Monday, April 28, 2008

Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

I don't always participate with the greater blogging worlds 'carnivals.' In fact, I am still learning what they are really. It appears that they are gatherings of blog post on similar subjects, far as I can tell ;)

Anyway, this week I thought I would participate in the Scientiae Carnival, which is hosted by a blog that is all about "Stories of and from women in science, engineering, technology and math." Below are my responses to the topic "our changing views of ourselves and our careers as we progress through life."

  • How have your career goals changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?

My career goals... Boy, where to start on this one. Ten years ago I was finishing my senior year of high school. I was all about getting out of Arkansas, moving to Montana and starting my paleo studies. I knew that I wanted to do vertebrate paleontology and I was going to major in geology and biology to get me there. That was never a question. I moved to Montana and started my freshman year at Rocky Mountain College in Billings. Of course I wanted to go to the mecca of paleo school for all undergrads, Montana State, but my parents convinced me to go to Rocky because it was associated with the Lutheran/Methodist church and we could get me more scholarships there for me (my dad is a Methodist preacher). As it turned out, that school was way too expensive, so I didn't last but a semester there. And where did I end up - back in Arkansas. Ya. There were other 'circumstances' of course that got me back there, but it was a pot hole in the road to getting where I thought I wanted to be. I went to the local community college for a year, and then I moved up to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas. I always swore I would not go to school there, but I was stuck in Arkansas at that time. I lucked out and found a really great spot for myself in the geology department there and they all became sort of an extended family. There were only two vertebrate paleontologist in the entire state of Arkansas at that time (2000), and I was one of them (Dr. Leo Carson Davis was the other)! It was while I attended UofA that I was able to learn how to do research and was in an environment where the people around me stimulated me to do work and continue to climb the paleo ladder. I attended my first Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting (SVP) while I was an undergrad in 2001 and presented a poster at the next years meeting over my very first research project. I remember how excited I was when I saw my first published abstract in JVP (Journal of Vert Paleo)! Going to SVP as an undergrad, completely alone and without knowing anyone other than my fellow Arkansas paleontologist (both of them – Blaine Shubert had joined us by that time), was an experience I will never forget. I just walked around and talked to anyone and everyone I could. I met so many people there that I know call my friends. While I was at Arkansas I did a senior thesis on the only known dinosaur remains from Arkansas. My advisors, Walter Manger and Doy Zachery, are invert paleo and stratigraphy guys and they helped me best they could with the projects and were great mentors, as was Dr. Carson Davis. I feel as though I really learned alot from them and I am thankful to have landed there.

Grad School
Five years ago I graduated from UofA and moved on to Grad School. This was a bumpy time of my life. I had many people in my life pass away in a very short amount of time during grad school. The competition in my program was something new to me, since I had been the only vert paleo person where I had came from. I am not a fan of competing against other people, and in the end, I felt as though I had gotten the short end of the stick because I did try to be more independent and not ask for as much help as maybe I should have. The level of mentorship and comradery I had gotten use to at Fayetteville was not present in at my new school. I felt much more like I was on my own in every aspect, which I know can be good and will make you more self reliant. Not to say I did not make friends there - I did! But we have all pretty much seemed to have drifted away and only speak on occasion (I am still very much in contact with several folks from my undergrad days). My grades as an undergrad were not stellar (not a 4.0), and my GRE scores were also not spectacular, so I did not have funding for my first year of my masters program. Instead I worked two jobs to stay afloat while going to classes. It was very difficult. In the end I was able to prove my worth and they gave me funding and a TA position for my second year. I really enjoyed teaching my labs and I was glad I had the experience. When it came time to develop other skills you should learn as a master’s student, I feel as though I fell short (such as improving your writing process, building on your research skills...). Once again, maybe this was my fault for not asking for more help. I thought it was better if I showed I could work as an independent researcher. Who knows what the right thing to do would have been. Hindsight is 20/20, right? I was able to finish my program in two years and was very happy to have it over with.

