Field: Marine Biology/Ecology
Job/position: Visiting Assistant Professor in Biology
How long have you been working in this field? 12 years
What kind of story would you like to share? Life struggle story
Please share your story here:
One of the hardest moments of my career started when I was trying to get into grad school. As an undergrad I had no clue as to how to apply to grad schools or what to look for (e.g. potential advisors, funding opportunities). I made the incorrect assumption that one should apply to graduate school programs as if one were applying to undergraduate programs. That is, just apply to the school itself, take the requisite exams, and hope for the best.
This was NOT a successful strategy! Initially, I applied to a program in Scotland, and got accepted. What I didn't know was that I had to come up with the money to get there and support myself in the process. I came from a working class family and had very little saved, plus I was saddled with student loan debt. I decided to apply elsewhere, and the next two years would prove to be difficult…I contacted a new professor and he invited me to visit and we had a lengthy interview session. It seemed extremely promising.
Unfortunately, the grant on which my position was solely supported was cut and he had to tell me he could not take me on after all. I was devastated. I continued to live at my parent's house, and work full time while I kept trying to apply. The second year, I applied to more places, with fingers crossed. I received a handful of rejections, but one very promising letter of acceptance.
Again, I got the dreaded phone call that her grant was not funded, and so I was stuck. Luckily for me this professor had the forethought to explore my other strengths, one of which was teaching,. Unfortunately this was late in the summer and the teaching positions were filled and I hadn't had time to secure loans. So, I deferred my acceptance to the following January to give me time to set up a plan. That December I secured a teaching position that paid most of my bills, and I was able to secure a private student loan (not recommended, but necessary for me at the time).
I had trouble finding housing at first. Eventually, I found a month-to-month lease which helped me get through that first semester. I also ran into the problem of not having quite enough work to pay my rent and bills completely. I basically needed 8 more hours/week at minimum wage to make ends meet. Thankfully, my advisor did have some funding for a lab tech which paid more than enough to keep me alive!
So, if you add it all up, I taught two courses 45 minutes away from where I was taking classes and working as a lab tech. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, I didn't get home until 10 or 11 o'clock at night and had to be up for an early class the next morning.
My first semester at graduate school was not easy, but it was worth it! That spring my advisor and I discussed thesis topics, and this got my foot in the door for what would lead to a successful Ph.D. school application and post-graduate-school research. I am now a visiting assistant professor in a program I really enjoy. I get to use my teaching talents that I developed throughout graduate school and mentor student research, much of which is centered on questions similar to those I started during my M.S. program.
What do you wish you had known earlier during your career in science?
I wish I knew how to apply to graduate school!
Any final comments or advice for young scientists:
Don't give up! Don't be afraid to ask questions about career paths or opportunities from your undergraduate advisers, professors, and career services. They can help! Learn from my experiences, as well as your own.