An unconventional path

In this alumni spotlight, we catch up with Marica Gossard (’04 PhD. sociology) who is using her sociological training in a university setting, but not as an academic.

Gossard focused on environmental sociology and communities during her doctoral studies. Today, she is the director of communications and marketing for the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU, as well as an avid yoga teacher.

When you arrived at WSU as a grad student, what were your career plans?

I am the poster child for having an alternative career. I came as a grad student in 1997 and was very interested in environmental issues. I remember Gene Rosa saying getting an environmental sociology degree does not mean that you will be able to save the world, but it does allow you to do a lot of good work. I have so many fond memories of graduate school and would go back tomorrow if I could. I loved everything about it: the intellectual aspects, the camaraderie, talking about big ideas. I have nothing but good things to say about the sociology department at WSU. But I realized early on that I was interested in applying the work and particularly using science to inform environmental policy.

Around 2002, I applied to be an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Fellow sponsored by the American Sociological Association, which places scientists in media organizations, and was one of a few sociologists to get it. I also applied and was awarded to go to the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (a research institute in Austria), which I turned down for the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship.

For the fellowship, I worked at Newsweek magazine in New York City for 10 weeks, which seemed very appealing and exciting to me, and it had the applied aspect that I was interested in. I wanted to learn how to communicate science to a general audience. At the time Newsweek was still owned by the Graham family, who also owned the Washington Post, and many people there became quite well known later, including Jon Meacham, who was the managing editor at the time.

I came back from that summer, and I was more convinced than ever that I wanted to do something that was going to impact policy. It seems naive in today’s world, but I felt that if people could understand the science, we could solve the world’s problems. I took that to heart so much so that I worked for two years to apply to the AAAS Technology and Policy Fellowship, which was my dream. I got it, but I didn’t end up taking it, so I’ll give you that punchline.

Over a three-week period I interviewed with offices in the State Department and USAID and traveled back and forth to Washington, DC. I was offered two positions: one to go to Africa to do energy work with USAID, and one that involved work in the State Department Office of Climate Change.

I came back from my last interview, and it turned out I was pregnant. I had been married 16 years at the time, so you can imagine the shock. And this was the same week I got the offer to either move to Africa or work at the State Department, which is a 14-hour-a-day job and heavy travel. It’s the quintessential family problem: take this job that is very demanding or raise a family. We decided that moving to Washington, D.C., for a two-year position, having a baby, and me being gone all the time was a recipe for disaster, so I turned it down. Sometimes I do think about what my life would have been like had I done that.

So what happened instead?

It turned out okay because I naively decided to become a freelance science writer instead. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s hard to be a freelancer because you have to cold call people and drum up clients. I worked for the California Energy Commission, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the AAAS. I wrote an article in American Archeology. My sociology background helped because I understood science, so it gave me the ability to formulate better questions when I interviewed people.

I did that for a few years and then I saw a half-time job advertised with the College of Veterinary medicine for a development writer and thought it would be great with my freelancing. I loved it and I did that for many years. But as things go at WSU, you get better at your job and they ask you to do more. Almost two years ago I was offered the position of director of communications for the college. It’s been really rewarding, and I enjoy the work. Many times, I believe having the PhD gives me entrée and street cred with the faculty because they know I understand them and the science as well as what it’s like to be affiliated with an academic institution. I’m very happy at my job and I believe in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Every day is interesting. Now my son is 17 and he barely wants to talk to me, so I could move to Washington, DC, and he wouldn’t care (laughs). Seriously, he’s a great kid.

What is your advice for graduate students who are looking towards a non-academic path?

At least when I was in graduate school, you were trained to be an academic and, so, when I decided I wasn’t going to do that, I thought, “What else am I going to do?” But so many of the skills that you learn in graduate school are transferable into other professions, whether you go into academia or not: persistence, intellectual curiosity, research skills, and hanging in there with people who disagree with you. One of the things that you learn as a graduate student is how to argue effectively and logically, and that is a skill you have in your toolbox. You can persuade people with rational thought, sometimes (laughs).

I joke that I have a PhD in human behavior, which it’s really not, but you understand how people behave in the world and how structures affect the way people behave, and having that curtain pulled back helps you navigate other situations. I did not realize how useful a lot of those things would be in my career, but they have been, and many of those skills are helpful in almost any job. There are a lot of interesting things that you can do with a graduate degree in any science.

Originally posted at WSU Sociology News