If personal narratives aren’t your cup of tea I totally understand if you want to skip this post and wait til I post something involving rocks (Road trip part 4 is coming soon, I promise!). I’m writing this post for those who stand where I stood in May 2013, struggling to define their academic goals and career path.
Tl:dr version: You aren’t alone if you don’t have any idea of what you want to do for grad school or careers straight out of undergrad. Take the scenic route, try out jobs, and ask a lot of questions! And just like in any scientific endeavor if you fail, take a good hard look at your methods, gather a team, and try again.
If I hear someone say “You can do anything!” one more time, I will probably have an allergic reaction that causes me to sprint out the door and down the street while making small panicked noises like Beaker in the Muppets.
(possibly my spirit animal)
‘Tis the season for graduate school applications, so I thought I’d share how I ended up at Oregon State! It meant taking some relatively risky moves instead of the safer option of staying in one place, as if my true calling would one day show up on my doorstep if I was patient enough. This was nerve-wracking but rewarding and involved doing things like decamping to California for a seasonal job, or prying myself out of my introvert shell to cold-email dozens of people. Early in the process of thinking about graduate school, when I heard a well-meaning “you can do anything you want!” some part of my brain translated it it to “you should do everything, if you aren’t then you’re failing, and what if you miss an opportunity of a lifetime while you’re doing something else?”
Because of that fear of commitment, graduate school application was initially an intimidating process for me in my senior year of university. Grad schools require a different mindset than undergraduate programs to apply because the academic and personal fit between the applicant and advisor is so crucial. There’s no Princeton Review guidebook to give a tidy 1-100 ranking of schools. I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions to get help choosing a program then. I would have needed my advisor to dive inside my head and read my mind, which is still firmly in the realm of sci-fi. Talking to grad students at Vanderbilt, they made it seem so effortless to make up their minds about what subject they wanted to devote 2-6 years to. It flowed out of an undergraduate research project, or a natural interest, or something that “just made sense”.
It didn’t help that, by the fall of my senior year, the interdisciplinary major that I had designed to study climate change was revealing to me exactly how complicated that issue was and how it could weave itself through any narrative I looked at. Did I want to study paleoclimates, or atmospheric sciences, or environmental justice, or energy sustainability, or…..? Indecision froze me like a deer in the headlights.
Several different possible paths occurred to me that spring of my senior year. I could go into private or public research, which would eventually require a higher degree and those mystifying applications to graduate school. I could look into becoming a park ranger, guide, or outdoor educator, based on both my academic and non-academic passions. I could go into the nebulous field of “consulting”, based on a conversation at an environmental careers dinner. So, I figured that it would be best to try them out.
To start off with I got a fantastic GeoCorps internship at Mammoth Caves National Parks, where I learned that being a park ranger involves unlimited outdoor time frolicking through natural science (and facilities maintenance), but also finding a new posting every six months and a best-case scenario of being promoted to a stable management job where I would be banished to an office.
With a bit of legwork I got a position as an intern at an environmental consulting firm where I learned the nuts and bolts of regulations and customer service, and how complicated it is to balance clients’ business interests and the environment.
After the terms of that internship came to a close I headed out to California to work for Naturalists at Large, where I learned that no matter how much I can geek out over geology, rock climbing, and birds, keeping classes of middle school students amused is not my forte, and neither is finding a new outdoor recreation gig every single season.
This process of elimination left grad school, probably earth science as a career, and my nature cravings as a side hobby.
While in California I had applied to Indiana University’s summer field school (and only that one field camp, because I still felt like relying on dumb luck), because I figured that if I were to go the grad school route I would need it. In a ringing endorsement for dumb luck I got in, and it changed my life. No, seriously. I was doing science! I didn’t have to worry about whether I was cut out to be an earth scientist, because I was doing the earth scientist things, and doing them well! Hiking around the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana wasn’t half bad either.
Stream temperature experiment/pool party at the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park
In hindsight, field camp bumped me up to about 40% ready to apply to graduate school from 10%.
The next 20% was acquired over months of job applications, paper-reading, blog-writing, talking informally with professors and professionals, tutoring middle- and high- school students in earth science and English literature, volunteering with a USGS data analysis project, and getting hired full-time at the environmental consulting firm where I had interned. I went to visit professors at University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware, and Johns Hopkins while living on my sister’s couch for a few weeks, which gave me practice talking with professors, a sense of how graduate programs were structured, and desensitized my anxious self to interviews. Volunteering as a data analyst with the USGS gave me an additional recommendation-letter-writer as well as experience with data analysis! Through all that, I narrowed down my impossibly wide interest to water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality.
The last 40% was gained in four months of targeted cold-emailing of potential advisors, phone calls with those professors, obsessive research in my field, and a 2015 Geological Society of America conference where I walked up to random people and piped up “Hi, my name is Courtney, I’m currently working in environmental consulting, what do you do?” followed by a few minutes of listening, followed by “where should I go to graduate school to study how climate change and human use patterns affect water resources?”. You’d be surprise how well that works. It’s shockingly easy. If you had told me in my senior year of college that I would do that 15-20 times in a day I would have backed away quietly with a polite and petrified grin plastered across my face. Geologists being a friendly bunch, sometimes people told me “ask that guy over there, I’ve got no clue”, and most were happy to give me a lead or two.
