Looking Back: Three Years After Grad School

By Courtney Hann (NOAA Fisheries, West Coast Sustainable Fisheries Division)

Thinking back, as Leigh’s first M.Sc. student for the GEMM Lab, I wonder what poignant insight could have prepared me for my future endeavors. And having faced years of perseverance and dedication in the face of professional unknowns, perhaps the answer is none at all; fore maybe it was the many unknown challenges met that led me to where I am today.

I graduated in December of 2015, with my Masters in Marine Resource Management, and stamped completion of my research with the GEMM Lab. While my research focused on marine mammals, my broader love for the Earth’s oceans and lands guided my determination to help keep our planet’s precious ecosystem resources wild and free. So when I landed a position in terrestrial ecology after graduating, I chose to embrace the challenging decision of jumping away from theoretical research and moving back towards applied research. Consequently, I fell in love with botany, moth identification, birding, and explored the unknowns of a whole new world of conservation biology in Scotland with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Not only was this work incredibly fun, interesting, and spontaneous, it offered me an opportunity to take my knowledge of developing research projects and apply it to nature reserve management. Every survey I completed and dataset I analyzed provided information required to determine the next land management steps for maximizing the conservation of rare and diverse species. From the GEMM Lab, I brought skills on: how to work through what, at times, seemed like an impassible barrier, complete tasks efficiently under a tight deadline, juggle multiple activities and obligations, and still make time to ponder the importance of seeing the bigger picture, while having fun learning new things.

Above: Botanizing and birding in Scotland with the best botanist I have ever known and my boss, Jeff Waddell, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

For me, the long game of seeing the bigger picture has always been key. And at the end of the day, I remained steadfast in answering the questioned I posed myself: Why do all of this work if not to make a truly positive impact? With that in mind, and with an expiring visa, I moved back to the West Coast of the U.S. and landed a contracting position with NOAA Fisheries. Where I met my second female mentor, Heidi Taylor, who inspired me beyond words and introduced me to the amazing world of fisheries management. All the while, I kept working my second part-time job with the West Coast Regional Planning Body (now called the West Coast Ocean Alliance, WCOA). Working two jobs allowed me to not only accelerate my learning capacity through more opportunities, but also allowed me to extend the reach of growing a positive impact.  For example, I learned about coordinating region-wide ocean management, facilitation of diverse groups, and working with tribes, states, and federal agencies while working for the WCOA. While there were moments that I struggled with overworking and fatigue, my training in graduate school to persevere really kicked in. Driven by the desire to attain a permanent position that complimented my talents and determination to provide sustained help for our Earth’s ecosystems, I worked for what sometimes felt endlessly to reach my goal. Getting there was tough, but well worth it!

One of the most challenging aspects for me was finishing my last publication for the GEMM Lab. I was no longer motivated by the research, since my career path had taken a different turn, and I was already burnt out form working overtime every week. Therefore, if it was not for Leigh’s encouraging words, the promise I made to her to complete the publication, and my other co-author’s invitation to submit a paper for a particular journal, then I likely would have thrown in the towel. I had to re-do the analysis several times, had the paper rejected once, and then ended up re-writing and re-structuring the entire paper for the final publication. In total, it took me two and half years and 100s of hours to complete this paper after graduating. Of course, there was no funding, so I felt a bit like an ongoing graduate student until the paper was finally accepted and the work complete. But the final acceptance of the paper was so sweet, and after years of uncertain challenges, a heavy weight had finally been lifted. So perhaps, if there is one piece of advice I would say to young graduate students, it is to get your work published before you graduate! I had one paper and one book chapter published before I graduated, and that made my life much easier. While I am proud for finishing the final third publication, I would have much preferred to have just taken one extra semester and finished that publication while in school. But regardless, it was completed. And in a catharsis moment, maybe the challenge of completing it taught me the determination I needed to persevere through difficult situations.

Above: Elephant seal expressing my joy of finishing that last publication! Wooohoooooo!

With that publication out of the way, I was able to focus more time on my career. While I no longer use R on a daily basis and do not miss the hours of searching for that one pesky bug, I do analyze, critique, and use scientific literature everyday. Moreover, the critical thinking, creative, and collaborative skills I honed in the GEMM Lab, have been and will be useful for the rest of my life. Those hours of working through complicated statistical analyses and results in Leigh’s office pay off everyday. Reading outside of work, volunteering and working second jobs, all of this I learned from graduate school. Carrying this motivation, hard work, determination, and perseverance on past graduate school was undeniably what led me to where I am today. I have landed my dream job, working for NOAA Fisheries Sustainable Fisheries Division on salmon management and policy, in my dream location, the Pacific Northwest.  My work now ties directly into ongoing management and policy that shapes our oceans, conservation efforts, and fisheries management. I am grateful for all the people who have supported me along the way, with this blog post focusing on the GEMM Lab and Leigh Torres as my advisor. I hope to be a mentor and guide for others along their path, as so many have helped me along mine. Good luck to any grad student reading this now! But more than luck, carry passion and determination forward because that is what will propel you onward on your own path. Thank you GEMM Lab, it is now time for me to enjoy my new job.

Above: Enjoying in my new home in the Pacific Northwest.

 

 

 

Reflecting on the graduate school experience

By: Amanda Holdman, MS student, Geospatial Ecology and Marine Megafauna Lab & Oregon State Research Collective for Applied Acoustics, MMI

This Thanksgiving I had a little something extra to be thankful for; two and a half weeks ago I successfully defended my master’s thesis, “Spatio-temporal patterns and ecological drivers of harbor porpoise off the central Oregon Coast”. It’s a good thing too because I think it was starting to turn me into a harbor porpoise. The last month, I was solitary, constantly eating, and I think I was starting to sleep with one hemisphere of my brain, while the other kept working.

