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Forming Career Paths and Goals

Rachel Ann Bomberger, CADRE member

Choosing a career is difficult; there are so many questions to consider. What type of position should you look for after school (either undergraduate or graduate)? Is it better to wait for your targeted job to get the position on your career path or start working in any position? What if you want to do something that doesn’t match what your education? What if you don’t like the path you’ve chosen? What types of goals should you make; financial, impactful research, stability, notoriety?  The never ending questions and uncertainty can seem daunting and terrifying when trying to start down your career path.

Dr. Carrie Lapaire Harmon is the director of the University of Florida’s Plant Diagnostic Center, which serves as the hub-laboratory for the Southern Plant Diagnostic Network. Her research and extension programs serve extension faculty and commodity groups through detection, diagnosis, and education about high-impact and emerging plant pathogens. Carrie let me interview her about the career path that lead her to her current position.

Tell us about your career? What is your day to day like?

My job is cool because every day is different and there is no way to know what the day will hold until you start; it is an adventure every day. This unpredictability forces me to stay current with the science and looking for new scientific reports. My career allows for lots of interaction with colleagues. The extension half of my day to day is about, ‘this is what we’ve found and here is what you can do about it.’ On a typical day, I start by answering emails, usually questions regarding diagnostic center samples.  Then I try to address the paperwork and responsibilities for the faculty side of my position, then I go into the lab and the diagnostician, Sladana Bec, and I plan for the day, then it’s back to the office, lunch with my husband (Dr. Phil Harmon) where we talk about work and take a quick walk around campus looking for diseases. In the afternoon I try to focus on lab stuff, help the students in lab and answer their questions regarding samples and direct their diagnosis.  The afternoon quickly disappears and I go home where Phil and I often continue to talk about work.

How did you reach this position?

I received a master’s in plant pathology at Purdue University and moved to UF in 2003 to help lead the SPDN and work with the diagnostic lab. After six years of encouragement by friends and colleagues, I became the diagnostic center director and added pursuing a Ph.D. to my list to augment my toolkit for leading the lab.


Was this your dream career when you decided to become a plant pathologist?

It [Plant Diagnostic Center Director] was in there, but I didn’t realize it. I went to undergrad at the University of Massachusetts on a pre-med track to become a physician but decided it was not for me—there was too much sadness. My love was problem solving so I switched over to plant and soil sciences. Dr. Gail Schumann taught the last course I took as an undergrad, plant pathology, which piqued my curiosity. After graduating I was hired to run a garden center; I loved the plant propagation and maintenance, and the problem solving. However, by the end of two years running a garden center I was burnt out with retail and decided to go to Purdue to pursue my Master’s in Plant Pathology. The summer before I started graduate school there was an opening in the Purdue plant clinic under Drs. Peggy Sellers and Karen Rane, and Gail Ruhl. It became obvious then that diagnostics was my thing. I pursued my master’s research under Dr. Larry Dunkle with the USDA-ARS and I loved the both the research and extension side of my work. Dr. Dunkle was encouraging my scientific curiosity and allowed me to work in the plant clinic over the summers. It was inspiring to work with him and with Karen and Gail because they made me want to be that kind of problem solver. I am a fixer! After several years of working with the UF clinic staff, I decided to go after the director position and get my Ph.D.; I wanted to be able to make the necessary decisions and do the actions necessary to keep the plant clinic great.

How did you determine what steps/moves/trainings/education would be necessary and/or beneficial?

Pursuing different levels of education came from desire to continue problem solving and to keep the UF clinic moving forward and responsive to the needs of our clientele.

Did you ever find yourself on a career path that you no longer wanted to be on?

Yes, I did that on the bachelor’s level thinking I wanted to be a medical doctor. I kept the parts I liked (problem solving, working with my hands, science) and got rid of the parts I didn’t like and forged my path to here.

What factors went in to you choosing your career path?

I didn’t know the phrase, ‘work-life balance’ then. I’m not in my career for the money. I went into this with the idea of working for ‘the greater good.’ I wanted to make a mark and do some good in the world by keeping our agriculture safe. I didn’t grow up working with growers in the world of agriculture with the exception of appreciating what their work provided. I wanted to influence/preserve agriculture without the gamble of being the person behind the plow. I wanted to help because I greatly appreciate what growers do so my career would be focused on how I’d help out.

