An Interview with Maia Bernick ’15

Maia Bernick

Interview by Colleen Hanson ’19

In recent years, the Department of Philosophy has interviewed alumni and graduating seniors about their experiences as philosophy majors, how philosophy has prepared them for post-graduation, and what advice they have for current students (you can find some of those interviews here and here.)

After graduating from the University of Puget Sound with a philosophy major and a bioethics emphasis, alumna Maia Bernick ‘15 studied law at the University of Seattle Law School. Bernick currently works for the Washington State Department of Health as a staff attorney. Bernick says, “The division I work in helps the healthcare profession programs ensure that everyone is following their standards of practice and rules and helping with public safety.”

When discussing her interests within philosophy, she said, “I am very interested in how philosophy is going to develop in advancing AI technologies, robotics, cybernetics and how that’s going to change our whole human identity because we’re going to have to compete with something that’s as smart as us and I don’t think we’re going to be able to handle it. The first thing that got me interested in AI/robotics was the whole imminent care crisis, with not as many younger folks and a huge generation of people in the next five to twenty years who are going to need long term care because they are seniors and we are critically understaffed in terms of long term care workers. So, people are starting to theorize how AI can kind of step in. As of right now, I don’t think we or anywhere else in the world have robust enough or reliable enough AI to actually apply any help. But maybe in the next 10-15 years, we could have nurse bots or bots that do the functions of medical assistants like take pulses and other kinds of readings, or bring people food/drinks – to kind of ease off that gap a little bit. That was the first area of robotics I was interested in and it kind of grew from there.”

When asked about the relationship between her philosophy major and her studies in law school, Bernick recommended against going to law school thinking that you will study philosophy, but she emphasized that this is “not to dissuade people from going to law school because it opens up a lot of doors. I think a lot of people have a closed mind about what a JD can give you, and it doesn’t just mean being an attorney. [You can] go into politics or rule writing, there’s just a lot of different fields.” She added that “the philosophy major is an excellent foundation in terms of skills to prepare you for law school. Because of persuasive writing and critical reading and analysis skills, you are going to be better off than a lot of your peers in law school who came in with different majors that don’t emphasize those skills.”

She went on to talk about the relationship between philosophy and the law, as well as her personal experiences learning about them:

“I interned with a judge and I helped with recommendation memoranda – which is basically when you look at a case and you say, ‘based on the law, this is what I recommend you rule.’ And you would research such law. I had one hell of a time doing this because I would be like, ‘The law says this, but public policy…’ ‘Public policy’ means ethics in the legal world; it is code for ethics. I didn’t get in trouble with my judge but I had to be told that when you’re making rulings, you can’t just use what you feel is ethically right – or even what is ethically right – because the law and ethics are not the same.”

“That’s one of the things I had learned here [at Puget sound] too is that…there are instances when [the law and ethics] do overlap, but I would venture to say that it’s the minority of the time. So I think that if you’re gung-ho about ethics, law school may not be the place for you because you’re not going to get to it really. Or, don’t go into a field after law school where the strict reading of the law matters because you will feel frustrated.”

Bernick was motivated to go to law school because she wanted to directly help with some of the ethical issues she was studying in philosophy and bioethics. She says,

“I wanted to directly interact with people a little more. And you know it’s funny because I originally wanted to go to law school to do elder law and help individuals with their end of life planning. I’m really passionate about normalizing end of life conversations and preparations and stuff like that, and I ended up in a field where I don’t have a client. My “client” would be the state of WA because I work for the state at the Department of Health as a staff attorney. We help to make sure people are getting good care. In that way, I kind of circle back to bioethics because I’ve always been interested in healthcare. So I’m back kind of where I started but I’m doing a little more ground floor work versus, I don’t know, if I was an ethicist in a hospital I might just be sitting in a room reading cases and coming out with a ruling, etc.”

Bernick offered some advice to current philosophy students:

“Here’s my small piece of advice: what really got me passionate about philosophy is, find what you’re already interested in – and for me it was robotics – and think about ways that you can incorporate philosophical study into that. That can include ancillary fields. So, because I’m interested in robotics, I want to learn about philosophy of mind because you can think about how humans think and how that can be applied to robots.  I just think that when you’re studying theory after theory and sometimes it’s not about subjects you’re particularly interested in, it can just feel like you’re reading words and it’s dense so finding ways to tie it to stuff you’re already interested in can really enhance the experience and learning. This is just personal to me, this may or may not apply to others but some people can study for the sake of studying and I will tune out if I don’t care about what I’m studying. I think finding a way to tie it to something you’re already passionate about helps because there is a philosophy of everything. It doesn’t even have to be stuff you study in class. I think that’s the best advice I can give that’s more narrowly tailored and has more of a practical application.”   

Bernick also offered her advice to philosophy students thinking about law or graduate school:

“One piece of advice I have for people interested in grad school is to take a gap year. This is totally my personal experience and based off of anecdotal experience, but I think that people who take gap years and work or volunteer or even just rejuvenate themselves after college or whatever you do with your gap year (or years) – I wish I would have done it, for one. Especially if you’re someone who has gone straight through school. This may be different for people who are going to college at a different stage in their life (and that’s also badass if you’re doing that), but for people who have gone straight from kindergarten through (they call them KJDs in law school), it’s not like you’re not going to do well but – anecdotally – it seems that people generally did better when they took a gap year…”

“I think it does have to do with mental fortitude. You’ve rested and I think if you come back to something after a few years, you know that that’s what you want to do and you’re not just like, ‘I don’t want a job so I’m going to go to graduate school.’ Obviously, I carve out exceptions – if you’re someone who knows you’re not going to do this again if you take time off, then there’s something to be said about that because you get a job and you start making money and it becomes harder and harder to go back to being a student and having to put stuff on hold. If you’re like, this is the only time in my life I feel like I can do this – awesome. Or, if you’re coming out of undergrad feeling motivated and energized, then you should definitely do it. But if you’re someone who is like, yeah, I’d like to do grad school but I’m not jumping to do it – also just speaking practically, I hate that everything people do has to be informed and the consideration is how practical it can be for employment down the road.”

When asked about her experience with the job search after law school, she said,

“Everyone is like, ‘it’s always about who you know, it’s always about networking.’ I didn’t network. I don’t network. I can talk to you one-on-one because we’re in a one-on-one conversation, but I don’t like false interactions with people which is what networking is. I did some forced networking but it was never for anything I actually wanted to do and I never followed up on it. So, I think people have done a disservice by overestimating how many people can actually get a job through networking because it may not be one in a million, but it’s more rare than you would think. I think it might be easy to get an internship word-of-mouth where they don’t have to pay you, but with a job, you have to go through the grovel most of the time…”

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