The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Student Life

Grad school is hard: you’re not alone.

I’m back home and settled in after a wonderful ESC annual meeting. From photography, social media and teaching workshops, to stellar talks, to prizes won by friends and labmates – it was really a fantastic conference.  If you want to see some excellent photos of the event, Sean McCann posted a great roundup of some of the week’s highlights. One of the most memorable moments for me was actually during Sean’s great Student Showcase talk on wasp-specializing Caracaras, when he showed incredible video footage of these social birds all-out slamming into nests full of big, irate wasps as a means of knocking them down so they could be collected and eaten (!!!BOOM!!! It was awesome.)

I have to say, having been to larger meetings in the US, I really do prefer the smaller Canadian scene. It’s a good-sized and diverse yet close-knit group: I find it so much easier to catch up with colleagues and friends and also to meet new people and make new connections.  At ESA last year I found it very difficult to find anyone amidst the thousands of attendees, and it often felt like each school’s department was a bit of an “in-group” that was a little hard to penetrate.

Meeting and talking face-to-face with other scientists is, of course, one of the main draws of any conference. This year I found the experience particularly helpful and enlightening, not just from a science perspective, but also from a Doing Science perspective. Having had a [understatement] bit of a slump [/understatement] this past year with my work*, I had some great chats with a number of established researchers about their own challenges as grad students.

One conversation really stood out among many. This particular researcher does Very Sexy and Fascinating Science and has always conveyed a lot of passion for their work through their writing and talks. However, this person told me that by the end of their PhD they absolutely HATED their study taxon with a burning fiery hate and never wanted to see/work with another one again. It took two or three years before they were able to remember why it was that they were interested in the subject in the first place. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this – I couldn’t imagine this person ever being anything but enthralled with their science.

Yet, this was only one example of several stories I heard about how people struggled with their graduate studies: “Grad school is hard. It messes with your head. It almost killed me. You’re not alone.” was the refrain I heard over and over again. It was, frankly, incredibly reassuring to hear their stories and know that they still managed to establish successful research programs and careers despite their early-career challenges. It reminded me that even the best sometimes falter, even fail. Few among us are immune to feelings of inadequacy, doubt and occasionally despair about our work. 

Sometimes all this is just ... a bit overwhelming.

Sometimes all this is just … a bit overwhelming.

Joshua Drew recently shared a great presentation that addresses this very issue, and I’ve pulled out from it one quote that particularly blew me away:

But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.

Any guesses as to who said that?  It sounds like pretty much every grad student I’ve ever known**, at one point or another in their careers.

It was Charles Darwin writing to to Charles Lyell, one year after publishing On The Origin of Species (1861). Wat?  Yes.  Even the brightest and best among us have their bad days.

There’s hope for us all yet.

____________

* The good news is that, for whatever reason (change of season, change of scenery, change of activity, medical treatment finally kicking in, fear of God thesis committee, better coffee, some combination of the above – heck, who knows), I feel like I finally got my groove back. I’m productive and loving it, and it’s consistently been this way for a couple of months now. This is a really freaking welcome change of pace from what I’d been experiencing in the first half of the year.

** Seriously. Every time I’ve had a conversation with other grad students about impostor syndrome and/or their own work, some form of this sentiment invariably comes up at some point. It’s rampant. Also rampant are the effects this can have on student mental health. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have contacted me over the past few months to tell me their own stories – it’s incredible that we don’t hear about/talk about it more often. I sincerely thank those who DID talk about it with me – it really truly helped a great deal to hear your stories and to be reminded that I wasn’t flying solo on this crazy journey.

Learning the importance of listening: sexism and harassment in science

No adorable caterpillar photographs today, I’m afraid. We’ve got more important things to discuss.

If you are involved in the online science community at all (and I assume you are, since you’re reading this), then you know that in the past couple of days some distressing stories have emerged regarding sexism and harassment.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then please take a moment to read this: Give Trouble to Others But Not Me.

And this: This Happened.

Even though I have no direct affiliations or associations with any of the people involved, other than occasional exchanges of tweets or blog links, the situations  and the many ensuing online discussions, blog posts, tweets and reports have left me reeling – and angry.

I’m fiercely proud of Monica and DN Lee for speaking out. Publicly talking about challenging or taboo personal experiences is a very difficult thing to do. They have taken huge professional risks, shared very personal information, and have opened themselves up for attack, criticism and blame. However, in taking these risks, they have also provided us all with an opportunity to have some incredibly difficult and uncomfortable but important conversations; conversations that ask us to check our own assumptions, actions and privileges. Most of us will not like some things we discover about ourselves.

