Land of opportunities

I admit that having grown up with Marvel comics, rock music and US TV shows, the American myth has accompanied me for almost all my life. Studying a scientific subject such as geology has also strengthened it, seeing that many of the fundamental discoveries have been made through Americans, while in Italy very little has been done and even less is being done for topics that concern my field of study. In fact, I had quite a few difficulties entering the working world as a geologist. Therefore, it was natural for me to see the USA as the land of opportunities even in geology. I was immature and I had no idea how the “system” worked in my country. If I had been aware of it, maybe I wouldn’t have missed the opportunities that came my way but that I recognized only in hindsight, when the train had already passed….

The motivation triggering the writing of this article was good news received via social platform of the upcoming appointment of an American geologist I knew as director of the geology department at the university where she teaches and does research. I’m very happy for her but I can’t help but ponder two things:

  • my thoughts immediately go to a friend of mine who is an Italian geologist, an associate professor in Italy, much older than my American friend (who’s young enough for us), who not only became a professor much later but she already knows that she may never become a regular or head of the department.
  • the other thought concerns myself, who met the American geologist when she was a doctoral student and I was visiting her university where everyone, including her, admired my abilities as a geologist on the field. Today I am not even a geologist anymore…

Shall we talk about opportunities?

At that time I was actually invited to go back to the USA as a PhD student. Unfortunately, I never did. But those who were already there as doctoral students, have much more satisfying positions as geologists today – one is even a department chair! Compared to these people I looked great on the ground. They wanted me with them, considering me a great addition to their department! In Italy I could not do anything but a couple of years of research grant and some starvation contracts to follow. Not only that. The idea that was subtly communicated to me was that if the Americans liked me, maybe they weren’t that good! In fact, I spent years in our academic world feeling like a useless piece of garbage. As soon as I set foot outside Italy, I felt so capable and important that even I had the doubt that “foreigners” were stupid to appreciate me… But I really don’t think that was the reason.

To clarify: if I did not do my PhD in America as it had been proposed to me, the fault is mine alone. The only excuse is the fact that, having landed in Italy on September 4, 2001, overjoyed that I would return to the USA the following year for my PhD, I was immediately led to doubt by the catastrophe of September 11, 2001. It looked like World War III was about to break out. The US seemed like the least safe place on earth. Unfortunately, despite my experience and certainly not being a fresh graduate, US universities demand that you still take the GRE Test, a test for which it is best to prepare well. Which I did not do, except too late, when the fear of the consequences of the attack on the Twin Towers had faded. My GRE score done in a hurry was not high enough. Everything was postponed until the following year, when that university, too, had a lack of funds and advised me to not apply. Clearly if I had been really motivated nothing would have stopped me, not even 9/11. But what I want to emphasize here is that in the USA I had a real opportunity, while here I was only told clearly or subliminally that I was not good enough.

While I was visiting the university in the USA, they took me with them on an educational excursion to Nova Scotia in Atlantic Canada. I was considered a student and, being a fairly seasoned geologist, of course I “seemed” great. One evening I even did a simple exercise of constructing a small geological section with the data we collected on the ground that morning. It was really simple for me but the professors were shocked at how the students didn’t know how to do it. They were given the opportunity to repeat the exercise under my supervision. I helped them by explaining how to transfer map data about faults and bedding to a geological section. Among those students was the girl who is now head of the geology department at her university. I now work with computer science, which fortunately I carried with me as a skill and it helped me survive the disaster.

It doesn’t just happen to me, who am a normal person, not a genius. I met a true physics genius, graduated with honors in 4 years and got his PhD quickly. He is one of those minds that can quickly read a nuclear physics text and know all about it In Italy they told him “sorry”, shrugging their shoulders. Abroad he immediately ended up in the CERN team that discovered the God particle, and then he was welcomed with open arms at the university in Paris, where he lives happy and well paid. We discarded him and his is now a so-called “runaway brain”. And he ran in a hurry too…

My Italian professor friend is a geologist of astounding preparation. Let me tell you that in my opinion she is far superior (also because she is more experienced given the age difference) to her American colleague friend of mine who is the new head of the department. I learned so much from her. But I could also see how frustrating it was to try to have a normal academic career in our country, especially as a woman, but not only that. Here it works in a certain way. University professors are in a position of power, very comparable to politicians. In order to get into the business, you have to sacrifice your life to the job, follow in the footsteps of a leading professor who has the desire (but more importantly, the power) to move you forward, obviously staying on the same page as him. I’m reminded of a late and very nice (and extremely competent) American structural geologist whose course I took for doctoral students. He asked us for our opinion, about what we thought of something he was showing us. Seeing that no one dared say anything, he said “You can talk, I am not an Italian professor!”. I felt ashamed… I also remember the homepage of a geology department of an English university: “We welcome new members who think differently from us”. I laughed – bitterly.

