User Guide for Grad Students Worried about the End of the World

Note: I originally published this article in the 4th volume of The Brickyard, the graduate student publication edited and put together by a group of folks in the UC Davis Grad Group in Ecology.  You can find a link to that publication here, and the article below is largely the same.  I’ve made a few minor changes and conjugated the title in a more pleasing way. I hope you like it!

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On the fourth day of the new presidential administration, I got an email from my funding source saying they didn’t know if the money would keep coming.  I knew the attitude toward science would shift with the change in power, but I never expected such concrete impacts to my life within the first week.  When my paycheck did come two weeks later, I knew I had to change my approach.  I wanted to feel I was working to make things better, and if I experienced a near miss, it’s almost certain someone else had taken the hit.  Like any good type A personality, I knew what I really needed was a plan.   

I read a lot of think pieces, I talked to a lot of folks I respect, and, in the end, I developed an approach that felt right for me.  I offer you my own guidelines now, not as prescription, but as an attempt to empower you to make a plan for how you will approach the coming years.  Interrogating my own motivations and priorities was emotionally taxing, time consuming, and frustrating.  Inventorying my special skills required grappling with imposter syndrome for the millionth, and I’m sure not last, time.  I still haven’t gotten over the daunting size of the issues we face, but as Cairns and Crawford once wrote, It is almost too late to start, but tomorrow is even later.”

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Part 1: Give myself permission to succeed

I’m the most effective change maker, in the long run, if I become an influential voice in my field.  All my big science heroes, folks who advocate for the societal and professional values I hold, were amazing researchers before they became influential voices in a broader capacity.  Focusing on both long- and short term success has been really challenging for me, especially with the current political situation throwing up a formidable combination of issues I hope to help address mixed with background noise designed to distract.  To cut through the clutter, I created a space for myself during each day to orient my daily actions within the current global context and my long-term ambitions.

I started getting up earlier, around 6:30, to wander my house with coffee, do my dishes, and listen to a daily news podcast or two.  I want to stay informed, but I felt like the cable news cycle was turning up the knob on my anxious feelings and destroying my productivity.  For me, escaping the 24-hour news cycle was a big step toward getting serious about my career goals.  Plus, rising early gave me time throughout the day to internalize the things that were going on in the world, instead of just reacting to headline after headline.  

I also began writing in a notebook I keep on my kitchen table.  Before the events of the day have time to clutter my mind, I jot down responses to the news stories I’m hearing, especially if I think, “I want to do something about that specific issue,” or “I want to work for the organization this individual is representing.”  I also gave myself permission to consider goals that still feel well out of reach.  If I wrote a book, what would be its focus?  If I founded a non-profit, what skills would I need to cultivate first?

When I get to my office, I sit down and spend 15 minutes goal setting for the day.  I shift away from my morning meditations and force myself to be as practical as possible.  I also have two accountability partners, who are graduate students at other institutions.  We check in with one another regularly, with the expectation of receiving good natured peer pressure and encouragement if we are feeling down. (Note to STS readers, these folks are Mer and my sister!)

That’s all in my ideal day.  Sometimes I get an email about proposed cuts to the EPA or NOAA, both of whom have financially supported my dissertation, and my motivation tanks.  Sometimes I go against my better judgment and read the news at night, subsequently can’t fall asleep, and, thus, fail to roll out of bed as quickly the next morning.  On those days, I remind myself my ultimate goal is progress, not perfection.      

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Part 2:  Make my communication more meaningful

I’m married to a communications instructor who got his MS studying how the rhetoric communicators use can shape the attitudes of their audiences.  We originally met as members of opposing teams during speech and debate competitions in college.  It probably goes without saying that we have plenty of lively discussions about scientific communication.  Training myself to explain complex concepts in accessible ways is an evolving skill for me, but I’m most excited about developing ways we, as scientists, can push beyond this stage.  I think an examination of communication as a scholarly discipline is largely missing from the wider discussion about scientific communication.  Two branches of communications studies I think particularly pertinent to our community are an understanding of public address and interpersonal communication.

