Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t gotten a “Day in the Life” or “Science Discussion” posted recently. Or maybe you didn’t notice, but now that I bring it up you’re sitting at your computer nodding your head, pretending you follow this blog close enough to know when there is a lag in posts. EITHER WAY. The reason for the delay in content was that the first semester was wrapping up and with final exams, projects, proposals, and conferences, etc I’ve just been really swamped with work. But that’s all over now! I’m between 10% and 12.5% done with my PhD now, depending on if I take 4 or 5 years to finish it… so I thought a post reflecting on the good, the bad, the ugly, the awesome, and the awkward moments I’ve had this first semester was in order!
There were a lot of good moments this semester, but for the sake of writing a readable post and not a novel, I’ll only talk about my favorite “good” moment: telling my advisor I wanted to study beavers, and having everything magically go my way. I’ve already written a whole blog post about the process of dropping “the beaver bomb” on my advisor, so instead of rehashing that I’m going to reflect on how that one moment of courage completely changed my career trajectory. A semester into the beaver project, and my advisor respects me a whole lot more now than he did when we first started working together. He’s coaching me in proposal writing, creative thinking, paper writing, and how to conduct field research. My thesis committee is extremely encouraging and all three people on it so far think the beaver project is definitely worth studying and has a lot of room for novel research.
My advisor isn’t great at handing out obvious compliments, but he slips them in subtly (you know Emily, what you’re doing here is really hard. I don’t think any of your peers are even attempting writing proposals and papers for their own research ideas yet – and they probably won’t until they’re in their postdocs. you didn’t choose a path that is going to be easy. – that’s my advisor’s way of saying “you’re brave for choosing a tough path and I actually think you’ve got what it takes to succeed at it, otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting my time with you”). I wake up every day excited about where my career is going. I still ramble for hours about beavers to anyone I can get to listen – car rides are great because my audience can’t escape me. I really feel like I’ve found my calling.
I’d be lying if I said the semester has been all sunshine and roses. It hasn’t. The “bad” moment I learned the most from was when my advisor gave me a wake up call about the time it takes to write a good paper. I am working on putting together a review paper on existing scientific literature about geomorphic and hydrologic impacts of beaver dams, and my advisor asked me how many more hours of work did I think it would take to have a publishable piece. I had already written about 8 pages, and have always considered myself a good writer so I said 15 hours. That was about how long papers in undergrad took to write really well, so I thought it was a good number.
My advisor laughed at me.
He informed me that he takes about 100 hours to get a paper from idea to published material if it is a short paper. 200 hours if it’s a longer paper. He thought for me, even with my liberal arts background, a more realistic number was 100-150 hours. He doesn’t expect me to have the review paper ready for publishing until April 2016. On one hand, that’s good because I have so much more time to write. On the other hand, I looked quite naive in front of my advisor and it was embarrassing. At least now I know that if he asks me about writing time frames again I should probably multiply my undergrad answer by 10 to get a good answer for grad school work.
There are bad moments in grad school – like being a little embarrassed in front of your advisor – that you learn from and move on. And then there are ugly moments, where you have shot yourself in the foot through procrastination or miscommunication or some other mistake and realize your stress levels are on overload. I had an ugly moment this semester when due to a lot of miscommunication in a group project, I found myself with about 24 hours to learn enough coding, MATLAB, and science to model the thermal profile at any latitude on earth.
I needed to know radiation balances between the earth and the sky and space, azimuth angles of the sun, conductive heat flow equations, and a whole lot of MATLAB skills that I simply didn’t have. No matter how smart I am, I just couldn’t learn it all in 24 hours. So I went home and burst into tears and cried and told my boyfriend, Andrew, that I was too stupid for grad school and everything was wrong and MATLAB sucks and that my professor was going to think I’m an idiot. Andrew sat me down on the couch, made me tea, and took my laptop from me. In all of my stressing and crying I forgot that Andrew is a computer whiz and even though he doesn’t already know MATLAB, he can probably learn it way faster that me. So after I calmed down we worked on the code together and he explained every bit of coding so that I knew what was going on and could actually understand what he was doing. And in about 4 hours we had a functioning code. I made sure the code was scientifically accurate, and he made sure it did what it was supposed to when I pushed “go.” That was by far my “ugliest” moment this semester.
Grad school isn’t all bad, obviously. I’ve had quite a few awesome moments this semester too. My favorite of which was the general awesomeness of making a bunch of new, smarty-pants geology friends. The friends I’ve made this semester are awesome people and going to do awesome things with their research: from understanding El Niño through little shelly ocean fossils, to figuring out what is going on with induced seismicity and fracking, to cleaning up our climate history through detailed ice core and glacier studies. I’m surrounded by some freakin’ smart people, and it’s so cool! One of the professors I’ve chatted with this semester said that the one part my grad school experience that will inevitably follow me for my whole career isn’t what I study or who my advisor is – it’s who my peers were. He said that 20 years down the road when I’m sitting in my office at X liberal arts school trying to figure out how to get my students good research experience, my phone will ring and it will be that classmate I always got coffee or vented with in grad school at some big R1 Research University calling to see if I have any bright young scientists to send their way over the summer for an REU. I’m excited for my future students and myself because the peers I have in school are both really great people and really bright scientists – and I can’t wait for our future collaborations.
If you know me, you know that I can be awkward sometimes. All scientists are awkward to some degree – it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In my awkward moments I find hilarity and look back on them laughing and smiling, not cringing. I’m going to share my favorite awkward moment from this semester: when I wiped out on my bike the first week of school in front of 3 of my new classmates. I don’t even know why it happened. I was biking out of the parking lot by the geology building, and couldn’t have been going more than 5 miles an hour – very slow, lots of college students milling around I didn’t want to hit – and for some reason I just fell over. I must have been distracted or looking at something and gotten off balance, who knows, but I wiped out. Best of all my foot got caught in the stirrups on my pedals so I landed on the ground in an awkward tangle with my bike. I tried to stand up, realized my foot was caught, and wiped out again. SMOOTH, EMILY. I finally got up to hear my classmate – who was walking with two other classmates – say, “Emily, are you alright?? Did you faint?”
Ah, yes. At this point their only impression of me was when I almost fainted at geology grad student orientation because I had my knees locked for too long and cut off my own circulation. I had to have another person hold me up as I casually blacked out next to some fancy rock outcrop. Great. Emily – the girl who faints for no reason like those fainting goats you see on youtube. That was going to be my reputation here. I explained that no, I didn’t faint. I just fell. No, I don’t know why I fell. Yes, I know how to ride a bike. I promise, I’m fine. Thanks for making sure I was okay.
And then I ride off into the sunset on my bike and relive that awkward moment about 15 times before I get home. And instead of looking back and feeling awkward about it still, I just laugh now. Classic Emily – about as graceful as an bull in a fine china shop.