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May 2, 2019 / jpschimel

Student Career Paths

Yesterday I was sent a questionnaire about the career paths that students take after completing their Ph.D.: Research faculty, Teaching faculty, or “non-Academic.” It explored my attitudes, my thoughts on what I think their attitudes are, and even what I think students think my attitudes are.

As I looked at the questions and my answers, they probably looked pretty incoherent. My personal preference for my students is the research track, but I struggled to get across my rationale. I’d guess most people would assume I prefer my students take the research track out of selfishness—an ego-driven motivation that expanding my “clan” grows my reputation and standing. Well, my motivation is definitely selfish. But it’s not about my ego; it’s actually more purely narrow and personal than that—I like my students and I want to maintain and develop that relationship.

By the time my students have finished, we have worked closely together for years and I have come to like every one of them. My first students, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, were also the people I hung out with and they were true friends. As I’ve gotten older, my finishing students increasingly are what I might call “proto-friends;” the supervisory relationship forces some personal gap and the age difference magnifies that. But once a student adds Ph.D. to their name, the supervisory relationship is over and done. That allows a real friendship to develop as we’re now peers. But for that to happen, we must stay in touch.

When students go into research careers, we attend the same conferences: Ecological  Society of America, AGU, Soil Ecology, etc. I see them regularly, which allows friendship to develop; several former students have become among my closer friends. I feel the same about my Ph.D. advisor who I consider a true friend as well as a valued colleague and mentor.

When students go into research careers, I benefit, directly and personally. When students go into other paths, the chances are good I may never see them again. I’m Facebook friends with Mitch Wagener, who I co-advised at UAF, and I still feel very connected with him, but he took a teaching professor position at Western Connecticut State University; I haven’t seen him in person in 25 years. I only get to experience his quirky humor and watch his beautiful daughters grow up on my computer screen. That doesn’t make me happy. Another student works for the Nature Conservancy in California—I hear of her through professional connections, but I haven’t seen her in years either. So, yes, my preference for research careers is deeply personal and completely selfish.

But equally, that selfishness has nothing to do with my professional valuation of those career paths. Nothing. Truly. My job as an advisor and mentor is to help my people get to the place that is right for them. What that means for me personally is irrelevant.

I want my students to be successful and to do well. But success is defined from their perspective: it is about being happy, productive, and feeling like you are doing good in your life; not necessarily by getting rich or by reflecting glory on your advisor. Whatever career path makes my students happy and satisfied is great and is what I want for them. Both Mitch and Sophie have built rich lives that make them happy—and that makes me very happy. My job is to help my people achieve their goals as best I can. I try to live up to that responsibility. But, yes, I like it when that means that, as the years go by, my former students stay more than just a line on my C.V.

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