The happy doctoral student

I’m Andrew and I love being an academic ecologist.  I am happy, and doing ecology has always made me happy, and I intend to continue to be happy doing it until my brain goes back into the Nitrogen cycle.

Are you a new graduate student?  If so, you’ve been told you should quit.
You’ve been told you’ll be unhappy.  The narrative is told on all sides, with
ever wittier jokes and more devastating anecdotes.  I feel like as a good
blogger I should link to them, but I’m not going to.  They’ll find you.  Worse
than any blog are the examples of lives around us: quitting friends,
interminable PhDs, bitter postdocs, faculty who are in their 40s and still
eating dried soup because they have no time.

And yet here I am!  I’m in my 4th year of a PhD in ecology.  I’m taking down my last big field experiment tomorrow.  It is going to be five days of repetitive work which will do doubt yield a complicated, perhaps underwhelming answer to my question.

I love it!

Please understand: I am not a successful academic; I have published only one paper since starting my PhD — and that as a junior author.  Nor have I been groomed for this life from a young age: if I succeed, I will be the first PhD in my family, on either side, ever. Nor do I write you from some cushy position somewhere: I am in the field in rural Brazil — not the glories of the Amazon, but a prosaic hamlet in a National Park, cut off from my university community, my friends and my wife.

Nevertheless: here is a partial list of awesome things in my PhD:

  • Cultivating obsession with a single thing — I think about bromeliads (my favourite system) almost whenever I hear an ecological idea. The animals which live in bromeliads — the community that I have devoted my degree to studying — have become as familiar to me as my own cousins.

  • R — When I graduated from my undergrad, the best kind of statistics I could do was Excel regression lines.  Now I’m going on 6 years of R.  I love drawing graphs (I’ve recently fallen back in love with ggplot2).  I love when friends ask me to talk about stats with them, and I love improving those skills.

  • Foreign fieldwork — I’ve learned Portuguese and made lots of new friends and colleagues in Brazil. You can read all about that here.

Are there negatives?  Of course!  You want me to list them?  Well, I won’t because it’s the exact same list.  At least, it is for me.  Challenges are difficult! They ought to be.  The very things I love about grad school have caused me the most despair, doubt, and endless tortured nights.

Here is some quick advice, targeted at myself.  Perhaps it is also useful for you:

  • complain just the right amount — find some hardworking people that are about the same stage in their careers, and talk about how much the hard parts of academia can suck sometimes.  It’s normal to feel like this!  But remember to get excited about science with them, too.  Meanwhile avoid habitual complainers; they’re boring and they never learn or teach anything.

  • write down your victories — Write down the compliments that professors bestow on you.  Save grateful emails from friends and collaborators.  Every review submitted on time, every publication — remember them as successes.  BONUS I believe an edited version of such a list is called a “CV”.

  • work for free — A ridiculous thing to tell a grad student, perhaps.  But I mean it.  Every once in a while, drop what you are doing for an afternoon and obsess over a friend’s analysis, or his/her graph or design.  Nothing cures cynicism like sharing and supporting your colleagues.  BONUS: every time you get excited about science (yours or somebody else’s), you grow stronger against all the bitterness and doubt that erodes your ability to do your own work.

  • try to quit — In November 2011 I went to the grad secretary with the intention of asking how, exactly, you leave grad school.  I didn’t find out, because I decided I didn’t want to know.  If you try to quit, and you fail to do so, then you have another piece of evidence in your arsenal.  At least in my case, I found that one sincere, failed attempt to quit removed the desire more or less permanently.

  • read other narratives — There are happy successful academics in this world. They are on Twitter, they’re writing blogs and otherwise making things.  Go forth and find some! Some useful examples:
    here
    here
    and here

Finally I want to have a word with you, the older, wiser, but still-early-career ecologist who has read this with a mocking half-smile.  I acknowledge your suffering, and I honour you for your strength of character to have made it so far.  You are telling me that I have no idea of the trials I will face, that my puny resolve will be tested at dizzying heights of mental terror that you, alas!, know all too well.

Joking aside, I want to hear your advice and follow your example.  I know I’m at an earlier stage, and I need more experienced mentors and role models. But, it feels like the discussion around how we should feel about grad school has these miserable bitter people on one side, and super-positive cheerleaders on the other.

These grad students are not panicking about the misery of grad school.  Photo credit: Pedro Trasmonte
these grad students are not panickingg

11 thoughts on “The happy doctoral student

  1. A breath of fresh air Andrew about being a grad student in ecology. I live it too!!!

    1. Hell yeah! Thanks for the comment (and the retweet). We have to get some positive opinions out there. Not everyone is negative or sad!

  2. Andrew! I LOVED this! Thanks for being so positive without going over the top! Yes, there is humour in those websites that you mentioned and certainly days when I relate completely to them! But your perspectives are also really refreshing! Your enthusiasm is so contagious!

  3. Yes, there was a moment when someone suggested that I had the option of quitting my PhD, and that made it clear how much it would suck to not being doing exactly what I am already doing.

  4. Great post! I’m out of grad school now as research faculty (glorified postdoc–just change in title to put my own name on grants) and I love being an ecologist, too! Sure, are there days that it sucks? Of course, but that’s in every job. Thanks for this breath of fresh air.

  5. Great post, Andrew! I love how your enthusiasm comes through so genuinely! Graduate school isn’t something being done to us. It is a process we participate in every day… and our attitude makes a big difference, in my opinion. Good luck with all your incoming data!

  6. Hear, hear! Academia is, for better and mostly for worse, an echo chamber. It’s refreshing to have some optimism to echo around rather than the usual doom and gloom!

  7. This is such classic Andrew! I am glad to see that you are still cultivating and sharing your unflappable optimism and love for ecology. Everyone in graduate school has made the choice to be there – why not choose to be happy as well?

  8. Hi Andrew,
    I am not a Grad student, I’m a Professor. This is honest, excellent advice, thank you for sharing this. Alot of also applies to career academics!

  9. I love what you said. You gave me power and courage. I just feel depressed these days and could not see the future (I just started my PhD study this Feb). Thank you!

  10. Great post, being in my first PhD year and feeling not good right now, this post has helped me a lot

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