To get to participate in a selection process as a researcher and then as a professor requires a lot of stomach, patience, hard work, getting little or no money. Include some bitterness because less deserving people will pass you by as it was simply their turn according to the unwritten agreements between the various departments in the country. You can’t even refuse to participate knowing you won’t pass. You would lose your position. You are expected to go and impress others to show them what your group is made of – even though everyone knows it’s the others who will get their man through (more often than one of their women). I want to point out that I’ve never seen incompetent people move on. It would be impossible for them. But being capable is not enough. You need to be in the system. No outsiders have any chances. That’s why usually researcher stay in the same university forever – unthinkable abroad…

Then my friend’s turn finally came. Several years later than her male peers. She has long been an associate professor. The real chair is the regular one. It may happen. But slowly. In fact, maybe not. Apparently it is not planned for her. Head of the department? Are you kidding? A male of her age is the director today. My American friend who becomes a department chair today is significantly younger and especially significantly less stressed. She has moved up the ladder much faster and with less sacrifice. Maybe it’s because Americans are stupid? Mmmm….

Where would I be if I had prepared that GRE well in 2001? Maybe not a department chair but I would certainly be a professor in the US. But such reasoning is useless. I would not have the beautiful family I have today, I would not have the beautiful son I have. I could never regret this, but I cannot help but notice, just thinking about his future, that there is a big difference between our country and other advanced countries, at least as far as the world of science and research is concerned. It’s not all roses and flowers. There are also realities abroad of countless poorly paid temporary contracts in different parts of the world. Not everyone can keep up. Those who want a family have a hard time unless they are really rich. The way I am made, I might not have been able to cope, I am not monothematic, as this site might suggest. I have to span multiple topics, I couldn’t focus my whole life on geology alone. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a PhD and I’m not a researcher or professor.

I had found a professional alternative: in the oil companies, a geologist like me does just the work he likes to do most. High-level geological surveys. Too bad that after an American disaster, the explosion of a platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012, Italy stupidly decided that offshore research should no longer be done. In the long run, this has caused several foreign companies to flee our country, including the one for which I worked, causing the loss of many jobs. It is useless for geologists to explain to administrators that a scenario like that of the Gulf of Mexico is impossible in our small Adriatic. The geological conditions are completely different and oil would never spill from a submerged well. The most absurd thing is that in the Gulf of Mexico the U.S. authorities blocked the operations for 3 months. When they understood what had happened they reopened them. In Italy, where absolutely nothing had happened (we are also at a huge distance from the Gulf of Mexico), someone took the ball and blocked all works within 6 miles from the coast – forever.

It’s alright. I’m healthy, I play guitar in an old men’s rock band, I work in a nice and cheerful environment. I’m self-made (once again), recycling my career thanks to skills I’ve always had regardless of college studies. I have a nice family, even Covid has been away so far. I’ve also had to work in a factory, the signs of what I’ve been through can also be seen physically, a few more wrinkles, a few less hairs. Something different about the way I am too. Will I have regrets as I get older? I often ask myself that and perhaps I am afraid I will. If I had stayed and worked for free at National Institute of Geophysics where I had done part of my my thesis, as any postgraduate can do, I might have been a researcher there today, like many others. But I naively believed that I would have done better finding a job.

Which (as a geologist) happened after 7 long years. I should have gone all out to go to the US to do my PhD. Or shouldn’t I….?

It’s not that everything in the United States is better than in Italy or Europe (and with the pandemic, we saw that). There are strengths and weaknesses everywhere. Besides, if I hadn’t lost my job as a geologist, I would (probably) not have found my love for the guitar. And it’s not certain that my true deepest desire was not to be a geologist but a guitarist. Like many budding musicians I immediately chose plan B by going to university, without even considering plan A of studying guitar. Of course, with the music I like, I could write a similar article about opportunities for musicians here and in the US. Still, it’s not easy in either place. In the end I have more fun this way, with a job that’s interesting anyway and allows me to play in my spare time, being the real me when I’m on stage….