Finding A Space to Flourish: Breaking the Mold and Being a Self-Advocate for Your Future

Feeling Out of Place in Your PhD?

Going back to school after seven years of not stepping into the classroom was a culture shock for me in many ways. One of the biggest shocks was that there was a specific mold of being a graduate student which can vary due to such factors such as race and gender. As an underrepresented minority, I especially felt this given geography is not the most diverse discipline, especially when it comes the number of underrepresented minorities specializing in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Another example of this was the perceived career options of graduate students. Getting an academic job was the preferred career option and there was little guidance on how to apply to other jobs. For example, during a professional development workshop, there was ample information on how to create a CV but not a resume. Even though I have experience writing a resume, this might not be the case for others.

To be honest, I did not go back to get a PhD to pursue a faculty job, but due to the emphasis on faculty jobs, I decided to keep that option open during the first and second year of my program. I tried to fit the mold by going to the main conference that we were all encouraged to go to and trying to work on submitting papers to be published. I also decided to pursue an interdisciplinary teaching certificate to make me even more marketable. Even if I didn’t go into academia, I felt I could leverage that in other ways.

During the first two years of my program, I was feeling increasingly out of place, especially when it came to going to the big yearly conference. Socializing proved difficult both in and out of the conference setting because I felt there was not a space in which I could comfortably share my perspectives and as a result, it made it hard for me to communicate with others. I also found it difficult to find others with similar experiences as me because I felt I didn’t fit the mold. After another depressing year of attending the big yearly conference, I decided that it was time to make some changes.

Advocating for Yourself

The first thing I did was to assess the interests and skills that I did have and how I could leverage them. I enjoyed creating tutorials on how to do tasks with the R programming language and with GIS. I also liked to do outreach such as coordinating events like GIS Day or working with community partners on an issue in which GIS can be applied. To fulfill the teaching certificate requirements, I decided to take classes in instructional technology and instructional design. I really enjoyed these classes because it provided me with a pedagogical foundation in creating instructional materials which enhanced the overall quality of my tutorials. I started to give workshops on using R and GIS in various settings. I also had a supportive advisor, and she let me teach these workshops in her class and allowed me to leverage my community partner connections to develop a final project that used GIS to tackle a community issue.

I also decided to stop going to the big yearly conference in my discipline and instead went to conferences that had a good mix of academics and professionals and conferences that focused on my specific interests. At these conferences, I discovered a diverse community of individuals and was able to build a network that I didn’t have before. I finally stopped feeling out of place and found a group of people who were supportive of my future endeavors. I made the most out of the internships I did and participated in a diversity of internships that allowed me to leverage my skills.

The last internship I had was the one that had a lasting impact, which was my internship in the Map and Government Information Library (MAGIL). I became highly involved with the library due to co-coordinating GIS Day for the past two years, and I was invited to do a summer internship. During that summer, not only did I gain exposure to working in a library environment, but I was able to further broaden my job options. I decided that given my previous experiences, a faculty job wasn’t a good fit for me in terms of professional fulfillment and long-term well-being. I felt that if I had problems connecting to others as a graduate student, it would be especially difficult to do so as a faculty member, so I decided to focus on jobs in the private sector or for a non-profit. I truly enjoyed my internship and my then-boss encouraged me to apply for GIS librarian jobs given my skill-set and interests. I thought I would be ineligible for these jobs since I don’t have a MLIS, but my boss encouraged me to apply anyway. I am glad I took her advice because I was able to get a job as a GIS Librarian/Social Science Data Curator shortly after I graduated.

Finding Your Space to Flourish in Grad School

One thing that I learned from my graduate school experience is that you have to advocate for yourself and you have to find people who will advocate for you. There is a space for you to flourish, but sometimes they are not the spaces that you are currently in and you have to seek them out. What works for others might not work for you. You also might not receive the adequate support you need to pursue your career options by staying in the same spaces that your colleagues navigate in. By assessing your interests and your skills, prioritizing being in a space that promotes your well-being and professional growth, and leveraging your network, you too can break the mold put upon you and be able to find a space to flourish.

Dorris Scott received her PhD from the University of Georgia in geography. She is currently a GIS Librarian/Social Science Data Curator at Washington University in St Louis.

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