Boston Mamas Blogger: Christine Koh, Choosing Creativity Over Science-y PhD
Please welcome blogger extraordinaire Korean American Christine Koh, who, on the eve of her PhD in psychology, did a career change into a creative career that includes blogging, web design, and making cute babies.
1) Tell me about your family background. Where were your parents born? What do they do? Brothers or sisters?
My parents were born in Korea and immigrated to the United States in their 20’s. They met while they were both living in the D.C. area and then eventually married and moved to Boston — my understanding is that part of the motivation was so all of their kids could eventually go to Harvard (of course!). Though my parents had training in other fields (my Mom completed her nursing degree here in the States), during my lifetime they owned and operated a market and invested in and managed real estate. At one point they had quite an empire of properties in the Cambridge area (again, in striking distance of Harvard!).I’m the sixth of seven — two boys, five girls — though a lot of people ask me if I’m the first born. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a compliment!
2) Where did you do your undergrad? What did you study and why?
A lot of people don’t believe me when I say this, but I wasn’t the greatest high school student — I was most interested in the performing arts and extracurricular activities such as the school newspaper. Anyway, I didn’t know a lot about Wheaton College (in Norton, MA) when I applied but I ended up matriculating (it is a lot harder to get in now than it was when I applied!) and what an extraordinary gift that was! I knew I wanted to continue playing violin but, given my experience with competitive orchestras in high school, I knew I wasn’t good enough to go professional (I started private lessons late…my Dad thought music lessons were a waste of money but my mom fought for them and eventually won). Thanks to some incredible professors I discovered my academic passion for psychology early on and pursued a double major, focusing on the experimental psychology and music performance tracks. Considering my high school slacker tendencies, it was remarkable to me that I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, but it’s amazing how your motivation changes when you find your passion. And also when you have to pay your own way, as I did from sophomore to senior year. I worked 60-70 hour weeks during summer and winter breaks to save up for tuition and sent my work study checks during the school year to my Mom to help out at home. Being financially responsible definitely took my academic appreciation and motivation to a new level.
3) I find it inspiring that on the eve of your PhD in neuroscience, you decided to do a 180 degree career change into a creative field. Tell me more about that decision. Was it agonizing or a long time coming? How did your friends and family react?
Actually, the path to my 180 was a little longer. After I graduated from Wheaton I pursed a Master’s in psychology at Brandeis University (part-time, while working as a lab manager and research assistant full-time) and then completed my Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Canada. After finishing my Ph.D. I worked for three years as a postdoctoral fellow with joint appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard Medical School. Though I really loved and believed in my Ph.D. work, I was miserable at the postdoc, for reasons both personal and professional. However, I’m convinced that I needed to go through that experience as part of my life journey. I have always wrestled with insecurity about my intelligence and I think I needed to earn my Ph.D. and then get to a place like Harvard and MIT to prove to myself that I could do it. And ultimately see that it wasn’t such big a deal after all…I mean, yes, the people there are very smart, but they’re still just people.
Anyway, towards the end of my postdoc I started to think about faculty jobs. I was so inspired by my professors at Wheaton and that was my dream from the start – to go back and teach alongside my mentors. But not only had the postdoc sucked away all of my joy for research, I realized that I was a good academic but not passionate about the work in a way that would make me willing to sacrifice as one must in order to pursue academia in the Boston area. I have a lot of friends still in academia and I see how inspired and excited they are about the work… I just didn’t have that fire anymore.
Also, during my postdoc, my father’s health took a turn for the worse and my daughter Laurel was born. My priorities had definitely shifted. I kept thinking, if I’m going to spend time working, I need to be inspired and love what I’m doing.
