The benefit (?) of switching research tracks

There have been many recent posts out there on what to do with a PhD outside of academia (here, here, and a collection of posts here). I am a poster child for this discussion. Upon receiving my PhD, I left academia completely and decided to work for the government. I talked about this transition a couple times (here and here), so I’m not going to belabor that point. However, the recent conversation had got me thinking about my post-post PhD plans. Will I stay with the gov’t? Will I move on to a NGO? Or will I return to academia? I honestly don’t know the answer. However, I do know that if I return to academia (or stay in research in general), I’m more open to switching systems.

You hear all the time that a good researcher studies questions, not specific organisms. The fact that I study frogs should just mean that I had some interesting questions to ask and frogs just happened to be a suitable vehicle. While this was initially the case (I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as an undergrad), it soon become evident that I was (am) an amphibian conservationist first and foremost.

When I began to apply for post-PhD opportunities, I looked in two areas: 1) policy, and 2) amphibian-related science. I wasn’t interested in working in another system, even it I would be examine host-pathogen interactions or ecotoxicology. It was frogs or nothing. Fortunately, my narrow mindedness was not an issue as I chose to go the policy route. But as I think of a potential return to research, I am actually more interested in working in different systems.

I know a lot about the chytrid fungus in amphibians and how pesticides may alter amphib host-pathogen interactions. But so what? That doesn’t necessarily make me a strong candidate for potential faculty positions, but more importantly, I want to broaden my knowledge base to ask better questions, regardless (to a point) of the system.

In my current position at the USFWS, I am exposed to a little bit of everything that happens within the Service. Specifically, my “portfolio” includes areas such as endangered species, fisheries issues, and science. “Science” includes areas such as disease and contaminants, so it’s right up my ally. I also work on climate change issues. Seeing how these principles are applied to a wide variety of organisms has made me realize that if I return to research, I not only should work in a new system, I want to. There are so many interesting questions out there: What’s causing CCD in bees? How is white-nose syndrome in bats spreading and persisting? How is climate compounding the negative effects of these stressors?

I am at least taking baby steps on my own to try and branch out. This fall I will begin a year-long study with fellow blogger James to examine the role of runoff on disease dynamics in turtles. Sure, it’s still aquatic runoff, and sure, it’s still a herp. But like I said, baby steps.

This entire discussion may be a mute point as my future is far from set. But these are definitely some issues that I think about. It’s almost June and my fellowship is up in January, so it’s never really too early. Regardless of what I decide and what opportunities come available, I am more open-minded to leaving my beloved amphibians (if not only temporarily) to gain valuable experiences in other areas and hopefully solve some problems while I’m there.


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