Lean in to your professional swerves

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Author: Anna Holder
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2019
Host Agency: California State Water Resources Control Board

From the moment I accepted my California Sea Grant State Fellowship with the State Water Resources Control Board, Office of Information Management and Analysis, I was ecstatic but also very concerned. I was excited because I knew, without a doubt, that the fellowship would be a fantastic opportunity—I would develop my data science, computer programming, science communication, and project management skills.

anna holder, bonneville salt flats
During her fellowship, Anna attended eight conferences. Here she stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats on the way to the Society for Freshwater Science Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah.
However, I also knew that the position would have a tangential relationship to marine science or policy at best, and it was likely that most of my work would be completely separate from the field I have been pursuing for my entire academic and professional career. Those in the marine science field are well aware – the field is saturated, paid positions can be tremendously competitive, and good jobs – the ones that lead to a fulfilling career – seem to be far and few between. If I stepped out of the field, even for a minute, would I be able to get back in? If I take the position, would I be selling out? 

To get out of my own head and to gather some data, I set out to speak to mid to late career professionals about how they got to where they are and how critical they felt their educational fields were in getting them there. Every single person I spoke to talked about the twists and turns of their career. Were they exactly where they thought they’d be when they entered the workforce? Nope. Were they happy with where they are and what they are doing? Absolutely!

Through this fellowship I have come to four realizations:

  1. You get what you give. OK. We all probably know this one already, but I think it warrants repeating. Regardless of the fellowship or position you have in the future, know that you will get out of if what you put in. When I took this fellowship, it did not perfectly align with the expectation I had when I first applied to the Sea Grant program. However, when I accepted the fellowship, I decided to dedicate the year to building skills that would be valuable and that would transcend any specific field. I would try not to dwell on my concerns and focus on building strong, positive, professional relationships. Knowing that I would get out of the fellowship what I put in, I decided to go all in. I haven’t regretted this for one second, and neither will you.
  2. Dreams evolve. The dream job you wanted when you began your education may not be the dream job you actually want now, and that’s OK. Do I still want a profession related to marine science? Of course! But I no longer feel beholden to one specific job title. What is more important for me is that I use my experience and skills to do good things. Whatever my job title becomes, I want to use sound, objective science to inform the policy and management of natural resources.
  3. People have multiple professional lives. Just because you start in one career, doesn’t mean you can’t begin another one later. This isn’t something that I necessarily want to do, but somehow it still gives me comfort.
  4. Career paths may not be linear. The key here is to lean into the swerves – really take in those experiences that may be completely outside of your comfort zone, learn and grow along the way and, most importantly, enjoy the ride.