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Women in Science Project
6201 Parker House
Hanover, NH 03755

Phone: 603-646-3690

Kristin Canavan '97

An interview by Serena Chang '05, February 4, 2002 (Class Year: '97)

May Dartmouth students contact you? Yes, by e-mail at

When and How Did You First Get Interested in Science?

My father is an engineer, and I remember, when I was younger, working on odd projects around the house. I was the first born in my family, and looking back on it now, I suspect my father was hoping for a boy. Luckily for me, he let me substitute for one when it came to sports, random work around our house, things that girls are typically not included in. And when I did well in my math and science classes, he was incredibly proud of me. And when I was frustrated, he supported me, and said I could get through it, because he did. I'm amazed today at how many women with engineering and science background I meet today whose fathers were also in those roles.

What Was Your Major in College?

I majored in engineering sciences, and received my BA in 1997.

How Did You Decide What to Focus On?

I knew coming into Dartmouth that I wanted to do something on the math or science side of things. Like most Dartmouth students, my grades were fairly balanced in both the humanities and sciences in high school, but I always enjoyed the science classes a little more. I actually thought I'd go into math or physics, but then I took Professor Ursula Gibson's Engineering Sciences 1 class (a non-majors intro to engineering), and fell in love with the idea of applying theories and hands on work. I think after that class, I was hooked.

What Science-related Activities Did You Participate In, If Any? Were They Important and Why? Did They Make Science Intriguing or Generate Ideas for Continuing on in the Sciences?

I was fairly active in WISP and in the Society for Women Engineers. For my WISP internship, I did research in materials engineering under Professor Ian Baker. Having time with both the professor and graduate students in my freshman year was an absolute gift: it gave me a broader perspective on directions that the major could take. I also did research work for Professor Benoit Cushman-Roisin as part of the Presidential Scholars program in thermodynamic/fluid systems. For this project, I spent significant time building a pump in the machine shop, and loved the chance to build and actually see my work take on a physical shape.

During College, Did You Have an Idea of What You Wanted to Do After Graduation?

Not until my senior year. As a matter of fact, I felt pretty lost during my first three years of school when it came to trying to figure out what I'd do afterwards. I thought the B.E. and M.E. programs at the engineering school were both intriguing, but I struggled with defining which jobs I'd take on after them. When I talked with one of the career resources counselors during my junior year, they didn't exactly help me narrow my choices, but did something even more helpful: they made me realize the broad wealth of opportunities a person with an engineering degree has, including business, computers, medicine, you just about name it, and the problem solving and analytical skills of engineers are highly valued.

How Did You Decide What to Do After College? What Were Your Goals, Etc.?

I did an internship with Price Waterhouse's management consulting arm during the summer between my junior and senior years. Not for any strong reason — I think maybe another woman I knew had done it the year before and seemed to enjoy it. The consulting arms of many of the auditing companies are strong in IT/systems consulting in particular. I thought it would be worth checking out.

Did You Follow This Path? What Were Your Jobs After Graduation?

I did, sort of. While at PW, I discovered a more business-oriented (vs. just IT) consulting division. I found that applying analytics and problem solving to larger business problems is much more interesting than applying them to computer code, and so set my sights on business/strategy consulting, ultimately landing a job before graduation with Mercer Management Consulting. I stayed there for three years before heading to my current situation, once again a student, at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, where I am currently completing my MBA.

What Are You Currently Involved In?

Once again a student, I am pretty heavily involved in a variety of extracurricular activities at my business school. I am an officer in Women in Management, am an active member of our High Tech club, and am a board member at a start-up non-profit in San Francisco called Seven Tepees Youth Organization.

Are You Still Involved in the Sciences? In What Ways? If Not, Why Not?

I am still involved, though in a very different way than in my former engineering program. Both at work and now, I find myself, as "the engineer" in project teams, charged with the task of interviewing engineers, understanding a company's technology, explaining technological landscapes, etc. There is a host of intriguing issues that arise when you marry technology with strategy, and understanding both is a rare and appreciated skill.

Does Your College Career Impact What You Currently Do, and If So, How?

Absolutely. The Career Center was right-analytic and problem-solving skills are incredibly valuable to creating and supporting opportunities. From doing problem sets in class to working with tech companies on strategic issues, I am constantly putting myself back in "engineering mindset."

What's the Most Rewarding Component of Your Current Work?

One of the most rewarding components of working both in management consulting and as a student today is that when you know something everyone else around you doesn't, or you understand something that everyone else around you is afraid to, you are incredibly valued. I think that having an engineering background has played into this tremendously.

What Do You Find Less Fulfilling?

In consulting, the hours and the travel can wear you down quickly. When you are identified as knowing/understanding technical things, especially when there aren't many other engineers around you, you often get called on to advise in other projects above and beyond your own workload. However, on the flip side, you often get promoted and recognized well for those abilities.

