STEM Career Profile: Dr. Christopher Eppig

September 24, 2015 -

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Q. What is your name and current position?
A. Chris Eppig, Director of Programing at the Chicago Council on Science & Technology

Q. What does your organization do?
A. We’re a non-profit organization and our mission is to raise public science literacy. We are not a school or museum, so we don’t have a physical facility where we can do anything, but more of a liaison between scientists and the people.

Q. What do you do on a daily basis?
A. There isn’t a normal day for me. In non-profit, you have to do your own specialization, but on top of that, you do whatever needs to get done, no matter what it is. Generally, what I’m doing is planning, organizing, and executing public science education programs. That involves deciding what topic to cover, when and where to have the event, speaking with venues to see if it’s possible and can be free, finding scientists who can talk (and talk well), and creating certain materials for marketing for the website and things like that. I also do a bit of grant writing, usually more to do with writing pieces of grants that other people are involved in, or reviewing grants, or coming up with ideas for new grants to apply for. I also do program evaluation, so I create surveys for people who have attended our events to see if they liked it, learned from it, things we need to fix and do the same. I also run the programs themselves, which is the best part of my job, because it’s super fun to do that.

Q. What best part of your job?
A. The best part of my job is there is a program series we’ve been doing since December, which is a twice a month program with a scientist talking in a local bar. This program is my baby and was my top priority when I got the job, and I’m the one in charge of running it. It’s also fun going to them because its science in a bar, the audience likes them, they are fun and less stressful to organize and it’s the talk and then people just talking and hanging out after talking about science. It’s fun to see people get excited about science and learning. That’s why I have this job.

Q. What degrees have you earned and from where?
A. BA in Biology from Earlham College, PhD in Biology from UNM

Q. When you were working towards your first degree, did you ever imagine that you would end up where you have?
A. [laughs] Not where I am now. I didn’t really have a plan beyond grad school. I had no idea this type of job was even a thing when I was in undergrad.

Q. What took you from your first degree to the point you are now? In other words, what was your career path?
A. I always wanted to be a scientist, so when I was in undergrad, I always planned on getting a PhD to do research. The really short version is I ended up not doing research, but instead going into science outreach because I wanted to help the public learn about science and not just teach biology majors about science, so now I have this job. I took one year off between degrees where I was a substitute teacher at my old high school and I was a technician at an environmental consulting firm.

Q. What were some of the significant challenges you encountered along the way?
A. Two biggest obstacles were: 1) deciding to leave academia, because that was a difficult thing to do psychologically because being a scientist was always a big part of my identity. Deciding to not pursuit a research career was really hard for that reason. I had literally spent my entire life trying to become that and then being ok with deciding to do something else was very tough. And 2) figuring out what I had to offer a non-research field. I had been in grad school immersed in academia and had no ideas what the outside world was like, how I could present myself, or even what was out there, outside of academia.

Q. How did you overcome these challenges?
A. It was a matter of time and getting used to it, and an awareness of the things about academia that I didn’t like, so wouldn’t miss, and the things I wanted out of my alternative career that I would be interested in. The other thing, for the second challenge, was I took an online class on transitioning to a post-academic career.

Q. What would you say are the key milestones in your career pathway?
A. The first wasn’t an event, but a slow realization, and that was coming to terms with how poor adult science literacy is in this country. Regularly in grad school there would be news articles that were things like “1 in 5 Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth”, and that was appalling to me over a long period of time, rather than a single event. The second came when I was starting to research other possible jobs and I saw science outreach listed as a possible job. I didn’t know that was a thing, but that was a place I could go that I could be happy. The third is taking that course in post-academic careers. This course gave me all the tools I needed to find and get a job.

Q. What advice would you give to an undergraduate student in a STEM field?
A. That’s a really broad question. I guess if I can modify the question slightly, I had a lot of students ask me when I was teaching if they should go to grad school. I told them that they should get a PhD, but only do it if they really, really need to. If there is another way they think they can be happy personally and professionally, then they should, but if they need to, go for it. If they do pursuit a PhD, either want to get a job outside of academia, or if you want to do academia, have a strong back-up plan. Having a degree doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to do research or teaching.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t addressed?
A. Nothing comes to mind.

Dr. Eppig also provides a unique perspective on many issues within STEM, which you can read all about on his blog HERE. And learn more about Dr. Eppig himself via his LinkedIn profile HERE.

To learn more about the Chicago Council on Science & Technology, click HERE.