When It’s Good to Be An Odd Duckling

Saturday 20. November 2021 | By: Kristin Weis

In explaining what I do now, after my studies in Ísafjörður, I should note that my path has long been more squiggly than straight. My interests overlapped with more than one discipline and it took a while to figure out that I didn’t have to pick a category—I could combine them. As education and careers become more and more interdisciplinary, I would argue that squiggly paths can help build one’s own unique expertise. These unique combinations can lead to innovative solutions and be a competitive advantage. My career has been a bit of back and forth between international affairs and natural resource issues, and happily, I am now able to incorporate both. As I have taken a less traditional path in some ways, I thought it might be useful to share what I do now and how I got here.

WinterCommute: Bundled up to walk and bike to the University Center in winter weather.
WinterCommute: Bundled up to walk and bike to the University Center in winter weather.

What I do now

I’m currently earning a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. My research focuses on coastal community resilience and Arctic issues, and my interests overlap with related dynamics in tourism, coastal management, cultural heritage, human mobility and migration, and environmental peacebuilding.

As part of a multi-year NSF project on Arctic sea ice and opening shipping lanes, I look at how to anticipate potential stakeholder conflicts and how coastal communities can preemptively address them. I’ve also worked with the Carter School’s Center for Resilient and Sustainable Communities (C-RASC), where I used new methodologies to capture stories related to cyber security, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other issues affecting community members in two coastal (tidal river) communities near DC.  I continue to learn from some brilliant minds and mentors, and for someone interested in combining coastal and marine management, conflict analysis and resolution, tourism, cultural heritage, migration, and international security in the Arctic, it’s safe to say that my research projects are a match!

WEF_Portugal 2019: Speaking at a conference in Portugal on solutions for a more circular economy, sustainable tourism, and equity and accountability.
WEF_Portugal 2019: Speaking at a conference in Portugal on solutions for a more circular economy, sustainable tourism, and equity and accountability.

The benefit of building expertise, in my view, is to be able to share it with others who work to address conflict and related environmental and natural resource challenges. In this spirit, I have a few other roles and projects. As a Coastal Management and Climate Specialist with the International Institute for Human Security, I consult as a subject matter expert for communities working on societal stabilizers around the world (e.g. good governance, food & environmental sustainability). I also co-chair the Environmental Peacebuilding Association's Disasters and Resilience interest group, where my goal is to create a rich knowledge-sharing space for disaster and resilience experts. My latest project is CoastalTalk, a small podcast to explain coastal community issues in easy-to-understand terms.

How I got here

So, why a PhD? There are a lot of ways to answer this, but the simple answer is that I love research—which I discovered through my studies in the CMM program and my Master’s thesis. I’m currently exploring the relationship between a sense of place, tourism, and narratives in coastal community resilience: the connection we have to our spaces, the stories we tell about them, and how those stories impact us.

As is often the case with interdisciplinary careers, I’ve often been an odd duckling. When I worked as a consultant and government contractor, I was the only one I knew who was interested how our physical environment shapes our interactions with each other, and how tourism, natural resource use, and conservation can influence conflict. So I went to grad school to focus on resource management, and especially the part that interested me most, Coastal and Marine Management (CMM). In the CMM program, my background and interests were again uncommon: while I was interested in all of it, from marine spatial planning to aquaculture, I was most focused on tourism and international affairs issues within coastal management. And now, as a PhD student in conflict studies, my resource management background is yet again unique. But it is this odd combination of expertise that helps to find new connections and creative analysis, and has helped me find my niche. This is all to say that there are at least a few benefits for following the path of an odd duckling.

Discovering research interests

Looking back at my Master’s thesis, it was a long process to decide on my topic and research questions. I was interested in too many things, and focused on what I thought should interest me rather than what actually interested me. It was a bit of a face-palm once I finally realized that I could, in fact, just go research what I wanted to research. It seems obvious now, but there you have it.

My thesis explored “The Role of Tourism in Social-Ecological Resilience: A Case Study In Dominica.” Some of my findings were published as a book chapter in an edited volume and as a peer-reviewed journal article (now also becoming a book chapter in a new edited volume). This work helped to confirm that 1) I wanted to continue with related PhD research, and 2) I wanted to use my expertise to inform policy that supports coastal community resilience. Specifically, as coastal communities face transitions related to a changing climate, my work aims to help stakeholders shape the best paths forward and address potential conflicts before they develop.

Me, Pierre, Jack on the aquaculture field trip in the Westfjords. Photo: Dagný Arnarsdóttir former CMM program director.
Me, Pierre, Jack on the aquaculture field trip in the Westfjords. Photo: Dagný Arnarsdóttir former CMM program director.

Building a niche


Similarly, it was a long process to find the right PhD program. Because my interests combine a few different disciplines, I had to decide on which one would frame the rest. Did I want to concentrate on resilience theory? Or coastal management? Or tourism studies? Or did I want to explore these interests in the context of conflict studies? This helped clarify my why—why did I want to do this work? What was my end goal and how would my PhD get me there?

I should note here that my end goal was about what I wanted my day-to-day life to look like, not necessarily a specific job. What would I enjoy working on every day? What type of work would I find valuable? What would give me a sense of accomplishment or purpose? And when I couldn’t quite answer these lofty questions, it helped clarify what I definitely did not want. What would make me miserable? What did I find dull or tedious? What type of work environment did I definitely want to avoid?

In muddling through these reflections, even now, it becomes easier to see what is and is not a fit. Yes, I’ll submit a proposal to that conference. No, I’m not interested in that webinar. Yes, I’d love to get fish soup after we go skiing and kayaking in Ísafjörður (ok, so I’m reminiscing here, but you see my point ;).

While my general interests have remained constant, my work in different industries and disciplines has allowed me to form my own specific niche. Now I can blend everything together and draw on a range of disciplines and methods. Remarkably, the more precise my interests have become, the easier it has been to find others with similar or overlapping interests—perhaps we are all odd ducklings together.


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Embrace your own niche

In conclusion, it’s just fine to be the odd duckling in your current situation. Dare I say, embrace it. The ability to combine multiple disciplines—to connect many dots together—will allow you to understand complex issues in creative ways. This creative analysis will serve you well in your own research and work. And the more you can identify your interests and understand your priorities, the easier it is to focus on things that fit. You will be able to recognize the right opportunities and filter out the rest. The more you do it, the more clarity you will have, and the easier it will be to find your own fellow odd ducklings. Happy travels on life’s squiggly paths.