Where Do You Expect and Hope That This Work May Take You?

I'm facing another decision about careers once again. I think my ultimate goal is to be in a managerial/leadership position at a tech company, but am still deciding what path I'll be taking to get there.

What Are Your Top Priorities Today? Have These Changed from When You First Graduated?

I think my priorities today are to look for a more balanced life: to spend time learning, but also spend time applying what I've learned; to spend time working, but also to spend significant time outside of work pursuing community service, "extracurricular" kinds of activities, and with friends and family. When I first started working, my priority was to gain experience and to learn. I think it served me well when I didn't have experience, but now that I'm a few years out, I'd like to slow down my pace at work, and increase my pace outside of it.

What Are You Most Passionate About Today?

I am still highly interested in changes and opportunities in the technology sector. Despite the slow economy, there are still incredibly interesting things happening in universities and companies, particularly in the areas of biotechnology and nanotechnology. More and more, the sciences are becoming further and further integrated. It creates learning challenges for those who come from one particular science background, but keeps things very interesting.

How Have You Dealt with Balancing Work and Family — Have You Had to Adjust Your Schedule or Look for a Job That Is More Flexible?

I'm afraid I wasn't fantastic at that balance during my three years at Mercer before business school, but, as I mentioned, I actually sought different experiences and opportunities. My hope is that going forward, I will be better at managing both. I think that finding a company that understands the need for balance, and communication with your managers and the people you manage is essential to finding that balance.

Did You Have Any Mentors That Encouraged You or Any Individuals That Discouraged You? If So, Please Describe the Relationship and How It Influenced Your Career Path.

I had tons of mentors who influenced me along the way, from my father, to my high school math teacher, to professors at Dartmouth, to Mary Pavone, to peers and upperclassmen and women. The support and examples that these people have offered at very critical points in my upbringing, my high school and undergraduate studies and in my career were all reasons that I finished Dartmouth with an engineering degree.

How Did You Find Out About Various Jobs, Maybe Even the Job You HAve Now?

As an undergrad, the best sources of information are at the Career Center and also the Internet. I would encourage students not to think that the offerings at the Career Center are all that they can and should consider: there is a whole world out there. Find something you like to do, are interested in, and just start talking with people about it: alums, human resources people at those companies, professors, classmates. You'd be amazed that once you share your passions with others, what kinds of doors it opens for you.

Did You Ever Doubt Your Capabilities and/or Knowledge in Your Major/Career?

Yes, all the time. I don't think anyone goes through an engineering program without having some doubts along the way. It's not a piece of cake the entire way through‹there were plenty of nights that I was up until the wee hours slugging away at a problem set in the Great Hall at Thayer. There were lectures in class that went right over my head. I've worked with some wonderful and some awful people during my career (not necessarily a reflection on Mercer, most of the awful people were ones I encountered at client sites). I still have doubts and insecurities all the time. They don't go away just because you get a degree or find a job or get promoted.

How Did You Overcome Those Self Doubts?

Mentors and peers played a significant role for me. Finding others who encouraged me, advised me, and more often than not, just listened to me when I needed to talk was crucial to my making my way.

If You Could Change Anything About Your Career Trajectory, What Would It Be and Why?

I took things very fast: pushed myself hard at work, and it paid off. I was promoted quickly and through a combination of both that work and some luck, got into Stanford's MBA program. I'm not sure I'd change that today, but I do wish I had stopped every once in a while and tried to reflect more on where I was, what I was doing, and what I was learning/getting out of it. Spending lots of time working and moving quickly up the promotion ladder doesn't usually give a person much of an opportunity to reflect and make sure they are doing the things they want to be doing. I'm not sure any of my decisions would have changed, but I would have certainly felt more confident about them and where I was going.

What Advice Do You Have for Current Students Who May be Interested in the Sciences?

Pursue it. But be ready for a tough ride. Don't be afraid to reach out to others, especially your classmates, you'll learn just as much, if not more, from them as you will in the classroom. You're going to have doubts: don't let them hold you back, instead talk with others about them. Create a support system of friends, family, and professors. If you don't understand something in class, don't ever blame yourself: you are in school to learn, and sometimes that means not understanding what you are doing right away. Find your professor, TA, a classmate, and work at it until you get it. Find mentors: upperclassmen and women, professors, outside leaders. Don't forget that there is a huge outside world: keep up with what's going on in it and how your interest is a part of it. And when your 4 years are up, you would be amazed at how respected your learning becomes, and how great it is to understand and know something that you love. Then apply all of those rules to your life after school: you'll need them again.

For a transcript of Kristin Canavan's presentation to the Dartmouth Alumni Council in September of 1996, click here.

Last Updated: 8/23/12