Balancing Grad School and a Career


Photo: Brian Miller

Many early-career scientists balance a multitude of roles when attending graduate school, from the heavy demands of coursework and research to teaching and thesis and dissertation writing, not to mention the added responsibilities of a job or career. To offer two perspectives among many in the early career climate science field, Aparna Bamzai and Lindsey Middleton, both full-time employees of the North Central Climate Science Center (NC CSC), reflect on balancing full-time jobs alongside the stress and workload of attending grad school.

First, a little about us:

Aparna: Hi! For the last year, I’ve been the USGS Deputy Director for the NC CSC, but for the four and a half years prior to that, I was the University Assistant Director for the South Central Climate Science Center. While in that role, I enrolled as a part-time doctoral student in the University of Oklahoma Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability. I was luckily able to transfer in credits from my master’s degree (in Environmental Management) and some previous graduate work (in Atmospheric Science), allowing me to complete my coursework requirements relatively quickly. My dissertation is focused on approaches to evaluating actionable science for climate adaptation.

Lindsey: I’m the NC CSC’s Communications Specialist. I’m here because I’ve always loved science (to the point where I had a hard time narrowing down and choosing a field) and writing, and I could never choose between the two – so I decided to try for a combination of the two. Until 2016, I worked as an editor for the Colorado Water Institute, where I collected and edited articles for a regular publication called Colorado Water – here’s a climate- and agriculture-themed newsletter I helped pull together toward the end of my tenure. I have two undergraduate degrees: Journalism and Technical Communication, and Ecosystem Science and Sustainability.

Why did we choose to attend graduate school?

Aparna: I like to joke that I have “science ADD” — I love learning about all the different kinds of new science out there and thinking about how to fit all the pieces together into a bigger puzzle. While doing my master’s, I realized that a full-time research career was not for me. However, I eventually discovered that you can actually make a career shaping the direction of how research is funded and carried out. In my job at OU, I came to see that there would be a ceiling to what I could achieve in research administration without completing a PhD. Having a doctorate demonstrates that you understand the process of designing and carrying out research yourself, and provides you with credibility as you make decisions about investment in research dollars. I was attracted to my doctoral program because it provides me with the freedom to choose my own research direction and allows me to compartmentalize my work into three manuscripts for journal publication instead of writing a traditional dissertation, both of which make it easier to complete my degree while working.

Lindsey: When I got to the NC CSC, my role expanded significantly. Instead of editing a newsletter and a variety of technical documents, I was free to dedicate time toward any number of communications projects – social media, websites, photography/video, translation, reporting, framework-building, evaluation, etc. When I looked to others who’d achieved success in my field, many had attended a graduate program that trained them in bigger-picture questions: why communicate, how, with whom, and did it have the intended effect? I saw graduate school as a way to advance my career and build the skills necessary to address those big-picture questions.

Why did we keep working?

Aparna: Honestly, I love the work that I do! I found it hard to justify giving up a career that’s really great with no guarantee of getting it back when I finished my degree. Additionally, I’ve gained lots of important skills that I wouldn’t get by only being a student; such as conducting stakeholder engagement to identify strategic management and science needs, designing a proposal solicitation, and coordinating the review of proposals. I did, however, find that I needed to build a network of mentors (including my dissertation committee chair and my supervisor) who were supportive of the fact that I am a nontraditional student and employee with a variety of fluctuating constraints on my time and energy.

Lindsey: Since I’m in classes that specialize in my field, my coursework and career have evolved into a mutualistic relationship – they each benefit from, inform, and are informed by the other. Focusing on one or the other exclusively might simplify my day-to-day life, but I would be missing out on opportunities and questions I might use to inform my research; similarly, I would be missing out on valuable knowledge and skills to apply to my job.

Lessons/tips for success:

Lindsey: Staying organized has been key. Even if it takes an extra 30-60 minutes per day, it helps to maintain a connection with your daily, weekly, and monthly goals and make sure you’re meeting them.

Aparna: In addition to being organized, it’s vital to be efficient with the time you have to work on a task. Is there any way you can make an assignment for work also satisfy a course project requirement? Can you choose a topic for a class paper that better informs you about something that you’re doing for work? A huge breakthrough in my dissertation progress came when, in the duties of my job, I started to focus on best practices for actionable science and how our center might use evaluation of past projects as a learning tool. I realized that I could feed two birds with one hand by using both my dissertation and work hours to advance the same large-scale initiative.

Lindsey: I’d also note that physical exercise of some sort (walking, running, yoga, etc.) helps, for me at least, to stay grounded and not worry so much about things I can’t control.

Aparna: Lastly – you have to be forgiving of yourself. Remember that 90% gets you an A, and the time spent eking out those last few percentage points could likely be better spent taking care of your mental and physical health. Also, if you have a partner or a family, they need to be on board with life being chaotic for a while. There are going to be some weeks where the laundry gets done late or the dishes pile up because other priorities take precedence, and they need to agree that that’s not the end of the world.

What keeps you motivated to navigate a graduate degree and technically-challenging career? A lot of us balance these and other responsibilities (to say nothing of work-life balance, which the ECCF touched on in another blog earlier this month) – how do you do it? We’d love to hear from you!

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