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Embracing the Twists and Turns
Embracing the Twists and Turns
Lauren Balliet, Physics Graduate Student, Michigan State University
I never would have envisioned the path my career has followed thus far, but I wouldn’t change any of it. It has shaped me into the person I am today.
Going into my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to study astrophysics and eventually become a professor. As a first-generation college student, I relied heavily on what “experts” said was the appropriate educational path for my goals: Attend a four-year institution for a bachelor’s degree, enroll in a graduate program for five to six years to earn a PhD, then get a job as a professor. At the time, the journey seemed arduous but straightforward.
I attended Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where I majored in physics with an astrophysics concentration and a minor in mathematics. It was a small program with few research opportunities, but I attended a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Colorado Boulder. During the fall of my senior year, I started working on my graduate school applications.
Fast-forward to the following spring. My educational path took its first turn when I wasn’t accepted by any graduate programs. I had quickly shifted to applying for jobs when my professors told me that Texas A&M University-Commerce (TAMUC) had an opening in their physics master’s program. I researched the program, submitted my application, and was accepted within the week! I had one month to move from Pennsylvania to Texas.
Though it wasn’t part of my plan, the people I met and the opportunities I had at TAMUC were pivotal to my career path. I got involved in a very active SPS chapter and was inducted into Sigma Pi Sigma. I learned about new pedagogical methods in teaching physics and practiced them as a graduate teaching assistant. My advisor, Dr. Will Newton, encouraged my research group to present at conferences from Texas to Lyon, France. That research led to my first professional publication.
Having built a strong CV at TAMUC, I felt confident applying to physics PhD programs a second time. But my applications were again unsuccessful. A friend sent me a job posting from Lycoming College, a small liberal arts college in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The college was seeking an astronomy and physics laboratory manager and planetarium director. Looking over the job description, I felt as though I were reading my own CV! I applied, excited at the thought of moving close to home and pursuing my passions for teaching physics and physics outreach.
Lycoming became the second pivotal experience in my career path. I quickly became involved with the SPS chapter there and became advisor in the spring of 2020. I helped the chapter enter a new age, taking more students to conferences to explore networking opportunities. Our chapter focused on providing a welcoming environment and fostering a sense of community in our department. I feel very fortunate to have worked with so many amazing students.
During the fall 2020 semester I was an interim instructor in the department. Despite having no prior experience creating an entire course, I developed three courses simultaneously with a week’s notice and navigated in-person instruction during a global pandemic. It was by far the most challenging experience I’ve had, both professionally and personally.
Unbeknownst to me, my students nominated me for a Sigma Pi Sigma service award, which I received in November 2021. It was truly an honor to be recognized nationally by Sigma Pi Sigma and SPS—especially because my students nominated me. In spring 2022, our chapter was awarded Organization of the Year at Lycoming College.
Through all of this, I promised myself that I would apply to PhD programs one more time, and my third round of applications led to three acceptances! I believe the roles I had and connections I made at Lycoming were key to my successful applications. I also now recognize that the previous rejections weren’t a reflection of my ability in physics. Instead, my applications had neglected to convey who I am, my capabilities, and my contributions as a physicist.
I am now a graduate research assistant studying nuclear astrophysics at Michigan State University, the number one program in the country for nuclear physics. My path here has been anything but traditional, but I hope my story will inspire others to persist in their goals and welcome the twists and turns. If not for the unplanned chapters in my life, I would not have ended up where I am today—happily attending my top-choice physics PhD program.
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