As I mentioned above, I did competitive speech and debate in college, which is only news to folks who have never spoken to me, because I talk about it a lot.  I was nationally ranked in rhetorical criticism, informative speaking, and persuasive speaking.  I think I can do a lot, right now, to help scientists with public address, and I’m trying to start acting on this ambition.  Why does it matter?  Public speaking is about power, the power to help folks understand or to change minds.  As scientists, I don’t think we should forfeit that power to surrogates.  I think we should speak for ourselves.  I’ve written a blog post about this, and I guest lectured in a science communication course in the fall.  I’ve got a few bigger ideas in my kitchen table notebook, but, for the time being, take this as my official offer to watch any of your conference presentations, job talks, or community outreach speeches, and give you public speaking notes.

Interpersonal communications are a powerful tool for scientists.  With so much of the news focusing on science and federal scientific organizations, lots of my friends started wanting to engage with me about these topics in a more meaningful way. Folks can feel intimidated by science, and they may be worried that chatting with a scientist will make them sound silly.  I found this baffling, considering I have so many brilliant non-scientist friends, but I also identify with this feeling, as I’m generally afraid my colleagues will think I’m dumb when I ask a question about science outside my specialty.  I want to empower the non-scientists in my life to become advocates for the importance of science.  I also want them to see that scientists are people, like me, and not some monolithic human computer or crystal ball.  Mediated communications (happening through media like text, Facebook posts, or tweet replys) have become an important part of my efforts in this arena.  I blog; I tweet; I’m regularly over-sharing on Tumblr.  Self-disclosure is an important part of interpersonal communication, but it gets tricky on the internet.  However, I think bringing ourselves, as people, to communication can make what we say more meaningful.

Step 3:  Pay it forward and build solidarity

My sophomore year of college, I read Life in the Treetops, a field biologist memoir about canopy ecology and, more meaningfully to me at the time, being a woman in a male dominated field.  The author reflected on her mentoring relationships with her own students, observing that the next generation of scientists, my generation, would be the first with easy access to female mentors.  I’ve had amazing mentors of all genders, but my female mentors have been particularly meaningful to me. Going forward, I want to be more intentional in supporting young female scientists.

As a graduate student, one of the most important hats I wear is that of mentor to undergraduate students.  Most of us would never get our degrees without the help of numerous undergraduate technicians and volunteers.  Hiring and mentoring young women has been one of the highlights of my time working at UC Davis.  Giving all different kinds of folks their first field experience, even when it was more time consuming or less convenient, has always been more rewarding than trying.  Taking time out of my day to explain how to apply for graduate school, how to look for job postings, or how I really believe my mentees can be successful scientists has taught me a lot about myself.  Honestly, I don’t feel it’s ever been an equal exchange.  They’ve always given me more than I could ever hope to give them.

Having female mentors has kept me in science on more than one occasion.  Thus, I want to do a better job of offering solidarity to folks in my field who still aren’t easily able to find mentors with whom they can deeply identify.  I’m still searching for the most effective ways that I can interface with this issue.  As a humble start, I’m trying to make myself into the type of person who folks can be honest with, which requires a conscious effort on my part to be more open.  I think that’s a goal toward which we can all work.     

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Step 4:  Stay Inspired

As I was making this plan, I realized the number one risk I ran was forgetting that this work wasn’t grounded in an opposition toward something, but in my love for the planet and the people and other living things that call it home.  I became a scientist because I wanted to understand how the world worked so I could protect it.  But, this is a dangerous time for idealists.

We need to remember we aren’t just working against something, we are working for something.

Stay inspired any way you can.  That’s the only way we’re going to make it through this thing.  I’ve been following amazing female scientists on Twitter, watching way more nature documentaries, and reading a lot more poetry.  It’s probably not even cute anymore how obsessed I am with Wendell Berry, but I’ve been reading a lot from his book Leavings recently.  One of my favorite poems reads, “No place at last is better than the world.  The world is no better than its places.  Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them.”   My true aspiration, then, is to make myself into the type of person who can improve her places and, thus, her world.  I’m so grateful for all the rolemodels I already have for this in my own community.  Thank you for inspiring me.

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