PhD Pudding

In three months I will transform from a Blue Devil to a Cardinal as I begin my PhD at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University (E-IPER).

It took three rounds of applying to PhD programs over a span of seven years to finally be accepted.

In fact, the program I was finally accepted to at Stanford was one of the very same ones I had applied to seven years earlier to no avail. For years it seemed that no matter what I tried I still didn’t have the perfect combination of attractive qualities.

I’d slowly added merit badges to my double undergrad degree sash (B.S. in biological sciences and a B.A. in environmental studies from UC Santa Barbara)–I conducted field work collecting data on chimpanzees in Uganda and whale sharks in the Seychelles, became a National Geographic Young Explorer, and built a career as a freelance conservation photojournalist. But all to no avail.

Whale shark in the Seychelles that looks like it belongs in Jurassic World. Photo by Shannon (Switzer) Swanson.
Whale shark in the Seychelles that looks like it belongs in Jurassic World. Photo by Shannon (Switzer) Swanson.

I hoped/assumed being in progress on a masters degree would help my case, and despite well-meaning warnings that my quantitative GRE score was too low, I decided to go for it one last time, smack in the middle of fall semester of my second year at the Nicholas School. I decreed that this would be the very last time I would apply–if I wasn’t accepted somewhere this time, then c’est la vie.

Finally the curse was broken, and I was accepted to several programs. I wanted to share a few things I learned through the process for anyone considering the same path, because I was really hungry for such advice and had a difficult time finding it. In fact, I’ll be sharing it as a recipe, because what isn’t more fun as a recipe?



1) Conviction (5 cups)

The first two times I applied to PhD programs, I didn’t fully understand what a PhD would entail, and what the main motivator should be for pursuing one. This was cleared up during my first year in the Masters of Environmental Management program at the Nicholas School, when I contacted a professor I was interested in working with when I began considering applying for the third time. The first thing she asked me was why I would like to do a PhD. I rambled on and on about how I love the natural world and wanted to contribute to the body of knowledge surrounding human use of natural resources, yada yada.

When I finished she asked, “But do you like doing research?” This should’ve been the obvious thing to mention, since a PhD is basically 3-5 years of solid research. But I’d never thought about it in such plain terms, and the research I’d completed at that point had been traditional ecological studies–not the field I was hoping to enter. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, I actually harbored a distaste for quantitative research. I said, “Oh yes of course I do. How silly of me not to mention that.” But really I was deflated. Did I like research? I wasn’t sure. Looking back I’m convinced this showed through in past applications.

2) Self-directed Research (4 cups) 

Around the same time I was taking a course called Social Science Surveys for Environmental Management taught by Dr. Randy Kramer. This was my gateway to the research I would come to love. Dr. Charlotte Clark, a guest speaker, joined the class and taught us about qualitative research and how it can be applied to the environmental world. It was like a light had shown down from heaven. THIS was what I had been looking for but had never had a name by which to call it. I took Professor Clark’s Qualitative Methods course and Dr. Liz Shapiro’s series of Community Based Environmental Management courses and never looked back.

For my masters project I arranged to work with Conservation International on a participatory film research project to evaluate one of their mangrove restoration and alternative livelihood programs in the Philippines. With the expert guidance of my masters project advisor, Dr. Lisa Campbell, I spearheaded, designed, executed, and analyzed the project and the resulting data from start to finish. Not only did I find the project rewarding, but a year after being posed the question “But do you like doing research?” when I was earnestly connecting with professors who I was interested in working with as a PhD student, they were impressed I’d carried out such an extensive project in such a short amount of time. They told me so. And I was 100% convinced that I loved research and told them so.

3) Connections (3.5 cups) 

OK, I know networking sounds schmoozy and insincere. I prefer thinking of it as “being willing to chat about life with someone you’ve just met,” but that’s a bit long-winded. Here’s an example. We had just begun our Marine Policy course and met our TA. After class, I began chatting with her and learned she was in the first year of her PhD at the Duke Marine Lab working with Dr. Xavier Basurto. I mentioned that I was looking at different programs and planning to apply, and she said I should get in touch with Dr. Larry Crowder at Stanford. I had initially overlooked him, because based on his past publications it seemed he focused strictly on traditional marine ecology. My TA informed me he was really interested in bringing more social science into his work and lab. So I got it touch and the rest is history. Dr. Crowder became my biggest advocate, and I believe really helped me secure a spot in E-IPER. So networking, no matter which way you slice it, is critical.

Also, having many opportunities to practice networking in a professional situation while at the Nicholas School also helped me feel comfortable engaging with faculty, staff and current students during the 3-day long interviews at Stanford. Later several students and faculty mentioned that my professionalism and friendly demeanor during the interviews went a long way in securing my place in the program.

