What are you going to do when you’re done? Creating my own path.
Whether you’re finishing an undergraduate degree or a Ph.D., this can often be a dreaded question. The decision of what comes next can be a daunting one. Having recently completed a Ph.D., this question and decision process is fresh in my mind.
Graduate school brought me to Alberta, Canada from the U.S., and I began my graduate school career studying wolves in an agricultural landscape for my M.Sc. degree. The area, community, and complexity of ecological questions made me decide to pursue my Ph.D. in the same landscape, this time studying grizzly bear population ecology and large carnivore-agricultural conflicts. Working in an agricultural community can be challenging. Much of my work occurs on private lands, meaning that I need the permission and support of numerous landowners to be successful. Building trust takes time. Change takes time. Working with the rural community has simultaneously been the most challenging and most rewarding part of my research career to-date. At the end of my Ph.D. and subsequent post-doc, I had been in the area long enough to build trust and witness change. It was exciting. I felt that my work and contributions in the area weren’t finished.
In trying to answer the question of “what’s next” as my post-doc wound down, I was of course scanning all the usual websites looking for jobs, and reaching out to contacts and networks that I had built along the way. During graduate school, much of the career advice and training I had received was targeted toward an academic path. I knew, however, that I needed a break from the world of academia. Other opportunities and job postings didn’t seem quite right for me, either. The decision of what to do next is made more challenging when it’s not just you. Did I really want to ask my husband to quit his job and move to a new place for a job that I felt indifferent about?
While I was finishing my Ph.D., I got my first contract. Nothing big – just a few hours a week helping to coordinate a new grizzly bear monitoring program that was beginning in the bear management area to the north of where I had recently completed my work. After I finished my Ph.D., the contract increased in hours and soon I was working on the analysis of the new data that had been collected. Around the same time, some grant money became available at a local non-profit I had worked with during my Ph.D. and that group contracted me to evaluate the efficacy of carnivore-agriculture conflict mitigation projects. Soon, I had pieced together enough contract work to keep me comfortably employed for a year. It was time to establish myself as an independent scientist, and I filed the paperwork to launch my own research and consulting business.
This is all still new to me and I’m figuring it out as I go. I’m not sure this is the exact right fit for me long term, but for right now, it’s great. I’m doing work that I believe in, asking research questions that interest me, fostering strong relationships between the science community and the rural community, and living where I want to live.
That’s not to say there are no challenges. I have no guaranteed income and am in constant pursuit of the next grant, the next contract, the next collaboration. It can be isolating; I don’t have an organization standing behind me. I think it’s a common feeling to struggle with figuring out the best career fit. For some, the answer to “what to do next” is an easy one; they know what they want and work to pursue that. Others, like myself, struggle with figuring out where and how they can most successfully affect change and make a meaningful contribution to the field of ecology.
That’s a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately, and, in a round about way, it was that question that ultimately resulted in me writing this blog post. I have the honor of being part of the 2017 Wilburforce Fellows in Conservation Science, a truly inspiring group of people. As I read through their bios prior to meeting all of them, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Who was I to be chosen to be part of this group?! When we met for a leadership retreat in Tucson, Arizona earlier this year, I was only a few months out of finishing my post-doc and was just beginning to piece together work for the next year; I felt overwhelmed by the accomplishments of the people around me. As our week of training together progressed, other fellows reached out to me and expressed sincere interest in what I was doing and wondered how I was making my career as an independent scientist happen. Their support helped me feel more confident in my voice as a scientist and re-energized my work. Ultimately, over breakfast one morning, one fellow asked if I would consider writing a piece for the ESA early career blog on my experiences, suggesting that others might be interested the career path I was following.
As I pursue my own career path, I have had to step outside my comfort zone and reach out to my networks asking for advice, input, opportunities, and suggestions. I expressed interest to and solicited ideas and feedback from pretty much anyone who would listen. What I found, was that there is a wealth of resources within my networks once I began to ask. The collaborations and connections that I built over my graduate career, along with a heavy dose of persistence, are ultimately what have helped me to succeed where I am at today. I have also learned that the answer to “what are you going to do when you’re done” doesn’t have to be a single answer; careers are fluid. There are a myriad of options out there for a career in ecology. For me, working independently has been a great fit thus far, but I’m not sure it’s a permanent one. I am still pursuing any avenue that seems interesting because what “fits” in one stage of a career trajectory may not fit in another.
Andrea Morehouse owns Winisk Research and Consulting where she works as an independent scientist on issues related to large carnivores. She holds a M.Sc. and Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Alberta. Andrea serves on the board of directors for the Waterton Biosphere Reserve Association, and is a 2017 Willburforce Fellow in Conservation Science. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .