Blending a fisheries science career as a mom and military spouse: the challenges of my road less traveled

By: Dana Sackett

I was recently encouraged by a close friend to share the challenges and successes of the path I have chosen as a fisheries scientist, mom, and military spouse.  To be honest, this path wasn’t the plan, but after falling in love and marrying into the military, I found I needed to pave my own trail to continue the pursuit of research science and combine my personal and professional loves.  Below I detail some of my specific challenges and how I have tried to overcome them.

When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, I usually respond with the generic, “I am a scientist.”  The subsequent look on their face indicates that they are conjuring images of either Dr. Jekyll or Bill Nye.  If I am feeling a little more adventurous, I tell them that what I really do is conduct research to answer questions about our environment, often focusing on fish and contaminants. 

Although I am a fisheries scientist, I also carry other defining titles: mom and military spouse.  These other “jobs,” which didn’t come with a decade or more of college training, are often more difficult and more time consuming.  As I imagine many of you are already somewhat familiar with the challenges of being a parent and balancing a career, I’ll begin by explaining some of the challenges that come with being a military spouse. 12524245_10153636207462632_3233733345675779072_n

Selfie credit: Doug Sackett

Being a part of the military means that we move frequently, with little control over where we go and with limited notice.  We hang a sign above our fireplace mantle with the military family mantra: “Home is where the Army sends us.”  While there are Army posts across the U.S. and overseas, some are more conducive to my field of research.  When it’s time to move, my husband can submit a wish list of duty assignments, and we have been fortunate to get assigned to locations high on his list, including Hawaii (where I was able to work at the University of Hawaii) and Georgia (where I currently work at Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences). However, at the end of the day, orders are orders and we go where duty calls. 

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Photo credit: Clare Ng Penschow

Inherent in the frequent moves is that we often find out where we are going next only a few months before we move.  This leaves a very small window for job searching before we arrive at our new location.  We usually stay at a location for two years, but there is some uncertainty in that time frame.  For instance, we lived at our last location for only 9 months and only days after arriving in Georgia this time last year (expecting to stay for two years), the Army announced my husband’s unit would be going away, meaning we’d likely be moving within the next year.  It wasn’t until April that we found out he would be able to take a different position at the same post. 

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From left to right: Katie Diebold, Anya Watson, the author Dana Sackett and Fernando Fuentes tracking fish (photo credit: Kenneth W. Able)

Being a military spouse and parent also means sometimes playing the role of a single parent as deployments to combat zones (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) and training often take my spouse far away for long periods of time and leave me as the only one that can pick the kids-up from school, take them to the doctor, to soccer practice, or stay home because they are sick. 

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PhD advisors Drs. Derek Aday and Jim Rice, while the author was 8 months pregnant (photo credit: NCSU CALS News Center)

Further, the difficulties of having a deployed spouse are not only in the daily struggles of taking care of children that miss their parent, missing your spouse’s company or them sharing daily household and family burdens, but also in the stress born of having the person you love and rely on most in danger.   Imagine for a moment that there was a massive deadly car accident that occurred on the same route that your loved one was on, and you are unable to contact them.  Now imagine stretching the anxiety, stress, and panic felt under those circumstances for 3, 6, 12, or even 18 months.  It can definitely make parenting, work, and life in general much more challenging.

water quality on lake julian

While it may seem like these challenges would make a career in science near impossible, I can attest that this is not the case.  I have found that flexibility, hard work, a willingness to learn about new research areas outside of my specific field, combined with a little bit of luck and help from good friends have made my career and contributions to science possible.  Given my particular situation, I have found that postdoctoral research positions are a perfect fit for me to continue to contribute to science.  Most scientists view these two-year research intensive positions as a stepping-stone to gain experience before starting a tenure-track faculty position at a University or a state or federal job managing resources.  For me these short-term positions are ideal.

Gavin and I at graduation

Photo credit: Doug Sackett

Since I have to find a research position based on location rather than subject area, the chances are pretty low that a postdoctoral position will be available at or near our new location when we first arrive in my exact field of expertise.  That’s where being flexible and willing to learn about different fields of research is important.  In addition, there are certain skills that are universally appreciated across disciplines of environmental science, such as being able to write well and develop proposals, using the mapping program GIS, and navigating the world of statistics and modeling.  Thus, honing these skills with each new position has helped to keep me employed.

