Reflections on a post-doc “gap” year

It’s been over a year since I defended my dissertation. About halfway through this year, after I had rattled off my eclectic work schedule and paltry list of formal postdoc applications, a friend and former lab mate suggested that this would simply be my “post-doc gap year”.

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The name stuck, despite my updated impression that it’s a misnomer. This year has been anything but an unfilled space. It is, surely, a break in continuity—of academic enrollment; but, certainly not academic achievement or productivity. My two biggest first-authored scientific publications came out this year, for example. I participated in plenty of academic research, worked on manuscripts, analyzed data, and even taught an undergraduate course. So what was so un-academic about my post-doc “gap” year?

 Colleagues conducting very serious research at the La Brea Tar Pits. May 2017.

Colleagues conducting very serious research at the La Brea Tar Pits. May 2017.

Simply that I didn’t have an academic position. I was not a Postdoc, or Assistant Professor, or any other academic title that would serve the academic continuity between grad school and whatever academic achievement happens next. In the process, I found that much of academia has no problem asking other academics to work for free. True, most people in academia have an academic job that pays them to follow whatever pursuits will further their discipline and academic career, so the asking is commonplace. But when you’re one foot in and one foot out of academia, without a paid position, then you’re essentially free labor for whatever you commit yourself to.

 Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. July 2017.

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. July 2017.

I could have easily occupied myself with all of these academic commitments as a full-time job, had I any independent source of wealth to support me. Alas, I do not. So, I found myself saying “no” to a lot of requests, and even stepping down from a leadership role on some projects. Fortunately, this freed up time to pursue other interests that supported me financially, professionally, and personally. Unfortunately, it meant that I had to step away from work that I had invested considerable effort into already. Fortunately, my graduate school experience taught me to beware of the Concorde Fallacy.

 Ash looks like snow in the creek bed near our house after the wildfire. December 2017.

Ash looks like snow in the creek bed near our house after the wildfire. December 2017.

In addition to juggling ongoing research projects, I took on some paying jobs that were fun, exciting, and very rewarding. Over the summer I worked for the National Park Service, doing backcountry ecological restoration work in the high Sierra Nevada. Living in the wilderness for two months helped clear my head, recover my body from too much time in front of the computer, and inspired me get my blog going. Returning home in the fall, I got a consulting job, conducting ecological restoration planning on federal lands. Over the winter, the largest wildfire in modern California history turned my life into a snow globe—as if someone picked it up and shook it, leaving everything to fall into a new place. And so it was with my priorities, both professional and personal. It became abundantly clear that life was too short and unpredictable to wait for the right opportunities to come along, and I embraced some interests that I had put on the back burner.

 Taking my students to see California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. May 2017.

Taking my students to see California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. May 2017.

This spring, I started a position in the University of California Reserve System that is a perfect fit for my skills and has the bonus of being tied to a beautiful, ecologically important place. I am also teaching my Endangered Species Management course at UC Santa Barbara. This is the fourth time I’ve taught the course, and I love refining and improving it every year, while working with the individual needs of each year’s cohort of students.

 Often, my desk is where I make it. Here, at UCSB's Sedgwick Reserve. April 2018.

Often, my desk is where I make it. Here, at UCSB's Sedgwick Reserve. April 2018.

Two of my former lab mates and I—both of them current postdocs—formed a weekly video chat check-in, where we give reports on our goals and support and encourage each other’s work. Since all three of us have graduated from the same lab in the last few years, it is a great way for us to stay accountable to ourselves and to each other in order to tackle our ambitious productivity goals.

More than anything, the past year has been filled with an extraordinary sense of freedom—of not having the Herculean task of finishing my dissertation hanging over me every single day. Before graduation, I measured a day’s success in how much I accomplished toward achieving that goal. Now, I am delighted to find each day has different priorities and tasks, most of which inspire and motivate me. This is the life I persisted through my PhD program to have.

During my first month of graduate school, I asked a postdoc in my lab if she thought all of the effort of finishing a PhD was worth it. She said, “More than anything else, it takes persistence—there will be times when you will want to give up. But if you don’t, again and again, eventually you will finish. And once you do, it feels incredible—unlike anything you’ve experienced.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Uncovering a species' past to inform its future

While planning the dissertation work that would ultimately consume the next 6.5 years of my life in graduate school, I learned an intriguing bit of information about the native amphibians of southern California. I was familiar with all of the amphibian species I could find in different habitats in the region, and was surprised to learn that a species—one I had never heard of—was missing, and had been for almost 40 years.

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Saving Salamanders

Conservation biology has long been held as a crisis discipline. We work hard for modest gains, and setbacks are the norm. But every once in awhile, evidence that blood, sweat, and tears expended for the perpetuation of Earth’s biodiversity effects positive change, and that is worth celebrating.

From 2008 to 2015, I worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During my last year with the agency, and because of my dissertation research on amphibian disease and my years of regulatory experience with an endangered salamander species, I was asked to join a team of agency scientists to write a Lacey Act rule that would list certain salamander species as injurious.

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Summer in the Sierra – Trip #4 – Descent of Autumn

This was my final trip of the summer, and fittingly the season was fading just as my time there was. This week brought on the weather—thunderstorms, blustery winds, and cooler temperatures day and night. The frogs are showing the shift—an adult mountain yellow-legged frog sat on a rock in the stream very near where we saw her last week, but this time flattening herself, trying to warm up in the waning rays of late summer.

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Summer in the Sierra Trip #2: A frog reintroduction, Mt. Lyell salamanders, and effervescent wildflowers

This week, we hiked to the site where my field partner and I will spend our next three 10-day trips. This basin is very different from the last, and about 400 feet lower, with more trees and fewer frogs. Having been hit by the amphibian chytrid fungus, the mountain yellow-legged frog populations here are persisting at a very low level. Frogs are even being flown up to higher fishless lakes in the basin to try to bolster their numbers, and this basin harbors one of those lakes.

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Sierra Nevada Backcountry Trip #1: Frogs, micro botany, and the resurrection of diversity

"OH MY GOSH, YOU GUYS--LOOK AT THE FROGS!!!"

This was the sound of a coworker's reaction to seeing mountain yellow-legged frogs for the first time. These aren't just any frogs. They live only in these high elevation lakes and have suffered catastrophic losses from non-native fish predation and infectious disease. At a series of lakes that perfectly mirror the craggy, snow-flanked peaks above, we do our restoration work for these frogs.

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