Undergraduate Experience VIMS

Lessons from W&M Last a Lifetime

By Erin Spencer ’14

I got an email this week from a freshman at my graduate alma mater. “Ms. Spencer”, it began “can I ask about decisions you made in your early career that helped you get where you are now?”  

“I’m still early career!” I thought to myself. I’m happy to chat about my experience, but it kind of feels like a child leading a slightly-younger child. It feels strange giving advice when there is still so much I don’t know myself.

But the truth is, with my 10-year alumni reunion far closer than I would like, I’m rapidly leaving the “early career” phase into the “should have my act together by now” phase. I feel like I’m getting there: I worked in DC at National Geographic and Ocean Conservancy (and had many brunches on 14th St with W&M alums), then I got my Masters in Ecology from UNC – Chapel Hill where I studied fisheries management and seafood mislabeling. In between I led research projects from Florida to Fiji and accumulated more freelance writing jobs than I can count. Now, I’m pursuing my PhD in Biology in Miami, where I put data collecting devices on great hammerhead sharks. In theory, at least, I should have something to offer to a college student looking to start in the field of marine science.

Our conversation was perfectly nice. She came prepared with well-research questions about how to start in marine science, the importance of internships vs. research experiences, how to get into graduate school, and more. I shared what I could, qualifying each rambling answer with “I hope that’s helpful!”.

Later, as I thought about our chat, one thing stood out: Almost all of my advice came from lessons I learned at William and Mary. Despite two other alma maters and four previous employers, my best guidance came from my experiences as an undergrad.

When she asked me about how I got my first job at National Geographic, I talked about how I first got an internship there through the W&M DC Summer Institutes, and how the Career Center helped me build my resume for my dream job. When she asked about how to get research funding, I talked about how the Cohen Center gave me my first grant, which was then matched by National Geographic after seeing the project had initial funding. When she asked how to get research experience, I talked about how I worked at VIMS counting Antarctic plankton, which led to my first peer-reviewed publication and helped me get into my Master’s program.

As cliché as it sounds, the most important things I learned at William and Mary aren’t on my resume. I learned that I don’t have to pigeon-hole myself to one field; I can pursue multiple interests and weave them together into a fulfilling career. It’s because of this that I split my time between working on my PhD studying sharks, and writing children’s books on the ocean (shameless plug—the first of which is coming out in March 2022!).

I learned to pull as I climb, and that there is always room for empathy in your field. I will forever be grateful to my professors—especially women—who gave me advice and countless letters of recommendation, and simply led by example.

I learned that no one can tell you the right path—you need to make that choice for yourself. William and Mary was a safe place for me to try new things, to extend myself beyond my comfort zone, and learn my limits. I’ve carried these lessons throughout my career, and am grateful to William and Mary for giving me the confidence to trust myself.

My early career path has been circuitous, and full of hard work, luck, and good timing. William and Mary gave me the degree, research experiences, and internships I needed to start in my career. But more than that, it gave me the lessons in compassion, collaboration, and confidence I needed to thrive. Sharing those experiences with the next generation was an important reminder that I will forever be grateful to William and Mary and a proud member of the Tribe.

Follow along with Erin’s work on Twitter, Instagram, and her website and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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