What's next?

I'm just going to go ahead and say it: graduate school is great (though The Simpsons disagree). We're given 2-9 years (depending on whether you're a masters or doctoral student and the scope of your research) to live in a cozy academic bubble surrounded by like-minded peers doing research on things we think are interesting and important. We teach, we write, we think, we analyze, and we get to explore new places and meet really smart people. We don't have tons of extra responsibilities like kids (usually) and onerous administrative crap, and we're given some room to fail every once in a while (the most important part of the scientific process). Sure graduate school can be frustrating, annoying, and just plain idiotic at times, but that's pretty much a definition for life. Let's not get bogged down in the mundane. But the question I've been asking myself recently is, what's next?

What comes after graduate school? I'm planning on graduating with my PhD next summer and there are a whole lot of decisions that need to be made and time that needs to be managed efficiently. Here's a brief synopsis of my scientific to-do list for the next nine months: Finish writing my dissertation (5-6 chapters, likely somewhere north of 200 pages when all said and done), try to publish each of those chapters in scientific journals (two down, 3-4 to go), continue networking and building collaborations with other scientists to expand my future research opportunities, and apply for multiple post-doctoral research positions and hope that one comes through.

This last bit represents a very interesting part of the multi-faceted scientific life: we have to always be looking forward and backwards at the same time. For example, I am currently writing two brand spanking new research proposals for two different post-doctoral opportunities while at the same time writing papers based on my alligator research that is already complete. Half my time is spent looking back at the research I've done, trying to make sense of it and fitting it into the current scientific discourse, while the other half of my time is spent trying to get funding to do future research and predict what kinds of scientific questions are going to be important over the next few years. It's not like this is unique to me (all scientists do this) but as a young scientist it's still quite a challenging balancing act.

Also, I have to start thinking about what the "goal" of all this is (as if there is a concrete one out there somewhere). After my post-doc, do I want to try and get a job as a scientist with the state or federal government? What about an environmental NGO? Or a job applying science to public policy? Or a job at a university, and if so, what kind of university? Some of these options require different kinds of post-doc experience, so choosing the "right" post-doc can have big implications for your career path. I've attended lots of job panels at science conferences around the country where scientists from all the different job sectors come together and talk about what their jobs are like, how to get a job in their field, and on and on. The message from each panel has been clear: it is not always easy to switch from one type of scientific career to another once you've started down a certain path, so do the legwork now to set yourself up for the type of career you want. That is, if you know what type of scientific career you want.

Through this whole convoluted process I've found encouragement from some advice given to me by a man I met in Belize many years ago: I was 18 and working on a research project studying manatee ecology and behavior off the coast of Belize City. One day we went out to a coral reef to track manatees and do some spear fishing for our dinner, and while we were swimming around a huge catamaran pulled up near our little boat. I swam over to the boat to see who was on board and was warmly greeted by a wealthy middle-aged California businessman on vacation with his wife. They invited me on board for a little lunch and a Coke and we talked about science and the randomness of meeting people anywhere at anytime. During the conversation he said to me "You want to know the secret to success? To how I got where I am today? It's staying open to possibilities. Never close yourself off to new things and new people, and pursue new opportunities as they come your way. Take risks and see what happens. There are no wrong choices, just different ones." Good advice I think.



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