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In Person: A Simpler Life

(Agricultural Research Service, USDA)

Last summer, I picked many pounds of fresh sugar snap and snow peas, ate them every day for weeks, gave them to friends and neighbors, and even donated some to be sold by a local charitable group. The plethora of peas wasn't unusual; I grow plenty of peas every year. What really set this summer apart was the corn, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, greens, beans, tomatoes, beets, and winter squash--crops I don't usually grow, at least not in such quantity.

As I contemplate another career change, I admit to a lurking sense of unease. … The most consistent factor in my life has been growing peas. Perhaps I'll become a farmer of peas.

Why the extra large harvest? This summer was the first in decades that I wasn't tied to a job, so I could spend as much time as I wanted in my garden.

(Hidde de Vries)

In January 2008, I learned that my application for tenure in the physics department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, had been denied. My department had supported my application, so it remained a congenial place to work. That meant I felt able to stay on at Colby for the year and a half remaining in my term while I figured out what to do next. My term ended last academic year, and I still haven't made any career decisions. And since then, I and all of my neighbors have been eating lots of peas and other fresh vegetables.

As a professor, I found my interactions with students immensely rewarding. I loved seeing students get excited about independent research projects, rise to the challenge of writing a scientific paper, master a particularly tough physics problem, or simply get the math to come out right. I enjoyed my own research, having found a niche where I could make a contribution even from a small college with a relatively heavy teaching load.

So after I had been rejected, I applied for some academic positions, setting aside my reservations about restarting an academic career at age 54. I need not have worried; none of the academic jobs panned out. I focused instead--happily--on moving to New Hampshire to join my partner, Steve, for the first time in our 6-year relationship.

(University of Innsbruck)

On Tenure

Also in Science Careers this week:

- Special Feature: Getting--and Not Getting--Tenure. Science Careers describes how to get tenure--and what some people do when they don't.

- "Perspective: Advice on Achieving Tenure." An expert on tenure describes best practices for getting tenure.

- "Life After Rejection." You've been denied tenure--now what?

Uprooting myself from Maine wasn't easy, but since my move last summer, I have become content with my new life. We have an off-grid solar-powered house in a very rural area of New Hampshire. We heat primarily with wood and, of course, grow lots of vegetables. Keeping up with the vegetables, maintaining the house and outbuildings, building a new woodshed, upgrading the photovoltaic system, improving the soil, and expanding the garden keeps us busy! My previous training as a carpenter has come in handy: I had 6 years of on-the-job training and experience with a co-op building company in North Carolina before returning to school to study physics. I am gratified to find that I still have aptitude with a hammer and circular saw, if not quite the physical endurance I once had. I'm happy here.

I do intend to seek a job locally--but what kind of job? Academic job searches are rarely local, and the job market in rural New Hampshire for Ph.D.-level physicists is not exactly robust. Full-time construction work would be too hard on me physically. Anyway, I left construction many years ago because it didn't interest me as a career.

The current recession provides a good excuse for postponing my job search. My lifestyle has always been frugal, so I can afford to be unemployed for a while. I expect to spend at least a few more months occupied with the chores of rural life, doing small building projects, and taking the occasional day off to hike in the White Mountains. I should have at least a few more days of the extraordinary fall colors. Meanwhile, I'll daydream about new and better vegetables and plan for next summer's garden while considering my future.

As I contemplate another career change, I admit to a lurking sense of unease. How much will I miss science and my students? And then there's the question of my identity, which seems difficult to pin down. If not a physicist or a carpenter, what am I? The most consistent factor in my life has been growing peas. Perhaps I'll become a farmer of peas.

In Person: Guidelines

Science Careers accepts submissions for its "In Person" series. These essays cover education and career development--in the broadest sense--in the sciences and engineering.

Essays should be about 800 words long and personal in tone. Please send submissions as an editable text document attachment (such as Microsoft Word or OpenOffice) to an e-mail message, addressed to (Subject: In Person submission). Please do NOT include photographs or other attachments with the original submission.

All manuscripts are carefully considered, not all are published, and all those selected will be edited prior to publication. More guidelines and examples can be found in the In Person Series Index.

Physicist Virginia Long is contemplating her next career move.

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