“TEACHER seeks pupil.
Must have an earnest desire to save the world.
Apply in person.” –Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
As I continue to creep (crawl? stumble blindly? drag myself?) toward the completion of my PhD I have begun seriously contemplating what exactly I want to do when I grow up. Progress has been slow and circuitous, much like this essay. But I feel calmer than I did when I first realized “Be an ecologist!” had stopped being enough of an answer. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Regardless, I’ve been trying to take steps toward actually figuring this thing out for myself. A bit of soul searching, a la Chelsea’s advice about a happiness brainstorm, really helped. I’m happiest when I can travel but have a solid home base to return to, so I’m no longer prioritizing an academic career and the period of post-doctoral transience that usually comes along with it. I’m happiest when I’m collaborating with lots of different folks who I can teach and learn from all the time. I’m happiest when I can do public speaking and science communication, and I’d love to find a position where this is encouraged, valued, and incentivised. I’m happiest when what I am working on makes a tangible difference.
That last one is the one I’ve been struggling with the most. Twelve year old me would be aghast that 29-year-old me has it less figured out than she did 17 years ago, but this is probably the age when I was wisest. When I was 12, I didn’t just have a crush on Jeff Corwin, I wanted to be Jeff Corwin*. To clarify, I absolutely never wanted a TV show, but I think I wanted a platform to communicate all the really strong pre-teen opinions I had about rain forest destruction, manatees, and not wasting water. During college, I spent all of my free time not devoted to researching aquatic invertebrates and listening to obnoxious amounts of Neil Young, participating in competitive speech and debate in an effort to train myself in communication and advocacy. I’ve always wanted to make a difference, but, at some point, this dropped out of my career calculus. In the process of trying to add this back into my equation, I’ve decided something.
I will no longer be embarrassed by my earnest desire to save the world.
Why was I embarrassed by a feeling that, I am willing to bet, so many fresh and seasoned conservation biologists, ecologists, and environmental scientists have? There are many reasons for this. I remember a specific event in college where I was told I was a “save the world type,” and I knew it wasn’t a compliment. I’ve been told on so many occasions that my personal lifestyle choices could never make a difference for global problems, which made me feel naive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read something about how advocacy lessens scientific objectivity (I fundamentally object to this statement, btw, but that’s another story). In some circles, indifference seems to heighten respectability, and as a young, female scientists, I desperately want to be respected. But respect at the cost of downplaying the inherent passion I feel about conservation and environmental justice seems hollow.
So, I’m getting over being embarrassed. But then, I started actually thinking about saving the world. Climate change. Ocean acidification. Sea level rise. The scale of our problems stymies me still.
I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog the Panel on Non-Academic Careers in Conservation I helped to organize in April with the Davis Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB-D). A few of the other organizers and myself wrote up a brief piece about it for our graduate group’s publication, which you can find here on pages 25-26. During that panel, Amanda Stanley, Conservation Science Program Officer for the Wilburforce Foundation, said that almost everyone who gets into conservation, does so because they want to save the world, but that, if you want to be able to get out of bed in the mornings, it might be best to pick which part of the world you’re going to save. Like all of that really amazing panel, this statement was both affirming and illuminative.
As I continue the slog toward degree completion, I’m starting to think about what sorts of placed-based or system based conservation groups I might want to work for, or if I, maybe, want to form my own (editor’s note: I hope Rach has an available ecolatician position in her group…). Reassessing your ultimate career objectives can be difficult, but it’s an important process. Particularly for the ambitious set (guilty), it helps to regularly take stock of what makes you feel happy and fulfilled or risk coming up from air some day and realizing success does not automatically equal contentment. I’d love to hear perspectives from others, both those currently in graduate school, recent MS/PhD graduates, or undergraduates considering graduate education.