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Life, Work, Reality Revealed

Randy Swaty  

By Randy Swaty, with Jeannie Patton

When I applied for The Nature Conservancy’s Science Impact Project (SIP), I anxiously await word of whether I was accepted or not. Of course being selected for the SIP is my goal, but I discovered that the journey to get there may be just as illuminating.  Applying for a competitive program, one that you really want to do, means holding a mirror up to yourself.  I found that I’ve let some warts develop, and want to share four revelations with you.

The first thing I discovered was that my CV was not up to date – hardly headline news, since I haven’t been looking for a job for 12 years. But it’s more subtle than that and I’m talking about decisions.  In the “work/life balance” terminology, I have mostly chosen “life” over “work.” This means that my CV is not up to date in terms of freshness, i.e., I lack new certifications, am slow on writing  journal articles, and haven’t kept up with trainings. That’s troublesome for a few reasons, among them the fact that job security is a thing of the past. As we know, even here at TNC, on any given day a person can arrive at work to find out that an entire division has been eliminated. Keeping up with the science in my field and sharing knowledge and insight haven’t balanced with the attention that I pay to my personal interests (explored in item four, below).

Which leads to the second thing that I realized:  I am out of the loop on TNC science. I read Science Chronicles, peruse the main conservation and ecology journals monthly and am generally excited about TNC science. However, as I skim through what I think is relevant, believing I am in the know, through the SIP application process I found that I’m not. After Peter Kareiva and Jennifer Molnar reviewed a pre-proposal that I submitted, they told me that what I had proposed was already underway.  Perplexed, I did two things.  I went to the source, and found what they were talking about. Do I ever go to  No. Also, I was reminded of a recent visit to the University of Tennessee where I met Paul Armsworth, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  He has probably published more on the work of TNC than anyone else, and definitely knows more about TNC than I do, period.  I hadn’t heard of him before this visit.  Between the Karieva/Molnar revelation, and the reminder of what a true scholar/scientist looks like, I come up short, and am humbled. I have a lot of catching up to do.

Third, applying for the SIP made me reflect and think about what I want to do in the future.  As I hit the “send” button, I was basically telling TNC, “I recognize that if I am selected, you will be investing in me. It is only ethical that I commit to do my best, both for this program and for the Conservancy in general.”  I was saying, “Yes, I want to freshen up my CV, stay relevant and possibly advance as a conservationist.”  This kind of commitment was a big leap.

The week I applied for the SIP, my wife was under more stress than usual with a local program she runs, and the extra time I worked to get the proposal submitted was felt by everyone in the family. If I am awarded the SIP will it mean extra hours?  If I really want to advance my career at TNC, does it mean less time with the kids? Honestly, I felt a bit selfish as I watched my wife not only take up slack, but also kindly and thoughtfully review my letter of interest. Which leads me to the fourth challenge: finding an appropriate work/life balance.

I have consistently met or exceeded my performance objectives. I am ambitious and work hard to do my best, but when my boys want to read a story, I read.  If my bike needs repair, I repair it instead of sending it to the shop. If my wife wants to go for a run together, I put on my running shoes.  I would not change a thing, but applying for SIP highlighted the work consequences of my decisions.  There are obviously people who figure this balance out, and some folks believe I am one of them – but it’s a ruse. Again, I have been reminded I have a lot to learn.

While I waited for the SIP decision to be handed down (I was not selected), I realized that, regardless of the outcome, the application process prompted self-evaluation that didn’t necessarily make me feel good about myself. I know I have what it takes to be a strong contributor to this valuable program. I know, too, that I have work to do on myself, my priorities, my scholarship, and my career as a scientist. It is time to review those “Professional Development” objectives, improve my time management skills and to listen and learn from you all. 

This post originally appeared in The Nature Conservancy's Science Chronicles May 2014 issue. Read the issue.