I had big plans to continue on and climb up another rung on the paleo career ladder, but someone else had other ideas for my future, so that, combined with my GRE scores, have kept me from moving forward as I had always intended and planned to. Due to the public nature of this blog I will not go into gory details (I really wish I could, its something I truly need to let go of and stop carrying the hurt around inside me). I was just not admitted to any programs due to the GRE scores and individuals strong opposition against me going on. This person had the pull and in the end I felt very hurt, confused and betrayed, even though I know they thought they were doing what they should have. I wish they had just initially said that they did not support my plans and I would have made other arrangements, but how was I to know when they did not seem to have a problem with it when asked for their help the first time. This person did encourage me to peruse my other skills, which I have, and that seems to have worked so far.

Life after Grad School
Without a PhD program to move on to, I felt lost. What was next!? My plans had been totally messed up and I just really had no idea what the next step was. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me and I was hanging there in mid air. I didn't know if I would fall to my death or land on soft ground. Luckily for me, soft ground found me in the shape of my favorite place on this entire planet - Glacier National Park. I was able to get a great job there as the park paleontologist and geologist the summer after graduation (2005). It was exactly what I needed and gave me some peace in my life that I was severely lacking at that point. There was still this huge void out there, lurking, waiting for me to fall into its dark depths - the point of "now what!" after the seasonal job ended. I interviewed for two paleo jobs in Utah, but got neither. Then, as luck would have it, I got the gig I have now at Augustana College working for Bill Hammer. My job here has been great for my moral and general self confidence, and I have felt like actually doing research again. Hammer has been very helpful and has encouraged me to do more field work, research, teaching, and I have really had a chance to improve my preparation skills. I have learned quite a bit from this job and from him, and above all I have learned that I am good at what I do, and I do not have to posses a PhD to prove that to anyone. I am who I am. I may not be able to conquer the freaking GRE, which really schools and individual’s weight far too heavily (in my opinion, probably a bit bias). I am good at research. I can do certain things well. Something’s I need work on, but that is life. I am a good at prep and that is a skill that not everyone can do. People can not do research on fossils unless they are properly cared for and cleaned first. In spite the views of some paleontologist, fossil preparators are just as important as the person that does the research and they should be treated accordingly, rather than looked down upon as a "lesser" and not even considered a paleontologist by some. I am glad I was able to find this thing that I appear to be good at. I enjoy it, it gives me solace and clarity when my brain will just not shut up, and it has allowed me to stay in paleo and continue to work towards my goals.

The past ten years have really been an adventure. It’s had its great and its very bad points. I have learned that they are some really great people out there who want nothing more than to help you get where you want to go and will encourage you every minute of the way. There are also others out there who are evil, crazy, carry so much hate around in them they try to push it off on anyone they come in contact with, and who are really only there to bring you down and screw you over. It’s up to you to know which is which and who you should surround yourself with.

  • How has your perception of self changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?

Ten years ago I had these grand plans. I was going to get my PhD before I was 30, be successful, married and the happiest person in the world. Wow, has my perception changed!! I have accomplished quite a bit. I do know that. I have a master’s degree and I worked hard to get it! Five years ago I still thought I was on the cusp on being able to fulfill all my dreams and that grad school was going to help me do that. It didn't (entirely). What I have learned about myself from that time is that I am a stronger person that I give myself credit for. I now know that there are certain things I am good at; really, really good at. And there are other things that I am just really bad at. Unfortunately what I think one needs to succeed and what the 'standardized cookie-cutter paleo student' image that everyone thinks you have to be to fit the "professional paleontologist" image are not the same. I guess I do not fit into the box ‘they’ want me to. But I know I have the support of many people and that not everyone is “out to get me”! I feel truly lucky for the friends and colleagues I have. They help me to be a better person and a better paleontologist.

I do not think I am any less ambitious that I was ten years ago, but maybe now I have a better understanding of how the paleo machine works. I just have to find my place within it. I might not get to the highest rung of the ladder, but I know I have not fallen off of it and will keep doing my best to better myself and achieve my goals. I am who I am. I have had a paleo related job every day since I graduated and I know I am super lucky in that respect! So many don't. I even got to turn down a job! I may not have accomplished all of my goals, but I think I am still doing pretty well with the hand I have been dealt.

  • How much of a role have things outside of science had on your changing career goals?

