The Geologist Designer I Carissa Carter I ’01

CarissaCarterIt’s easy to get trapped into thinking that each of us is predestined for one path—that happiness is contingent on finding our one and only perfect career. For four years at Williams and five more afterwards, Carissa Carter was convinced that she was going to become a geology professor. She loved geology—loved getting her hands dirty in the field, loved the real-life applications of the work, loved the prospect of leading a classroom. “I’m still convinced that I would have had a really fun career if I was a geology professor.” Instead, in 2007, Carter put off getting her geology PhD in favor of Stanford’s design school. Eight years later, she teaches at that same school and works as an independent researcher and designer for companies, ranging from startups to the Fortune 500. Rather than a search for her one true path, Carter’s story illustrates the value of leaving yourself open to adapt as new opportunities arise.

Following graduation, Carter did what many geology graduates do: she moved to Colorado and got a job in the field. A year later, she started graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. Carter completed her master’s in two years, but when her advisor left California, she decided to take a break before embarking on the PhD. “I worked for the US Geological Survey for a couple years, which was nice, but I started to wonder about other things. I’d always had an undercurrent of art. I took a lot of art classes at Williams, but I didn’t know what you do with that. I had no awareness that design was a component of art, let alone where to do it or how to do it.”

As Carter was contemplating her next move, her mom stumbled upon an article about the Stanford design program. “She sent it to me with an email saying, ‘This seems really cool — it’s totally like you.’”

The program offers students a chance to apply hands-on design to real world problems. As part of the work, students spend time in impoverished areas around the world, observing and interviewing locals to identify needs and then working to build scalable solutions. Carter was hooked.

But there was a catch. Because the program is co-hosted by mechanical engineering and art, you have to apply through one of those departments. “So I had to massage my geology courses and make the claim that if I had wanted to, I could have been a mechanical engineer. Tectonics is kind of the same as statics and dynamics.”

To her surprise, Carter was accepted. She spent two years at Stanford and loved it. After graduation, she decided to explore finally getting her PhD—this time in design. The problem was that because design was such a new field, there wasn’t a PhD program that matched her interests. “I hit this moment where I was like, ‘Why do I actually want the PhD?’ I realized that I wanted to be a maker. I wanted to create things, and I didn’t really fit in the old PhD model.”

So Carter left academia. She spent two years working for a furniture design company—one year in Michigan and another in Hong Kong. During her year in Hong Kong, Carter began feeling restless. She wanted to get out on her own—to take on a broader range of projects and open herself up to new opportunities.

Sitting in a coffee shop in Hong Kong, Carter began writing out hundreds of sentences that all began with “I am.” She finished each sentence not with a description of her current self, but with a hope for what she might be like in the future. “They were about everything: life and work and love. I realized that they fell into three general buckets: one about creating, one about conveying or teaching, and one about curating or finding a voice. I said, ‘OK , fill your time with activities that fill those three buckets and provide some balance between them.’” In the middle of Carter’s three buckets, she put the word “connect” to remind herself of the importance of staying close with friends and family. “Once I came up with the model, I realized, ‘I can do this.’ I revisit it once in a while to see if what I’m doing is on the journey.”

Inspired by her discovery, Carter moved back to California and started taking on projects of her own. Three years later, she is sought after by companies of all sizes and is an established leader in her field. When asked if she was ever afraid about leaving the stability of the geology PhD, Carter acknowledged that the uncertainty of her life still terrifies her, but it also fuels her. “I love not knowing what the next project is or where it could go, because that means that the door is open to any cool thing that might come up. Earlier this week, a friend came to me to talk about an idea that could fundamentally shift the way people use their phones. I was like, ‘Ah, I want to be a part of that!’”

“At Williams you see that there are a handful of ladders, and if you don’t want to climb one of those, you have to scale the wall. I took the ‘scale the wall’ route, and I realized that I enjoy that climb more than if I had taken a preset ladder. Once you get going, you realize that it’s not about having a five year plan and looking for the top rung and skipping the in-between, it’s about finding the next little crack that you’re going to shove your hand into.”

You can learn more about Carter’s journey at her website