Rhizomes: An Interview with Matt Minarchek

Matt and his daughter, Fiona, at the Seattle Aquarium learning about the sea life of Puget Sound, February 2019. Credit: Rebakah Daro Minarchek.

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Editor’s note: This is the ninth post in an occasional series entitled “Rhizomes,” which highlights the experiences of environmental historians working beyond the professoriate. In this interview, series editor Tina Adcock speaks with Matt Minarchek, a social sciences researcher at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.


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?

I completed my PhD in Southeast Asian and environmental history at Cornell University in December 2018 and started my current position as a social science researcher that same month. My choice to pursue a career at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle was influenced by many factors common to recent grads searching for work outside of academia, including the job market situation, family circumstances, and emotional and physical well-being.

I did two cycles of the academic job market in 2017 and 2018 while finishing my dissertation, applying to tenure-track jobs and postdocs in environmental history, political ecology, Southeast Asian history, and world history. During those two years, my mental and physical health deteriorated to the point that I was hospitalized with symptoms typical of a heart attack in the summer of 2018. After many tests and nights in the hospital, doctors concluded that it was all related to stress and anxiety. It was especially bad during the summer months when funding was hard to come by but bills remained the same. I have a wife and two young children, and the experience caused me to seriously reflect on whether continuing to pursue an academic career was worth the financial, physical, and emotional costs.

Matt and his daughter, Fiona, at the Seattle Aquarium learning about the sea life of Puget Sound, February 2019. Credit: Rebakah Daro Minarchek.

Around the same time, I had a bad experience during an on-campus interview at a small liberal arts school for a tenure-track position. I spent weeks preparing for the teaching demo, job talk, and interviews. After arriving, however, it became obvious that there was a lot of tension between faculty in the department and that the environment was not collegial. The visit was a very awkward and uncomfortable experience. My presence seemed a burden for everyone I met except the students, who were genuinely interested in what I could offer. Afterward, I never heard back from the search committee. It was demoralizing. The shiny veneer of academia wore off quickly and reality set in.

I began to look for jobs outside of academia because I was frustrated with the system. My health was a factor, but as a family, we also needed financial security and a place for our children to call home. My wife also recently completed her PhD at Cornell, and neither of us wanted to move every year or two for visiting positions or postdocs, potentially in different locations, to stay in the game. We also did not have a financial safety net, either through our families or ourselves, that would grant us the mobility required for limited-term positions.

Matt and Rebakah Daro Minarchek before the PhD hooding ceremony at Cornell University in May 2018. Credit: Cheryl Minarchek.

We are both first-generation college students, something that has further shaped how we conceive of our relationship with academia. We each worked outside of academia for years in different sectors in the US and internationally before starting doctoral studies. I worked in landscaping, conducted lichen surveys in Oregon for the Bureau of Land Management, harvested honey as a beekeeper at an apiary, evaluated citizen science programs at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and taught English in Southeast Asia. I entered graduate school because I became fascinated with the history and environments of Southeast Asia. I viewed graduate school as a means to pursue knowledge on those topics, but I had no idea what that meant for a career at the end of the program. My identity was never tied to academia in the way that it might be for other students from more educated backgrounds. I found the graduate school experience to be socially isolating as I navigated between two completely different cultures: the university and my family back home, who were not familiar with higher education and did not understand what being a graduate student entailed.

A key moment for me was finding an advertisement for the research position I currently hold at Woodland Park Zoo. The job ad fascinated me not only because some of my dissertation examines the history of zoos and the wildlife trade in relation to the colonial project in Indonesia, but also because the position sat at the intersections of animal sciences and the social sciences. I have undergraduate degrees in forest ecology and sciences and conservation studies. In graduate school, I took courses in history, environmental sociology, political ecology, and anthropology. I have always been interested in interdisciplinary studies across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and that was crucially important to finding work in the conservation field.

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

I have really enjoyed my time at Woodland Park Zoo. I am the social science researcher on a project investigating the relationships between animal welfare, people’s perceptions of animal well-being, and empathy toward non-human species. One of the most exciting aspects of the position is working on a team in which we all bring different skills, backgrounds, and knowledge to the project. My primary collaborator on the project is an animal welfare scientist, and we work closely with animal trainers and management staff, environmental educators, museum experts, and educational and conservation psychologists. We are all working together to understand the concept of empathy and how it can be fostered to drive positive social change and motivate people to take caring actions on behalf of animals and the environment.

The entrance to Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Credit: Matt Minarchek.

I also enjoy that my work has the potential to inform conservation practices, animal management, and interpretive programming at zoos and aquariums across the country. I have one foot in academia, as the research I conduct speaks to a set of literature and builds on past studies, and the other foot in conservation and education practice. It is a very fortunate position to be in, but it also has its challenges. I have had to learn a whole new language both to work in a zoo and to engage with new bodies of literature for this project, including animal welfare sciences, zoo biology, anthrozoology, and conservation psychology.

I am not certain that I would change anything about my position, but I have found that people working outside of academia face a huge obstacle in obtaining journal articles, books, and other published materials. Non-profits and NGOs rarely have institutional access to published materials due to the costs, and that presents a barrier to our ongoing research plans. The system of accessing publications as a whole needs to become more inclusive to people working in all sectors who want access to knowledge.

