By Margaret Kalcic '08
Margaret (McCahon) Kalcic '08 recently completed her PhD at Purdue, and is now a Post-doc Fellow at the University of Michigan. We checked in with her and asked about her grad school experience (and her husband's), and whether she has advice for current Oliners.
In what area is your PhD?
I'm doing my PhD at Purdue in Ecological Sciences and Engineering (ESE; an interdisciplinary graduate program), and my home department was Agricultural and Biological Engineering. The ESE program is what I applied through, and for the first couple of years this was my primary community and source of intellectual stimulation. I really enjoyed balancing narrowly focused research with broad, challenging discussions about environmental sustainability, food security, agriculture, water, and policy. I would recommend other MS and PhD students get involved in seminars and communities that cross disciplinary boundaries and foster discussion of grand challenges. It was a great time!
How did you know you wanted to pursue a PhD right after Olin?
I didn't , really. It just sort of happened. I knew that I wanted to move toward environmental engineering/science, and I thought getting paid to learn this would be a good idea. But in the end, I only applied to a few programs, and in all applications except Purdue's I applied for the master's program, not wanting to promise to stay on for the PhD. When I decided at the last minute to visit Purdue, I had all but made up my mind on another option, but there was something about my visit that I couldn't shake. I decided to take the plunge, and for the most part it's been a lot of fun. Even now I'm not sure I needed to go to grad school, but I have learned a lot and these experiences have changed my career trajectory.
How was your grad school experience?
Fun and (mostly) stimulating. I treated grad school as a time to learn some cool stuff and meet new people. I'm not one of those people who love work so much they want to work long hours, or love networking for the sake of making prestigious connections. Mostly I just wanted to learn more about the earth, the major environmental challenges mankind is facing, and build a supportive network for encouragement and community. You can't help but get bored from time to time working alone on lengthy research projects, but for the most part I have enjoyed the grad school life and experience.
I understand your husband (Andy '08) also went to graduate school. What was his experience like?
Andy got his MS from Washington University in St. Louis, MO (his hometown). This meant two years long-distance for us. When he committed to Wash U as a PhD student he had a particular research project and advisor in mind, but when he arrived on campus that professor had left to work in industry. Sometimes that happens! Andy didn't find a great fit for research and mentoring there, so after finishing his coursework for an MS we got married and he moved to Indiana. Neither of us had difficulty with the classes in graduate school - we both joke about how little effort they were compared to Olin - but found the difficulty was more in remaining inspired enough to complete long research projects. In my case, it was easy to stay at Purdue and continue work because I had a good community there and stimulating work.
And now you're a Post-doc. What does that mean? Tell us about your work.
It seems that most post-docs represent a research position for someone stuck between graduate school and faculty positions, though I'm sure there's a lot of variation to that (for instance, post-docs in government or industry). At the University of Michigan, they sort of view post-docs like students, and sort of like staff, so it's a bit of an odd dynamic. I decided to get a post-doc because I wasn't sure where I wanted to go next with my career, and this provides a flexible time for me to continue research without the stress of a tenure clock. It also leaves all my options open, while working in government or industry could have hindered my odds of getting a tenure track university professorship (if that were my goal).
I was hired for this post-doc as an expert on a particular tool - the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) that simulates how land management practices (e.g. farming practices) influence water flow and water quality in rivers downstream. It's a popular model for hydrology folks, and a useful tool for connecting climate, land cover, land management, and water. The main work I do is set up and use the SWAT model for a large interdisciplinary project investigating how future climate change and changes in land use will likely affect harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. It's a lot of fun being in the middle of a chain of models and figuring out how everything will fit together, and I feel like my role is integral in this project.
What advice do you have for a student considering grad school?
Oooh, I love giving advice. In no particular order:
- Even if you're not sure about grad school, you might as well apply, visit, and see what you think of the school and its culture. Who knows, you might be surprised by what you find!
- Once you're there, try to enjoy it. If you're stressed out all of the time, you're probably not going to make it through to the end (and you probably won't want to continue in research if you do).
- You don't have to be the most brilliant, creative, hard-working, motivated person - if you made it through Olin you will be just fine!
- Relax, make friends, and build partnerships. Your colleagues may come in handy down the line, and their moral support can help you make it through grad school. I suggest reaching out to younger students and supporting them. I found when I took a mentoring role I began to feel more a part of the community, and as I supported others through tough times, I developed a more positive perspective on my own experiences.
- Take the classes that interest you, and make sure your research topic inspires you (at least a little). You'll have to spend a lot of time on that topic. On the other hand, don't despair if you lose interest for a time - I think everyone goes through these lows, and as long as you keep progressing (however slowly) you'll find yourself on the other side.
- Don't work long hours, or you'll burn out and become less productive. I became something of a work-life-balance coach during my time at Olin, and I've kept to it - and you do see the rewards of balance pay off. I worked very reasonable hours, at my own pace, and made it through.
- Learn to be a manager of your project - take responsibility for your learning and progress -and your advisors will learn to trust you. I was lucky to have supportive advisors, but I also made an effort to learn their expectations and how I could consistently exceed (or at least meet) them and used that to focus my work. (Note: I recommend lots of clear, well-written communication, as well as pictures/graphs/other ways to help them visualize the work you are doing, the challenges you are facing, and the progress and decisions you've made, however small.)
- Be a peacemaker and a good collaborator - the last thing you want to do is burn bridges with colleagues or advisors. If you take responsibility for your learning, and share your expectations with those around you, most of the time you can make every relationship work. Even if you aren't generally keyed in to emotional matters, make an effort to keep peace and cheerfully meet expectations. One thing that I did throughout grad school was prioritize any group work above my own. This could be problematic, and there were times I had to step back a little from this, but I found being a good collaborator helped me focus on others and help others - a form of considering others above myself - and it not only made my day brighter, it stimulated my own work.
- Think about creative ways to enjoy life more. Living in an area with low cost of living, I was able to buy a house and a car and survive on a graduate stipend. Being settled in this way helped me enjoy 5 years in one place, and gave me a chance to experiment with gardening. My sister lives in Indonesia, so last summer I used travel funds to attend a conference near Jakarta, and afterwards we got to visit with my sister and her family for two weeks.
What do you do for fun?
I spend most of my free time keeping up with family and friends and relaxing with Andy. If there's one thing we know how to do, it's relax. We have two cats that have learned this about us, and many evenings are spent with a cup of tea, a blanket, and one or more sprawling cats. Andy loves games, and I prefer talking, so we find a balance of those activities. When given the opportunity, I love music, hiking, gardening, and a variety of crafts. We are also actively involved in our church, which gives us ways to reach out and serve others.