There was no Summer Jam blog series. I'll come out and say it because I dropped that ball like the sweaty-palmed non-athlete that I am. So there. But I have some other thoughts for you. This post could also be called "Sue Pierre's: Why Did I Get Accepted 2". That's a Tyler Perry reference for those who don't like garbage cinema.
This semester has been a bunch of things to me. It was mostly a time of transition and realizing (but when are we not doing those things?). It was pain and relief too close together to tell apart. Through this semester, I’ve been served a few lessons and one that I want to talk about here, mostly a note to myself.
I switched lab groups. I started a new advising relationship. I worked more independently than ever, and didn’t fail. I published my first paper. I became a mentor. I decided that academia does not equal success. I looked around me and noticed that I’m not the only one who’s feeling exhausted and tired of this grind. And that despite my exhaustion, the reasons to persevere persist. They’re there.
What I’ve heard from fellow ecology graduate students many, many times is that the expectations that faculty hold for their students are often as relevant to what the student actually is and wants as law is to justice (i.e. somewhat). The expectations resemble the assumed model of success— eyes locked on an upwardly mobile post doc, tenure track faculty position on the horizon, impressive collaborations galore, unabated production of highly novel research on the razor edge of the discipline. It sounds kind of good, until you’re doing it, and the reality of what it will feel like, what it will cost, comes up and surprises you. Yet it’s hard to feel like you’re not disappointing someone, or something (Science, the institution), by sheepishly looking at other models on the lot. In fact, even if you do inspect other models, it takes more guts to actually bring up uncertainty to a mentor—and here is where the problem lies.
There’s a tension in being truthful about confusion. Feeling that tension is tough, and best avoided if coasting is the objective. But the itch remains, and not being able to flesh out these questions, either due to lack of communication, fear of disappointment, or a sense of uncertainty about what else exists, is dangerous on a number of levels. The most apparent danger is that people do things well when they feel passion, otherwise known as a positive sense of urgency. If that urgency is dull, if your passion is rote in your mouth like a mantra someone else made up, your mediocrity will soar. We can’t afford for really smart people to do mediocre work because they aren’t sure. We need people to produce creative and bristling work, whether in academic journals or R+D labs, because problems abound.
So as students, we need to be able to talk about how we really see ourselves and our futures—with our friends, with our faculty mentors, and maybe as whole departments. In part, this requires a dissolution of the idea that high quality research can only be produced through a certain track, or that important work can only be done through university research. I get that the dominant model works, but what if it doesn’t make you happy? Concomitantly, I think students have to grow a pair (of vulvae) and face off with some weird and potentially uncomfortable conversations. We and our disciplines will be better for it.
As for me, I think that my heart lies in asking questions about forests, but the right venue for that work remains unclear. Talking isn’t always what I do well—this may surprise folks who hear me babble often— and getting one’s shit together means articulating goals and bracing for blowback (or high fives!). What I’ve learned this semester, on my own and from others, is that taking yourself seriously means being real about expectations of yourself.
To document interesting ideas about science and nature and reflect on the experience of being a scientist from the margins.