The term “student” is starting to rankle. It’s associated with drinking and partying and having fun and going on ill-advised adventures. This is not my life. My life consists of 13.7-hour days and the perpetual threat of nervous breakdowns induced by “stuff going wrong”. And I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that all post-graduate students toil under the same conditions.
Yesterday, I had the unique opportunity to assist another Ph.D student with data collection. What this involved was donning a cold and smelly drysuit, and lugging two impossibly heavy outboard motors and two actual Zodiacs over the dunes onto West Beach (where they filmed the epic scene in Chariots of Fire). And nets. And metal boxes. And cylinders. And other really heavy stinky things over several sinking-sand sand dunes in the icy drizzle. Of course, this didn’t dampen our spirits because there were Harbour seals hauled out everywhere and we were eager to catch them and do important biological things like take blood and collect poo.
Ages before, the team of dedicated scientists I was now assisting had set up an intricate system of underwater nets, which would spring up using buried hoses and air tanks, effectively trapping the seals in the shallows. It had taken weeks of effort and hypothermia to set everything up (dry suits are only as good as the leakiest seam) but then conditions had been awful, seas had been too high or the seals just hadn’t hauled out in numbers worth pursuing. But yesterday, FINALLY, the weather was ‘mild’, the water was calm, and the right types of seals were in the right spots. All that had to happen was deployment of the net system using remote controls from the boats, and then staying away from the bitey sides once the seals were trapped.
Six shivering and smelly students waited on the beach with binoculars at the ready, and six went out on the Zodiacs to get within range to trigger the nets… Except that the remotes were simply not working. And seals aren’t stupid. So after weeks and weeeeks of prep, hours of heavy lugging and 5 minutes fruitlessly pushing the right buttons… not one seal remained on the beach.
The PhD student who’s project hinges on collecting this data generously introduced us to a couple of novel swear words, offered us a ride on the boats, combed the beach for some poo and then started organising to try it all over again whenever possible. She’s already spent a proper chunk of her life planning this, getting authorisation, finding the funding and setting it all up, and it took us one full afternoon just to fail.
If anything, this insight into the day of a life of a PhD student really hammers home the point that what we do as scientists is HARD. Nobody in their right mind puts that much effort into collecting data, unless you’re mad. As in: madly enamoured with Your Work, and convinced that you may just make a positive, measurable difference to the world around you. That right there is enough to make one forgo the salary, stability, the boy one could fall for, sanity and weekends off.
Do I regret the things I sacrificed to follow my dreams? On most days, no. Despite the poverty, my homesickness, the all-nighters and the unpredictability, I am rarely bored. There’s also a very small chance that My Work will make the world a better place. That may not be the life more commonly associated with the word ‘student’, but I’m happier with the reality.
This morning, I woke up at 5 am so that I could watch the Olympic Torch being carried through St. Andrews. It reminded me that scientists aren’t the only ones dumb enough to give up having ‘a life’ for a dream… and that maybe, just maybe, it’s all worth it.