4 January 2015

Punctuated equilibrium of the career

Posted by Jessica Ball

Happy New Year!


Contemplation (and a bit of stretching) on the Bonneville Salt Falts, September 2014.

2014 was full of big, rapid changes for me, which is what prompted me to think about the punctuated equilibrium concept. (See, I still retained some of those paleontology concepts I learned way back when.) I’ve leaped from the policy world and the insulated atmosphere inside the Beltway – surely a clade of its own – to the depths of the research world in a new postdoc at the USGS here on the West Coast. Those are about as far from each other as it’s possible to be in the geoscience community, not to mention 3,000 miles or so distant. Because the new year is traditionally a time for reflecting (some would call it navel-gazing), this got me thinking about how I ended up where I am now.

Punctuated equilibrium is the idea that evolutionary change happens in rare and (geologically) rapid spurts to produce different species, rather than small changes occurring bit by bit over time (phyletic gradualism). Because my career so far spans less than 30 years, most of the changes I’ve undergone have been pretty dramatic and sudden in a relative sense, with a limited amount of overlap in job descriptions even though I’ve stayed involved with geoscience the whole time.

College was a pretty traditional progression, geology-wise, but by my fourth year I knew that as far as my sanity went, I needed to take a break. The grad schools would still be there after a year and if I kept myself busy in the meantime, it would look all right on a resume. My interview for the Education/Outreach position at AGI came about in an odd way – I was volunteering at an archaeological dig at the beginning of the summer, and one of my fellow diggers happened to work in the office and knew the position was open…and said I should apply. And I did. And I got it. And I had a blast – sharing science and making it accessible to people who don’t choose it as a career is one of my favorite activities. It had better be, since I’m writing this blog! In fact, it’s what got me thinking about blogging in the first place – a combination of enthusiasm for science, a lack of information about starting grad school in the geosciences, which I was applying to do anyway, and a love of writing in general. I had no idea that six years later, I’d still be writing Magma Cum Laude, or that it would have opened up so many possibilities for me!

But I got a taste of research in undergrad and I knew I wanted to go back to it. Grad school was a logical choice, but I went into it with a totally different idea of what I’d be doing than I ended up with. I thought I’d be trying out a master’s degree and working on pyroclastic flows from lava dome collapses; now I have a PhD and I specialize in the links between hydrothermal activity, alteration minerals and the stability of volcanic edifices. Based on my experience in undergrad I thought I’d mainly be doing field work, and now I spend much of my time working with computer models. Graduate school in general is very different from undergrad, of course – for me it meant balancing classes of my own with teaching, research with writing, and my mental health with a desire to finish my degree before the funding ran out, among other things!

Taking a position in science policy wasn’t entirely out of the blue, but it was a significant diversion from the “traditional” academic path. I didn’t have any prospects for postdocs when I was ready to defend my PhD – this isn’t unusual, given that postdocs depend on funding, and funding is notoriously unreliable in this country and others – and I happened to see the advertisement for GSA’s new science policy position. The congressional fellowships had always intrigued me but I knew that those positions could range far beyond my scientific expertise, depending on the office; GSA’s was a perfect combination of writing (which I’m definitely qualified for) and a focus on geoscience-related legislation. Not to mention that the location in DC was an easy one for me to transition to, given that I grew up there. And I ultimately found it really rewarding (and an excellent venue for networking, which has made me aware of a lot of interesting potential career paths). But the transition was very abrupt – I basically defended my thesis, moved from Buffalo to Virginia, and started work in DC within a two-week period.

Now here I am back in research (and on the other side of the country). In the end taking this postdoc was a no-brainer for me, because the topic was so perfectly suited to my area of research, and because I’ve always dreamed of working for the USGS. This is a great place to steep myself in volcanology for a couple of years and gain some new skills, and I’m hoping that I can parlay it into something more permanent. But I also realize that at this point in my career, there’s not a lot of guarantee that I’ll be able to do that, particularly considering how hard it is for my agency to hire people on permanently. There has to be a confluence of timing and need for my skills, but hopefully I’ve positioned myself in a good place to make that happen. We’ll see!

By anyone’s standards, I’ve made some big changes in the past year. And reflecting on those has got me reflecting on what’s next, so I’ll end my first post of 2015 with some resolutions I’d like to make for myself for this year:

  • I’ll remind myself to trust in my own abilities. There’s a point when impostor syndrome has to break down in the face of evidence to the contrary, and even I have to admit to myself that I wouldn’t have gotten this postdoc and I wouldn’t be asked to participate in the service I do without being competent enough to handle it. Other people can see it, and they’re people that I trust and respect.
  • I’m going to talk more about my research on the blog. I feel like I’ve neglected this a bit in the past year or so, mostly because of the big changes I’ve gone through and the general setting of my job – when you’re surrounded by policy every day, that’s what you think about. But now I’m surrounded by volcanology all the time, and there’s no reason I can’t start talking about the concepts behind my work. It’ll be a good review for me, too!
  • I won’t feel guilty about not doing research sometimes. One of the nice things about a job outside of an academic department is feeling like I can set it aside on my days off, and it won’t totally derail my work. That’s rarely the case in grad school (thesis guilt, anyone?), especially if you’ve got teaching duties on top of finishing a degree. I have responsibilities in my postdoc, of course, and there will be times that I run up against deadlines and I have to work the occasional weekend – but I’m not going to let it totally consume my life. I’ve done that and it’s not good for my mental health.
  • I’m going to get out and really enjoy my new state. California is an amazing place for a geologist. I’ve only been here a couple of months and already I’ve seen things I’ve never seen before – like one of the largest transform faults in the world, actual outcrops of serpentinite (we definitely don’t have that back East), and some pretty spectacular turbidite sequences. But there’s a lot more to see (it’s a really big state), and once I find some hiking buddies to go on trips with, I intend to get out and do some serious camping. Yosemite and Mammoth Mountain and Shasta and Lassen and Death Valley and Joshua Tree and Pinnacles and…well, a lot of others beckon!

I hope everyone’s new year is starting off well, and if you’re looking at any big changes, that they’re good ones!