The Bug Geek

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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.

Day one: Good

Today was Good.  I accomplished everything I wanted to:

  • student card
  • stipend/TA payment paperwork
  • lab and locker keys
  • free photocopies
  • free coffee (my classy labmates have fresh beans, a grinder and coffee press – love!)
  • signed up for WHMIS training
  • set up my laptop to access the campus VPN 
  • toured the lab in which I’ll be TAing (skeletons! specimen jars! microscopes! petri dishes!  Glee!!!)
  • wandered through buildings looking for People or Things That Might Be Useful
  • met roughly eleventy-million admin-type people, all of whom were lovely and helpful when I randomly appeared in their offices saying “hi, what do YOU do?”  They provided useful information then sent me on my way with stuff: maps, checklists, names/emails of other People That Might Be Useful, and in one case, a really swanky stainless steel travel mug!  Woot! 
  • attended my first orientation session – also useful

All good, productive stuff.

I found today…well, surreal for lack of a better term.  It was foreign and wonderfully familiar all at once.    The environment is a new one, but the soul of the place is something I know well, and it’s very comfortable.    It was like finding a really comfy sweatshirt I’d forgotten I owned in the back of the closet, slipping it on, and feeling like, “yeah, that’s nice”.    A good fit, if you will.

I also found myself frequently reflecting upon the marked difference between Me, The-30-Year-Old-Student-on-Her-First-Day-of-School and Me, The-19-Year-Old-Student-on-Her-First-Day-of-School.  

Me-19 was utterly terrified.   Completely out her comfort zone.  Avoided social events at all costs (only for the first couple of weeks, I got over it).  Barely spoke.   Hid in her dorm room.  Came across as either: a) a snob, or; b) a weirdo, depending who you asked.

Me-30, today, was confident, friendly, outgoing, chatting with lots of new people, asking questions, and generally having a fantastic time.  

The difference is profound, and wonderful.

School, Day One: tomorrow!


Yes, I’m excited (duh)!

While nothing terribly earth-shatteringly significant happens tomorrow (i.e., I plan to: attend an orientation, get a student card, chat with advisor, determine if I have a desk somewhere and if not where I can store my coffee mug, find my mailbox, do paperwork, figure out how to get free coffee and photocopies, etc., etc.), I’m still all like WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

Lucky, crazy, and grey

I stopped to get a hair cut on the way home today.  As much as I loooooove to spend a few hours at a salon getting pampered, it’s usually (i.e., “always”) not in the budget, especially because my short-short hair grows ridonculously fast.  So once a month or so I toddle over to the First Choice near the St. Laurent mall.  It’s staffed by very friendly and efficient women with lovely accents and gentle hands.  

So I’m sitting there, draped in my black sheet,  eyes closed, enjoying the clean shampoo smell and the fingers softly ruffling my hair to shake out the loose bits.  She asks me if I’m happy with the cut.  I open my eyes, which are still trained downwards at my own lap. 

Oh my. 

There was an awful lot of grey hair littering that black sheet.

I stared at it for a second.  I know I’m going grey; I have been for several years.  This was the first time it weirded me out to look at it, though. 

It kind of hit me: I’m 30 years old, I’m going grey, and I’m going BACK TO SCHOOL.

I don’t know if I’m lucky, crazy, or both.

Meant to be

I really don’t believe in a higher power, universal energy, or even karma (although sometimes I like to pretend I believe in karma, ’cause it might lead to a meanie getting a well-deserved bite in the ass.  Yeah, I’m vengeful that way).

But, sometimes, I get the eerie feeling that something has happened that was meant to be.

Do you ever get that feeling?  Like someone (a mentor, a lover, a friend, a teacher), or something (an opportunity, a challenge) dropped out of the sky, usually unexpectedly, and influenced your life in a way that was SO FREAKING UNBELIEVABLY AWESOMELY PERFECT that you can hardly stand it?   And then that thing lead to something else that was awesomely perfect and then THAT lead to…well you get the idea.  Like it was meant to be.  Sometimes you see it more clearly in hindsight, but it’s there. 