I explored civil engineering, hydrology, geology, and geography masters programs. Because of my interdisciplinary interest, I ended up focusing on large state schools that had the breadth of faculty and funding to have created a dedicated working group for water resources. I had enjoyed creating my own major in college, but wanted the stability of an existing program to give my Masters degree more weight and to not have to explain it in detail to everyone I meet. Geography programs really stood out here – Vanderbilt didn’t have a department in this field, but I realized that it was pretty much perfect for me!
Based on all of these conversations at GSA and elsewhere, I figured out what angle I wanted to take on “water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality” – geographical methods, instead of strictly hydrological or ecological.
Then I made a spreadsheet based on that info, and set about fleshing it out.
It has 34 rows, one for each potential advisor I contacted at twelve schools.
This might give the impression that I’m a naturally organized person who loves cold-calling, which isn’t the case. It’s challenging for me and sometimes prompts me to curl up in a blanket at 5:30 in the evening with soothing instrumental folk music. However, it’s the hurdle to get to science that I love and opportunities that I need, so I made myself the tools to get over it. I set a goal of four professors or current grad students contacted per week, and met it most weeks. I found out that no matter how many intelligent questions I think of before I call a professor, they will all fly out of my head once I’m on the phone unless they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me, preferably in several eye-catching colors of pen. I have a wonderful sister who will reassure me that I’m a worthwhile person when I text her at midnight after hours of tying my thoughts in knots about an awkward conversation. Spreadsheets help me fish thoughts and information out of my brain, put them in words, and manipulate them in a useful way.
For example, University of Arizona took about 10 hours of research, 3 calls to current grad students, 3 calls to faculty, and a spreadsheet of its own to sort out the tangle of water research options and who teaches where.
Based on all that information, I narrowed my choices down to geography programs at five universities. That done, I had to make it easy enough for myself to keep track of the five applications that I would actually complete them and not forget anything. This meant another spreadsheet… and a whole lot of refreshing my email inbox.
And after all this work, I got into exactly 0 schools in the spring of 2016. For reasons related to over-committed professors, funding cuts, and the fact the I applied to the most competitive programs in my field, I wasn’t judged to be a suitable enough fit to accept and fund. April was a pretty ghastly month for my mental state as I frantically tried to piece together another timeline for my life that didn’t involved driving off into the sunset towards a graduate program in August 2016.
I allowed myself about two solid weeks of denial, self-pity, and comfort food, and then I reached out to some lovely friends who shut down the pity-party. We made a list of next steps:
- Reach out to the schools to request a post-mortem of my application
- Take the ASBOG exam to work towards professional development and freshen up my geology skills
- Continue with my current job
- Take a statistics course
- Write appealingly nerdy things on my blog
- Get a gym membership and start climbing again with my newfound free time
- Restart the grad school search in August 2016, and try to focus it more on research
- The silver lining: I now had an extra year to make myself that much of a better candidate.
In the fall of 2016 I reapplied to Oregon State and applied to San Diego State, University of Waterloo, and Southern Illinois University using the same tools and all that knowledge I had gleaned from potential professors/advisors in 2015. I had described a broader focus on my 2015 applications, but had focused my interested down to the geography of groundwater management during the 2016 applications. This 2016 specialization allowed me to better pinpoint potential advisors and make the case for how I could fit into their programs, and also probably made me look like a more committed candidate on my applications. I figured that if I had gotten into 0/5 schools in 2016, I might get into 1 out of 4 schools in 2017.
What did I do differently?
- Reached out to professors earlier in the fall
- Had a more defined research interest
- Asked more specifically if they had research they could fund me for, or if not who in their department did
- Posted on the Earth Science Women’s Network Facebook page asking for recommendations of schools with ambitious and possibly underrated groundwater faculty that weren’t on my radar
- Stayed in closer contact with my letter-of-recommendation writers
In the spring of 2017 I won the grad school applicant lottery – I got into all! Four! Schools! All the important people in my life had to deal with text messages IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME HOLY MOLY.
I hope that the takeaway of all this is that if you’re applying to graduate school, you need to talk to people. As many people as possible. This was my biggest obstacle when I first started applying – I didn’t want to bother anybody. Additionally, I was ashamed to ask for help even when I knew how to articulate my questions, as I thought it would make people think I wasn’t good enough to begin with. Eventually I learned that few people are bothered as long as I did research beforehand to avoid asking them to regurgitate the contents of the personal website for my benefit, which nobody has any inclination to do.
I found that academics, students, and professionals alike generally like talking about what they do and helping people out if they’ve got the time. An applicant can take respectful advantage of that to learn what’s out there. The worst anybody can say to you is “no”, and it’s almost never personal. It boils down to seeing if the professor is doing what you want to study and has funding, and then convincing them that they really do need your unique talents and brainpower.
And don’t worry if those talents change from conversation to conversation, especially if you have an insanely broad initial focus like I did. I settled on a messy process of deciding on a certain way of selling my skill set to a potential advisor so they would at least talk to me, using what I learned from that conversation to improve my focus, and then pitching that improved focus again or to another professor. Sometimes I talk about different research ideas with different potential advisers, just to see which one I enjoyed talking about the most. I had barely managed to pull together a coherent idea of a academic goal as I careened into the December 2015/January 2016 deadlines, and came up with the new and improved version 2.0 by December 2016.
If I have to pick a metaphor for finding my calling after college, it’s less like a package delivered to my doorstep and more like a Pony Express run to deliver a shapeshifting package to an address I can only find at the end of a scavenger hunt. But I made it, and you can too.
If you want to pick my brain, to commiserate, a copy of my spreadsheets to use as a template, or advice for cold-emailing, let me know in the comments.