Sixteen years ago, I would have been astounded to see my name as a presenter on a panel discussing applied research jobs in health and biosciences. Because sixteen years ago, and for a few years thereafter, the most frequent search term in my browser - aside from "caffeine + margin of safety" - was "non-academic jobs + PhD".
In September 2004, I began my doctoral studies at the University of New Brunswick, and quickly realized (more) reasons why I was strange. For one, choosing to do your graduate studies at the same institution as the one that granted you an undergraduate degree - both in the same city as your place of birth - was tantamount to career suicide (so I was told more than a few times, while in school). After all, how can anyone develop intellectually, and generate new discoveries, if you don't leave a school, or a city, that many considered to be a punchline rather than a worthwhile place in its own right? However, the chief reason that I was considered odd was that my academic career plans were non-existent once I received my degree.
I didn't want to follow the path to a full professorial life.
Why not? I enjoyed reading and learning about influences on youth mental health; specifically, the impact of the "quarter-life crisis" on people 18-30 years of age, as they tried to negotiate a new social reality where a spouse, babies and a house in the suburbs was no longer the norm or the desired outcome. And I liked teaching enough. But my curiosity was not, and could not, be satiated with the level of specialization required of the academy.
Implicitly, I knew this. Instead of rolling from an undergraduate honours thesis into the next degree, I took a year off and did research. Accepting a research assistant position with the Department of Social Sciences, I was the co-investigator putting the social in a socioeconomic study of sustainable aquaculture practices in the Bay of Fundy. Surrounded by biologists working in universities, but also for government and NGOs, I surveyed the communities playing host to fish farms. I would stuff and mail out envelopes with a survey I wrote, randomly selecting potential participants using the Charlotte County phone book. (I look back at this now and am misty-eyed for the lost opportunities to truly engage these communities; but, still operating from a positivistic worldview and a suitcase of quantitative methodologies, it was the best approach at that time.) Nonetheless, I learned a lot about applied research. My first conference presentation was not in psychology, but instead in a frosty ballroom at the Chateau Frontenac, heart palpitating as I shared horribly magenta/cyan pie charts to sleepy scientists.
I wrapped up that position in time to start my PhD in the Interpersonal Relations lab, and I knew I wanted more of that. Instead of becoming a specialist in youth mental health, I wanted to be a specialist in research, regardless of the topic. Luckily, once my supervisor's headaches over his errant student subsided, he was a key supporter and helped to make this happen. Emails he would get in search of research support from other departments (business, nursing), or government agencies (tourism, youth criminal justice) were now shared with me to field consultations. PSYC 6541 and 6542 were the formal "research apprenticeship" courses I had to take, but it was these odd jobs in data analysis, survey design, and manuscript editing, that were my de facto applied research apprenticeship.
Time skip, and this is now my real job. So what would I have advised as a panelist, if not for a pandemic? Probably something like ABCD:
Personal blog for Bryn Robinson, PhD. All opinions are my own.