Written by: Jonathan Wang & Mike Nan
It’s no secret that the road to academia is tough. Faced with a “publish or perish” atmosphere and stagnant or declining rates of scientific funding, the academic route for a graduate student is daunting. A recent study suggests graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population. Part of the problem is how hard it is to navigate a way into a tenure-track position. Thankfully, the problem is being recognized and a number of high-profile failure CVs have made waves online. Dr. Kimberly Wallin has her own advice to graduate students and reveals exactly “how the heck” she got here.
As a first-generation college student, Dr. Wallin had no initial role model to follow. However, Dr. Wallin was fortunate enough to be the beneficiary of great mentors who guided her through academia. She got hooked into research by expressing her interest in a forensic entomologist’s work. This entomologist allowed her to shadow her work. Eventually, Dr. Wallin made her way to a master’s program at University of Wisconsin studying forest entomology. Her first lesson: 1) Say yes to things and show up. In her position as a master’s student, she read everything she could on the literature of plant defenses. This led to a very productive master’s research resulting in multiple publications. Her second lesson: 2) Education with purpose. Throughout this time, she continued her hobby of running. Moving on from half-marathons and marathons to mountain biking and triathlons. She carved out periods of her day where she could spend time on herself, telling people she had meetings that she couldn’t break. Her third lesson: 3) Work-life balance.
While working on her PhD, she landed herself a post-doc position where studying restoration following abiotic disturbances. Finishing up both her PhD and postdoc at roughly the same time, she applied to and then turned down a faculty position at Berkley. Going back to amend lesson one, it’s sometimes ok to show up and say no, but thank you. For a time, she worked at Oregon State University, looking at what explains variability in mortality caused by biotic disturbance agents and non-native organism disturbances in forest systems. She then made the leap over to University of Vermont where she currently works. In this new environment it took her several years to familiarize herself with her new research system. This is reflected by a three-year gap in publications from 2012-2015. A taxing time on her, Dr. Wallin’s lesson here is: 4) Work with purpose. But as she moved through the remaining slides reflecting on her career up to this point, she talked about her work and travels, the students she mentored, and her personal struggles. Showing us the words of Born’s Callin’ Out as a lyrical encapsulation of her life. At the end of her talk she melded the last 2 lessons: Life with purpose. Quoting Robin Sharma, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Dr. Wallin offers sage personal advice that should be heeded by fledgling and seasoned academics, but equally important for academic success are problem-solving skills, teamwork, learning from past mistakes, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Dr. Kimberly Wallin is Research Associate Professor at University of Vermont and Graduate Program Director. She is well-versed in forestry, ecology, genetics and entomology. For more information about her, please follow this link.