It is time for Jason’s Ramble to move it on down the road. After three years (plus a couple of months) of time here in Duluth, my tenure as a Post-Doc at the US EPA is coming to an end. Over the last few months I’ve been exploring all the employment options open to me. Duluth is a good place to live, but in terms of permanent employment in my chosen field as an aquatic toxicologist, or even a general biologist, the opportunities in this region are pretty limited. With the EPA in a hiring freeze (in fact our lab’s federal staffing numbers have been in retreat since I arrived), it became quickly evident that our search would have to expand beyond the Duluth area.
Our search wasn’t without trepidation and a bit of agony. I say our search because everything now impacts my whole family, specifically Sara (Katie has few concerns about moving other than making sure that The Boob visits often enough). It feels awful to uproot. I’ve been in Duluth for three years, Sara for five. We’ve developed our own community, through friends and work and going about the world here in Duluth. The idea of leaving for a brand new adventure someplace else is daunting and scary. From our earliest encounters, Sara and I discussed the fact that I would likely have to move to find my next job. But for a long time that idea was just an abstract construct, something for the future. But given the whirlwind nature of our year and a half courtship/co-habitation/engagement/pregnancy/marriage/parenthood the future approached faster than either of us anticipated. Now to that string we add moving out of state and new jobs and it is easy to understand the feelings of agony and trepidation. To me, it also feels selfish and patriarchal, very much “I am the man and we move when I say we move”. I’ve never in my life felt that way, (Sara is my partner and equal in all ways) but for quite some time I struggled with feelings of being the villain in my own story, pulling Sara and Katie away from friends and family so that I could fulfill my ambition. Coming to grips with moving for my job was a hard decision for both of us. After lots of discussion, I realized it wasn’t villainy it was economics (which, without other considerations could be construed villainous), it wasn’t selfishness or ambition; it was about coming to terms with how I can best support my family given my specific skills. Yes, I will admit that ultimately there is a degree of patriarchy and selfishness in the process, but along the way I’ve tried to ameliorate those effects by communicating with Sara and trying to make decisions as a family. We’ve both (Sara and I) invested heavily in our education and training for our chosen careers, it just happens that my path provides a somewhat greater level of monetary compensation; even still, scientists of my ilk don’t make huge sums of money, so we will likely still need to be a dual income family. (As an aside I want to mention that the work Sara does, in advocating and supporting the children and families suffering through the trauma of abuse, is both economically and socially severely undervalued. The same goes for all her coworkers and the work that goes on at First Witness Child Advocacy Center http://www.firstwitness.org/ – an organization you (the readers of this blog) should support with charitable giving as you are able.) What I ultimately arrived at for my job search is that I had to balance number of different ideas:
I want to be great at my job and do work that is stimulating and intellectually challenging.
I want to provide a good life for my family and be a good father.
I want to live somewhere good: not boring (sorry Iowa, Kansas, and most of Nebraska), close to water (I am an aquatic biologist and fish enthusiast), close enough that friends and family can visit or we can get to them, or cool enough that people want to visit despite the distance (think San Diego), not cold (sorry Duluth or the Dakotas or Montana, my biggest gripe with Duluth is the fact that winter lasts from mid-October till late May or even June – there was still ice on Lake Superior June 6th this year), and not too expensive.
I want to live somewhere Sara can find opportunities for a career that fits her needs and wants.
So with that in mind I set about the search for new jobs. And as with the birth plan we carefully thought through and worried about, things quickly went a bit askew. First, jobs in science, especially ecotoxicology are not easy to find. It is a very specific skill set, and while Liam Neeson can use his skills across a large number of genres, my skills while plentiful are narrow (but if you need urine collected from a minnow I’m the dude who can do that). With the limited pool of jobs there are three/four directions I could look: academics, government, and industry/consulting. My first thought was that I really wanted an academic gig, in fact I’ve got my application material ready (teaching statement, research statement, CV, etc) but that initial academic ivory tower lost its luster, when thinking about how low starting academic salaries are and the massive time commitments (away from family) required of successful tenure track professors. If I was just now single and 29 and finishing my post-doc (instead of 39) that challenge might be acceptable, but my love and marriage to Sara and the impeding arrival of Katie put things into different perspective. I wanted to continue to do excellent, cool science, but I wanted that part of my life in balance with my family life. So I started to look elsewhere.
The thing about jobs in my field (and probably every field, but this is my blog and my experience) is that networking and person to person connections are critical. In the first iteration of job searching I applied for ecotoxicology jobs at two large company (one that makes pesticides, the make oil). I was informed about both from friends, but it was the one where my friend worked that brought me to my first interview in North Carolina. Let me tell you, the interview process there was intense. I gave a 45 minute research presentation followed by a general Q&A session. Then I was interviewed six different groups of people (in 30-45 minute blocks) for about 4+ hours. There were some hard questions, but I feel I handled it well, showing off my scientific acumen, as well as humor and interpersonal communication skills. I even got to hang out with my friend and his awesome wife for a while after the interview (and saw a good baseball game (while it was still very cold and snowy in Duluth). In the end, I didn’t get either of those jobs. The oil company job, where I applied over the internet at their website sent me a thanks but no thanks email. The pesticide company decided that while I was a great fit and would have worked well and was well liked; my actual skills were not what they needed. I’m an aquatic toxicologist and what they needed was bee biologist/toxicologist.