What happened to these two women were not rare, isolated incidents. Sexual discrimination and harassment is a pervasive, systemic problem. Not just in the science community or the science journalism community but in the Community at large. We are all affected, whether we like it or not. It’s everybody’s business. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact that sexual harassment and discrimination happens, TO people we know, BY people we know. And yes, it even happens in the Ivory Tower. We’re not immune just because we’re “educated”. Ask around, and listen.

There was a time when I didn’t acknowledge or believe that sexism persists in academic settings: as an inexperienced 20-something student working in a biology department with a goodish number of female professors, I thought claims of unequal treatment or harassment were dubious at best, and feminazi-ish at worst. “Look at all the female profs,” I’d say.  “Sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior? Here? It’s never happened to me,” I’d say. “It can’t be as bad as that, if it’s never happened to me,” I’d say.

I’m a considerably more experienced 30-something now, and I’m embarrassed for my younger self. For whatever reason (I have my suspicions but that’s a whole other post), I am still fortunate enough to have avoided explicit harassment while in a scientific or academic setting. However, my 30-something self has learned how freaking important it is to listen to other people when they say this stuff is going on. Just because it hasn’t happened to me does not mean it isn’t happening. This sh_t happens all. The. Time. My own (incredibly unusual) experience does not negate or invalidate the experiences of countless women (guys, are you listening?).

I have so many thoughts in my head right now, about power and how it can be abused, about privilege, discrimination, inequality, and our explicit or implicit acceptance of really unforgivable actions, words, and assumptions. I think about the ways in which I have condoned or accepted these unforgivable things (explicitly or implicitly) in the past. I think about how these things have been acted out for such a long time that some people can hardly recognize or acknowledge them, or even shrug them off as part of the “normal” culture of science. I think about the type of work environment that creates for me and my female colleagues, how it affects our professional actions and choices, and how it affects our future. I despair that things won’t change.

I don’t know what to do with all these thoughts, so I’ll keep chewing on them. In the meantime, I recognize that things will never change if we don’t talk about them. This is not something to just “calm down” about and hope it blows over. I wanted to acknowledge the situation and say that I want to listen to, and hear, what others have to say, and to be part of the conversation.

This caterpillar is so ridiculous that it got me to pick up my camera (and a short tale about teaching)

O hai.

It’s been a while, no? Yes, yes it has.

I’ve had an interesting summer. I spent most of it at home, puttering and finding small projects to do in between bouts of “real” work. I discovered some new interests (Namely canning. As in putting food in glass jars. Don’t judge.) I did a lot of introspection. I started to feel better than I was feeling at the time of my last post.

I did not, however, partake in many of my usual pastimes: blogging, mucking around conversing with cool people on Twitter, or taking pictures.

That’s right, my camera sat unused for the entire summer. I was spending a lot of time outdoors but just wasn’t seeing my surroundings through the same “lens”, so to speak, that I used to. Walks were taken to accomplish the goal of exercising myself and the dogs. Yard work was done efficiently without my usual distractedness or frequent breaks to dash indoors to fetch my photography equipment upon sighting an interesting critter. I just didn’t seem to notice much of what was going on around me.

Then, this week, I found myself back on campus for the start of the new fall term. This meant, of course, a new batch of undergrads and a new session of the field-based ecology course for which I’m a TA.

During the first lab period, we took a walk in the woods. A simple thing. Something I’ve done frequently this summer.

Something happened on this walk, though. Two things, actually.

Thing 1: This absolutely incredible caterpillar basically fell out of the sky and landed on the professor’s binoculars:

Spiny Oak Slug

A Spiny Oak Slug. I’d never seen one before. It is ridiculous. Its chemically-defended spines make your skin tingle in a burny kind of way when you touch it. (Yes, I touched it deliberately to find out how it felt.) It is basically transparent – you can see its guts right through the flesh of its underside, and the colourful markings ripple behind what looks like clear jelly. People on Twitter yesterday said it looks like a cake, or a parade float. Facebook friends declared it a “pea pod on acid” or a siege engine. I’m inclined to agree with all of them.

It is SUCH a ridiculous animal (seriously, look at that thing) that I felt, for the first time in months, compelled to take a picture of an insect. So I took it home and had a little portrait session. I was worried that maybe I’d forgotten how to use my equipment, but a little mucking around and I was back on track pretty quickly.

Spiny Oak Slug

(There are a few more images on Flickr, if you’re interested.)

Thing 2: The presence of students shifted something in my brain. Instead of just being in the woods, I started to see the woods and its inhabitants through the eyes of the students, for whom everything seemed wonderful and interesting and “oh,wow…cool”. I remembered, for the first time in months, that…well, that yeah: the woods and its inhabitants ARE really freaking cool. I started LOOKING, and SEEING, and FINDING things, and wanted to share them with other people. For the first time in months.

