Just after I handed in my masters thesis, I had drinks with old friends and mentioned over a glass of wine that I was contemplating doing my Ph.D instead of re-joining the ‘real world’. My friend’s husband literally did a double-take and blurted out “but Lauren, you’re not a failure – you don’t have to do this!”.
These words haunt me.
Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder how many people still buy into the misconception of academics being dusty, impoverished, doddering spinsters who eventually get eaten by cats or undergrads. And then I start to wonder just how accurate the term ‘misconception’ is. And THEN, I go to amazing conferences or on field work and I’m reminded that money and stability and even sanity are overrated because keeping up with the Jones’s in MY world applies strictly to Indiana Jones.
A week ago, I attended the Antarctic Science Conference in Cambridge, hosted by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). I was treated to incredible tales from scientists who had overwintered on the Antarctic continent itself, weathered terrible seas and storms, watched as their equipment drifted into ship propellers, and narrowly escaped with their lives as their vehicle teetered precariously in the yawn of a crevasse.
I heard tales from men and women who mapped the mountain range hidden beneath kilometres of ice, sampled water from lakes that last saw the light of day hundreds of thousands of years ago and journeyed to the very bottom of the Southern Ocean to explore hydrothermal vents. I also learnt more about our melting ice caps, new and old technologies, organisms large and small… a myriad of incredible science all dedicated to my beloved region, even as it changes and shifts before our eyes.
This weekend, I drove colleagues to the most north-western tip of Scotland. From a remote field outside of Durness, we were collected by helicopter and dropped off on a teeny tiny piece of rock called North Rona. I got to come straight back to civilisation (well, Scotland anyway) but they’ll be there for five whole weeks doing important biological-type things to the grey seals that haul out annually to breed.
Did I mention that we got there by helicopter?
In November, after 6 weeks of tutoring hordes of second year students on climate change and biodiversity, I’ll be heading to the Isle of May to help a team of dedicated biologists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) monitor the health of the grey seals that breed there. It doesn’t have anything to do with my research but Lars-the-guru and Simon are kindly letting me “help out”. Probably because the former just spent a month in Svalbard tagging seals and generally having an awesome time.
So yes, this life-of-academia is the proverbial life-less-ordinary.
Conferences like Antarctic Science remind me of this, as do the exciting things we get to do. But as tempted as I am to end this blog post here, I’d be doing my fellow new-to-this researchers a disservice because in between, I KNOW there’ll be times when I’ll spiral into panic and convince myself that I’m not smart enough to be here. I’ll realise that my research will not actually make the world a better place, and there will be days when the weight of what I know about what we’re doing to our planet will make it impossible for me to function. I will live off nothing but toasted cheese sandwiches for weeks on end and spend more time in front of my computer than sleeping, socialising, eating and breathing combined. I will become more than a little feral.
My dear friend Emily sent me some sage advice recently – she’d just attended a Ph.D. workshop where students were consoled with the words
“you will feel like you’ve done the wrong degree, chosen the wrong topic, you will feel like an outlier. But you got here because you can do it. If it was easy, the work would have already been done.”
Throughout our projects, we’re expected to grapple with anxiety, stress, sleepless nights and full-throttle panic. According to one of the senior lecturers heading the workshop, it is normal, after the triumph of your proposal being accepted, to spiral into a prolonged phase of “progressively losing control”.
So am I indeed a failure for choosing this dream? At this stage, I’m not even certain if it was a choice or a compulsion. I guess the real question is “could I do anything else without regretting it every day of my life?” Well, that’s easy. The answer is a resounding ‘NO’. Money, stability and sanity? I guess I can get those back in four years time.