Response by John Casey
I’ve been asked this question on occasion in less formal situations and have always drawn a blank, my eyes glaze over and I rattle off some long-winded recount of a series of disparate events that I suppose led me to graduate school, inevitably leaving the person who asked the question uninterested. There was no moment of clarity, no profound advice from superiors, no obscure accident that drew me to graduate school. I was, however, blessed by a contiguous series of exceptional mentors who, for some reason, took a particular interest in my progress from early education through university and later as a technician. With some exceptions, aptitude and merit is a fairly level playing field in the applicant pool for graduate education, that is, if you are considering further study you likely meet the eligibility criteria and credentials for application. Rather it would seem that motivation and confidence are more essential attributes, and for me those attributes grew from experience working with and for my mentor and supervisor Dr. Michael Lomas as an REU fellow and technician at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. I worked for several years for Mike and was fortunate to participate in various capacities in many research projects with many collaborators from our small field, observe the work-life (im)balance of many of my superiors, and was exposed to the rote and practical aspects vital to growing and maintaining a small research group. With that experience I suppose I was less surprised by the challenges that face all early career scientists, and which dissuade and disenfranchise many. I have few words of wisdom to encourage the prospective earth sciences applicant, but if you take anything from this blog entry it ought to be that there is no substitute for experience: find opportunities to engage with a mentor, work or volunteer in a lab, and if possible apply with your own funding. Oh and keep in mind, basic research will be a short-lived privilege for many, so enjoy it humbly!
John is a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate at UH Manoa studying central carbon metabolism and the photorespiratory pathway in marine picocyanobacteria. He is broadly interested in the role of marine microbes in mediating elemental cycles and organic matter transformations in the oligotrophic gyres. (https://sites.google.com/site/cmorecasey/)