A Day in the Life: Not the start of fall semester I had planned…

Hello my beaver-readers!

It’s been a hectic past couple of weeks because the fall semester started this Monday and I’ve been frantically getting everything in order. This semester is bringing in a bunch of new experiences – basically everything I had planned and thought my fall semester would be has gone out the window and replaced by new things. For those of you that know me personally, I am a hardcore planner. I love planning things. I thrive on order and predictability. I like having control of situations, and when things change (especially things that are out of my control) I tend to get a little flustered. BUT, I have to admit. I’m actually really excited about the changes to my fall semester plans and might even go so far as to describe the changes as fun.

A Quick Summary of my Old Plan for Fall Semester vs the Reality of Fall Semester

Old Plan for Fall Semester
Three classes: Groundwater Hydrology in the civil engineering department, Physical Hydrology in the civil engineering department, Forest Geography in the geography department.
Teaching: Teach one lab section, hopefully it doesn’t conflict with a class (the time I would teach was not scheduled until very late this summer)
Research: Huge focus on modeling. Research based almost exclusively in physics
Extra School Stuff: colloquium committee, social planning committee, help out with brown bag series
Social Life: LOL no time for that

Reality of Fall Semester
Two classes: Aqueous and Environmental Geochemistry in geology department, Terrestrial Hydrology in geology department taught by my advisor
Teaching: Teach one lab section, host office hours, actually try to find ways to improve quality of my teaching skills
Research: Medium focus on modeling. Medium focus on utilizing geochemical signatures/tracers to track water as it moves through beaver ponds. Research based in both physics and chemistry.
Extra School Stuff: colloquium committee, social planning committee, help out with brown bag series. This one actually didn’t change!
Social Life: only three days into the semester and I’ve already had time to hang out with my friend Brigitta and her puppy and boyfriend, and I’m traveling to see my childhood BFF in Indiana this weekend and I’m not freaking out about missing a Friday of work!

Some of you may be looking at those two summaries thinking “um. these are basically the same. why would anyone be bothered by these tiny changes.”


Some of you may be looking at those two summaries thinking “oh wow. the whole class schedule changed. that alone would push emily into crazy-stressed territory. emily is probably a sleep-deprived, coffee-fueled disaster right now”


Although the second group of people would have been right if I hadn’t been making a conscious effort to ease up on my rigidity and plan-oriented approach to life these past few months. If geology field work taught me one thing it’s that there is a lot of stuff that is out of my control and there is nothing I can do to change it. The only way to regain control of the situation is to control how I react to it. Beaver dam blew out? Nothing I can do except wait for them to rebuild and look for back up field sites. Wildfire approaching my field site? Nothing I can do except wait it out and focus on another aspect of my research. If anyone ever needs a reminder that you can’t plan for everything, I highly recommend spending a couple days in nature and trying to get anything scientific done. Nature did not give a dam (beaver pun, haha) about my plans.

Nature says “oh did you come out here with all your field gear and drag your boyfriend along so you could spend an entire day measuring this dam and installing equipment? whoops looks like I destroyed it instead.” Instead of being upset about my changed plans when this happened, we went and got bagels and caught up on reading some scientific papers at a coffee shop.

So why all the changes, what happened?

Two things happened. First, I decided that instead of taking a bunch of hard classes and spending 40+ hours a week on coursework alone I would be better off taking a couple of more research specific classes that would both teach me new things as well as keep me focused on my research – which I suppose is kind of the core of a PhD. Second, I took my advisor’s advice and spent some time thinking about the big picture of my research, then methodically broke this huge complex topic down into a bunch of discrete, tangible questions that I need to answer in order to understand the big picture. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Turns out when I broke down my main hypothesis into little pieces, I realized that in addition to modeling and physics there was a great opportunity to utilize my chemistry background and incorporate some lab work into my thesis. Overly-planning-focused-past-Emily would have resisted restructuring my fall semester plans even if it would be a better end result because admitting that I needed to restructure would be an implied admission that I had failed to prepare and plan adequately. Field-work-experienced-and-more-flexible-current-Emily just wanted a good end result, even if it meant throwing the old, admittedly flawed plan totally out the window at the last minute.

Trimming down my course load and refocusing my research left me more time in my schedule to spend on improving my teaching skills and maintaining a social life. Thinking about my old plan makes me stressed. That schedule would have SUCKED. I’m glad I changed plans. Living the new reality of my fall semester is awesome – I feel more productive and optimistic about everything than I have since starting the graduate program over a year ago.

That being said, I still love planning things. Making plans can be really useful in the right situations. So instead of making inappropriately rigid plans for my academic life, I have channeled my need for planning into something more productive: training for my first marathon in the Twin Cities this October. Having to create and follow a strict plan that tells me when to run, how far to run, how fast to run, what to eat before running, what to eat while running, what to eat after running, how much water to drink, and when to drink? YES PLEASE.

I ran this half marathon in July as part of my training plan. I had every detail of it planned for months. Everything went according to plan. Such a good feeling.

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