On To The Future

The On To the Future (OTF) program supports students from diverse communities to attend the Annual Meeting by offering partial travel funding, full meeting registration, one-year membership, mentorship, and special sessions with leadership while at the meeting.“- GSA On To The Future

Back in 2018, I was part of the Geological Society of America’s On To the Future Program (OTF). It’s a slight exaggeration to say that it changed my life, but it has absolutely made an enormous difference to my (larval-stage) career. If you’re a student geologist who has not yet attended an annual GSA meeting, apply to attend though OTF. You will not be sorry.

In addition to offering financial support for your travel expenses (a serious concern for most students), OTF provides networking sessions, career workshops, and a meeting mentor to help you make the absolute most of your first GSA experience.

How is it that I was a ~3 year geoscience graduate student attending my first national GSA meeting? Reasonable question. When I first transitioned to geology, I was flat broke. I didn’t have the money to attend a national meeting, especially traveling from Puerto Rico. As a PhD student I had a little more money, but still couldn’t float a conference without some support. And I was depressed, lacked scientific confidence, and felt embarrassed that I still didn’t have data worth presenting.
And I didn’t know that OTF was open to graduate students.

Luckily for me, in 2018, a lovely senior LadyGeo (as in career, not age) sent me information about OTF. She also offered to write my letter of recommendation for the program, which meant I could circumvent some of the things that worsened my depression, lack of confidence, etc. So I applied. And I am so glad that I did.

During the Meeting

The networking opportunities were probably the most advantageous for me/graduate students. I got to meet a wide variety of student, early career, and senior geoscientists, most of whom I would never have interacted with otherwise. These connections got me invited to a variety of receptions (free food! And more networking!), and introduced me to entire subdivisions of geology that I didn’t know existed. Some of these connections are now an active part of the bright spots and exciting things in my current career (more on that later).

The 2018 OTF cohort.
I routinely bumped into these student geoscientists and the (mostly not pictured) mentors.

Perhaps most importantly, OTF gave me a network to start off with. The GSA annual meetings aren’t as big as AGU by any means. But they’re still big and a bit overwhelming. Especially if you’ve never attended one before. Especially-especially if you don’t really know very many people, or the people you know already have their own things going on. Especially-especially-especially when you already feel like a fraud and a bit of an interloper. Being part of OTF meant I bumped into other OTF participants and mentors a couple times a day–never underestimate the relief of a friendly face in a crowd. It meant I had a mentor who introduced me to people they thought might be good connections, who invited me to social gatherings and made sure I didn’t get lost in the shuffle.

In any new situation, a big part of the battle is getting in with people. It’s being included and invited. For people with research groups or other built-in scientific networks, this aspect of OTF might not be a huge advantage. For me, though, the network OTF provided at that first meeting made all the difference.

A 2018 OTF career session

In addition to networking, OTF provided workshops to help polish up a variety of professional skills. While a lot of the career workshops were geared towards undergraduates, there was still a lot for a PhD student like myself.

For example:

  • I got feedback on my elevator pitch-style personal introduction. Brevity, as you may have noticed, is not my strong suit, so the feedback was very helpful. There was also some interest in the work that I do, both geoarch-wise and science communication-wise, which bolstered my confidence.
  • The career visualization workshop, though perhaps constructed for undergrads, was actually very helpful. I’m a broadly trained scientist, which means the variety of things I do, have done, and am interested in, can seem tough to tie together into one narrative. Sketching out my career as a diagram helped me see how all the pieces can fit together, how I can pull those disparate-seeming pieces together for jobs and the like. Plus, I really love diagrams, so anything with a diagram makes me pretty happy.

After the Meeting

The greatest benefits of OTF have come after that 2018 meeting in Indianapolis.
First, I am much more confident now that I’ve survived a couple meetings and have built a little network for myself. Everything is easier when you’ve done it before and have people to get dinner with at the end of the day. Thanks to that confidence, I signed up for a couple short courses and field trips at the 2019 GSA. That led to additional networking and connections, some of which will hopefully be reflected in the blog in the coming months. And I’m co-leading a field trip for GSA 2020!

Secondly–but a very close secondly–, I still communicate with a number of people that I met through OTF, and a couple of them are really helping push my career forward. I am currently co-chairing a technical session with one of the 2018 OTF mentors and a colleague he introduced me to the following year. My assigned OTF meeting mentor and I communicate via Instagram and, in 2019, both received E-An Zen Geoscience Outreach Grants to fund our individual outreach initiatives (his: Cosplay For Science, mine: The Geology Project). I also get periodic check-ins from a few other people, and have an actual network of people I can reach out to.

Image may contain: 6 people, including Angel 'Albert' Acosta-Colon and Angel A Garcia Jr., people smiling, people standing
Somehow I took all of 3 photos at GSA 2018, so here’s one from GSA 2019, my technical session co-chairs are the two on the right!
(I was on a field trip that day, which is why I look so…matted.)

There are lots of ways to fund your first GSA Annual Meeting. OTF provides the financial support you need and a host of opportunities you might not have otherwise. I am immensely glad I applied and was accepted to the On To the Future Program. It has made a huge difference to my engagement in the geosciences and to my career.

Applications for OTF open on March 1st.
If you or someone you know is attending GSA for the first time, and qualifies for the program, don’t hesitate to apply!

GSA2020
Click here for meeting info

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