Early on I let may outside factors rule my life. I changed schools more than once to accommodate other people (significant other). I delayed things I wanted to do for other people (significant other). It got me no where unfortunately. I had a long relapse in there, but I was able to climb back and I think I am doing pretty well for myself. I can’t blame it all on others. My brain and I are not always friends, and sometimes I am just not smart enough to get where I want to be I guess. I wish I were more intelligent, articulate, or better at playing the game. I finally figured out that I have to work with what I have been given. I had to learn to love myself for who I am. I can not make my brain work any better than it does. I can try to learn and improve, but I am only what I am. And I have to accept that. While I am about to give up a job I really love for a man I really love, I know that I am not giving up a part of myself in the process, and that is the most important thing that I never did before. This new chapter is only going to help me continue to pursue my goals because this time I know I have this individual’s utmost support and encouragement on all levels. My goals might have been delayed some, but they are still there.

So, this is a bit longer than I intended it to be. I hope I have not bored you to tears. Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment if you like. I always like to hear what others think about my long ramblings….


Garry Hayes said...

You did a good job of relating your experiences, and I think it will be helpful to others trying to follow a similar pathway. Things rarely take the direction we think they will, and it is important to realize that other doors might open.

I am jealous of the time you spent at Glacier NP! It is also one of my favorite places, but I have only had a few opportunities to explore, and only a few times away from the paved roads (tried to reach Grinnell Glacier a few times, but got stopped by snow)

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thank you. It got a bit long I guess, hard to cram 10 years into one paragraph.

Glacier is such a wonderful place. I get there as often as I can. Grinnell can be a hard place to get to, but it is totally worth it! I hope you make it there someday!

Julia said...

You know, reading your account of your experiences has helped me realise that I too would be happy right now if I was in a palaeontological day job. Prep work, collections work, that sort of thing. We don't have national parks like you have national parks, and so it's unusual to be able to apply for "park palaeontologist" roles. And competition is so tight for preparators that even though I have experience (and several people who can vouch for the quality of my work) I don't even get anywhere near an interview.

Silver Fox said...

You've written a very moving story, I think (a mini-bio) - I also think it will be of help to others not so far along in their path as you are.

Obviously, you have come a long way in ten years - and just remember, you are a paleontologist - it doesn't/shouldn't matter what "some people" think.

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

I am always a good example of "what not to do" lol.

Julia - I hope you can find some sort of paleo day job. I know just doing the park service reports that I do can be boring, but at least I feel like I am doing research. Maybe something similar to that will find you. It sucks that paleo is this whole other super competitive world out there!

Silver Fox - I am always needing to work on disregarding what other people think. It is one of my main troubles, always be concerned about what others think or feel and not always paying attention to what I think and feel.

Anonymous said...

I am always needing to work on disregarding what other people think. It is one of my main troubles, always be concerned about what others think or feel and not always paying attention to what I think and feel.

The only people whose opinions should come even close to counting are those of the people that care about you -- they're the ones that will only say things in an earnest attempt to help in a positive way -- they won't say hurtful things just for the sake of being malicious. And even then, you're never required to obey the stated opinion...just maybe take it into consideration. And there's plenty of us in paleo that do care about you and would love to help when we can!

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thank you Jerry! I do appreciate that!

Mel said...

Thanks for sharing Becca! In the past year I have had to realize/cope with many of the same things or feelings you have experienced. Your blog post made me realize how far I've come in being happy with myself (and still progressing towards that PhD). Thank you - and I know you are a fantastic paleontologist! Listen to this opinion ;-)

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thanks Mel :)
The one good thing that has come from me writing this post is that now I realize that I am not alone in my feelings and experiences. It was very therapeutic to get some of that off my brain also!

Gwen said...

Thank you for choosing to share your experiences here. As a Mom of three daughters, including a 20 year old college student searching for her place in the world, it is great comfort to me to be reminded in your writings that life always changes "plans" for the best.

Anonymous said...

Hey there. Thanks for the great submission to Scientiae. I've bookmarked your blog and hopefully I'll drop back in from time to time, you have some great stuff to say!

ReBecca Hunt-Foster said...

Thank you Ginger. It seems to have worked out that way for me.

flickamawa: Thanks! I am going to go see all the other post now and will cross-link to it here.