Sarah Carvill, PhD, is a member of the 2016 Class of CCST Science & Technology Policy Fellows. She received a BA and PhD in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz, where her dissertation focused on timber policy and water quality on California’s North Coast. In addition, Carvill holds an MS from University of Montana, where she studied rancher involvement in ecosystem restoration. Carvill’s CCST Fellowship placement is with the California State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and Senator Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Committee Chair.
The most incredible thing about CCST’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowship is that it gives PhD scientists looking to transition to careers in public policy and science communication a year of on-the-job experience doing exactly that — in the storied and hectic halls of California’s State Capitol.
Our training — both from our time in academia and in the Fellowship program — proved to be excellent preparation for the work we do in “The Building” as legislative staff and committee consultants. But what happens when the Fellowship year is over? The Fellowship has cracked open my sense of what is possible for me, and made me feel like I could access so much more in my professional life than I had imagined.
As amazing as that was, it was also mildly terrifying — because the choices can be overwhelming.
Prior to coming to Sacramento, I had always been the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted, going straight from undergrad to master’s, and straight from master’s to PhD. Throughout it all, my research focused on the relationship between regulatory policy, natural resource industries, and environmental quality in the rural West. My work was interdisciplinary, sure, but I had defined my niche.
In my Fellowship placement with the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, I got to analyze policy on an entirely new set of topics, such as public transportation and affordable housing. I got to learn and think about subjects that have enormous implications for climate change and social justice — two issues that are close to my heart, even if not to my original academic focus.
Stepping into the policy arena, I also found myself working at a faster, more dynamic pace than I ever had, brokering agreements and solving quandaries without the benefit of ten years of expertise in whatever subject matter was in hand. It was different than anything I had done before — but it was so much fun.
By the time the Assembly bills started rolling through our Senate committee in June, I could see myself staying in the State Legislature and trying to make a career there. But the fact that I was tackling so many new subjects and rising to so many new challenges also gave me pause. I no longer had a niche specialty — yet I also feared I might be trading one narrowly defined professional identity for another.
I needed some help thinking through — in a systematic way — all the options I sensed were out there for my professional future.
Heading Up a Mountain
Fortunately, summer is the season for career development in the CCST Fellowship. When the State Legislature goes on recess in July and the usual torrent of policy work slows to a trickle, we Science Fellows can catch a much needed breather from the office — and focus on life questions like the ones I was starting to ask.
For my class, that meant escaping the triple-digit temperatures in Sacramento for a three-day retreat on the shores of Lake Tahoe — one of California’s most spectacular natural treasures.
To help us make the most of our time there, CCST brought in UC San Francisco Assistant Vice Chancellor and career counselor Bill Lindstaedt. Bill had already joined us for one of our Friday Seminars in May, and after that initial session, he left us with several “homework” assignments, due by our July retreat. The exercises were designed to help us get a better grasp on the positions and pathways that would help us realize our career goals — and help us assemble compelling applications for such career openings.
The first time Bill spoke to us, I fell into a private panic. I didn’t feel ready to tailor my resume — I didn’t know what kind of job I was looking for, or where my qualifications stood for positions that didn’t involve the words “legislative” or “postdoc”.
When I started my homework, however, I discovered that it wasn’t just about writing cover letters. For example, one assignment had me comparing what I found to be the most exciting challenges during my graduate research and my time in Trans and Housing — which helped me identify specific transferrable skills I love to use, like problem solving and synthesizing information from diverse sources.
These exercises, which analyzed my vocational strengths and sources of personal fulfillment, made it easier to see why I had been able to succeed in such different environments — and they showed me what I needed to look for in my next position.
Navigating a Path
We spent the first day of the retreat working through the process of getting a job — from searching for open positions to negotiating compensation. For every aspect of career development we discussed as a group, we also spent time working in pairs. We would workshop our resumes and roleplay common interview questions — preparing to quickly and confidently tell prospective employers and mentors where we’ve been, and where we hope to be going. Each of us also got to meet individually with Bill and Amber to delve more deeply into our particular circumstances, and to develop a personalized list of next steps.
In these discussions — and in our conversations over meals, at the swimming pool, and between organized activities — I saw my friends making the same incremental progress I began to detect in myself. They appreciated where I stood on my life path, and all of us seemed to sense more clarity on our goals going forward.
The retreat wasn’t all work. Within an hour of our arrival in Tahoe, most of us were literally swinging from the treetops on the “black diamond” route in the Granlibakken ropes course — or watching from the ground as others struggled to hook their feet into gymnasium rings, swaying in the breeze nearly fifty feet in the air.
While it’s possible that a few of us spent each evening putting last-minute touches on our homework assignments, this clearly did not get in the way of raucous games of Cards Against Humanity — and the decimation of what had initially appeared to be an excessive quantity of kettlecorn and chocolate.
Of course, no CCST event would be complete without at least a dollop of science policy. On our way home, we stopped by the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe for a tour of a stream restoration project in Incline Village.
Well-rested and well-prepared, we returned to Sacramento ready for the final month of session — and the job hunts that will begin in earnest when legislative business draws to a close in the fall.
The retreat — and all that homework — gave me a way to sort through all of this awesome, overwhelming cracked-open-ness of the professional possibilities now before me. And it has helped me piece together a story about myself — one that I can use to find my path after this life-changing year.
— Sarah Carvill