My mid-grad school slump (or the absence thereof)
I didn’t have the mid-grad school slump. Things actually really picked up for me around my third year. I received some funding, manuscripts starting coming out, and things were actually going pretty well. That being said, I still had a ping in the back of my mind that something was off. There was something that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Talking to friends and colleagues, it become clear that I was taking issue with the academic process. For most scientists, research is circular. We design a project, carry it out, publish it, and start over (getting money is in there somewhere, but oddly enough not always before a project is started). This process is fine for basic science, or “science for science’s sake”. I am a firm believer in the pursuit of knowledge and fully support basic science (seriously, I’m not trying to make any enemies here). However, I am a conservationist at heart so my research has always been more applied.
Performing applied research in a Biological Sciences department is fine, but it definitely has its drawbacks. My major issue with the way my research plan was proceeding was that I would design, carry out, and publish my work, and then that was it. What if that study had potential management implications? What if it could be used to influence legislation? Aside from promoting it within the science world, how could anything I do really make a difference?*
I am fortunate to have a family member who is in the science-policy world. Through our conversations, I discovered that there were programs out there for individuals like myself, with little to no background in science policy, to get that experience without having to commit to a complete change in career. These opportunities are essentially science-policy postdocs.
Entering my fourth year of graduate school, I was ahead of schedule. The core studies that would make up my dissertation were complete (3 published, 1 in review), I was enrolled in my final class, and my requirements for graduation would be complete by the end of the fall semester. So, I applied for every type of grant/fellowship out there.** Between October of 2012 and February of 2013, I probably applied for 10 small research grants, 2-3 major graduate student grants/fellowships, a few academic postdoc opportunities, and a few science-policy fellowships. While this approach may look like a fishing expedition, there was a method to my madness.
When applied to everything under the sun, I had an order of preference: 1) Policy fellowship, 2) Academic postdoc, 3) Major academic grant/fellowship. The small grants would fund my 2013 field season no matter my path (and some did). If I received a (1) or (2), I would graduate early and move on. If I received (3), I would use it in accordance with the time allotted by the award. And if I received nothing, I was still guaranteed a couple years as a TA. As you can probably guess, I landed myself a policy fellowship.
The opportunities in my fellowship program are very diverse (you can read more about how it works here). Briefly, 50 finalists are selected for the program. 10 end up in legislative offices, 40 in executive offices. On the Exec side, the program finds agencies and offices that will support a fellow. Since the fellowship is provided by Sea Grant and NOAA, most the positions are at NOAA. However, there are other positions at USFWS, NSF, Dept. State, Army Corps, etc. Most of the positions are in offices that are responsible for specific duties such as endangered species, aquatic conservation, habitat protection, etc. My position (along with a NOAA analogue), is unique in that we are the connection between the agency (USFWS) and Congress.
Since I “left” academia, I get the same few questions from time to time. Do you miss science? What are your future plans? You do realize that you can’t ever go back, right? Well: Yes (and no), research with a mix of policy, and that’s not true. I do miss active research, but I’m having a blast in my current position. Plus, I’m still writing manuscripts, talking science with people, and will be in the field in a couple months. Future plans? Specifically, I don’t know. While I still have some time left on my fellowship, I’m beginning to contact potential advisers for academic postdocs, look into institutional opportunities, and discussing possibilities with people in the government and NGO sectors. I know that I want to do research, and at some point, meld that with policy (whether it be applied research to affect legislation, or even the process whereby basic science is funded and appreciated).
As for that that last point about “never coming back”. That’s simply not true. I’m staying productive in my “year off” as some within the science community have coined it. I have a few 2014 pubs, many more in review, a couple grants, am attending a couple conferences, will be be performing field work. I knew what I needed to do prior to taking this position to remain relevant in the field. I think I’ll be fine.
As a final point, I just want to say that the purpose of these posts wasn’t to gloat.*** Things could have turned out very differently for me. And just because things have worked out so far doesn’t mean that this trend will contain (hopefully it does). And I know that I’m not alone. The graduate school experience is different for everyone. Mine went pretty well and took me on a path less taken. I think that it’s important to get theses stories out there to show just how broad and varied the graduate school experience can be.
*This is cheesy, generic language that is common in the conservation world. Perhaps that’s because it’s true.
**This is only slightly hyperbolic. I applied for everything of which I was aware.