November 29, 2012

ENVS Blog: Alum Tests Job Market Before Heading into PhD Program

Kelly Kay (‘09) explored the opportunities available to her before finally deciding academia was where she wanted to be.

Post-ENVS Life in Graduate School

Kelly Kay (’09)

I graduated in 2009 and am now in my second year as a PhD student in geography at Clark University. Before I decided I definitely wanted to go back to school and enter into the world of academia, I had various jobs around the Portland area. I worked for a summer as an environmental educator at Metro, briefly detoured into the world of night-shift waitressing during a prolonged period of unemployment coupled with a dearth of “environmental” jobs, spent a year working as an AmeriCorps member at a land trust in Vancouver, WA, and most recently worked as Communications Assistant at a regional land trust, headquartered in Downtown Portland. When I was graduating from Lewis and Clark, I knew I wanted to go into academia, but I thought it best to spend a few years working to make sure I was certain. I later learned that this worked majorly in my favor for graduate school admissions. Every person I have ever talked to about graduate school admissions places high importance on personal experience and personal growth and maturity. Getting a masters degree after a year of unemployment might seem like an easy fix for what can feel like an endless problem, but it likely won’t do much to help. Worst of all, you’ll probably have to pay in full for it, and will spend years getting out of debt. Sticking it out for awhile shows persistence and this type of persistence is what top programs want to see, and what will likely make them want to offer you a fellowship or a paid position as a TA or RA.

I consider myself a political ecologist or a political economist of the environment—my concentration in the ENVS department was in political economy and I am really interested in the political and social side of the environment, particularly land conservation in a “First World” context. Given these interests, it was hard to find a job, particularly in conservation, which didn’t take a very limited perspective on nature and the environment. I started my program last year and I couldn’t be happier. Geography is wonderful because it is a discipline which serves as an umbrella for many different types of work—much like environmental studies. My department consists of political ecologists, political economists, and urban geographers, in addition to GIS programmers, land-use cover change analysts, earth systems scientists, and geologists. I should note that my experience is really different from some of my other classmates who went into more “practical” graduate programs. My program is very theory-heavy and my intention is to become an academic, an intention shared my most of my colleagues. My department at Clark has all the elements that made the department at LC so great—cutting edge research, critical scholarship, and academic rigor. I love what I’m doing in a way that I never did with any of my previous jobs, but my days are very, very long. I read several hundred pages every couple of days—albeit, things that I really like reading and that are very interesting. Seminars are three hours of intense conversations about theory; something I love but others might dread. Showing up without doing the reading is never an option anymore.

I have been fortunate to be accepted with full-funding, so I’ve worked as both a Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant since starting school last year. As a TA, I graded papers and led discussions for a class about modernity and urbanization. As an RA, I’ve worked for the past year with my advisor co-authoring a report for Oxfam America on energy insecurity in the Global South. I have also received a few small grants, which have given me tremendous freedom to do what I want. I got to spend all of last summer in Croatia researching the role that biodiversity conservation has played in Croatia’s bid for EU membership. I also took a little time to do some traveling, and went to visit a friend who was studying urban development in Morocco. Being a researcher and academic comes with the nice perk of having friends studying interesting things all around the world who will usually take you in for a few weeks! Aside from my strictly academic employment, I’ve maintained my involvement with ENVS by acting as the graduate student representative to the AESS (Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences) Board of Directors. I hope to become an environmental studies professor when I finish, so my involvement with AESS has been a great learning experience.

I hope this has been helpful. For anybody thinking about graduate school, either professional or more academically-oriented, please feel free to contact me if you need advice,