Diary of A Young Pro: Tom McFadden
2. How old are you?
3. What is your job title?
8th Grade Science Teacher & Founder of “Science With Tom”
4. How has the transition been from backpack to briefcase (college to adulthood)?
To be clear, I still rock a backpack. Working in education has given me a roof over my head and a captive audience. It also created space for me to experiment with science music videos as my “side gig.” After graduating, I taught as a Course Associate in the Human Biology program at Stanford, which turned into a Fulbright to study Science Communication New Zealand. I’m now in my third year as a middle school science teacher at The Nueva School. I’ve put so much of myself into this creative intersection of science, education, and music video that it’s on the cusp of becoming my full time gig. The secret to success was defining my mission broadly – “to spread a contagious love of biology to various parts of the universe” – which allowed me to find joy working in a wide variety of environments and to say yes to opportunities as they arose. I’ve enjoyed being on an uncertain path where I can’t see too far ahead of me.
5. When you were in school, did you imagine your life the way that it is?
I remember thinking in high school “I can NOT imagine being in college.” It was such a big leap I just couldn’t comprehend it. That feeling of leaping into a hard-to-imagine unknown hasn’t changed. So, no – I could not have predicted that I’d be teaching 8th graders about global food security by day and making music videos about fruit fly courtship by night.
6. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced during these transitional years?
Coming out of college and loving science I felt a lot of pressure to get a PhD. In retrospect, the PhD represented status and prestige rather then the right fit for my goals and skill set. Many people feel pressure to get more prestigious degrees when they are uncertain about their future after college. Sometimes it’s a great choice, and sometimes it’s a status trap. There has also been a healthy-but-challenging tension between maintaining friendships and lighting out for new territory. It was important to me to get out of the Bay Area bubble, which meant starting from scratch in New Zealand while trying to stay connected to friends back home. I’m glad I had that experience (despite and because of the loneliness) and I’m grateful to be back in the Bay with doubled gratitude for everything around me.
7. What is the best advice you have received from a mentor about adulthood and/or careers?
I had to actually apply to PhD programs in order to get that bugaboo out of my system. A scientist who was entertaining the idea of having me work in his lab told me, “You’re doing all this cool education stuff that not a lot of other people can do – why would you want to switch over to life in a lab in a field you’ve never worked in before?” Other people had said that to me, but I had to hear it from him before it really sunk in. The takeaway is broader than just my case: Do stuff and see if you actually like it. If you find something that you like doing – if it’s challenging and satisfying and doesn’t make the world a worse place – then keep doing it and see where it takes you.
8. What advice would you give a young professional?
There are so many opportunities out there beyond the well-worn paths. The Internet, a recovering economy, and the network of cool creative people around you mean that creating your own path is more viable than ever. You might have to explore your particular combination of passions as a side gig for a while, though sometimes you get lucky and can incorporate those passions into whatever is paying the bills. If you have fun making stuff, that passion will either continue to enrich your life as a hobby, or will help open up scary and exciting new career adventures.
9. What is next for you and the next 12 months? Do you have any goals you would like to accomplish? How are you going to accomplish them?
Although I’m still full-time teaching, I received a grant from New Schools Venture Fund to incorporate “Science With Tom” as a business. So all of a sudden I’m figuring out ways to make my science music video work a sustainable social enterprise. The goals are too overwhelming and terrifying to write here. Luckily, I have so many supportive and talented people in each sector of my life that I have no doubt we’ll get there. I am acutely aware of my weaknesses and have sought out friends and friends-of-friends who I know can support me in those areas.
10. What makes you special?
I love learning and creating so much that the activities I’m drawn to in my free time end up supporting my “work” – whether teaching or music video production. I got super interested in the Spanish Civil War a few months ago. Then I bought a little keyboard and tried to re-teach myself how to read music (Every Grown Boy Deserves Free time?). Now I’m on a Steven Pinker bender. The journey continues.