Shawna White, PhD


How did you decide on pursuing degree in geoscience? Did you know about geoscience before you entered university?

I actually only learned about a degree in geoscience in my fourth year of undergrad. It wasn’t a topic that was discussed much when I was younger and my high school never had any geology courses. I was finishing a physics degree and took a couple of geology electives. I absolutely loved it. Learning that I could have a career in science, with the Earth being a natural laboratory, made me quickly switch gears!


How did you land your first position? (Through networking, applying to an ad, etc.).

A lot of looking, research, and applying!


Can you briefly describe your career progression?

Near the end of my PhD at the University of Alberta, I began applying for a lot of positions. Mostly Postdocs and Assistant Professor Positions, but also government survey/research positions. I knew I wanted to continue research, but I also absolutely wanted to continue teaching. In the end, I decided on a Postdoc at Laurentian University as my first position postgrad. I felt it was important for me to grow my research community prior to (hopefully!) starting my own research program. It was worth it. Doing work in a completely different field of geology (transitioning from the Paleozoic and working in the Appalachians to Archean greenstone geology) was new, difficult, and often humbling. However, I do think I am a much better field geologist and scientist for it. It’s important to expose yourself to as many rocks and tectonic environments as you can throughout your career. Always asking questions and continuing to learn is important.


I applied for many jobs during my Postdoc – you really have to keep looking and applying all the time! I had a few interviews and finally was offered a job at the State University of New York (SUNY) Oneonta, starting August 2020. I accepted and packed a UHAUL and was off to the US. Not long after I arrived in New York, however, I was offered another faculty position at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Leaving SUNY so soon after I got there was really difficult (they were an amazing group of people) but being in Canada (and closer to family) was most important to me. I’m very happy with where I ended up.😊

If you had to do it again, would you?

Yes. It was a great personal and professional growing experience.


If you could change anything in your career, what would it be?

Not sure I would change anything right now. I need to get my feet wet before I can really answer that question! I suppose one thing I would like to change are some general aspects of the graduate student path. First, I think it would be good for graduate students to be presented with more potential career paths. PhD graduates end up in many careers but the options are not always obvious to graduate students. Second, a big thing: pay graduate students more. They deserve more. They are often the lifeblood of research (and teaching) in most institutions!


What are the three best things about your job/career? What are the three worst things?

Being able to do what I love everyday! Sure, every job has tough things you would rather not do, but, for the most part, being able to teach, work with students, and choose what I research is an amazing thing. I think I am very lucky.


Do you see, in either your workspace or the industry in general, the place of women becoming more main stream, about the same as when you started, or worse?

I’m not sure I would use the word mainstream – for the most part, there is still a gender imbalance for faculty at many Canadian institutions/Universities. Of course, there are always exceptions and some institutions are working hard to remedy this, but overall there is still work that needs to be done.


What advice would you give young women starting a career in geoscience?

Apply for the job, all the jobs! Even if you don’t think you are qualified. Often early career scientists suffer from imposter syndrome, and it continues to carry on post graduate degree. This feeling is something many struggle with, and it can often deter one from applying for a job they may really love.


Also, experience is everything. Apply for all the jobs and get the experience in the interview room. It is very unlikely for you to come out of the gate and get your dream academic job immediately! If you apply for all those jobs, even the ones you may not be 100% totally sold on, you can get the experience so that when that golden interview comes around you are ready.


Why/How is diversity important to you? Thoughts on what should be focussed on or how to improve diversity within geoscience?

Well, that’s a very big question! It’s very important to me.

A common excuse to why an institution may be less diverse is that “diverse people aren’t applying”. If this is indeed true, and women and minorities are not applying, we need to ask ourselves why that is instead of just accepting it. Do our advertisements need to be targeted differently? Do applicants themselves need to be targeted? What is it about our institution that may be deterring people from applying?


Another issue may be with the hiring committees themselves and the whole idea of unconscious bias. People often use the argument that the best candidate should get the job, regardless of their gender or ethnicity. The problem with this is that it can be difficult for people to recognize their own biases. People are drawn to individuals with similar views and ideas as their own. Without recognizing this first, unconscious bias can be a major barrier to diversification in the geoscience community.


Why should others be talking about diversity and trying to improve things?

Diversity brings newer and bigger ideas. Having a room full of people with the same views and ideals just perpetuate the same old. We must have different perspectives and backgrounds in order to challenge the status quo. In particular, geology collaborations with diverse groups who have different ideas and approaches always make the most headway to progress. I truly believe that diversity is necessary in any science, including geology, to come up with the new and revolutionary ideas.



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