Leaving work to go back to school

There was a range of reactions from support to disbelief from friends and colleagues. Why had I left my full-time job to return to University? I had wanted to do my M.Sc. for a while. I even have the high school journal entry where getting a Master’s degree is in a list of goals. I’m confident my father was a significant influence on that goal, but it was also nurtured over the years through the excellent counsel from family, friends, mentors, and bosses. My story is about completing school while working for three different companies and growing my family.

Back when I was an undergrad in Geophysics, Structural Geology had taken over a lot of my interests. I was captivated by the beautiful seismic images and the detail that is extracted from the subsurface through seismic data. During my fourth year, I began to weigh the opportunities between graduate school and finding employment but wasn’t sure what path to take. I approached many professionals who had obtained graduate degrees.  I concluded that those who returned to school after working a few years enjoy graduate studies more fully and thoroughly. Knowing this, and that my son was to be born during my last semester before graduation, caused me to reflect deeply on what I should pursue. After some deep pondering and discussion with my wife, I thought it would be best to find work rather than pursue a graduate degree.

I was fortunate enough to secure a position with Thrust Belt Imaging (TBI) where I was able to combine my passion for Geophysics and Structural Geology by interpreting seismic data to create velocity models for depth imaging. I was excited to go to work every day. While at TBI, I often had the opportunity to speak with my first great boss, Rob Vestrum. Rob shared his experiences raising a family as a young parent, attending graduate school while raising children, and the value that he received from his graduate work.  TBI’s depth imaging technology, rooted in Rob’s graduate work, is one of TBI’s competitive edges. I often discussed with him my interest in returning to graduate school and am grateful for their openness and support.

As 2015 drew to a close, I knew what I wanted to do. I told TBI I wanted to go to graduate school and found they were willing to work with me to make it happen. I researched many schools throughout North America and various topics within Geology and Geophysics. Sometimes the topic drove me to investigate a school. Sometimes it was the professor. In the end, TBI had suggested a technology, model-based moveout, which they wanted to pursue and incorporate internally. This could be a research topic for my thesis and can be critical to resolving imaging issues that often plague complex-structure environments. It captured my interest and led me to focus my efforts to gain enrollment at the University of Calgary.

I had the support of TBI, through the Mitacs Accelerate Scholarship, to pursue graduate studies and I had a subject to research. Next, I needed a professor willing to take me on as a student and needed to enroll in the graduate program. I contacted many professors to find options and eventually, after a few meetings with Kris Innanen, he agreed to be my supervisor. Kris also welcomed me to CREWES (Consortium for Research in Elastic Wave Explorations Seismology) based on TBI’s continued assistance in my research. Being a member of CREWES was extremely helpful to increase my exposure to the many facets of applied and theoretical geophysics.

Glenn Larson, another key mentor and a great supervisor, had also completed his graduate degree while working. Glenn shared his experiences that helped me avoid pitfalls and have more rapid success; specifically dedicating an appropriate amount of time each day to writing the thesis. George Thomson, the third great boss I’d had in 3 years, helped me to coordinate my work schedule with my school schedule so that I was able to manage both at the same time. Having completed the bulk of my research during the Mitacs scholarship period helped me immensely. Having both the research done and the support of my employers allowed me to manage my coursework, employment, abstracts for conferences, research reports for donors, and thesis concurrently.

I am grateful for the flexibility of TBI, CREWES, Devon Energy, and Sound QI. Their support allowed me to pursue my M.Sc. degree. Despite not returning to TBI as an employee, they were very supportive of me completing my thesis work. They provided access to a workstation to investigate, test, and refine my research on model-based moveout methods and their applications.

To return to school and focus on research with two young children and a family that relied on my paycheque was constantly challenging.  It should now be obvious that I didn’t do this on my own. My wife guided and encouraged me throughout this pursuit while being a rock for both our children and me. Rob Vestrum, Greg Cameron, and others at TBI need to be thanked for their friendship and research support. Thank you to Laura Baird, Kris Innanen, and the other professors and technical advisors who helped to drive progress on my thesis topic. I am indebted to my coworkers and managers at Devon who allowed me to modify my work schedule as to allow me to complete my course while working. Thank you, Laurie Bellman, yet another great boss, and Sound QI for their flexibility around my thesis writing schedule which allowed me to finally complete and defend my thesis.

As much as I enjoyed returning to school, my path isn’t one that I would recommend to everyone. I hope my experience can help others to define further their goals for themselves and their careers. I do know this; I am better for having completed my Master’s degree and having found that there are bosses, managers, and leaders who are very supportive of the pursuits of other people. Often the only thing that holds us back from achieving more with our abilities is asking people for help and letting others know what we would like to do with our lives and careers.


Dennis Ellison is Technical Advisor - Geophysics for Paradigm


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