There are, of course, other aspects of academia that many of us who look elsewhere for work miss when we pursue non-academic careers. I miss, for example, my engagement with Southeast Asia. We lived in Indonesia for more than three years between 2009 and 2015 for research, and the region is still very special to us. I would like to find some way to expand my current research project internationally in the future, but that’s not in the cards right now. I also miss teaching and working closely with students to develop interesting course projects. My favorite part of graduate school was getting the opportunity to teach my own courses.

Matt conducting an oral history interview during his dissertation research in Aceh, Indonesia. Credit: Ilham Syah.

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

The most important skills that I acquired in graduate school for work outside of academia are writing, editing, public speaking, quickly scanning articles for arguments and results, and thinking critically about a given context from different perspectives. An education in environmental history is also very relevant in the zoo context, as we attempt to contextualize critical issues facing animals around the world. Zoos are increasingly moving from presenting only facts about and the natural history of animals in their care to contextualizing the socio-environmental problems facing those species in their home regions. We aim to help visitors see the intricate connections between humans and environments, linking those issues to social and environmental justice. Environmental history excels at just that.

The challenge for academics, myself included, in such a setting is figuring out how to present research in a format that the zoo-visiting public can quickly digest as part of an interpretive exhibit. How can we best narrow down the findings of an environmental history project to a paragraph or a few bullet points on a display? How can we best tell stories in a very condensed format that will have an affective, or emotional, impact on visitors? These are discussions we often have at work.

One exciting lesson I’ve learned, among many, after moving from academia to working in a zoo is that people in both sectors think critically about similar issues, including animal agency, anthropomorphism, human-animal relationships, decolonization, environmental justice, and so on, but in different contexts. Studying these topics in environmental history courses has been very useful in my current career.

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

My department at Cornell had some professionalization workshops that helped students prepare for the non-academic job market. Those workshops were most useful for alerting students early in their grad school experience to the reality of the job market awaiting them. I would have benefitted from more practical skills for marketing myself outside of the university. Professionalization workshops could be led by people who work outside of academia rather than faculty members who might not have those skills or might not be aware of what it takes to find a job outside of academia.

When I hit the job market, I had no idea how to turn a CV into a resume or how to translate the skills I developed in grad school to a non-academic context. We often gain skills in leadership, project management, team building, and communications through our research projects and coursework but are unsure of how to present these on a resume or during an interview. I had to learn how to explain those skills on my own by reading books, blogs, and websites. Employers outside of academia don’t always understand what doing a PhD entails and what skills are developed in the process. It is our job to spell that out for them as best we can.

Matt giving a presentation at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York in the spring of 2018 on incorporating Southeast Asia into any curriculum.

At the same time, I do acknowledge that targeting positions outside of the university is a great challenge for history PhDs, both emotionally and practically, especially when applying against people with years of experience working in that field. While professional development for alt-ac careers seems an easy answer to the small numbers of positions at universities, the job market outside of academia is often just as competitive for positions that offer financial security and a healthy benefits package.

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

First, I would recommend students take coursework across the university if possible. Interdisciplinary training is beneficial inside and outside the academy. Environmental history is an interdisciplinary field and so that helps in many respects. My coursework in environmental sociology, political ecology, historical geography, and animal studies played a role in helping me find work, but so too did the critical lens toward social issues that we develop in the course of a history education. I also designed and taught a freshman writing seminar at Cornell on animal histories. I chose the topic because it fascinated me and was tangentially related to my dissertation, but it also turned out to be very relevant to my current career. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone to develop knowledge and skills on a different, but related topic to one’s dissertation can be beneficial.

The elk herd at Woodland Park Zoo. Credit: Matt Minarchek.

Second, I would advise students to really think through their own interests, reflect on what they want in life, and to research and explore all the available options. Along with academic job boards, students should search mainstream job sites for other possibilities (e.g., indeed.com). As has been said many times, leaving academia does not constitute a failure. There are opportunities outside academia to do work that is intellectually challenging and rewarding and that provides financial security. Money is crucial, but also an elephant in the room in many academic departments. Students are often led to believe that pursuing academic work for which they have a passion is a higher calling or labour of love, with finances being left out of the discussion. That kind of mentality is harmful to everyone, but especially to those of us who are not independently wealthy and do not have families that can provide financial support along the way. With a PhD in hand, graduates deserve to be financially rewarded for their labour and investment of time.

Ultimately, what career students decide to pursue should come down to their own personal situation. They should feel empowered by their advisors and peers to make decisions that best fit their own wants, needs, and desires as well as how they prioritize different aspects of their lives.

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Matthew Minarchek

Social Science Researcher at Woodland Park Zoo
I received my PhD in Southeast Asian and Environmental History from Cornell University (2019) and am now a social science researcher on the ‘Advancing Conservation Through Empathy (ACE) for Wildlife’ project at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. I have a deep interest in the relationships that people have with non-human species, land, and environment both historically and in the contemporary context. My historical research examines how relationships between society and nature have been severed over the past several centuries, with a particular interest in Southeast Asia, while my social science research engages with the concept of empathy to understand how it can be fostered to drive positive social and environmental change.

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