Finally, building good relationships with my professors was maybe the BIGGEST factor to being accepted. The admissions committee at Stanford told me my letters of recommendation were excellent and compelling, and I’m forever grateful to the professors who supported me in this way. I needed to come back to school to establish these relationships, and I’m so glad I did. Letters of recommendation from a professor I’d had nine years earlier just weren’t as compelling.

4) Seized Opportunities (3 cups)

Another factor that helped me solidify my desire to complete a PhD was my experience during a summer internship at the Environmental Defense Fund. It was through a program called the Stanback Internship Program run by the Nicholas School, and though I knew it would be a stretch to do both the eleven-week internship and four weeks of research in the Philippines for my masters project over the summer, I went for it anyway. It was the best decision I could’ve made. While at EDF, working with their Cuban Marine Conservation Program, I learned that the people filling the positions I found the most interesting–the ones that developed and ran entire programs–had advanced degrees (either JD’s or PhDs). That’s when I realized that if I wasn’t able to/didn’t want to pursue a career in academia, a PhD would still be very useful.

5) Initiative (2 cups)

While at the Nicholas School, myself and a few other students with interest in science and conservation communication started a student group called Duke SNAP (Stories for Nature and People). It was my favorite extracurricular pursuit during my masters. Besides the fact that it gave me a chance to shape an organization exactly as I envisioned it, along with input from my co-founders of course, I think it contributed to making me an attractive PhD applicant. My colleagues and I saw what we perceived as a need–to have a monthly collaborative creative outlet for environmental students–and filled it. It was rewarding and revealed an entrepreneurial spirit (which was also a great self-discovery).

6) Juggling Skills (1.5 cups)

Learning how to juggle a dozen things at once helped a great deal too. And yes sometimes I felt like a circus clown and sometimes the spinning plates came crashing down. But for a short time it was doable to be involved in nine different clubs, have an assistantship and work-study, still be freelancing for National Geographic, and take 16 units of coursework. I think all of my Nic School colleagues would say the same–it was a hell of a sleepless ride, but it was all worth it.

7) Elevator Pitch (1 cup)

This phrase used to make me cringe, because I had so many terribly interesting interests and so much passion for life how could I possibly convey it all in a thirty second spiel? But that’s the point, and it took me a long time to fully comprehend this. Nobody wants to hear me dither on and on incoherently about my multitude of mixed up interests. People want to hear the condensed version–the sweet simple syrup of my core life mission. Being forced to think about what this concoction was helped me determine which courses to take and which activities to commit to during the masters program, so that I could slowly distill my interests into a syrup I can now share, short and sweet. Lately, I’ve been hoping to meet the President in an elevator, that’s how much I’ve come to enjoy giving my pitch.

9) An Understanding Spouse/Partner (1 cup)

While, of course, it’s not necessary to have a spouse or partner to get into a PhD program, if you do have one, it really helps if they are supportive throughout the application process. I’m so thankful I had such support from my husband. He was my idea bouncer and statement-of-purpose guinea pig. This meant a lot, because I won’t exactly be getting rich while doing my PhD and that affects him too. His full support was critical to my success.

8) Patience (drizzle generously on top)

This has never been my strong suit. I want things to happen and to happen now. The PhD application process reminded me that the world doesn’t revolve around my timeframe, and there are millions of brilliant people out there all wanting to make a difference too. I’m glad I stuck it out. The prize of being accepted is that much sweeter, and I’m approaching it with a much different attitude than I would have before–one with a little more humility and grace.

10) Luck (a pinch or two)

Because you have to end recipes with a pinch of something. And because a lot of the PhD application process is sheer luck. I was lucky that Dr. Larry Crowder was accepting students and was interested in me, I was lucky that the mysterious politics of academia didn’t somehow count me out, and I was lucky that I met Dr. Charlotte Clark who knew Dr. Nicole Ardoin, who was on the admissions committee. Luck is clearly not the lone ingredient, but it adds that kick.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Voila…the proof is in the PhD pudding. Those are the secret ingredients I would’ve loved to learn about sooner. Though I wouldn’t change the path I took, if I can help anyone get on the fast track, I’m happy to oblige.

Bon appétit!

8 thoughts on “PhD Pudding

  1. Well, Shanni, I just loved reading your recipe. Although I kind of lived through your journey, I really didn’t understand what you were doing, but now I do. I am so happy for you. You are such a wonderful multi-faceted person and your patience really has paid off! I love your writing. Love, Nannell

  2. What a generous and helpful way to pass on such well-earned and important practical information to others on the same path.

    Your writing is informative, succinct and easily digestible. I can’t wait to read what you ‘cook up’ at Stanford.

  3. This is fabulous, Shannon! I think most of this advice would apply to all sorts of job hunts, not just PhD programs. Also, I would love to hear your elevator pitch sometime. I bet we could all use some pointers!

  4. I enjoy your writing so much-both what you have to say and the way you say it. Thank you for sharing it with us .Loo9king forward to the next recipe.

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