A Day in the Life: Dropping the Beaver Bomb on my Advisor

I didn’t come in to grad school all squared away on my beaver dam research. In fact, I came in expecting and ready to work on a totally different project. That was before I won a fellowship and had the freedom to research whatever I wanted regardless of what projects were already funded by grants. After I won the fellowship, I realized I was going to need to tell my advisor sooner or later that I really wanted to study beaver dams and not the project we had talked about in my interviews and application essay. I needed to drop the beaver bomb on him, and to be honest I had no idea what the fallout would be.

This is what the first hit on google is when you do an image search for
This is what the first hit on google is when you do an image search for “Beaver Bomb.” It pretty accurately describes how it felt preparing to tell my advisor about my intention to study beaver dams. Would the beaver dam idea blow up in my face, or would the situation be diffused?? Keep reading to find out.

Over the summer and early on in the semester, I was working on a project my advisor already had funded and had been working on for the past 5 years. The science was cool, but not really something I wanted to dedicate my next 5 years to studying. Since I have a big national fellowship, I have much more research freedom because my stipend and tuition are paid for by an outside party (huge thanks to the NDSEG, ARO, and ASEE!!). It took me a while to build up the courage to let my advisor know that I thought his project was cool and everything, but I wasn’t passionate about it and wanted to take my research in a different direction. I kept freaking out about what if he dropped me as a student and I had no advisor, what if he thought my idea was just stupid and laughed me off, what if he was annoyed that I was wasting his time, what if he was mad that I didn’t want to do his other projects, and so on.

Well, about two weeks into the semester I told him that I really wanted to study beaver dams. Immediately after I told him, he was like “okay…beaver dams are cool. However, I don’t have research money for this and while your fellowship pays your expenses, it doesn’t pay mine. I’m not sure if I can advise you on this…it’s not my area of expertise and I don’t think that I have time to get familiar with the literature. If you choose to pursue this, you’ll need to seek advising elsewhere. Sorry.”

Ouch. There it was. My fears had been realized. I was going to be advisor-less. Cue paranoid thoughts that my ideas are dumb, that I don’t belong in grad school, etc – basically all my imposter syndrome fueled worries came rushing back at me.

Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like your advisor telling you they can't support your dream research project.
Nothing takes the wind out of your sails like your advisor telling you they can’t support your dream research project. I was very distraught, just like this photograph of a sad beaver.

Fast forward two days, and I get some very unexpected, very good news: I had an email in my inbox from my advisor saying that he reconsidered my beaver dam research and has decided that he wants to work with me on it after all. Yessss!

Wind is back in my sails! Beaver research is going full steam ahead! I can't stop smiling, just like this photograph of a very happy beaver.
Wind is back in my sails! Beaver research is going full steam ahead! I felt validated and excited! Take that, imposter syndrome! Solid proof that I belong here and my ideas are worthwhile! I couldn’t stop smiling, just like this photograph of a very happy beaver.

I guess my advisor was on a bike ride and saw a bunch of beaver dams while he was out, and realized that I might be onto something with wanting to seriously study them. We met to talk about the beaver dams more, and came up with a plan to review existing literature, write a review paper, build a basic model, and write a grant proposal to get more money flowing into the beaver project – all over the next 1.5 years. Time to get busy!

I went from being prepared to stick it out on my own with the beavers to having the full support from my advisor in the span of like two days. Serious emotional rollercoaster right there.

I'm still just a wee baby scientist in the grand scheme of things (like this adorable baby beaver). Right now I can't make a very big impact (just like this baby beaver can't get take down huge trees). I'm young, have no publications, and am just starting out in my research. As I learn more, publish and present my findings, and make a name for myself in the scientific community, I know that soon enough I'll be making a much bigger splash.
I’m still just a wee baby scientist in the grand scheme of things (like this adorable baby beaver). Right now I can’t make a very big impact (just like this baby beaver can’t get take down huge trees – just little saplings and twigs). I’m young, have no real publications yet, and am just starting out in my research. In the coming years I will learn more (both in my classes and from reading the literature), I will publish and present my findings, and slowly but surely I will make a name for myself.  I’ll be taking down the metaphorical 1 meter diameter trees soon enough.

I certainly didn’t expect dropping the beaver bomb to result in full support from my advisor. But it did! It turns out other people think beaver dams are cool too. I was just the one willing to take studying them from “oh this is cool to think about in my free time” to “I am prepared to bet my academic career on being able to get major funding agencies, the greater scientific community, and the general public excited enough about beaver dams to invest in research on them.”

It’s high risk, high reward to dive head first into studying beaver dams. But what fun is life without a little risk?

2 thoughts on “A Day in the Life: Dropping the Beaver Bomb on my Advisor

  1. Hey Emily, I just found out about your blog through Facebook. This is amazing work you’re starting out on. Thanks for sharing your story with everyone. I look forward to future blog updates!

    Like

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