The next day I took my dogs for their usual walk down an old gravel road that’s lined on either side with woodlots, scrubby hedgerows and old fields. I noticed how intensely yellow the goldenrod looked in the warm light of the early morning sun. I stopped to watch a doe and her twin fawns saunter across the road. I saw a butterfly I’d been trying to find for the past couple of years and stopped to watch it lay an egg. I found more ridiculous caterpillars, and felt compelled to bring them home to take their photos.

As the dogs and I walked, I felt a familiar stirring in my chest for the first time in months. A little flutter. It was the warm, connected and awestruck feeling I usually get when I spend time outdoors, because nature is just so freaking cool and wonderful.

And here I am, for the first time in months, wanting to share these experiences with you. And I have more that I want to share later.

So…”hi”. I’m not going to make any huge commitments, but I think I might stick around here for a little while :)

The conversations we don’t have – but should

Well, hello there, friends. While I’m sure it seems like it, I haven’t forgotten about you.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post (my first in many months) and published it over at the Grad Life blog.  I decided that I wanted my friends to read it too, so, rather than try to recreate the wheel and craft something new for this blog, I’ve copy-pasted the post in its entirety here.
_______________________________

A few people have noticed that I have been entirely silent on this blog for quite some time.  Others have noticed that I’ve been absent from my personal blog as well as Facebook, Twitter – pretty much all of my usual online haunts – since the fall.  Their somewhat apprehensive inquiries – “How are you doing?” – have been appreciated, even if they’ve been met with rather vague replies: “I’m ok”, or, “I’m hanging in there”.  Or sometimes they’ve received no reply at all, because I haven’t known what to say.

I read a blog post recently, forwarded to me by someone who I consider a good, considerate friend as well as a colleague and mentor. That blog post shook me a bit, I think because I recognized myself in its words so prominently.  It prompted me to write a post of my own, because I think it’s important and because I think it might help me, personally.  So … deep breath … here we go.

At the start of the fall term, I was feeling very busy but very good. My research program was on track; I had recently found out that my latest manuscript was accepted for publication; a cool collaboration on a fun project was well underway; my teaching assistantship was providing me with really excellent opportunities for personal and professional growth. In early November, I started to settle back into a normal routine after presenting a bunch of research and social media talks during a whirlwind tour of interesting conferences. Upon my return from the last conference, I felt like I needed a week or so of a “breather”, a little time-out to recharge my batteries.

That week stretched into ten ten days. Then two weeks. Then a month. And before I knew it, and really without understanding or even really noticing how quickly the time was passing, it was suddenly the end of the term and I hadn’t accomplished even a fraction of what I’d intended to.

The thought of tackling any of my badly neglected projects – research, blogging, responding to the growing stack of emails I’d been putting off – the mere thought of this could easily put me into a tailspin of stress, worry, and anxiety that would last the entire day, and keep my brain whirring uncontrollably at night. This led to even more avoidance.

Then, over the holiday break, I got a pretty bad cold. I stayed in bed. As much as my body was miserable, it felt good to just lie cocooned in my blankets, sipping tea and watching movies on my laptop and not thinking about much of anything. Only very grudgingly did I finally admit that I was technically well enough to get out of bed during the day and get some work done. I really didn’t want to. Not at all.

In January, I announced on my blog that I’d be taking a break from blogging. Around the same time, everything else that I did in my “free” time pretty much stopped. Truthfully, I had no interest in doing these things because I was no longer getting my usual sense of enjoyment out of it.  Worse, I felt like simply wasn’t capable of managing it all. So I stopped – all of it – except for the bare minimum of what I needed to do: my research, a bit of course work (a seminar every other week), and a bit of teaching (which I also scaled back to about a third of what I’d been doing previously).

Even with all these cutbacks, however, tasks that would normally take me a few hours to complete were taking days or weeks, and much of it felt excruciatingly difficult. My naturally lousy attention span was down to zero, I wasn’t able to stay focused on any task for more than a brief time, and again, the stuff I usually really got a kick out of doing just wasn’t turning my crank. I’d have brief moments or even multiple-day streaks lasting up to a week where I’d make to-do lists and feel like I was getting my groove back and being my usual productive self.  These never lasted. Then I’d feel worse.

As a person accustomed to successfully juggling a ton different projects and hobbies on top of her research and other professional responsibilities, this entire situation freaked me right the heck out and made me feel like a fraud and a failure.

As a commuting student, I work from home most days. In the safety of my private domain, I started taking comfort in my ability to complete small, inane, routine tasks that would normally be boring for me. Things like doing dishes, walking my dogs, preparing a grocery list, making meals. These felt manageable, and allowed me to enjoy small moments of success that let me escape from my feelings of ineptitude. I also kept up with my regular workouts, because they made me feel better, if only for a little while. Beyond these basic activities, I felt useless and rather out of control. I would escape in the internet for hours (mindless, aimless, farting-around-on-autopilot-type escape) to avoid these feelings. The day would eventually come to an end, and I’d escape again in disjointed sleep.

