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The MIT-WHOI Joint Program (JP) notes that 62% of its students have gone on to work at a research institution or university [1]. Although over half of JP alumni have gone into academia, getting an advanced degree in oceanography doesn't limit you to a single career path. In fact, graduate school can impart a whole set of transferable skills and expertise that can serve as a foundation for a variety of careers outside of the academic ivory tower. As a new series on Through the Porthole, we are aiming to highlight different careers for graduate students in geosciences.

For our first alumni spotlight, we interviewed Dr. Rene Boiteau (‘16) who is currently an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University. Dr. Boiteau was a JP student from 2010 to the beginning of 2016, and he worked with Prof. Dan Repeta on developing analytical methods to determine the structure of organic molecules which bind trace metals in the ocean. Below is a synthesis of our chat together about his path to becoming a professor and his experiences of being a scientist in academia. In bold I have noted our three main takeaways.

[1] Alumni Destinations for Recent Graduates


Your undergraduate degree sets you up for a successful graduate career - no matter your major.


Most students who venture into the world of ocean sciences don’t typically have a robust background in the field - it’s more common for students to get a degree in one of the core science fields (e.g. biology, physics, geology, etc), and then find avenues to apply their knowledge to different settings. Dr. Rene Boiteau was no different. As a chemistry major at Northwestern University, he enjoyed analytical lab work using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectrometry (MS)--techniques that can identify molecules and the arrangement of atoms within them. It wasn't until he started taking Environmental Sciences classes, specifically Aquatic Chemistry, that he discovered “you can [use] the same chemical principles and apply them to the world around us”, which got him excited about other ways to use and apply chemistry.

After grappling with the decision to get an advanced degree in either pure chemistry or to dive into the world of ocean sciences, Dr. Boiteau decided to take the plunge and pursue oceanography. While working with Dr. Repeta, he was able to apply the same analytical skills that he gained during his undergraduate career to his PhD work. To stay at the forefront of oceanographic research, Dr. Boiteau states, “we need people that can appreciate advanced tools [analytical techniques] and then apply them to environmental systems.”

Now, after graduating from the Joint Program and completing a postdoc at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (more on that later), he works at Oregon State University in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. He engages with both graduate and undergraduate students, but says one of his favorite classes to teach is an undergraduate Chemical Oceanography course. He notes that this course brings together a diverse set of majors who come with varying levels of background in chemistry, providing the students with “complementary expertise to understand chemistry in the ocean.” Additionally, he is always excited to provide opportunities to bring undergraduate students out to sea, where he is able to observe them “have a switch flip” (similar to an “aha” moment) when they get the immersive experience of learning ocean sciences while out at sea collecting samples.


Being an independent scientist involves venturing into uncharted territory.


One of the unique characteristics of the Joint Program is that there is no teaching requirement for students, yet there are often more students that want to TA than there are classes that need them. Starting a job where one of your main responsibilities is teaching graduate and undergraduate students can seem like “venturing into uncharted territory” - especially for people who might not have considerable experience in that regard. Dr. Boiteau notes that starting a position as an independent scientist could be compared to “drinking from a firehose for a while,” but the good news is that getting a PhD teaches you how to “learn on your feet.” Having supportive mentors who aid you in the process of becoming an independent scientist and teacher makes this transition much easier. When Dr. Boiteau first started at OSU, he had a supportive mentor, Dr. Miguel Goni, who provided course material and advice regarding course structure, logistics, and philosophy. This help was really important for making him a better instructor while also reducing the time and effort needed to teach for the first time.


There are different business models for successful labs, and no two labs are the same.


During Dr. Boiteau’s time in the JP, he kept an open mind as to what he wanted to do after graduating. He enjoyed mentoring undergraduate Summer Student Fellows at WHOI but also wanted to explore different research environments. He ended up with a postdoctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a federally funded facility managed by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. He describes the structure of this fellowship as one pot of money that is not only used to fund the projects you are working and collaborating on, but also used to pay your salary. Learning how to budget your time and manage different projects is an important skill no matter which career path you end up choosing, and is especially vital for those in STEM fields.

Now, as a scientist at a university where undergraduates are the driving force of the institution, Dr. Boiteau says there is less flexibility for fieldwork due to working around the academic calendar. This differs from a place like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution or a national lab where research and administrative responsibilities are not as closely tied to the academic calendar. Another way research labs may differ is by size of the lab - some labs may have upwards of 10 students (graduate and undergraduate) and the advisor begins to play more of an administrative role. Other labs may operate on a smaller scale where everyone is more involved in the activities of keeping a lab afloat. Although there are many different types of research environments, this does not mean one is better than another. Labs will operate differently, but in the end they are all home to successful researchers.

Dr. Boiteau’s career as an academic researcher is one example of a path you can follow after getting a degree from the Joint Program, but there are many other routes you can take towards a fulfilling, successful career. In later issues, we will talk with other Joint Program graduates and explore some of these diverse paths. Stay tuned!


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