Dr. Leslie Curren
Department of Biological Sciences
University of New Hampshire
I knew I wanted to have a job that related to animals since a pretty young age but lacked clarity on what that could be. I originally thought vet, as many animal-lovers do, until I was about 8 and my mom said, “you know you’d have to put animals down, right?” That ended that.
I did an Earthwatch in high school that ignited my interest in research and set me on what I thought was my intended path: marine mammal behavior. So everything I did in undergrad was geared toward pursuing that path: an internship with NOAA on dolphin behavior, a thesis about fish behavior. When I graduated, I took another internship focused on dolphin behavior, which was a lot of fun, but when I looked into graduate programs for marine mammalogy, they were mostly marine biology programs, and the required courses didn’t jump out at me or excite me.
That was when I had one of the most important (and formative) conversations of my life, which was total serendipity—I got a ride home from a party from a more senior scientist, and on the way home we discussed my grad school aspirations. I told her how lukewarm I felt about the programs I’d been considering, and she said it sounded like I was more interested in the behavior than the organisms, so why wasn’t I looking at behavioral ecology programs? It was like a light was turned on in my brain—it wasn’t the dolphins I loved, it was the complex social behavior they were capable of, and guess what, there are some terrestrial species capable of those, too. I went home and googled behavioral ecology PhD programs and found the connection I’d been looking for.
I also think I got accepted to my first-choice program because I was honest about my ambivalence about the study species (spotted hyenas)—while some other applicants may have been saying “I’ve loved hyenas since I was four,” I was like, “I don’t know anything about hyenas, but I want to study complex social behavior, and they sure seem a lot easier to study than dolphins,” and that was music to my future advisor’s ears.
So I did a PhD without doing a Master’s first, which worked fine for me, but I had done a thesis in undergrad, so I had experience conducting independent directed research. It also took me 6 years, whereas it might have taken less time if I’d had the experience that people with Master’s degrees had.
A hugely formative part of my grad experience was when I didn’t get an NSF GRFP [a highly competitive fellowship to fund graduate school without the ‘need’ for teaching]. It meant I had to be a TA, and I fell in love with teaching. This set me on a path of seeking out teaching-focused jobs after I graduated instead of postdocs. Most that I applied for were temporary—adjunct positions to fill sabbaticals, etc.—but one was my current position at UNH. I almost didn’t apply at all because I only saw the ad a week or two before the deadline, and because it said there was an internal candidate. After I got an interview but before I’d heard back, I was offered a position somewhere else, but it was a temporary position, so much less attractive than the UNH one. They needed a decision before I would hear back from UNH, so I had to choose between a bird in the hand or two in the bush. My graduate advisor advised me to bet on myself and decline the temporary position, because permanent positions were too hard to come by. It was difficult to turn down a job when I didn’t have another yet, but I’m glad I did because here I am!
Advice from Leslie:
1) If you’re interested in research, focus on the questions/topics, not the species/taxa. You’ll have more opportunities and you’ll be more marketable (and happier).
2) If your dream job requires a PhD, consider skipping a Master’s, but only if you’re sure.
3) Bet on yourself.
Leslie’s husband is also in ‘our field’ and Leslie put together a summary of his path (and her advice based on his path). Below …
Leslie and her husband are both happy to discuss their experiences further.
My husband followed a pretty traditional trajectory … he did a Master’s in Fisheries and Wildlife right out of undergrad (he had a couple research experiences at that point already), and then he did a PhD in the same program (F&W) but with a different advisor. It took him only 4.5 years to do his PhD, so maybe that’s a benefit of having a Master’s (it took me 6 without one, but I also putzed around a bit).
After finishing his PhD, he did a postdoc with his PhD advisor for a year while he waited around for me to finish my PhD (we met in grad school). Then we hit the job market around the same time.
He got another postdoc offer about a week before I was offered the UNH job I have now; fortunately, it was at University of Maine so not too far. So we had a long-distance marriage for a couple years.
Then he got a postdoc at Cornell (his third, if you’re counting—all about wildlife modeling) that allowed him to work remotely from Durham, so we could live together.
After a year or so of that he applied on a whim for a job at NOAA, which he thought was a longshot because he had no experience with fish, fisheries, or anything aquatic. But just like I was more interested in questions than species, so was NOAA (which reinforced why that really is my most helpful advice!), so they didn’t care—stats are stats and modeling is modeling, and he knew them both well. He took a job as a federal statistician and has been there ever since.
Federal positions are sweet—good job security, good pay, great benefits (especially long-term), and really good work-life balance (more on that in a minute).
My best advice based on his experience:
- Being an extrovert helps. I’m an introvert at conferences, and can’t wait to crawl into bed at night. He’s more the type to close down the bar, and because of that he knows about 50x more people than I do. He got a postdoc offer at a conference that was the product of his own expertise mixed with his networking, most of it informal. That shit works if you have the personality to put the time, energy, and bar tabs into it.
- Certain aspects of academia do not promote a healthy work-life balance. This can be true of tenure-track positions, or so I hear/see/read, but can also be true of postdocs, depending on your advisor. Even after we had a baby, he never felt like he could fully disengage from work, and if and when he did, he felt guilty about it. If we went to bed at 10pm, he might wake up to find an email thread between his advisor and a couple collaborators that was 26 deep, so he missed opportunities to be part of important conversations (like planning contents of a paper they would co-author). So if he got emails as we were getting into bed, he’d feel obligated to address them in the moment. All of this changed when he got a federal position, and his stress decreased dramatically—and our entire family benefited as a result. He isn’t supposed to work more than 40 hours per week for his job and can’t work weekends—such a blessing! He still spends some time on weekends working on side projects unrelated to his job—he has maintained many collaborations in the wildlife world, although he’s now in fisheries—but it’s never with the same sense of anxious urgency. He applied for a couple tenure-track (TT) positions while he was a postdoc, and I confess I was partly relieved when he didn’t get them because it felt like it would just mean seven more years of stress, only probably worse.Side note: I find that my non-TT position in academia is also great for a healthy work-life balance. Not all of academia is a stressball.