I’ve been acutely aware of this happening several times in the past ten years.  I can actually trace a timeline of these events and pinpoint how they have lead me to where I am today:

1. I moved to Ottawa.  It seemed extremely far and I was scared shitless and really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but my mom somehow convinced me I’d make a good journalist.  So off I went to Carleton U for journalism.  It was random, but being in Ottawa, at that University, worked out well for me.  It was meant to be.

2. That winter I took an elective course entitled “Natural History of Ontario”.  I only took it because I was an idiot freshman who didn’t understand how timetables worked and it was the only class I thought could fit into my schedule.  The class was taught by a naturalist of epic genius who is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing teachers on the planet.   I was enthralled.  With no hesitation whatsoever I quit journalism at the end of that year, caught up on science-ey stuff in summer school and came back in the fall as a new Biology student.  It all happened because of a moment of frosh naïveté, but it got me on a new career path.  It was meant to be.

3. In my third year of undergrad studies, I put a ridiculous amount of debt on my credit card so I could study bats in the tropical rainforests of Belize for three weeks. I thought it would be fun.  What it REALLY did was tell my brain, in no uncertain terms: YOU SHOULD BE A BIOLOGIST.  It happened because of a spur-of-the-moment decision, and I almost missed out on getting summer employment.  But it really sealed the deal of the whole biology/research/field work thing.  It was meant to be.

4. I met my future thesis supervisor.  She took me under her wing, showed me the ropes and then set me loose to prove to myself that I was capable of conducting meaningful research, and communicating about it.  I completed two theses with her guidance.  She made me work and write and speak and apply for things until my CV was pretty well-padded.  I could have worked with anybody in the university, but I worked with her, and she worked her butt off to help me grow.  It was meant to be.

Then I took a break.  I stepped away from the academic world for four years.  I worked in a lab, a park, a museum, and later in cubicles, getting farther and farther away from what I really loved to do.  Somehow, “what I want to be when I grow up” was a concept I was never fully able to actualize.  I just knew I wasn’t terribly happy.  Then:

5. I got my current job, the one from which I’m fleeing shortly.  This was the clincher.  Not because I dislike it, no, dislike alone is not sufficiently motivating to make you leave a job that’s permanent, well-paying, and offering good benefits. 

What happened was, it exposed me to other people like me.  I mean the type of person I COULD have been had I carried on with my studies: researchers, academics, professors.   All in love with their work, their schools, their students.  I found myself insanely jealous.  I wondered why I felt that way.  I thought long and hard, then had my “aha!” moment, which sounded a lot like “Duh, you’re supposed to be DOING that kind of work, dummy!”  Oh.    Had I not been in my current job, where I was able to interact with these academics, the “aha!” would never have happened.  Or it would have happened a long time from now.  Possibly when it was too late to do anything about it.  It was meant to be.

6. So then I fished around for labs.  Dr. B seemed to be doing reasonably interesting work.  We chatted, clicked and then… he told me about an project he was working on…something completely new and outside of the realm of the research I was expecting to be able to do in his lab…something UNBELEIVABLY AWESOMELY PERFECT and totally unexpected.  To which I replied: sign me up brother!!!  It seemed totally meant to be.

 All of these events/people/circumstances have led me to where I am right now: about 7 weeks away from a new research program, a new university, a new degree and most importantly, a new career.   All of which I am so freaking excited about. 

Was it dumb luck that these things happened?  At the right time, in the right place?  Probably.  But I really think the reason it’s all turned out so UNBELEIVABLY AWESOMELY PERFECT is because I did a few things:

1. I kept myself open to new opportunities
2. I was willing to deviate from the path I currently had in mind for myself
3. I made myself take risks, even…no ESPECIALLY…when it scared the pants off me

These go hand in hand (and arguably all mean the same thing).  Whatever.  It works. 

Be open.  Be brave.

And when karma offers you a sweet deal, for the love of pete, TAKE IT!

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