Montana State University

Partnerships between MSU and federal agencies provide job opportunities for graduate students

November 16, 2016 -- By Evelyn Boswell for MSU News Service

Montana State University graduate Meryl Storb, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, researches the chemical nutrients of local watersheds. Storb is working with the U.S. Geological Survey as part of an MSU partnership with the USGS to provide job opportunities for graduate students.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-GonzalezMontana State University Dave Wood, a doctoral candidate  in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, gathers satellite data in preparation for presenting his project to faculty. Wood is working with the U.S. Geological Survey as part of an MSU partnership with the USGS and Bureau of Land Management to provide job opportunities for graduate students.
MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

Montana State University graduate Meryl Storb, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, researches the chemical nutrients of local watersheds. Storb is working with the U.S. Geological Survey as part of an MSU partnership with the USGS to provide job opportunities for graduate students. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Years before earning their Ph.D.s, two Montana State University graduate students already have jobs lined up because of new partnerships between MSU and two federal agencies.

David Wood will become a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist advising the Bureau of Land Management after earning his Ph.D. in approximately four more years. He calls it a fantastic opportunity.

Meryl Storb has the opportunity to become a hydrologist with the USGS' Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center in Helena after earning her doctorate in approximately 2 1/2 years. She says it's a huge relief. Now she doesn't have to worry about finding a postdoctoral position or moving out of state after graduation and she has her dream job.

Storb and Wood are both earning their Ph.D.s in ecology and environmental science in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture.

Tracy Sterling, head of the department, said USGS and BLM officials approached MSU about a year ago, saying they were looking for Ph.D. students to help fulfill their scientific missions. The resulting partnerships led to new opportunities for MSU graduate students. Rigorous competitions resulted in Storb's and Wood's selections.

"The agencies reviewed Meryl and David as top candidates because of their excellent academic backgrounds and valuable work experience in the private and public sector," Sterling said. "Growing our partnerships with these agencies is an exciting and innovative approach to funding and training graduate students for career science positions."

Wood was working full-time for the BLM when he learned he had been chosen for the new opportunity with USGS. His USGS job, the result of cooperation encouraged between the two federal agencies, has him interpreting and providing scientific information for the BLM. Wood said the USGS and BLM are now splitting the cost of his education and helping him became a more valuable asset to his employers.

His Ph.D. will build on his background in wildlife management and broaden his approach to ecology, Wood said. He is still developing the focus of his dissertation, but said it will serve to balance the research interests and needs of MSU and the two federal agencies while being a topic that interests him.

"This is a fantastic opportunity to strengthen my scientific background and further my landscape ecology interests," Wood wrote in an article for the BLM. "I can't ask for a better opportunity to focus on my research interests while also continuing to support the BLM and the complicated decisions faced here every day."

Kate Kitchell, former Montana/Dakotas associate state director and senior adviser for the BLM's National Science Committee, said in the same article that Wood was an excellent choice for the new position.

"David knows and understands BLM's management mission and he has the ideal skills to develop a long-term research program that focuses on BLM's most compelling information needs," she said. "We're also excited that David will help to build bridges between BLM and other scientists at the USGS's Northern Rockies Science Center and Montana State University."

Storb was accepted into the USGS's Pathways Program, which allows her to work part-time for the Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center and earn federal benefits until she graduates. She can then be converted into a full-time hydrologist at the center.

John Kilpatrick, director of the center, said the program gives students paid work experience and orients them to the scientific mission of the USGS. At the same time, it allows the agency to bring in new talent to work with senior scientists and prepare them to transition to a permanent position as staff scientists.

"Overlap between the next generation of scientists and our senior scientists nearing the end of their careers is important to the long-term success of our agency," Kilpatrick said.

Storb stood out even in a field of highly qualified candidates, he added. Among other things, she had 10 years of experience in hydrology, including a half-dozen years working for a consulting firm. Her work experience and academic background were fairly broad, and her current endeavors indicated that she had scientific curiosity. Her proposed dissertation was a good match for the expertise the center might need in the future.

Storb said her selection was a "pretty big deal for me personally." She is not necessarily interested in pursuing an academic career once she graduates, so the USGS position strikes the perfect balance between her previous job as a consultant and the skills she is developing while pursuing her Ph.D. Storb's research is taking place in the Big Sky watershed where she is working in the West Fork of the Gallatin River. She is trying to understand how growing development and climate change will impact stream ecosystems by looking at how they function under pressures from different types of human influence.

Tracy Sterling, department head in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, (406) 994-7060 or tracy.sterling@montana.edu