A Winning Combination
The perfect job for a Ph.D. in earth sciences turns out to be not in higher education


Chronicle of Higher Education
November 13, 2008

After seven years of graduate education, four years of searching for a tenure-track job in earth sciences, and more than half a dozen interviews, I finally got an offer. It was everything most people would want in an academic job: a well-respected department, fantastic colleagues, a reasonable teaching load, a great location, even a good salary. For many of my colleagues, the question was not if I would take the job, but when.

So why did I turn it down?

Mainly it's because something better came along. I've always been someone who likes to cover his bases, so, as I was working my way through the unpredictable world of research statements, job talks, and campus interviews, I was also meeting with people outside of academe to get a better sense of alternative careers. During that process I discovered a few important things about myself and my options.

First, I finally realized that having a Ph.D. does not require me to be a college professor. Somehow I became so embroiled in grant writing, publishing, and applying for academic positions that it had never fully occurred to me that I could do something else. But then I began meeting Ph.D.'s who didn't have a tenure-track job and didn't want one. Instead they had found their niches in government, industry, or consulting, applying their skills to a wide array of problems rather than specializing in one or two. Getting to know some of those people gave me a way out of the ivory tower.

My second discovery was that I wouldn't be satisfied with my career unless I could draw a clear and direct connection between my research and something useful. As an earth scientist, that means playing a direct role in decision making for things like climate change, energy, and water resources, rather than focusing my efforts on generating publications to ensure that I would get tenure.

Of course, many of the most important discoveries in environmental science come from the academic world, but how many scholarly papers are actually read by the people who make key policy decisions? Only recently have I discovered that there are more direct ways to make an impact than writing grant proposals and publishing papers.

Finally, I realized that what I do outside of my job is at least as important as what I do when I go to work. My family and I live in an ideal setting now: great schools, tons of family-oriented activities, and friends who share our love of the outdoors and the mountains. Unfortunately tenure-track jobs in my field are few and far between, and even the "perfect" job I was offered was not in a place that could hold a candle to our current quality of life.

So instead of taking that tenure-track job, I started work several months ago at a small environmental-consulting firm that focuses on natural-resource management, water economics and policy, and dozens of other issues that have always interested me.

I'm working on the science behind water-quality legislation, on using hydrology to calculate contaminant-transport rates in rivers, and on evaluating groundwater data to figure out where contaminants are going in the subsurface. Eventually I plan to get involved in some of our science-policy projects involving water economics and management in arid environments. It looks like I'll even get to use that bachelor's degree in economics I received about a dozen years ago.

I'm already finding that my new position is not all that different from the academic research I've been doing for the past eight years. I'm using my analytical skills, I'm expected to think creatively about problem-solving, and I'm probably even more focused than before on preserving environmental quality in an array of settings.

On top of that, I'm feeling a sense of satisfaction in my work that I rarely experienced in academe. It turns out that state and federal governments, environmental groups, and municipalities see a pressing need to get answers to the questions I'm pursuing.

For example, in my new job, I'm using my hydrology skills to determine the downstream ecological impact of damming a large, braided stream to contain billions of tons of mining waste. The connection to the real world couldn't be clearer: This proposed mine sits just upstream from one of the largest commercial fisheries in the world, and there are real questions about whether it's worth sacrificing one natural resource to bankroll another.

I didn't get to develop the scientific questions, choose the field site, or create testable hypotheses as I would have in the academic world but in some ways that doesn't bother me. Instead I have been handed a number of huge data sets to work with, allowing me to bypass the entire process of obtaining grants, finding graduate students, and collecting field data. It is like joining a federally financed project at the halfway point and focusing on the science rather than on how to pay for it.

In another project, we're using field monitoring and environmental sampling to evaluate whether a hydrologic connection exists between an upstream contaminant source and a pristine wildlife-management area. In this case, I do get the chance to design sampling strategies, collect the necessary hydrologic data, and see the project through from start to finish. And here again, it's suddenly easy to draw a line between what I do and what the rest of the world cares about.

In my new job, I already feel as if I have a peer group that rivals the networks I forged in my academic career. I work with fantastic people who are leaders in the fields of science, economics, and policy many of them also turned down academic offers to be where they are now.

I'm sure I won't always be in control of which projects I work on. I'll be judged in part on my ability to produce billable hours, and I'll have clients who may occasionally have unrealistic expectations. But I've been through the stress of graduate school and soft-money research, and I'm sure that my new colleagues will provide at least as much support as the peers who helped me through that.

With each passing month I feel more confident that I made the right decision but it wasn't easy to make. Many aspects of academic life are enticing: flexible hours, summers "off," the ability to determine one's own research goals, and the excitement of being in the classroom. I'll miss the trips into the field to collect new data sets, annual meetings where we share the results of our work, and the affirmation of getting a paper published.

But over the past few years, I've also realized that the academic track has sacrifices of its own. The stress of securing grants seems to grow with every proposal deadline, tenure is a constant pressure, and the available jobs are not always where we might want to live. On top of that, my interview experience taught me that research, not teaching, is what drives large universities, leaving professors squeezed between what I think really matters (education) and what will ultimately determine their success (publications and research dollars).

Some people may think that I've wasted my eight years as a doctoral student and postdoc. But I would argue that I'm taking my knowledge of the earth sciences, my ability to think creatively about new problems, and my passion for environmental protection to a place where they might actually have the most direct impact. And I've done so without sacrificing my desire to solve scientific problems, or my quality of life, or my financial future. To me, that seems like a winning combination, and I can't wait to see which problems I get to solve next.

Patrick Callahan is the pseudonym of a postdoctoral fellow in the geological sciences at a university in the West. He has been chronicling his job search since the fall of 2007. To read his previous columns, see