Authors note: This begins a series of posts on my transition from academia to industry
I am on a sleek grey Mercedes shuttle bus. The only indication of where we are going is a small black sign on the windshield with white letters in perfect Helevetica that say "CU" and in small print underneath, "Cupertino". I have come a long way from where I started.
Where exactly did I start though? I think my path into ecology was both direct and circuitous. I grew up in a rural part of Vermont where I spent a large chunk of time roaming the woods with my father, an avid hunter who taught me natural history from a young age. So doubtless like many of my ecological peers, it was the logical choice ingrained from an early age. <!--more--> But in a far more important sense it was quite circuitous. In my later years as a post-doc I would realize that many of the truly successful graduate students were people who knew what they wanted from their undergraduate days. They began working as a lab tech with a well known professor, and publishing then. They developed the connections early on that would help them get into graduate school, and built their CV's early. My entry point into academia came later in life.
After graduating from UMass in the winter of 2002, I was like many 21 year olds, lost an unsure of what I wanted in life. I knew I loved being outside and working in nature. So I bounced around in various field tech type positions, a stint as a state park ranger on an island in Boston harbor, a cashier at an outdoor gear store, anything that kept me in nature. When I was 23 I found myself living in a trailer at the base of Mt. Princeton in the Collegiate peaks region of the Rockies. I would hike for 10 days in a row monitoring toad populations for Colorada State University. The other four days I lived with my uncle in Boulder. One day sitting in his kitchen drinking a beer, he said "what are you going to do next? Is this something you can really build a career doing?" When I answered that well, yes you could, but it required a PhD the light went off: "YES! I should get a PhD so I can keep doing this"
Fast forward two years and I am living at home, working on a coffee shop (Side note, it is at this coffee shop that I meet my wife). I have recently spent a year working at Delaware Water Gap as a biologist where in my spare time I applied to graduat school. So when the letter arrives from the University of Vermont that I have been accepted to work in Nick Gotelli's lab and I have been offered funding as a teaching assistant, I am truly ecstatic. Perhaps one of the most ecstatic moments of my life. Those six years are probably the best and happiest of my life, so it seems a bit wrong to just gloss over them. Yet few of the details are salient to this particular thread of the story. One memory is of particular import though. I had made it through the first four years or so ignorant of what it takes to build a successful career and the hard road ahead. My one indication was a friend who was graduating ahead of me and his struggle to find a post-doc. Now, he's gone on to be assistant professor at Yale, so it ends well for him, but at first he searched and searched for post-docs. He even moved in with his wife's parents for a bit between jobs. I took that as a signal of: "Whoa, what am I doing next? I better apply for post-docs, like, right now..."
Here is a good point to leave the story until the next post. Where to say it starts, I'll leave that up readers, as I can't even say myself. Suffice to say that prior to moving to silicon valley, every job I had taken seemed to seemlessly link to the next. My morning bus rides though feel out of step with all my prior moves, and it is that underlying feeling that I am hoping to understand, for both myself and anyone who cares to follow along.
A brief post-script - This series will undoubtedly be a personal one. In part because I have an unrevealed (although now revealed) hypothesis that major choices such as this one are arrived at in light of both internalities and externalities. While macro-structural factors like levels of NSF funding play a role, so too does personal experience, in major decisions. So to me personal anecdotes provide context, for certainly another person who encounters the same externalities as I have, might have made a different decision.→ ←