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And then I went kablooie OR An ecologist’s transition from academia to a federal job

My friends from grad school knew me as the go-getter, the one with boundless energy and capacity to do “all the things!” During my PhD career, I juggled (largely successfully) multiple side research and writing projects, leading a local chapter for the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), organizing BBQ’s and parties, a long-distance partner, and a voracious novel-reading habit along with my multi-sited, multi-scale dissertation projects. Of course, there were times that I stumbled and one or more of those balls dropped. But I was able to regain my footing and new sense of balance quickly enough, within the space of a few weeks, maybe a month. To use an ecological metaphor, I knew my steady state well and had a good amount of resilience.

In September 2014, I moved to Washington DC to start my AAAS S&T Policy Fellowship as a Climate Change Advisor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). And eight months later, I went kablooie.

Washington, DC attracts over-achievers with stellar academic pedigrees who want to change the world. USAID attracts former Peace Corps volunteers, scientists seeking to make a difference, and political appointees with a conscience. I have enjoyed my position immensely and am continually inspired by the people with whom I work. I have made fast friends within my Fellowship cohort, a self-selected pool of outgoing, applied scientists of all stripes. I am fascinated by this city with all of its political history, diversity, and energy, a place with continual interplay of light and dark.

What I wasn’t expecting was a most prosaic shift: moving from the autonomy of an academic life to the 9-to-5 federal bureaucratic culture.

When I moved here, I had three outstanding manuscripts that were just shy of submission, ongoing commitments to SCB, creative writing and planning for a home-grown circus based in San Diego (from where I’d just moved), and boundless desire for an active social life and exploration of a new city. A couple of months in, I took on increased responsibilities with SCB as a Scientific Committee Co-Chair for our 2015 International Congress. And I decided to start up a AAAS Fellows Affinity Group based around Africa (event-and-learning interest groups within the AAAS Fellows).

Oh yes and did I mention that I now had a 9-to-5 job that regularly took me overseas? And while USAID has a culture that strongly respects having a life outside of work (in my office at least!), it does emphasize working on just USAID work during work hours. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money! Plus the place is so meeting-happy that it’s hard to get anything else done other than precisely what you need to work on in that moment. This translates to almost zero flex time during the work day.

Quite quickly after I started in the fall of 2014, I started averaging five and half hours of sleep a night, my body starting aching, and I felt continually behind in all things. I just couldn’t seem to fit it all in. Compared to my grad school life in California, all these to-do’s and activities didn’t seem like that much more. Why could I not seem to make it work?

Eight months in, I went kablooie. My body had become one enormous stress knot to the point where a friendly squeeze on my shoulder made me recoil in pain. I found myself emotionally ping-ponging from one extreme to the other in the span of one conversation. I had become my own wrecking ball. One weekend in particular served as my wake-up call.

What followed was my period of “finding peace.” I had to accept that I had shifted to a new ‘steady state’ and this state required a different type of resilience. I started setting boundaries. I sent emails to academic colleagues stipulating how much time and what days/time periods I expected to work on XYZ projects. They were overwhelmingly sympathetic and echoed my boundaries with ones of their own. I accepted that one of my efforts, that Africa Affinity Group, was well below a worthwhile ratio of effort-to-reward and so my co-chair and I disbanded it. I focused my publishing efforts on just one manuscript and gave myself lenient deadlines, communicating those to my co-authors, none of whom protested.

Occasionally, I have also taken a half-day or a full-day personal day off from my USAID work. This cuts into my “holiday” and “medical leave” time which means that I am very very clear with myself about why I keep or take on those extra responsibilities! I developed my own “vision” statement that outlines my motivation (the why) and then the strategies and tactics (the how and what) for my efforts. If something doesn’t easily fall within that vision and I don’t wish to alter it, I gently say no…to myself.

Really this entire blog is about “how to say no.” This is not a new lesson for early career ecologists. But let’s just say that I had largely mastered that art during my academic career but then, the game parameters changed considerably when I embarked on a very different type of career.

Don’t go kablooie. Accept that entering a federal job, particularly if you’re in a position that is well outside of the academic norms, will necessitate a reconfiguration of your normal routine. And then re-clarify your vision of why you’re doing what you’re doing in and out of your paid job. Email me to vent and ask questions (I have some other tips and tricks up my sleeve). And start enjoying while finding that new balance!


Dr. Marit Wilkerson is in her second year as a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow serving at USAID as a Climate Change Advisor, specifically focused on climate-smart agriculture. By training and by heart, she’s a conservation ecologist with an inordinate passion for organizing events and people, grasses and wildflowers, and pangolins. (The latter is not a research subject…but she’s open to free grants to study them.) Please contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @MaritWilk.