By the fall of 2006, I was officially drowning emotionally at my postdoc so I jumped academicship before figuring out what was next – I am extremely grateful to my husband Jon for supporting that leap. I mean, yes, I had started Boston Mamas a couple of months prior to my jump, but it wasn’t a career yet. But the universe works in funny ways. A week after I left my postdoc, I was offered and signed my first major editing contract. And interest in Boston Mamas started to pick up and ads and other opportunities started rolling in. And I had been doing design projects on the fly for friends for a while and decided to formally launch my design business Posh Peacock. Eventually I started doing strategic creative consulting for companies. All of a sudden the pieces of my little media and design company were falling into place and intersecting in fun ways. Now, five years out, people talk about this brand I’ve built and while yes, I’ve worked very hard in the last five years, there wasn’t exactly a master plan – I never woke up thinking “OK, time to build my brand!” I just kept gravitating towards and creating in the spaces that I felt passionate about and things evolved from there – it was very organic.
As for reaction, I don’t think I came up against a single piece of resistance when I left the field. All of my friends were like, “Well, finally!” because they always felt I was such an extroverted creative spirit and not meant to toil away writing Matlab code by myself all day. And by the time I left academia, my father had died so when I told my Mom, she was so supportive. She and my father had worked so hard for so long – with a definite purpose but without joy as one of their professional criteria…she just wanted me to do something that made me happy. It meant the world to me.
4) You’ve won numerous awards as a blogger. Can you tell me more some of the awards that you are most proud of? What has been most challenging being a blogger? What has been the most rewarding? Which blog is your “favorite”?
I am truly honored and humbled by all of the press and accolades I have received over the years – it would be hard to pin down a favorite piece of coverage. But there are certainly highlights. I know lists can be rather arbitrary but being selected as one of Nielsen’s 50 Power Moms was definitely a turning point profile wise. And it meant a lot to me to share my perspective regarding blogging ethics on FOX 25 Boston and NPR. It also was pretty funny to have my picture appear in a Boston Globe column alongside Gisele Bundchen (I was interviewed about her comments regarding breastfeeding) and – given my love for fashion – it was extremely cool to be included in a fashion feature in Woman’s Day.
I would say that one of my biggest blogging challenges is witnessing or coping with bad social media practices. I’ve seen many things that have made me cringe over the years and I unfortunately have had many experiences where people have mistreated mutual acquaintances or crawled out of the woodwork in very tasteless ways in an effort to get covered on my site or procure free consulting services. It makes me sad. And as a mom, I can’t help but think, “What would your mother think of this behavior?!”
On the flip side, the most rewarding part of blogging is the community – both the social element and the ability of the community to rally for positive action. I operated in such a cave when I
first started blogging and a definite turning point was when I was invited to attend Disney’s first social media mom event and met a group of truly amazing bloggers. I’ve since attended many conferences and press events and have made incredible friends along the way – there is so much love and support and awesomeness in this space. I feel so lucky to be a part of it.
As for favorite blogs, goodness, there are so many bloggers I adore… I could never narrow it down to just one. But here are a few that spring to mind: Liz of Mom-101, Stephanie of Adventures in Babywearing, and Rebecca of Girl’s Gone Child write with such soul. Gabrielle of Design Mom is such a generous friend and talented curator. Asha of Parent Hacks is such an impressive community builder and is a wonderfully reflective friend…she was one of the first people I “e-met” in the digital space. I can never get enough of the words and photography of Tracey Clark or Karen Walrond. Jennifer James always has her finger on the pulse of the mom blogging community and is a dear confidante. Oh, and I read men too! I love Jim of Busy Dad Blog, C.C. Chapman, Pierre of Metro Dad, and Doug of Laid-Off Dad.
5) With an infant and toddler, several blogs and a small business, you are one busy woman. How do you juggle it all? What is a typical day for you?
It’s a little crazy, I know. I think a big part of it is setting expectations and tuning into what matters in the moment. And another part is that productivity is easy when you love what you’re doing.
But you want details, right? When Violet was born in March, I had no formal maternity leave set up and even after a month when our babysitter started, she was only here 6 hours a week. But my first priority was growing baby Violet and helping my 6-year-old Laurel with the transition. For context, I should say that I had spent several years very privately heartsick over what appeared to be secondary infertility. I came to terms with it – in large part due to the support and love of this community when I “came out” about my feelings of failure – and then was shocked to learn a few months later that I was pregnant. So I feel acutely that this family of four is an immense gift and I want to be present in the moment.
