Bronco Spotlight: Elizabeth Palmer

Bronco Spotlight: Elizabeth Palmer

Ph.D. in geological and environmental sciences, 2018

Current Job Title:

Postdoctoral Scholar

Current Employer:

University of Southern California, Department of Electrical Engineering and Electrophysics 

Describe your current job:

I am a postdoctoral scientific researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The period of being a 'postdoc' is similar to residency for medical students, and each postdoc lasts about 2-3 years in my field of geology/geophysics (on the other end of the spectrum, a postdoc typically lasts 6 years in biology). Typically, someone does 1 to 3 postdocs before being hired as a full-time professional scientist. During these years, I am funded by my advisor's grant money, and allocate all of my time to becoming the ideal candidate for the career path of my choice: academia, industry, or government. I would like to work as a government scientist, so during my postdoc, I am building my resume by: (1) publishing 2-3 peer-reviewed scientific papers per year -- some as lead-author, others as co-author; (2) co-writing grant proposals with my advisor to learn the funding process; and (3) diversifying my research projects so that I become a viable candidate for several different areas of scientific research. By building my publication count, I show that I am able to perform high-quality research that journals want to publish, and it shows that I know how to communicate with and accept criticism from fellow scientists to change and improve the science I am publishing. By writing grants with my advisor, I show that I am able to come up with new, persuasive, fundable research ideas, and that I can clearly explain my work to a wide, non-expert audience. Finally, by diversifying my research topics, I mean that I am expanding beyond the topic of my PhD dissertation (using radar to look for ice on asteroids), because there will never be one perfect job that aligns with the narrow topic that I studied for years as a PhD student. Instead, I was trained to perform high-quality scientific research a PhD student, and now as a postdoc, I need to apply those critical thinking skills to a variety of new topics to show future employers that I can be hired on many different projects related to geophysics, and that I will succeed in performing high-quality research for them too. For example, I am now using radar to map the flow of deep, underground water in arid desert environments so that we can understand how human and natural forces are changing drinking-water quality across the globe. 

What is the most rewarding and the most challenging part of your job?

The most rewarding part of being a postdoc is that I have been given a 2-3-year period where I can focus solely on building my resume for the career of my choice. In other words, instead of jumping directly into the role of being a professional scientist -- during which my time will be heavily allocated to managerial responsibilities, administrative/company meetings, advising interns or junior colleagues, writing grant proposals each month that may or may not get funded, or dealing with the bureaucracy that comes with any job (i.e., 'paperwork'), with any remaining time left for doing research -- I am instead free to balance my time with 80% pure research and 20% administrative/mentorship/proposal-writing responsibilities so that I can produce the publications needed to advance as an early-career scientist.  It is also very rewarding to learn about several new topics in geophysics now that I am faster and more efficient at performing research, thanks to my PhD experience. Finally, the most challenging part of my job is that I must be patient, waiting for the day that my resume is ready to meet the criteria for an excellent job in government science. I know that in 2-3 years, I will need to move again to a new city -- and the uncertainties of 'where', 'with whom' and 'on what project' often leaves me unsatisfied and anxious. That said, I am also excited to see where life takes me next, and I look forward to all the possibilities to come. 

What experiences impacted the choice of your career path? 

The best experience I can recommend for any career path is to find an internship or apprenticeship or to shadow someone who has a job you're interested in. I wanted to study space, so I decided to major in astronomy as an undergrad. However, I found my physics classes very challenging, and I was not interested in all of my classes, which worried me that I might not like being a full-time astronomer someday. So, I decided to apply for a summer internship as an undergrad (I applied to at least a dozen different programs after my sophomore year). I was rejected by all but 1 location that summer, the Applied Physics Laboratory near D.C. that works closely with NASA. That internship made a huge shift in my career path. When I arrived, I was assigned to work on a project that felt slow and uninteresting, and I was becoming discouraged. However, all the interns would attend weekly talks given by other space scientists from around APL, and I loved their topics -- they were studying the geology of planets in our solar system, and sent satellites to orbit Mars and Mercury. From that experience, I discovered that 'astronomy' and 'planetary science' were two different fields of study, and that I was not interested by studying stars, galaxies or black holes (the work of astronomers), but that I wanted to learn so much more about exploring our own solar system (the work of planetary scientists). The next summer, I applied for a dozen internships related to planetary science instead, and I landed an internship with NASA in Los Angeles. Because of the mentor that I met during that second internship, I have now become a planetary scientist who specializes in using radar to look for signs of ice and water on asteroids, comets and even the deserts of Earth, and I have moved back to Los Angeles to continue on that journey. For anyone trying to figure out if they will like a certain career path, now is the time to do an internship to find out what naturally brings you excitement and motivation. 

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