Written by Siobhan Mullally
As a recent graduate, taking the next step in your career path can feel a lot like choosing the red or blue pill in The Matrix. It’s a decision that could define the rest of your career – talk about intimidating. On the other hand, it can be truly liberating as there is a whole world of opportunities to step into. Dean Alice Hovorka’s experience of finding herself and following her passions through academia demonstrates that continuing your education can create lifelong fulfillment and a rewarding career path. Dean Hovorka shares her best tips and heartfelt encouragement to new grads on how to put their best foot forward into further education.
Siobhan Mullally for A/J: What makes further studies and academic research a rewarding career path?
AH: Anytime we can continue to enlighten ourselves about how the world works and what we can do to make it a better place, you want to seize those opportunities. If I was a recent graduate and felt like I just needed to have more advanced knowledge and skills, that’s when I’d go into a Master’s degree. You want to start to hone in on your passions. If you’re interested in transferable skills around communication, asking and answering a question, learning how to organize your time, being self-motivated and self-guided, graduate studies are a great choice, especially if you’re getting into research-based degrees. There are other course-based options that can offer you a wider range of insights and perspectives onto a particular topic. Be creative. There are so many different ways to take that next step.
“Stay open-minded – recognize your passion as opposed to thinking there is an expectation of what you should be doing.”
SM: What advice would you give to new academics as keys to success
AH: For my own Master’s degree, I applied to completely different schools with completely different topics in mind because I was interested in a lot. When I finally found the place and the program I wanted to go to, I still was left with the choice of three supervisors with three different topics. So, part of it is stay open-minded – recognize your passion as opposed to thinking there is an expectation of what you should be doing. The other pivotal piece for me as a graduate student was connecting with a professor. I found a supervisor that challenged me, helping me become a much more savvy researcher and student. I would also say, don’t get discouraged around things like grades. As someone who brings on Master’s students to work with, I’m not always looking for the Top A student. I’m looking for people who have a sense of adventure, who have great questions, who bring ideas to the table. … The Master’s is fairly exploratory and this is the opposite of what I’d say to PhD students – don’t go do a PhD to find yourself. Go do a PhD when you know what you want to study, the university that you want to be at, the supervisors that you’ve talked to and established a relationship, and make sure you want to work with them. You really need to be excited to be a PhD student for 5 years, that’s a long haul.
SM: How do you have a work/life balance while still being a successful change maker?
AH: We need to take care of our whole selves in order to offer ourselves to whatever service, cause, or workplace we might be engaged in. Sometimes we need the space away from our work lives because that’s when our minds relax and new ideas come in. You never know what idea is going to come to you when you’re not trying to force it. In my free time, I write articles. That’s my fun Friday night. A glass of wine and my paper. So, work/life balance blurs, but it doesn’t have to. And it’s hard to make that stance. I remember one moment that sticks with me. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a non-tenured faculty member to be working all the time. I remember leaving my workplace around 4 o’ clock, and I was done for the day, and someone turned and said, “Hey, Alice. You leaving already? You don’t have tenure yet.” I walked away and I thought – that’s the moment when you either say no, I’ve got to go back upstairs and keep working because of someone’s expectations, or you trust yourself that you can get your work done and be successful even though you’ve set some boundaries around it.
“As someone who brings on Master’s students to work with, I’m not always looking for the Top A student. I’m looking for people who have a sense of adventure, who have great questions, who bring ideas to the table.”
SM: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your work of researching and advancing sustainability in academia?
AH: If I think back to the research I was doing around urban environments in sub-Saharan Africa, I was always interested in how we make lives more sustainable and just. One of the pieces that I advocated for is that you cannot get sustainability in the food system unless you’ve addressed gender politics. The challenge was having policy makers, decision makers, and even academics understand, on the one hand, that nature is in cities. We’re not separate from nature. The other piece is that our political and social structures will either enable sustainability or claw it back. People have grasped this idea of sustainability, but we haven’t fully grasped all the elements you need for sustainability, and that again would be justice, power indifferences between people, or people and animals and nature. But it’s a whole new moment out there. It really feels like we’re turning a corner.
SM: What moments have made the challenges worth it and have driven you to continue working in academia?
AH: After my Master’s degree, I started going door-to-door saying, “Hi, my name’s Alice. Here’s my resume. I’d love to work with your organization.” I remember being in that moment thinking, “I’m never going to get a job.” I also realized that I didn’t quite have a passion for the people I was knocking on the door for. I was sort of that generic person without a compelling sense of why I wanted to work with them, until I found one program through a government think tank. I remember coming across a group that did work on urban agriculture issues and I knew I was so passionate about this topic. So, passion – number 1. Number 2 – I felt like I belonged there. By that time I realized that I wanted to do my own research, and they had research positions. Then, I thought, I need to get to know people. I was in their office regularly for about a year. I’d walk in and say hello, take people out for coffee, see what they were doing. They were offering one position for an internship, and I interviewed and got the job. Part of it was a success of figuring out who I was, what I was starting to get passionate about, and then recognizing that you have to put yourself out there and talk to people. I kept bringing them ideas all the time and they figured out that they were as connected to me than I was connected to them. That was really pivotal.
So, if you’re deciding whether to continue your journey in education, take advice from Dean Hovorka. Be creative and open-minded, pursue the opportunity that challenges you to go out of your comfort zone, and put yourself out there and network with like-minded people. This is your moment to use your passion and turn it into your career path.