So, during the weeks following Violet’s birth, I focused on my girls. And when Violet slept while Laurel was at school — which was a lot when she was a newborn! — I caught up on client work and blog posts and things. That was pretty much the way it went from March to June. It was delightful!
This summer the schedule has been equally lovely and my plan is to structure it like this during the school year. Our babysitters comes 4 days a week during elementary school hours. Then the rest of the time I’m off with the girls, and my husband is home one weekday with the girls. I work intensely during those hours and then stop the work clock when it’s time to go into family mode. I used to work most nights after Laurel went to bed when it was just three of us but Violet’s bedtime is really variable right now so I usually don’t work at night. Sometimes during the weekends, if I’m really on a deadline Jon will take the girls out for an adventure so I can work but otherwise I just roll with it. Somehow, everything seems to get done!
6) Do you have any regrets changing careers?
Not at all. I’m where I was meant to be. Also, I believe that every path brings you to the next. As I said, I needed to go through the academic process and get to the alleged highest point of achievement (Harvard/MIT) to prove to myself that I was an intelligent person. Sure, it would have been nice to not have to embark on a 10 year journey to answer that question, but that’s just how it worked out. I met so many amazing people along the way and learned an incredible amount about myself.
7) What are you working on next?
Well, I’m actually on the brink of change. Not much will change externally – meaning, I’ll continue with my blogs and such — but I’ll be doing more strategic consulting work. I can’t quite reveal the details right now but basically, I’m going to be doing great work but still on a flexible schedule that allows me lots of time with my family. Thank you, universe!
Also, I want to get back to thinking about fun things to explore on my life list. Oh, and planning a vacation with Jon, perhaps once I’m done nursing (probably next year)! I haven’t discussed him much here but he’s pretty much the most amazing husband in the history of the universe.
8) In terms on what is on your career plate, what do you do for love and what do you for money?
I would say that at this point I do what I love about 80% of the time and then the remaining 20% goes towards client work that is steady and lucrative but not that exciting. If all goes well with this new project I’ve got on the horizon, I’m hoping to knock that 20% closer to 0 in the coming year.
9) What advice would you give to Asian American college students who might have parents who only advocate “safe and traditional” career paths?
It’s so hard — I know! My parents were so bent on me being a doctor or lawyer (it’s always good to have in-house counsel, as my Dad used to say). And then later on in life when they saw my personality my Dad always thought I would be a great diplomat or the first Korean-American talk show host (there’s still time for the latter, right?). But my advice is to try to remain grounded and not be resentful – instead, work towards communication. Let your parents know what you’re trying and why it does or does not resonate for you. Some of the best experiences I had in college were internship programs where I would try something for a summer or winter break and learn that it was something I didn’t want to pursue. For example, being a White House intern helped me learn I didn’t want to go into politics. A mentored program at a law firm helped me learn I didn’t want to be a lawyer. And so forth. And I talked with my parents about all of these experiences. So that’s probably another reason why my Mom was so supportive when I left academia. She knew firsthand of my suffering and at the end of the day, she was my Mom – she wanted me to be happy. And even though she doesn’t completely understand what I do now (at least the blogging and consulting parts), I know she is happy that my work/life balance allows me to do other things that are important to traditional Korean moms – you know, like make adorable babies, be a loving wife, and get dinner on the table!
10) What advice would you like to share with new bloggers who want a great blog like BostonMamas?
My first piece of advice is to blog because of what you can give to it, not because of what you can get out of it. There’s so much more to blogging than free product samples or what have you. Think about what you love and want to share – start with an organic passion.
Second, immerse yourself in the community…really be a part of the community. Comment on other blogs, converse on Twitter, reach out, link to people whose work you love.
And finally, act with grace. Don’t link bait people, drop generic comments without having actually read any posts, badger people to follow you on Twitter, or generally act with the expectation of getting something from someone or with personal gain as the primary motivator.
Thanks so much for reaching out about this interview; it was an honor to share and reflect here!