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Finding Your Career 2.0 in Conservation Science: One Woman's Story

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Everyone's career path is different, but much of what we hope to glean from our work is the same. We all want to love what we do. The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote that 'to work with love is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit.'

I wanted to share the career journey of a woman who truly took this sentiment to heart: Joan O'Shaughnessy, the ecologist who manages the Dixon Prairie and the Skokie River Corridor with the Chicago Botanic Garden. Joan bravely decided to leave her stable (if personally unfulfilling) career as an attorney to achieve her dream of working outside, in the elements, with plants. Joan's story demonstrates that it's never too late to pursue your passions.

I hope you'll find Joan's story as inspiring as I did.

Kayri Havens: Tell me about your career path and how you were led to conservation science.

Joan O'Shaughnessy: Unfortunately, when I started practicing law, I knew in my gut it wasn't the right career path for me. Still, I was in the field of law 12 years before I made the leap out of it. What triggered my path to botany and restoration ecology started during a trip I took to the Smoky Mountains three years after graduating from law school. The friend I was with lent me her camera so I could take a close-up shot of a violet, something I'd never done. It was one of those "OMG" moments. Delicate purple lines on the petals drew me into equally delicate and colorful reproductive parts. I never expected to find such colors and intricacy. I was hooked. Thereafter, a magnifying lens was always in my pocket when I went out in nature.

I then began to explore different career paths that would be in nature -- wilderness guide, environmental education, and natural resources-type of jobs. At the same time, I studied plants on my own, took natural resource workshops and started taking courses at Northeastern Illinois University, a course or two at a time. I ended up pursuing a Master's in Environmental Studies. I continued to explore what direction I wanted my career path to take. I looked at job listings and I started reading journals like The Society for Ecological Restoration and The Natural Areas Journal that gave me insights into what folks were doing in the field of natural resources. I also networked voraciously -- in classes, seminars, workshops, on field trips I took, and at local conferences I thought it would be good to attend. I even called folks blindly and asked if they would meet with me and talk to me about their jobs.

Having researched job opportunities, I realized that the best path was pursing internships in order to build skills and learning and to get my foot in the door. This was how I landed at the Chicago Botanic Garden. From my first day as a Prairie/Woodland intern I knew I was on the right path -- I loved what I was doing. I was doing work that fed my passion of wanting to do physical work in nature while at the same time learning about it. Being in my early forties, I was the oldest, by years, of the interns, which mattered not one wit to me. I had also been one of the oldsters in some of my classes so I was already used to such a scenario. I worked hard during the 3-month internship, the goal being to learn as much and acquire as many skills as I could. Any plant I didn't know, I asked what it was even if it was only a seedling. Thankfully, I had great supervisors who were willing to share all the knowledge I worked at eking out of them. I also studied on my own time. With luck on my side, I was present at the right time and place when a permanent position opened in the natural areas. Having proven myself as an intern, I got the job. I think my age, or at least the number of years I had been working and in positions of responsibility, also helped. I was confident in a work setting and could communicate as a peer, on a personal level, with my supervisors. When I was hired I certainly didn't know all the things I needed to in order to perform my job. With lots of self-learning and taking relevant courses or workshops, I built my skills and knowledge and here I am twenty years later still doing what I want. I also am lucky to be at institution situated on 385 beautiful acres, a third of which is natural areas and the remainder 26 ornamental gardens and am surrounded by and work with ecologists and other scientists whose research is international in scope.

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KH: What were some challenges you faced during your career change and how did you overcome them?

JO: I'd say there were two challenges. One was the question of where money would come from during this career change. I was in the process of paying back my student loans and the thought of working part-time while I went to school and then having to accept temporary and low paying jobs in order to get into this career, was scary. Not everyone can walk the path I have but if you can handle financial insecurity, push the fear away and take the plunge. It is said, "the money will follow" and it did. Also, remember money isn't the only thing a job provides. In my experience, the most fulfilled people are those who can find a job that supports them not only financially but also emotionally and spiritually.

The second was that it was challenging, for me, to give up law. In the path I was exploring, I really, really, struggled with that issue worried about what kind of job I could get, etc. More people than just me had a stake in my then-current position. My father, who helped pay for a good chunk of law school, was pretty stressed about the whole situation. That is until he saw how committed I was. With determination and some help along the way, I was able to overcome that challenge as well.

KH: What advice would you give to someone considering a career change?

JO: I'd give people three suggestions:
  1. Network: As you network, you are able to show your passion and what you're interested in and you can get really good advice from folks. You never know who will be able to help you. I remember hearing that 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking, and it definitely makes sense to me.
  2. Volunteer:When you volunteer, you learn aspects of the field, build skills, build your resume and get an appreciation for what the work actually is. It can help you land an entry-level job. I have hired many seasonal technicians over the years, a number of them, including a few that were career changers, because they acquired skills through volunteering.
  3. Attend workshops, seminars, field trip opportunities: I not only learned a lot but this is how, besides some of my maters degree classes, I was exposed to natural areas, learning about their ecology and management. There are some great free or inexpensive workshops -- like those offered by the University of Milwaukee field station -- and field trip opportunities -- such as those conducted by native plant societies -- that can help you build your education or skills.

KH: Women comprise just 24 percent of STEM fields. Is there any special advice you'd give to a young woman who wants to get into these fields?

JO: This is important: don't be afraid to pursue and realize your dreams just because there may be things that go against you as a woman. Men might have the reputation of being dominant in classes and occupations related to the hard sciences and/or are considered more capable of performing the kind of physical work needed in land management. I know first-hand that women can buck these stereotypes and excel in ecology and are quite capable of doing hard labor. Increasingly, the social stigmas that feed this sort of mindset are falling away. There are a lot of inspiring women going into this field, and you can be one of them. Just take a look at the Garden's web site and check out the genders of scientists and horticulturists here at the Garden. Follow their lead -- pursue your passion!

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