Experiencing Turbulence

Writer: 
October 1, 2009
Reaching for the sky: Despite job-hunting disappointments, Conyers never gave up on his childhood dream.

Reaching for the sky: Despite job-hunting disappointments, Conyers never gave up on his childhood dream. Bill Bamberger

As a child growing up in rural South Carolina, Howard Conyers Ph.D. '09 used to visit relatives in Florida. One of his favorite parts of the experience was the airplane ride. "I was always fascinated how a vehicle that large is able to get up into the air and fly like a bird," he says. Even then, he wanted to become an engineer. When he entered Duke's Pratt School of Engineering in 2004, he decided to specialize in aeroelasticity: the ways air flow distorts a structure like an airplane wing, a bridge, or an office building.

Conyers, twenty-seven, is a meticulous planner. Before he finished his undergraduate work at North Carolina A&T University, he had already mapped out his career. As he envisions it, he will spend the next two decades outside academe. He might work for the government or a defense contractor. Maybe he'll design state-of-the-art skyscrapers for an engineering firm. He can even imagine busting out of his field completely, using his analytical skills to "build models to predict the stock market."

Then, after racking up private-sector or government experience, he'll spend the second half of his career in the classroom—imparting his practical knowledge to future engineers.

When the economy began to tank in 2008, Conyers didn't panic. "I thought it would be a small sniffle," he says, "instead of the flu that we're experiencing right now, which we can't seem to shake." But then, this year, he began his own job hunt. He attended job fairs and applied for positions posted online, only to have promising leads peter into silence.

Roman Czujko, director of the Statistical Re­search Center at the American Institute of Physics, says this is indeed a rough time for doctoral-level scientists and engineers to begin corporate careers. "The economy goes in the toilet at least once every ten years," he says. Often, Czujko adds, companies respond to these downturns by cutting clerical and information-technology staff—and those employees also get hired back first. "Things will have to bottom out and improve before the private sector starts to take a chance on new Ph.D.s again," he says.

At one job fair, a defense contractor expressed an interest in Conyers—as long as the company didn't have to pay him a Ph.D.-level salary. "One of the questions that was posed to me was, 'Would you be willing to come in as if you had a bachelor's or master's degree?' " Conyers recalls.

"I said to the recruiter: Given the situation, where we are in this country, if I had to take a pay cut, I would take it. You can't miss something that you never had. What they're offering as an entry-level engineer would probably be a lot more than what you get from a graduate-student stipend."

That job didn't come through either. Conyers grew resigned to taking a position doing something he wasn't thrilled about—in a university research lab, for example—to "just weather the storm."

But then NASA called. The space agency was looking for a structural analyst for the successor to the space shuttle. Conyers flew down to Mississippi for an interview, and in July accepted an offer. It felt like the adult fulfillment of a childhood dream: As a kid, Conyers often asked his parents to send him to a NASA space camp, but they couldn't afford it.

Conyers says his job quest has taught him a lesson in tenacity. "It took eight months," he said. "But I learned you have to be persistent and patient. Don't give up."