Did your education match what your career goal was?

When I started I was a non-tenure track position though the other faculty members all treated me as regular faculty. It took me six years to decide to get a Ph.D. and determine the research would be on based on the needs of the diagnostic center. Before then I had been functioning as faculty but with only a master’s degree; there were times where I had to awkwardly correct people that I was not a PhD. In 2009 my colleagues strongly suggested I go get my PhD, the same year I became director of the lab. I paid for my Ph.D. through my research grants and was running the diagnostic center full time. Although I was able to direct most of my research, I needed my mentors for a kick in the pants to get the dissertation to the finish line.  Prioritizing my own work was difficult when the lab could easily occupy all of my time.

What was a difficult time on your path?

I have it all. I have an awesome career and personal life. Of course there are sacrifices but I love my job, the interactions with my clients, mentoring students, and working with my colleagues. This is the most awesome career: I travel and there is flexibility and adventure! After I started my career I decided to have kids. Taking the maternity leave was difficult career-wise, it is a challenge and it puts you behind. Luckily, it just takes time to catch up; at UF the promotion clock gives you a year to catch up after having a child so it is doable. You can have it all but you must have support; I’m doing it and I love it

How did you determine what goals to set professionally?

I started the UF job in 2003 and the position has totally changed over the past 11 years because I have been pursuing different goals. The goals I set arise because new opportunities present themselves that I then jump on. Right now I have a new goal of teaching; developing an online disease management course for extension purposes then modifying it for graduate education. My position has no teaching requirement/percentage but luckily UF is ok with the hybrid of extension and teaching. My current goal is to clean off my desk of tasks, develop that new course, and continue with STAR-D (System for True Accurate and Reliable Diagnostic Services) and marketing our lab’s STAR-D accreditation.

How often do your goals change or do you add goals?

Constantly! Whenever opportunities to keep the lab engaged and serving the needs of extension clientele and the ever changing needs of agriculture. Last year I was focused on getting good people in the lab, like Sladana; now, I’m focused on getting papers out.

What advice do you have for early career professionals and graduate students when it comes to deciding on a career path?

I was never the person who envisioned my ‘one’ career. I saw myself doing everything from being a medical doctor to a business owner. I used to worry that I didn’t know what I wanted to be but as long as I am able to satisfy my curiosity I’ll be fine. If I lost my job tomorrow, there are a bunch of different things I’d be willing to try. I never had an ultimate and set path! I don’t know what my career will look like five to ten years from now. I’m continuously open to where I’ll end up; I’m comfortable with not knowing what my end career looks like as long as I keep forging forward. I love what I do.

I hope people get that it is a path—meaning it is meandering, has offshoots, and that you’ll hit dead ends and may need to go back. But, these dead ends aren’t the ends of your paths they are a time for learning something new.

What advice do you have for ECP and GS for maintaining a path?

Get writing and stay on the writing, be it thesis, grants, or papers. Read! Stay current in the science and take care of your academic mind. The work (research, lab work, field work) is easy to focus on, it is the writing and the reading that slip. Make these a priority!

What advice on creating professional goals can you share?

This is a hard answer to figure out; for me it falls into the mentality of making your own luck-which means being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people, but YOU have to be ready to go. I wouldn’t have access to new opportunities for goals if I didn’t know the people in charge and didn’t let them know what I can do.  Show people what you can do so they know what you are capable of—then they’ll think of you when new opportunities/grants/project etc. arise.

What advice do you have about meeting goals?

I currently live my life by my outlook calendar. My advice for meeting goals is that you can’t eat the elephant in one bite. Set small goals to get to the big goal. Once you start checking off these small goals you’ll get momentum, the bites will get bigger, and ‘poof!’ suddenly that elephant is gone.

What do you wish someone had told you early-on in your path?

To be confident in my voice. I wish I wouldn’t have stopped myself from asking questions for fear that the question would sound stupid—someone else would end up asking my question anyway with praise for asking it! I don’t mean to be cocky about your voice; you should have the knowledge to back up what you say but I mean to be confident enough to ask a question or make a statement.