To Ph.D., or not to Ph.D.

I once asked my Cornell University adviser why he chose to pursue a career in academia. He explained to me that after his undergrad, he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life, so he extended his education by pursuing a Master’s degree. During the course of that degree, he figured out that “people actually pay you to do this stuff”. He never left.

Sightseeing at the Burlington Earth Clock on Lake Champlain. It looks a bit like Stonehenge, but it’s actually closer to a giant sundial. The stones mark the horizon where the sun sets at the Equinoxes and Solstices each year.

Did you know that Lake Champlain also hosts a thriving yellow perch fishery? Local fishermen spend the winter on the ice catching and selling yellow perch to local restaurants. This isn’t a commercial fishery, but something closer to a “market fishery.” There are no nets, just a group of dedicated fisherman armed with recreational fishing licenses, rods, hooks, and some tasty bait. I was hooked on this great article about Lake Champlain’s “yellow gold.”

All graduate students must either choose to remain in academia or return to the “real world.” The advantages to academia are many: fulfilling work, autonomy, travel, and a flexible schedule. And yet the disadvantages can outweigh the benefits: high stress, high workload, disproportionately low pay, and the pressure to “publish or perish.”

These disadvantages are compounded by the relatively small chance of actually securing a tenured professorship. The Royal Society’s 2010 Report, The Scientific Century, estimates that only 0.45% of STEM Ph.D.’s in the UK will become tenured professors. Similarly, a mere 9.4% of 2011 life science Ph.D.’s found academic employment by graduation, according to an estimate based on National Science Foundation data.

A successful academic career can be a much longer and bumpier road than many originally imagine. The bright side? The handful of professors who have spoken honestly with me about their career trajectories seem to love their job.

No summer of mine would be complete without a trip to New York’s Adirondack State Park. This time, I skipped the field work and spent an afternoon cruising on Raquette Lake. Raquette Lake also happens to be the study site for my research on lake trout spawning phenology: do you know why lake trout don’t need a calendar to tell time?

However, statistics dictate that most graduate students will not pursue academic careers; most will enter industry, which I am loosely defining here as for-profit work in a field dedicated to delivering goods or services. While research in academia and industry can be similar, they are controlled by different forces. As Sarah noted in her blog, research in the commercial sector is driven by the short-term need for profits, while academics are pushed by the constant pressure to publish.

So how can lifelong students ease this transition from academia to the workforce? Sarah helped close this gap by taking a course on international scientific careers. I took a slightly different route, and interned with The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Division Science team for eight weeks. The Eastern Division is responsible for scientific projects that span the eastern seaboard. Much of their fascinating work is focused on GIS (geographic information system) mapping and analysis, which they use to classify habitats types and regions of climate resilience.

I am a fish nerd, and my summer travels took me to some of the fishiest places in the Northeast. Pictured here is the Fisherman’s Memorial (also known as “Man at the Wheel”) in Gloucester, MA. Gloucester is a historical shipbuilding and commercial fishery center with long ties to the ocean. The Fisherman’s Memorial honors over 10,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea. Does the Man at the Wheel remind you of the guy on the fish stick box? That’s because the Gorton’s fisherman (of Gorton of Gloucester) is modeled after the memorial.

I held various summer internships throughout college, but this was my first working in a traditional office environment. I was assigned my own cubicle and worked 9 AM to 5 PM. Overall, the experience was great. I learned how to use Microsoft Access and ArcGIS, and helped create habitat guides for the Northeast Lake and Pond Classification System. The lake habitat guides will serve as a companion to the classification’s online story map: when a user clicks on a particular lake, a document will appear describing the lake type (e.g. very cold, oligotrophic lake), and its associated characteristics.

My internship ended three weeks ago, and I have been biding my time by finishing miscellaneous graduate work while I await my fate in “student purgatory,” more commonly known as a semester of thesis review. My thesis – the last barrier to graduation – is being examined and critiqued by a professor within the university, much like the journal peer-review process. I need to respond to the criticism and revise my thesis by December in order to complete my degree.

Got cod? Cape Cod is home to striking salt marshes, a historic fishery, and the ultimate summer playground for Bostonians ready to escape to the sea.

Like Gloucester, Cape Cod is also home to one of Massachusetts’s historic groundfish (cod, haddock, flounder and others) fisheries. The Northeast’s cod fishery is perhaps most famous for its crash in the 1990’s; despite more restrictive catch limits, the fishery has yet to recover. Catch limits aside, recent science indicates that climate change  might keep cod in hot water.

I am also using this time to apply to and interview for jobs in the greater Boston area. As much as I miss that salty California air, I have committed the next few years of my life to living in Beantown. But I’m not complaining – with a great transportation system, a mild winter, and fresh seafood… Cod I really ask for more? (I will leave the punny humor to Sarah from now on.)

Despite the fact that I still spend much of my time hunched over a computer, I no longer feel like a student. And yet, I have not graduated, which somewhat hinders my attempt to enter the workforce. Much like Dante’s damned souls, I am stuck somewhere in student limbo. But what’s a good party without a little limbo?

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