My inner dialogue during these months reflected my turmoil. I would alternately coddle myself (“You don’t need to worry, you’re doing the best you can. Just leave that task for tomorrow, no one will mind.”); bully myself (“What the hell is your problem, get your lazy ass in gear and get some freaking work done, you loser”); and lie to myself (“Everything’s fine. You’re not that behind. You’ll catch up next week. You’ll feel better in the spring when the sun is out more.”)

In the meantime, great things were happening all around me. I have a strong, compassionate and supportive partner whose academic and professional successes were mounting steadily (a testament to her hard work and talents); a beautiful home; a new baby niece; a fantastic research project, a lab full of intelligent and charismatic labmates, and an incredible advisor; a list of professional accomplishments from the past year that anyone could be proud of; kind and thoughtful friends both online and off.

But I wasn’t happy. There was absolutely no reason for it, and my scientists’ brain drove me mad trying to rationalize the situation.

Now, here’s the rub.

I have lived very intimately with various forms of depression and mental illness in my life, through the experiences and struggles of affected loved ones. I know the signs and cycles well.

Ironically, I failed to recognize them in myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I said aloud for the first time: “I’m depressed. I have depression. I’ve probably been depressed since the fall. I don’t understand why, but it’s there.” I made an appointment to see my family doctor, and I’m starting to take baby steps towards addressing the problem.

So that’s where I am, and where I’ve been.

Why am I telling you all this? It feels a tad TMI, to be honest, even for me (an extroverted over-sharer). Because I don’t think I can say it any better, I’m going to quote part of the blog post I mentioned earlier:

I’m not writing this so you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m writing this so people know that it can – and does – happen to anyone. […] The prevalence of mental health issues in academia – even if only publicized for grad school – are staggering. […] We can’t make it go away by ignoring it – instead we need to make mental health a normal part of everyday conversation, just like physical health, thereby reducing the stigma around it.

These conversations are important. They have the potential to change, even save, lives. So I’m joining the conversation.

I’m not sure what the next few months will look like for me. I’m going to keep plugging away at things as best I can. I’ll probably have to step well outside my comfort zone in the meantime. Again, a quote, that hit very close to home:

All the logic, graphs, or smarts in the world won’t fix it. For things to improve I have to delve into the murky world of feeling and emotion. Thing is, that world is super uncomfortable to me, and certainly didn’t get me where I am. Being smart and rational, tenacious and tough, did. But that won’t help me much now.

Being smart, rational, tenacious and tough certainly won’t hurt, I don’t think. But yeah – that murky stuff will probably have to be waded through before I can come out the other side.

To everyone who has kept tabs on me, sent friendly emails, tweets or thoughtful things in the mail – you know who you are, and I thank you for your support. To anyone who recognizes themselves in what I just wrote, please know that you’re certainly not alone; mental health issues are extremely common among academics, and graduate students are some of the hardest-hit. Know that there is help to be found if you reach out.

University Counselling Services:

Mac campus

Downtown campus

Winter Diapause

DiapauseFirst, Happy New Year! I appreciate you all so much and am thankful for the many friends and wonderful acquaintances that this blog has brought into my life. I wish you all the very best for the coming year!

Now, a bit of a downer: after much hemming and hawing and soul-searching, I’ve decided to put The Bug Geek into diapause* for the winter. My research activities this term are going to require a lot of time and energy, and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m stretched a little thin.

I haven’t taken on anything new, my teaching workload is actually dropping a fair bit, and my other responsibilities are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. So what gives? I seem to be in the midst of what is known as the “Third Year Slump” (or, more colourfully, “The Valley of Sh-t“), an affliction that affects many PhD candidates. The symptoms of this mysterious ailment include apathy, stress, depression, self-doubt and a drop in productivity.

I am still in love with my research, that’s not the issue at all. Nevertheless, for the past 6-8 weeks or so, the mere thought of having to get some work done sends me into a bit of a tailspin of anxiety. As I work to overcome this (really quite obnoxious) personal hurdle, I’m giving myself permission to do a little less than usual. When I wrote out a list of my responsibilities in order of their importance, blogging, unfortunately, fell to the bottom. I need to focus my positive energy on my research, which, other than my home life, is my main priority.

And so here we are. I may still post occasionally if I’m feeling inspired, and suspect that my normally upbeat mood (and my outdoorsy blog fodder) will return as the weather warms up.

In the meantime thanks for you readership and, more importantly, your friendship. Know that I’ll be back soon. If you think you’re really going to miss me, you’ll probably still find me chatting on Twitter and reblogging pretty insect photos on Tumblr.

*(Yes, I stole borrowed the term and title from Bug Girl. I think she’ll forgive me.)

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