Dr. Ellyn Enderlin
Assistant Professor of Geophysics
Boise State University
I have taken what most would consider to be a super straight and fast track to an academic career: I graduated from high school in 2004 and went immediately to college, graduated with a BS in Environmental Science from Lehigh University in 2008 and went immediately to grad school, graduated with a MS in Geological Sciences in 2010 and PhD in Earth Sciences in 2013 from The Ohio State University and went immediately to a postdoc. I always knew that I wanted to be highly educated since my mom really pushed for her kids to get undergraduate and graduate degrees but I wasn’t always sure of my specialization. After going on an AMAZING field experience mapping glacier features in Peru at the end of my freshman year at Lehigh, I realized that I wanted to study glaciers as my career. I thought that with my quick progress through college I would also quickly move on to a tenure-track job. I got two projects funded my first year into my postdoc, one by NSF and the other by NASA, and I was confident that my successes would continue. And that’s when things went a bit off track…
I had been told it’s difficult to find a tenure-track job. And I knew that was true. Just think of the average length of an academic career and how many people get PhDs each year. There’s no way that everyone can go into academia. Fortunately not everyone with PhDs actually wants to go into academia, but it’s still really tough to get a tenure-track job. Although my funding successes landed me a promotion from postdoc to Research Assistant Professor, I applied for about 50 tenure-track positions and had about 12 interviews in 5 years before I (finally) got my current job. I was able to keep securing funding for my position in the meantime but the constant rejections and the job insecurity that comes with a 100% grant-funded research position weighed terribly on me.
If you ask my husband or any of my family members, I am an incredibly perseverant and competitive person. I had never imagined that the search for a faculty position would be so hard or would chip away at my self confidence. But it took a toll. It became particularly difficult as I started to really think about starting a family. I had great health benefits, but I had no job security or paid maternity leave. I was concerned that even a short break or slow-down in my productivity would result in an inability to publish and secure more grants needed to maintain my job. I also had concerns about whether anyone would offer a job to a woman who was pregnant or breastfeeding because they would see me as someone who was more interested in being a mom and less interested in a career.
Ultimately I decided that having a family was just as important to me as having a career and I stopped postponing my dream of having children. I repeatedly told myself that there was no reason why my two dreams - having a career studying glaciers and having a family – could not exist. In truly nerdy fashion, I repeatedly told myself “personal and professional success are not mutually exclusive”. After getting pregnant, I really pushed myself to maintain productivity and publish papers, getting one paper out for review within a month of having my son and another about a month after having him. Since I didn’t really have maternity leave, I would work during the day while my son slept (sometimes in my lap) and I brought him in to work on several occasions so that I could meet with my students. I’m not going to say the first few months were easy, but they also could have been harder. At least my job had the flexibility to allow me to work when I could and not have to send my tiny baby to daycare. My sister is a veterinarian and had far less time that she could take for leave and had no flexibility in her schedule.
After having my son I sat down and looked critically at my career path. I decided I would give the academic job application process one more year before moving on. I was unhappy as a research scientist because of the lack of job security and the isolation that I felt and decided that it was more important to me to have a stable job where I was part of a team. It was hard to cope with the prospect of leaving glaciology since I truly love studying glaciers, but I realized that I had a lot of skills that could be applied to any number of careers and would ultimately be happy with my path. Convinced no one would take me seriously as a scientist because I had to request regular pumping breaks during the multi-day academic interviews I went on that year, I pursued other options. When I was offered my current job, I was shocked. I managed to find a department where the number of women is about equal to men, numerous faculty have young kids, and most people seem to maintain a pretty good work-life balance.
The best advice that I can pass along to early career researchers is “you do you”. This may sound like an incredibly stupid thing to say, but it’s important for you to remember that not everyone has the same goals or follows the same path to get there. Consider what will make you happy and pursue that. If that goal evolves over time, that’s okay. You don’t have to keep on the same path. You also don’t have to take the same path as anyone else. But whatever path you decide to take, travel it with someone. My husband and mom have been my support network through numerous ups and downs. I have also been incredibly lucky to have great mentors and role models. I haven’t always agreed with my mentors and I haven’t always taken the same paths as them, but having numerous people that I can ask for advice has been invaluable. I can say the same for my role models. Seeing that other women have overcome obstacles to accomplish their life goals, some of whom have balanced successful careers and families, has been an incredible motivator for me. I’ve drawn from all their experiences to figure out what works for me, what makes me happy. I encourage you to constantly re-evaluate your goals, head down a path that works for you, and develop support and mentoring networks that are there to help you stay the course or totally redirect it in order to achieve your goals!