantined in March and April for COVID-19, I decided that getting an outdoor job might be a safe way to get me out of the house and meet new people. I saw an opening at Rock N Rose Landscaping N Nursery, and I applied because I had experience working at a florist part-time as an undergraduate. I got the job because I was available on weekends and that’s when the managers needed the most help.
This summer I worked on an all-female landscaping crew, driving around Lake Tahoe planting beautiful gardens with breathtaking views. After being cooped up in my house, it was refreshing to talk about life problems with females who could give me the perspective I needed. They could have paid me nothing, but I was grateful for the $16.50 an hour plus the occasional overtime pay (overtime pay! such a thing of beauty).
The demands for landscaping diminish in the fall, so I started working in the nursery on the weekends. First I watered plants, then I learned how to operate equipment to move heavy soils and plants. One minute I’d be helping customers with a smile and the next minute I’d be lifting 50-pound bags of fertilizer with a “they don’t pay me enough to smell this” look on my face. A lot of my daily tasks were repetitive, ranging from boring and tedious to fun and exciting. It was cool when my managers delegated tasks so that everyone had a nice balance. I thought a lot about the parallels and how we manage open source software projects or science research teams. (I hear there is a group called the Maintainers that thinks along the lines, but I’m curious to know if there are any others.)
Rock N Rose closes each winter, so we spent the last two weeks of October preparing the yard for winter. On my last day, I overlapped with the Spanish speaking landscaping crew for the first time. I started talking with them in Spanish and about an hour later two of the higher-ups came by to ask if I would return next summer and take on additional roles as a translator for higher pay. I enthusiastically said yes. As a friend poetically told me the day before, “get that work while you can, you never know when it’s gonna end.”
Parking host, Alpine Meadow Ski Resort
In October 2020 I moved about 20 minutes from Truckee to Olympic Valley. I decided to get a job at a closer ski resort rather than return to Northstar. I saw an ad for “Parking Host” at Alpine Meadows, and it seemed like the perfect fit in terms of my skills and need for a free lift pass. Honestly, I thought I got the job because I had a good resume, but it turns out, the Alpine Meadows manager used to work with Rock N Rose manager, so I just got the job because it’s a small world.
When I applied for this part-time job, I thought I would have a high-paying industry day job. My postdoc ended in September, and I’ve been applying for lots of jobs, but I haven’t gotten an offer. Who knew getting a job during an apocalyptic year would be so hard?! So, on day 1 of my job at Alpine Meadows, I asked if I could work full time, and my manager said yes. I spent Thanksgiving week working a 40-hour week shift, and I’m planning on working full-time though through the holidays. If the resorts close because of COVID-19, I’ll be able to file for unemployment (which I’m almost certain you can not do when your post-doc contract ends but please let me know if I am wrong).
Anyways, these two weeks as a parking host have been awesome! I absorbed so much information about how to park cars in parking lots based on the car size, time of arrival, snow conditions, and so much more. I’ve formed stronger bonds with some old friends and met a lot of new people. I’m even doing data analysis on the total number of cars parked in each lot and the capacity and trying to related that changes in policy related to COVID-19 and its fascinating. I’m continuing to learn (through observation) about how to manage teams of diverse employees with different skill sets and also the need to go skiing or snowboarding on their lunch breaks. My brain is swirling with ideas for how to decrease congestion (it’s an issue), but they aren’t paying me to manage the lot, so I’ll stick to directing traffic for now :)
Life after the post-doc
As much as I am enjoying the ski-bum lifestyle, it isn’t a sustainable lifestyle for me. I am, however, a recovering academic. I’ve been applying for data scientist and tech support positions in industry, but none of them have panned out. I was told that I didn’t have the technical background to fit the position, but maybe the position didn’t have the right social element to fit my technical skills. I am widening my search to include program/project management positions in science and education. I would like to be an awesome and inclusive female manager, so please send resources if you have them. Also, if you see or hear of a job that you think would suit me, please let me know!
P.S. Thanks to Taylor Reiter, Suzanne Austin, and Titus Brown for comments on earlier versions of this post.