Stop and smell the roses: my path as a non-traditional graduate student

By Claire Moore

Helping the Loch Vale Watershed group at CSU with data collection in Rocky Mountain National Park in May 2014.

Helping the Loch Vale Watershed group at CSU with data collection in Rocky Mountain National Park in May 2014.

I am what some might consider a non-traditional graduate student. My path into grad school was a winding one; I didn’t know I wanted an advanced degree right out of college, so I worked for a while and explored other passions. Science has without a doubt been my favorite subject to read about and ponder over the years, yet I discovered other opportunities and talents along the way that beckoned me to explore them. Maybe there are more of us out there than I realize?

Ever since I was young, I’ve been concerned about how humans are altering the Earth. When I was ten, I drew my own recycle logos on all of the paper bags in my house, donated my birthday money to the World Wildlife Fund, and made up songs about protecting the natural state of the local park just down the street (that thankfully, no one ever heard). In the intervening years, I seized every chance I could to explore the outdoors, and went backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running, and skiing, all the while longing to be closer to the rugged Rocky Mountains and all they had to offer.

On the drive to Lander, Wyoming.

On the drive to Lander, Wyoming.

After completing a degree in Outdoor Education from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, I took a job working in the office for the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI) of the National Outdoor Leadership School, or NOLS, in Lander, Wyoming. I didn’t know a single soul there or have the vaguest idea of what my future held in a tiny town of 6,500 ranchers, townsfolk, and outdoor enthusiasts. As I drove across the Great Plains of our beautiful country in October 2005, my truck packed to the brim, I knew I was realizing a dream of moving west to be closer to mountains and be part of something bigger than myself. I worked my way up through four positions during the five years I worked for WMI of NOLS: Student Services Representative, Program Assistant, Staffing Coordinator, and Registrar. I learned a great deal and enjoyed a wonderful community of friends and colleagues while working for NOLS. Eventually, I came to realize that I wanted to live in a bigger city with access to more resources, to achieve a higher income, and to pursue my education further.

Last month marked ten years since I made the drive to Lander, and they have been years full of adventure, growth, joy, loss, and perseverance. In 2010, I took a job at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, working full-time for a National Science Foundation funded Science and Technology Center called the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) as their Communications and Events Manager. I handle logistics, events, center communications, support a variety of programs, and help with anything else the center needs so that our researchers, students, interns, and participants can do the science they do best. A few years into working for CMMAP, and with much encouragement from my supervisors and resolution on my part, I was accepted into CSU’s renowned Graduate Degree Program in Ecology (GDPE) to pursue a master’s degree.

Practicing field sampling techniques in the Dry Lake area outside of Steamboat Springs for Snow Hydrology Field Methods class in April 2015.

Practicing field sampling techniques in the Dry Lake area outside of Steamboat Springs for Snow Hydrology Field Methods class in April 2015.

As I progressed through the program and related what I was learning to my prior experiences, I discovered that I wanted to find ways to accurately and honestly communicate scientific research to broader audiences. Every day I am surrounded by brilliant scientists who are finding the boundaries of understanding in their fields, and pushing one step beyond. They often publish the results of their work in scientific journals that may only be read by their colleagues and other scientists interested in the topic. We need to find innovative and honest ways to share scientific motivations, questions, methods, uncertainties, results, and conclusions beyond journals with limited readership. I believe that when information is conveyed in a personally relevant way, whether through a single impactful experience or shared values and goals, it has the ability to create deep connections that inspire individual action. These well-informed actions are what will determine the future fate of our planet.

After three years in GDPE, I can confidently say that grad school has been one of the most exciting and most challenging endeavors I have yet pursued. Juggling a full-time career with 3-5 credits of graduate level coursework per semester, along with maintaining a healthy work-life balance, investing time and energy in relationships, and experiencing some real life trials along the way, hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park. I’ve wanted to quit plenty of times. But, never enough to actually do it. As anyone who is on their own journey through graduate school can probably attest, I’ve had moments when I felt like I wasn’t cut out for it and that I had way too much on my plate to keep my head above water. And of course, I’m not finished yet, so I have a few more of those moments to come. But each one that I endure reminds me that I do have what it takes, and every grad school friend to whom I confess my doubt echoes these sentiments and reminds me that I am not alone.

I am wrapping up my last semester of classes this fall, and plan to spend next spring researching and writing, in order to meet the requirements of my non-thesis master’s degree. This option allows me to synthesize a body of knowledge and present it from my own angle, as opposed to going the more classic route of conducting original research. For my project, I will connect current research about climate change impacts on snow in the Rockies with broader audiences, including people with established personal connections to the mountains. Through GDPE’s non-traditional alternative route, I can become proficient about a topic, pursue my passion for communicating science, and obtain an advanced degree, all while continuing my current professional position. Discovering that I can handle graduate school and a full-time job has been incredibly empowering. We are all capable of more than we think. CSU even covers the cost of nine university credits per year for full-time employees, so my graduate education will cost me only the substantial effort it takes to complete it. It turns out being non-traditional has its perks! It may take me a little longer, and I may be a little older than the average grad school student, but I’ve also never felt more capable of rising to the occasion. It’s never too late to try something new. I’m glad I stopped to smell the roses along the way.

Sometimes “the roses” are snow-covered trees. Finding my work-life balance in Steamboat Springs in February 2015

Sometimes “the roses” are snow-covered trees. Finding my work-life balance in Steamboat Springs in February 2015

Claire Moore is a master’s candidate in Colorado State University’s Graduate Degree Program in Ecology interested in understanding climate change effects in mountain regions and finding effective ways to engage a variety of audiences about relevant scientific topics.

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