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The author sampling water from a North Carolina river. Photo credit: Crystal Lee Pow

Even when a position in my field is available at our new location, there is no guarantee that I would get that position.  However, I am lucky enough to have PhD and postdoctoral advisors and colleagues willing to make introductions and put in a good word to any local researchers they know just prior to my arrival.  These introductions allow me to collaborate and in some instances write a research proposal with these local researchers, that if funded, creates a postdoctoral position for me.

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Beyond the ability to delve into new research areas, I have found that many of the fisheries scientists that I have worked with are extremely flexible and understanding of the challenges of my family life.  In fact, many have allowed me to work from home when my work can be completed from a computer.  This has allowed me to continue to be very productive, contributing to science, while relieving some of the strain of having to take on all of the additional challenges of military life and motherhood.  For instance, during the nine months that we were in Virginia, I was able to continue my research with the University of Hawaii from afar.

Dana1 - with G and fish

Photo credit: Doug Sackett

My path has forced me to be flexible and given me the opportunity to learn about new research areas that I never would have experienced otherwise.  However, the thing I appreciate the most are those awesome fisheries scientists and friends that have helped me along the way.  Without these people my career would have ended before it started and because of them I have been able to continue to conduct research that I hope will help to create a better future.  My path has certainly not been easy, but I am happy that it has been possible.  I encourage all of you working to accomplish your goals while struggling with your own personal challenges to know that you can do it, it may just take a little extra elbow grease, and a willingness to take a road less traveled.

 

If you have had challenges in blending your career and personal life that you would like to share, please comment below.  You never know when you might be helping someone in your exact same shoes. 

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8 responses to “Blending a fisheries science career as a mom and military spouse: the challenges of my road less traveled

  1. Geographical constraints are often a very real and hard challenge – military or not – when dealing with a two-career couple. I would like to second Dana’s comment about using connections, contacts, and advisors to help put your name out there. In my experience, informing my post-doctoral advisor (and other mentors along the way) of my goals and limitations (and simply being honest with them) has helped me a lot to keep a career and a family. And to make both very meaningful and fulfilling.

  2. Dana is, and continues to be, a great role model for working mothers out there. She faces all her challenges with hard work and a positive attitude. I especially love your advice about finding opportunities to hone existing skills, while adding new experiences. Good advice for anyone.

  3. It is so great to know when you aren’t the only one struggling. While not military, I am a single parent of two trying to make my career in Marine Sciences work. Extreme competitiveness and limited jobs make it that much harder but I keep pushing on.

  4. I’m a marine biologist and previous zoological manager for over a decade. I recently quit my job to relocate closer to my husbands work. This had the added benefit of spending more time at home with my 2 yr old. Of course I love being with him but Ild be lying if I said I didn’t miss the job and the animals at times. Its been hard to find a new job since I was so specified for so long. It’s nice to know there can possibly be balance between both passions in the future. Thank you and your husband for serving.

  5. I know at least one milspouse reached out with a link to Military Spouse PhD, but there is also the Society for Military Spouses in STEM: https://www.facebook.com/groups/smsSTEM/
    I know for me the hardest part of getting a PhD while my spouse was active duty was the geographic separation required for my work and thinking I was the only milspouse in the same boat. Turns out that’s not true. We’re plentiful, just broadly distributed.

  6. I am truly in awe of Dana and all that she has been able to accomplish (and all that she continues to accomplish!) despite the difficulties she has encountered. And I’m not just saying this because she’s my cousin 😉

  7. Thanks Dana, I am a career academic and my spouse isn’t around a lot and my family is very far away so I can certainly relate to your situation. I found that I need to rely on friends and on help I hire. Ultimately, they are my “village” to raise my child and enable me to do my research. I also accepted that I won’t progress in my career as fast as my peers but as long as I can make contributions to science and enjoy it, it is something. I am hoping that by sticking to it, others will benefit. You are certainly carving the way for a different way to do science so on everybody’s behalf. Thanks Dana!

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