Guest post: a career as a research lab manager

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Ann Rasmussen. Thank you to Ann for taking the time to write this post.

This post is part of our series on non-academic careers for ecologists. Ok, this one’s actually about an academic career. But when most people (including me!) think of academic careers, the first thing they think of is a tenure-track faculty career. So we thought it would be useful to readers to also have some posts on other sorts of academic careers.

1)Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you, what sort of ecology did you do in grad school, and what do you do now?

I’m Dr. Ann L. Rasmussen (@annlras on Twitter), and I graduated with a PhD in Biology last winter. The biggest part of my graduate research was on ectomycorrhizal fungal community response to thinning and fire – how does the species community change, how does enzyme activity change, do wildfires have different effects than prescribed burns. I also studied host preference in ectomycorrhizal fungi and how rhizosphere bacteria respond to ash addition. It was fascinating, but during grad school I realized that I wanted to work on more applied problems. It was frustrating to have people ask me questions about how my research could inform management practices and not have good answers.

2)Tell us a bit about your current position and how you got it.

Six months ago, I was hired as a Faculty Research Assistant in the plant pathology lab at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. I posted to a generalist online forum looking for restoration-related career ideas, and an internet stranger sent me the job posting. I figured I might as well apply and spun my graduate research as working on “plant-associated fungi”. I happened to have the skills they were looking for and as I learned more about plant pathology it seemed like a good fit for me – it is a more applied field with good employment prospects, and I’d get to continue studying interactions between plants and microbes.

I’m categorized as faculty at a university, so I’m still an academic, but I’m not a PI, I don’t have teaching requirements, and I’m not a postdoc. My appointment is “12 month renewable” and is funded via startup and grants. Day to day, I do a lot of lab management: ordering supplies, troubleshooting equipment problems, supervising undergraduate assistants, making sure experimental treatments and measurements are happening on schedule. As this is a new lab, I’ve also done a lot of general organization and developing protocols. Now that I’m getting the hang of things and the growing season is wrapping up, my PI has picked out a grant for me to write and it’s also time to analyze data and write manuscripts. I also make an effort to go to training, both to learn and to meet other researchers and local growers. I like that my job has a balance of field work, lab work, and desk work.

3)Did you get advice (wanted or unwanted) from others about your career path? If so, what sort of advice did you get, and how did it affect you?

I had a difficult time finding applicable advice. There are very few industry jobs related to my graduate research. Other people from my graduate lab have taken teaching-focused jobs, but I didn’t have much teaching experience and was concerned about how time-intensive teaching is. I did an internship, volunteered, and attended a regional conference with the intention of setting myself to get a job doing restoration-related work. I applied for a lot of land management, restoration, and consulting jobs, but all of them were seasonal and/or looking for skills I didn’t have. The people I met in permanent, full-time restoration jobs have graduate degrees and spent several years working seasonally before getting permanent work, and I wanted more stability than that. I used myIDP (http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/) and Next Gen PhD by Melanie V. Sinche, which helped me clarify my career priorities and feel confident in my choice to accept my current job, although they didn’t point me at plant pathology.

4)In what ways do you find your career to be a change from academic ecology? Are there aspects of the career that were a surprise or a “culture shock,” or that have required some adjustment on your part?

I miss being part of a larger university community on a day-to-day basis. I have to actively seek out new ideas, I have a limited number of people to bounce ideas off, and there is no one to borrow equipment from when something breaks.

I also miss ecology and I’m trying to get engaged with restoration in my new area. I’m leading a session on mycorrhizae for a group of landowners interested in restoration this fall, via an Extension program, and I’ve been looking for volunteer opportunities locally.

5)Any regrets about not pursuing a tenure-track faculty career?

I was never interested in pursuing a traditional tenure-track faculty job, partly because there’s a lot of risk and uncertainty involved in landing one in the first place, and also because they’re very stressful and it’s not sustainable for me, personally, to work 50+ hour weeks. Given that I wasn’t preparing for the tenure-track, a postdoc didn’t seem like a sensible choice, and I didn’t find any that seemed like good fits for my interests, either.

I expected to wind up working for some level of government after grad school, and then I graduated into a federal hiring freeze. I’m happy that I get to keep doing research, at a pretty stable job with good benefits, and with good work-life balance. Finding out that there are tenure-track jobs for agricultural research faculty without teaching requirements has actually made me more interested in an academic path – having one less major responsibility to juggle makes being a PI a lot more appealing to me.

6)Anything else you want to say to readers considering your career, or a non-academic or non-tenure-track career path more generally?

It’s okay to have an unusual background and a wandering career path. My undergraduate degree is a double major in English and Political Science. I worked a lot of different jobs after my BA, but I was consistently doing volunteer work with plants and I was interested in mycorrhizal fungi. I took some post-baccalaureate courses and volunteered in labs to get experience and confirm that I wanted to work on mycorrhizae. I matriculated graduate school as a Master’s student – I wanted a biology degree to facilitate changing fields and figuring an MS would be faster, cheaper, and more interesting than a second Bachelor’s. I changed to a PhD when extra funding became available a couple years in and my committee was supportive. It’s a valuable exercise to plan your future, but it’s also not a failure to adapt and take advantage of appealing opportunities that come your way.

4 thoughts on “Guest post: a career as a research lab manager

  1. Hi, Ann, thanks for the post, very interesting. I’ve thought about doing a grad degree in a different discipline; did you feel behind or at all out of place when you started grad school?

    • Hi Jim! I did intro bio and about a year of coursework / volunteering in labs to get up to speed in biology, and I probably could have gotten away with less. I didn’t feel behind, and only felt a bit out of place because I was older than the average grad student.

      I think the main thing I missed out on was broadly exploring possibilities – I went back to school focused on studying ectomycorrhizal fungi and might have benefitted from looking around a bit more.

  2. Hi Anne, thanks! I suppose also you get into your thesis fairly quickly. My degree is in geology but I’ve kicked around the idea of doing a PhD in economics, in which I have no formal background but lots of outside reading. Thanks again!

    • Hi Jim,
      As you probably know, econ has a very active blogosphere and twittersphere. A bit of searching should yield lots of advice on why you might want to go to do a PhD in econ, how best to prepare for an econ PhD program, what the typical background expectations are (e.g., “lots of math”), etc. Noah Smith (@noahpinion on Twitter, Noahpinion blog) is one sharp young economist (ex-academic, now a columnist) who has written and tweeted about these topics. He himself came to economics from a physics background, so I think he’s a particularly useful read for someone thinking of switching from the hard sciences to econ.

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