Careers in Geology: Transitioning From Academia To Business

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Upon graduation, geologists have a relatively narrow range of options for employment in the field of geology. We can enter the ivory tower of academia and research, trundle off to work in industry (usually petroleum) or work as contractors (often including hydrogeology work now that folks are beginning to realize the critical importance of water resources). For paleontologists, the options are even narrower. Bustling programs at universities have slowly dwindled and died as have curatorships and other paleontology oriented positions at museums. And, budget cuts over the last few years have only exacerbated the situation, leading many institutions to simply do away with their paleontology staff almost entirely. At universities, some departments question the utility of vertebrate paleontology and do not actively recruit students into that program.

What was critical to my decision to turn towards contracting work was how unpleasant the last few years of my Ph.D. program were for me. Internal and external politics were so overwhelming that I decided I would not apply for jobs in an academic setting (or at least not for a very long time). As I exited school with my doctorate in the summer of 2008, I was too burned out to feel very functional as a scientist and it dawned on me that I do not play well with others when forced to coexist for long periods of time.

So, how does it work to go from a potential academic career to the free-form lifestyle of the contractor?

  • Be good at what you do, but also be honest. Be confident in your abilities and show that you are competent. That doesn't mean that you act like a know-it-all or make assumptions that make you look like a fool! If someone asks you do perform a task that you don't know how to do, tell them that. If it's something you know you can learn quickly, explain that. But never promise you can do something that you can't!
  • Make connections and network. I built many of the primary relationships that have stood me in good stead while I was a graduate student. Word-of-mouth is an amazingly effective means of advertising (and it's substantially cheaper!). Late in 2010, my "boss" in the mapping program introduced me to the Board of Directors of the Northeast Soil and Water District. The communities of northeastern New Mexico were looking to begin a hydrogeology project to better understand their groundwater situation. And so I began one of the most amazing projects I've ever been involved in. I'll tell the full story of the Union County communities in a later post.
  • Be personable, effective and honest, as well as flexible and versatile. During the course of my graduate work, I was lucky enough to be included in a wide variety of projects, which let me build a diverse set of skills ranging from mapping to vertebrate paleontology.
  • Communicate. This point cannot be stressed enough and it goes hand in hand with being competent and personable. Ask your clients questions, make them a part of the project from beginning to end. Most people are eager to learn and are genuinely interested in understanding what we do as scientists. This also allows you to use community resources to advance projects that are underfunded and/or understaffed.
  • And, last, but certainly not least, be prepared for uncertainty. On March 27, 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. I had to take a leave of absence from my post-doctoral and teaching duties at NM Highlands University to deal with all of the treatments. I thought I would end up spending the time in treatment twiddling my thumbs, unable to teach and probably unable to work out in the field for my consulting business. However, in an interesting twist of events (or serendipitous timing!), I connected with four new clients.

Recognizing that I was now in over my head with large-scale projects looming for many of my clients (including the new ones), I asked a long-time friend and exceptionally competent young geologist, Greg Peacock, to join up as a partner with me in my business. We re-formed the company as a partnership and are launching into new and exciting projects this year, including paleontologic survey and monitoring. My Masters' research was paleontological, but I veered away from paleontology and into the weird and strange realms of paleomagnetism during my Ph.D. It is interesting to be back in the paleontology universe for these projects. At the very least, we'll get a chance to see some very remote and rugged parts of New Mexico that will undoubtedly be amazingly beautiful.

My cancer was declared in remission in October of 2012 and I promptly hit the ground running. I actually went out in the field just two weeks after surgery, and less than a month after the end of all my radiation treatments - I couldn't stand being trapped in town for that long! I'm now back in the saddle at Highlands, teaching and working in our paleomagnetism facility and vanishing into the field just about every weekend. Will I stay in the contractor world? I don't know yet. I very much enjoy the freedom and flexibility of the contractor lifestyle, but the financial insecurity of it is a bit daunting at times. It's either feast or famine, as they say. Currently my company is so busy our heads our spinning, but we also are very much aware that as these current projects are wrapped up, there may not be much waiting beyond them.