In the weeks leading up to the submission of my thesis, I daydreamed about my life on the ‘other side’.  As a means of pushing myself over the final hurdle I envisioned what it would be like to be free of a thesis, to reclaim my weekends, and how relieved I would feel to hand over the culmination of two and a half years of work – and at last here I am:  on the other side, well almost.

The first week after my defense was just about as busy as the weeks leading up to my defense. I spent my time filing paperwork and moving things, packing up my office and house to head back to my home state of Indiana for the holidays, and tying up loose ends in Newport. For the past couple of weeks, I have been finishing up revisions on my thesis and formatting my work for publication, all while starting to look for a new job. After defending my masters I found time to “actually breathe” – I’m still as busy as always but now with a more consistent sleep schedule. The shift from all-research-and-writing-all-the-time has given me time to reflect a bit on what I’ve gained from the graduate school experience and what I know I still want or need to learn from it. Graduate school has supplied me with a tool box of skills that I didn’t realize I was acquiring day to day. Now, however, looking back over the years I realize how much I’ve grown as both a scholar and a person and in more ways than just learning how to craft scientific tweets in less than 140 characters (this really does take some skill).

Perseverance and Diligence

One big thing I learned from graduate school was how to transition from “panic” to “problem solving”. There were endless days of back breaking work that I had nothing to show for and days when I succumbed to imposter syndrome. I learned to pick myself up and solve the problems at hand though and find a way to move forward, sometimes even scratching my original idea to move towards something that worked in the end. That’s life. Things go wrong, plans don’t work out and yet our ability to pick ourselves up and carry on is one of the best skills we have. In graduate school you learn to never give up.

Time Management

I now assume that anyone who has been to graduate school is essentially an expert at multi-tasking. Between running a field season, taking and teaching courses, submitting research proposals, and trying to balance a social life, I didn’t realize how much of a pro I became at juggling many things at once. In other words, gaining a fundamental skill for being a working scientist

Resourcefulness

Graduate school taught me how to find the information I need. Every day I had a moment where I didn’t know an answer. In the beginning, I thought all you had to do was ask, but sometimes the first person you ask doesn’t know the answer either. Over time, I learned to dig through the literature, ask an expert in the field, or my favorite “try several different things and see how they differ”. Once I learned the hard lesson that there isn’t always an easy way out, I had subconsciously created an order of operations to figure it out.

Collaboration (and giving back the help to others who struggle where you once did)

Not many jobs teach us to work with a bunch of different minded people, but grad school does! I learned to work as a team, with scientists within and outside my lab who had personalities different from mine. Graduate school taught me to collaborate as much as possible and, more importantly, help someone with less experience to figure out their coding problems, or help them get their research proposals or publications out. Offering advice or expertise for a certain skill or method when I was busy helped me develop my team-building skills and proved to myself that I had skills to share.

There are good moments within bad moments

When a bad moment presented itself, I learned to focus on the good and recognize the moments that things worked out because I didn’t give up. These included following a bad presentation with a strong one, sparking the interest of collaborators, receiving an award for a conference presentation, or just the simple self-satisfaction of getting an R code to work properly. There are a lot of good moments in grad school, and it became important for me to celebrate them when they happened, but also not to take them for granted because they don’t come as often as the bad ones.

Importance of a strong support system

Unlike a harbor porpoise – I am very social person. Some can get through graduate school without any social interaction or encouragement from others, but there was no way that would have worked for me. Everyone copes with bad moments in graduate school in different ways – so my friends and family were my life-raft, especially those living in Newport. Mental and physical health are important to maintain in graduate school and it was beneficial for me to form a community early to help me through the tough moments. Although friends and family cannot completely relate to your situation (unless maybe they are also a graduate student) they will hear you out, care, listen and pull you out of a slump. Accepting their support and help drastically improved my mental health.

Work smarter, not necessarily harder, and forge your own path

When I look back at my past 2.5 years of graduate school now, I realize how hard I did truly work. I worked nights, weekends and evenings on weekdays. But in my last few months,  I became more competent as my productivity peaked. I learned how to multi-task and plan better – not just in school, but also in my daily life. Graduate programs force you to do unique research, as you can’t write a thesis by reproducing someone else’s work. You have to learn from what others have done and then get creative. Creating something original demands trust in yourself, and avoiding trying to compare yourself to others. Forging your own path can be uncomfortable, but necessary.

I am confident to say that graduate school overall made me a better scientist, and a better person. I value the training and education that I was fortunate enough to receive. It seems everyone starts graduate school with stars in their eyes, and then sometime in the middle we get weighed down by the failures and frustrations of graduate life, and we can fail to remember what brought us here in the first place: Intense curiosity, a desire to learn, and a chance to improve the world. These factors made me opt for this experience and in spite of all the hardships along the way, grad school gave me a set of life skills. So if you are contemplating graduate school, currently working toward a graduate degree, or in a transitional phase of job-seeking or career-changing, I suggest taking a minute to reflect on what you have already, or could gain, from graduate school.

My days as a current GEMM lab member are dwindling down as finish my edits, preparing publications, search for jobs, and rekindle my network – but I look forward to being a long distance cheerleader for the current and future members of the GEMM lab.

When I entered graduate school – one of my committee members told me I would go through the five stages of grief – and she was right – but the end reward was more than worth it.

“Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning, you’re Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you’re Happy.”