Field Work Flashback

I have been really busy the last several weeks working on writing my dissertation and preparing to teach an Introduction to Ecology course.  All the time spent staring at my computer has me daydreaming about all the hours I have spent doing field work over the course of my PhD. I flipped through some half finished blog posts and journal entries form that period, and found the start of the story I’m about to tell you.  I was instantly transported back to that day, which was memorable but also pretty representative of how most of my field days went. Some of this is certainly Type II Fun.

 

Sometime in August of 2016…

 

I wake up before the sun has inched its way above the horizon, and fumble to turn off my alarm as quickly as possible. At the foot of the bed, my dog whines softly.  My husband, Daniel, turns over and away from me in his sleep. In my non-field season life, I often hit the snooze button. I know it’s not good for my brain, or whatever, but I don’t care.  I love it. During the field season, my alarm is set so uncomfortably early most days, 4:00 am or maybe 4:30, that snoozing seems masochistic. Also, it’s a little rude to the sleeping partner and pup.  Besides, when you’re racing the tides, time is always of the essence. So, instead of rolling over for five more minutes of sleep, I roll out of bed and try to land on my feet. The cat judges me from Daniel’s pillow.

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Restored native Spartina foliosa (Pacific cordgrass) plots

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Guide to Graduate School Grief

Hi friends.  I’m glad to be back in this space.  I hope you enjoyed reading Meridith’s life update last week.  While we all have our own struggles, my year has been particularly difficult.  This is your warning that I’m going to talk a lot about death and grief, so if you’re not in the place to read about that, I totally understand if you bail now.  I’ve bailed on a lot over the past 365+ days. But, bailing out means keeping your boat floating, and, with lots of help, I’ve managed to do that too.

“To be careful with people and with words was a rare and beautiful thing.” Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I want to write about this, in the imperfect way I am able, because I know it will help someone else to read it.  Maybe you? We know that graduate school is uniquely difficult on folks’ mental health. I want you to know you’re not alone.  If this isn’t you, but it is someone you know, I suggest you start thinking about the support you can offer. This twitter thread is a great place to start.

I want to want to write about my brother specifically, but I can’t do that yet.  The short version is this. Last summer my older brother, Jake, was in a car accident on the way home from work.  By midnight on the day of the accident I was flying home to Kentucky. After nine days in a coma, my brother died.  

I want to write this to talk about my own experience over the last year as someone grieving as a graduate student.  I want to talk about the things that helped me and the ways that this type of pain gets mixed up in the head of one anxious, highly driven person.  I don’t intend this to be prescriptive. I know everyone’s grief and grieving processes are unique, and you don’t have to be grieving a death to have some of these things resonate with you.  I formatted this as a list of dos and don’ts, but there are no dos and don’ts.  There is no way to do this wrong.

I thought, in the hours we spent planning the funeral, that when this was all over I would want to write everyday. But, as the weeks passed, I felt my grief like cotton stuck in my throat.  I want to write about this because I think it will help me too.

Guide to Graduate School Grief (to be taken as loving insight with the full knowledge that only you know what is best for you)

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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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