Rhizomes: An Interview with Hank Trim

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. This interview features Hank Trim, an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada.

Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position/career. What key choices, encounters, or moments brought you to where you are today?

My path was a relatively simple one, if a little indirect. My wife started a new position in Ottawa with Industry Canada just as I was finishing my PhD at UBC. After I defended and submitted my PhD I moved from Vancouver to Ottawa to join her in January 2015 and we sold our place in Vancouver. I was lucky enough to get a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship that spring. I started doing my research, which was mostly based in Ottawa, and began applying for academic jobs.

While I sent out applications that summer, my wife and I talked about what we would do IF I actually landed a job with a university somewhere. The big problem was that we had a house in Ottawa and my wife had a career in Ottawa, which, I might add, paid more than any job I was going to get in academia. Further, we had long talked about starting a family once I finished my PhD and she felt comfortable in her career. (We had our son Marty this past summer.) The likelihood of me finding an academic job in Ottawa was close to zero, so reality gradually caught up with us. Unless we wanted to live apart for years or take a massive financial hit and force my partner to give up her career, my career in academia wasn’t going to happen.

After I realized that, which was probably sometime in the fall of 2015, I spent most of my time trying to find a job in Ottawa. Thankfully, the Government of Canada (GoC) thinks having lots of degrees is a good thing, so I qualified for most entry-level government jobs. I started applying to everything I could find, looking for short-term contracts to get a sense of what it would be like to work in the GoC. Basically, this meant filling out mind-numbing numbers of government job applications and trying to get coffee or chat with everyone that might possibly be looking for someone. By the spring of 2016 I had managed to get a short-term contract at Environment Canada. Soon after that I got into a government hiring pool with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). From that point I haven’t looked back. I thought I would miss academia, but I haven’t missed it at all.

Hank Trim hiking with his son Marty in Gatineau Park. Photo: Christina Adam.

What do you like most about your current position/career? What things would you change about it, if you could?

I really enjoy working for NRCan. I wrote my dissertation on the energy crisis of the 1970s, focusing on how it spawned the first Canadian government investments into and policies in support of renewable energy. During my PhD, I studied a mixture of environmental, energy, and science and technology history as well as the policy process, so I am right at home with the subject matter I deal with every day. What I think I like most about my job is that I am actually doing something that might actually matter to the environment, or might make forestry a little cleaner or more sustainable. I’m a small cog in a huge machine, but even little cogs in the machine matter. And they sure as heck matter a lot more than all but a miniscule number of academics and pretty much all historians. Really, I think I got tired of reading and writing about what other people had done while I was doing my PhD and postdoc. I’m enjoying getting to do things instead.

I’ve had a real whirlwind tour of NRCan. I started in the Office of Energy Efficiency, where I was lucky enough to work on the Buildings Strategy for the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The work we did set Canada’s buildings on a path to net-zero energy by 2030 and will make huge cuts to emissions. As part of that work I was also able to see the budget process firsthand, which I found a fascinating exercise in the allocation of limited resources. After that, I moved to NRCan’s Strategic Energy Policy Directorate, where I worked on Generation Energy (GenEn). At its core GenEn was a series of conferences with different groups of Canadians about Canada’s energy future. As you can imagine, it was intriguing to hear from so many Canadians, but like all conferences, it was a little chaotic and exhausting. Now I’m with the Canadian Forest Service’s bioeconomy team. I work to help the forest sector diversify into the bioeconomy, meaning Canada’s production and export of more things like engineered wood, bioplastics, and biofuels, as well as the traditional wood products for which Canada is already known. Currently, my work mixes economic and scientific analysis with network-building and policy entrepreneurship in tandem with colleagues at NRCan and other departments, which helps us to coordinate our various projects.

More broadly, the nice thing about working for the GoC is that the people are smart and generally very pleasant. There are quite a few refugees from all branches of academia in the more science- and research-focused branches like NRCan and Environment Canada. There is also a way better work-life balance in the GoC. Don’t get me wrong: when your team is pulling together a big policy initiative or rushing to meet a deadline, I’ve worked plenty of 60-70 hour weeks. But you don’t have to do that all the time if you don’t want to. Your work can stay at work and you can actually have hobbies and time with your family without feeling guilty about not writing that article or not grading or reviewing that stack of papers on the weekend.

Finally, not to put too fine a point on it, but academic pay is crap. Initially your salary may look okay, but then you have to factor in all the extra hours you work and the travel and conferences that take up so much of your time that you are expected to do. Maybe it’s worth it if you really hate the idea of having a boss or if you are passionate about your research topic. Otherwise it’s straight up a bad deal. I know it’s a bit of a heresy to talk about money in academia, but not all academics come from wealthy families. If you have mouths to feed at home, pay matters.

The cover of the final report on Generation Energy, a project to which Hank contributed.

Which aspects of your graduate training in environmental history have helped you most in your current position/career?

I think people underestimate the importance of being able to read well and write clearly. So many jobs are really about being able to synthesize information and provide a reasonable analysis of the pros and cons of a decision, or potential impacts of this or that policy or regulation. I think graduate study in history is great at teaching that. If you can make it through comprehensive exams, I think you can do nearly any policy-focused job in the government or at any other large organization.

What kinds of skills or training do you wish you could have acquired in graduate school, in light of your current work?

I think the PhD program at UBC (and I assume other universities) actually teaches people a lot of skills. Think about it. If you go through the program, you can read and write with the best of them, a hugely underrated skill. You can put together good presentations and explain complex ideas. You have probably organized a conference or at least taught a class, and have experience of all the scheduling and administrative tasks involved. You have probably also been on a committee that required working with budgets and reporting to a department head or event organizing committee. Plus, you know all the actual knowledge you have about the world. That’s pretty useful too.

The one thing I think graduate students aren’t taught, or at least I wasn’t taught, is to think of all this experience as training in particular skills. I think graduate students often have the skills an employer is looking for, but they don’t know how to link a requirement like “briefed/reported to senior management” to what they have actually done. Hint: reporting to your supervisor on what progress you have made on your dissertation or presenting at a conference counts as briefing management outside of academia.

What advice, thoughts, or reflections arising from your experiences would you offer to graduate students studying environmental history?

I recommend listening to some economics podcasts to pick up the lingo of both behavioural and classical economics. If you sound like an economist, people will assume your degree is in that and take you more seriously. I’m only sort of joking. My actual job title is “economist.”

Finally, remember there is a world beyond academia. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably nicer than a lot of the academy and the pay is better. It’s also worth remembering that if you get your PhD you have achieved something very difficult. People may not be in awe of history PhDs and letters after your name really don’t mean much, but the fact that you have done something difficult and that you might have some knowledge about X thing is recognized.

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Henry Trim

Hank Trim is an economist with the Circular Bioeconomy and Supply Chain Economics team in the Canadian Forest Service at Natural Resources Canada. He welcomes questions from readers at henry.trim@canada.ca.

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