The next iteration found me applying for government jobs. While the EPA wasn’t hiring, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey (USGS), the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture all had positions that I thought I could fit into. The two most promising were with the USGS, one as Research Fish Biologist in Ann Arbor, MI and the other as a Research Toxicologist in Columbia, MO. For both jobs my initial qualifications got me past the first round (this is generally a huge accomplishment, because it is just an HR round, where they evaluate the quality of you on paper). The second round required that I answer a series of questions involving my qualification and abilities to do this job. The Fish Research position questions were tough and my experience running field crews and my work at Baylor played a bigger role in my answers than the stuff I’m currently doing at EPA. The other position, the Research Toxicology position seemed like it had been written for me. I went through the requirements and found that I just kept checking them off. It was exciting. I got the questions from the second round of the application process and I was able to answer everything they asked without even having to search too hard for examples. I was pumped up to send out that email. Thus began the waiting. The government jobs application process is not really fast (at least at first, but more on that later). There were several weeks between my sending in these questions and receiving any response.
Several things happened in the mean time. First, Sara’s due date was fast approaching. Once we hit June we realized it could happen at any moment. Sara’s family had a history of early babies. So everyday was a bit on edge, especially if the phone rang (see previous blog posts for all the baby/pregnancy stories). The second thing that happened was that people were talking about me. It turns out that form letter from the oil company wasn’t the end all be all for that job. Several of my co-workers were contacted, making specific inquires about me and my skills. It was a heady moment. So shortly after that I got a call for a phone interview with the oil company. While not as cool as a research toxicologist position, the pay and compensation would be much better. The interview concluded saying that they would be setting up in person interview sometime in the next few weeks (AKA the exact time the baby was due). At the same time a series of jobs came up for the state of Minnesota Department of Health. I applied and again made it to the second round with a series of questions. So it is now mid-July and I’ve got four opportunities for jobs where I’ve made it past the second stage.
That is when things start to happen. I got a call from the USGS about setting up a phone interview (the much coveted third round) and at almost the same time I got a call from MDH about a phone interview with them. Both of these are actually scheduled right around the time Katie was due. I was able to move the USGS interview up and the MDH interview back. At this point I have to say everything in my life is moving in both slow motion and high speed. Weeks pass at light speed, but hours seem to stretch out forever. I set up the USGS phone interview for the 17th of July (Sara’s due date was 7/20) with the caveat that I might have to reschedule if the baby came. The interview went as well as I could expect given my heightened sense of distraction due to my impending fatherhood. I was now in the list of top candidates for a job as a research toxicologist with the USGS, among the top 10 candidates for three jobs with the MDH, and expecting to fly to Houston to interview with an oil company. It was a time of much anticipation.
Sara’s due date passed and the next week found us in the hospital enduring the induction process and waiting on Kate (see the whole blog about that). While I’m waiting to go into the surgical suite where Sara is being prepped for her C-section, I got a call from the HR department of the USGS telling me that I’m being offered the job. That was some wild, weird timing. Two life altering events were initiated within moments of each other. So after a flustered minute with the HR person I hang up and welcome Katie to the world. There was still a lot to be discussed. Now I had a job in hand and two more where I was a top candidate. To complicate things further there was the fleeting potential of a position in England that cropped up. Sara and I had an interesting discussion as to whether Katie should grow up to have a Southern/Texas accent or perhaps use the King’s English. After a few days the official paper offer came from the USGS. I had a week to respond. In that week the oil company in Houston called to set up travel for an in-person interview and I had the phone interview with the folks from MDH. It was a stressful week, particularly since we had a newborn at home. Sara and I talked. I talked to friends and family. I needed to make the best decision, but also one that I wouldn’t regret later. It is hard to turn down something offered for something potential, even if what is potential might be more lucrative (Houston/Oil) or closer to Duluth (at MDH in St. Paul). We went to the internet, that bastion of all information and sought out Columbia, Missouri. What we found was a town that looked more liberal (because of the University) than the surrounding area – a plus for us, a town of relatively good size, but not huge but within easy distance of big cities with all their amenities (only 125 miles to St. Louis). My brother, Brian and his wife Julie, live in St. Louis and are expecting their daughter any day now, so the idea that the cousins would get to grow up in close proximity was also appealing. While it wasn’t as close to Sara’s folks as Duluth was to Eau Claire, it was now almost the exact same distance between both sets of parents (approximately 470 miles). There was also water. The Missouri River flows right outside of town and while it isn’t Lake Superior, it wasn’t the desert either. Plus there are numerous streams and lakes all around (not quite Minnesota/Wisconsin numbers but enough to keep us hydrated). So the front runner emerged. There was still much debate as to whether we could operate on a single salary for a time, until Sara was able to find a job and was comfortable with Katie’s care. These are complex conversations, fraught with emotion. Taking this job would mean Sara would leave her job, a job at which she does exceedingly well, a job where she is surrounded by supportive, fun coworkers, to embark on new adventure with only me and Katie (and Rio and the cats). It would also mean that for the first time in her adult life Sara would be dependent upon someone else for financial support and I would be responsible for supporting someone besides myself. For me that was a little easier since I’d come to terms with that over the course of Sara’s pregnancy, as I am forever responsible for the wellbeing of Katie (a responsibility I share gratefully with Sara).
So here it is. The big reveal. After all that text, we are going to Missouri, as I’ve accepted a federal government position as a research toxicologist with the United States Geological Survey in Columbia. Why does the USGS do research toxicology you might ask yourself? Well that is a long story that involves lots of politics, the creation of a separate federal agency, which was later folded back into the parent agency. I’m pretty sure the information in on the internet somewhere.
In the end, my sojourn takes me back to where it began: Missouri. I started my life as a scientist in the biology labs of St. Louis University and the creeks and streams of that feed the mighty Mississippi. Now I find myself moving from the shores of Lake Superior to the banks of the Missouri River. Now all we’ve got to do is remotely find a place to live, pack up all our possessions and move 700 miles south, with two cars, a brand new baby, a large Labrador, and two road trip averse cats. We are currently open to suggestions.