education · Female Scientist · postdoc life · self-worh

SCIENCE AND SELF-WORTH

Last week I received a request from the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) to be features as a scientist who took a non-traditional path to my PhD.

The quick and dirty version: Not only did I finish high school a semester early (and only went ½ for that semester), but I also graduated top in my class in high school and received a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State University (ASU). Since I was already done with my degree requires, but also very young, I went to a community college the second half of my senior year. In the Fall of 1998 I started ASU as an engineer major. I know – “What was I thinking? Engineering?”. Like may kids I was not exposed to earth science or geology, but I knew I wanted to study earthquakes so I thought I would be an earthquake engineer.

By the end of my second year I knew that (1) I was not in the right major, and (2) I was not ready or focused enough to go to college. So I dropped out, and within 6 months, I moved to southern California. Most people, my family included, thought I would never go back to school, but I always knew I wanted to study earthquakes (the Whittier earthquake was quite formative for me). Somewhere along the way I found geology and never looked back.

Once I went back to school it took me 2 years to finish my B.S. and another 5.3 years to complete my PhD at UC Riverside with one of the smartest, kindest, and patient advisors I know. Riverside would definitely not be the first place I would chose to live, but I wanted to work with and be mentored by my advisor. Honestly, that was the easy part (although I am sure I would not have said that at the time).

One week after my PhD I was fortunate enough to be awarded a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, and like any intelligent person, I moved to Ohio (please note the sarcasm), and a short stint with one of the major oil companies. Full disclosure: I do not regret my decision to move to Ohio; I chose to go work with a particular person, geography was unimportant. I also learned a lot about the U.S. that I am not sure I would have fully appreciated before I moved there.

As my first postdoc was coming to an end I did not have a job/permanent position lined up, however I was offered a teaching position at the school I received my B.S for the spring of 2014. I made the decision to do this, mostly out of desperation. In a matter of days I packed most of what I own into storage, sold my beloved truck, found rents for my house, packed my car with as much as possible, which included my 2 dogs and drove across the country for a teaching position that would last 4 months and no idea where I would be at the end of my contract. I taught two classes that spring, and continued to look for something permanent.

With only a few weeks left in the semester and no job insight, I was surprised and excited to learn that I was awarded a School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) Postdoctoral Fellowship at ASU. Side note: the irony is not lost on me that I am now a postdoc at the university where it all began). So again, I packed my things and moved to the Phoenix metropolitan area. This is another temporary position; I am only guaranteed funding through July 2016, which means I am still looking for “what’s next”, and anticipating yet another big move.

Ok, so maybe that was not quick and dirty, but it is a summary of the last 10 years of my life. When I was asked whether I was willing to be part of a featured article with the ESWN about my non-traditional path, and any other comments about the satisfaction I may have found or lost as a result of this path; or how career satisfaction may be redefined by transitions that occurred in my trajectory, I gladly accepted. What I did not realize when I accepted was how it would force me to reflect on my past and the pros and cons along the way.

A few things that come to mind:

  • Why I quit school in the first place – I was on the wrong track (in engineering instead of geology) and, frankly, not ready (mental) to go to college in the first place – even though I was an excellent student in high school and on scholarship in college.
  • Why I went back – I wanted to follow the dream of my 7-year old self to study earthquakes. I found college much easier, because I was focused (even through my PhD), knew exactly what I wanted, and was less interested in the shenanigans than when I was younger. In retrospect I did not know what I wanted to do when I finished (I definitely thought I did).
  • Where am I now – That is an excellent question! I know that I LOVE science (particularly earthquakes and volcanoes) and being a scientist, but there are definitely parts of the “academic” lifestyle I do not LOVE (e.g. feeling like I have to work all the time, the guilt when I am not). There are aspects I feel VERY LUCKY to have (e.g. traveling to places I never dreamed of, flexibility in my daily schedule). I have learned that I love to write and/or edit, which I often find as a ridiculous realization. I like research much more than I thought I would when I began my PhD. I have a love/hate relationship with teaching. I find mentoring the most rewarding part of my job. Most importantly at the moment, I am ready to stop moving – no one tells you how unstable life can be after your PhD.
  • My “focus” – I try to always think “what is going to make me happy”. That may sound idealistic, but I think it gives me something to strive for and consider along this bumpy journey.

After 10+ years of hard work, completion of a PhD, 2 prestigious postdoc fellowships under my belt, and NO permanent job on the horizon, I find myself re-evaluating my life and asking “What is success?” This is a complicated, question with no simple answer, but this is what I know I do I want:

  • The illusion of making a difference in the world/society (lets be real – no one will ever read the papers I write, except for a handful of my colleagues)
  • Some sort of stability (something I have yet to achieve).
  • A comfortable life for my fur babies and me (who were probably my saving grace throughout this whole process, or at least helped maintain my sanity).
  • And hopefully, doing something I love or at least enjoy.

Do I still want to be a scientist and move around often until I find something permanent? What parts of my job do I like? What parts could I do without? What is important to me at the end of the day?

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