School is out


How does it feel to be done with school, forever? My PhD dissertation is defended, submitted, and approved, and a diploma will arrive in the mail in a few weeks. It has been a long road to get here, and it feels worthwhile to reflect on the experience.

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Graduate school was a five-year experience for me, one that I almost never entered. I was teaching science in central Idaho beforehand, and the Arizona state legislature decided cut the funding for my PhD a few months before I was due to move. I nearly decided against changing life-paths because of this, but some alternative state and then federal funding came through at the last minute. At this moment, going to graduate school feels like it was a good decision. I feel that I now have the tools, the experience, and the connections to begin making my own mark in ecology. I see the world through very different eyes now, and will forever be grateful for the chance to broaden my viewpoints in these ways.

Looking back, I am struck by how much of a difference having research money has made in terms of being able to finish projects. I never had to spend much time working on other peoples’ projects, or teaching in areas that did not interest me. I owe much of that to two factors: first, the encouragement of my supervisor, Brian Enquist, and second, the availability of consistent funding support for my research and travel. Most graduate students receive far less funding and independence than I was able to find, and I don’t think that this difference has anything to do with merit. I think instead that small successes have a snowball effect, with the chance of getting fellowships and grants strongly reinforced by having had a fellowship or grant. The experience is a lot harder for students who aren’t lucky enough to escape a poorly-paid teaching assistant position, or those without US citizenship who can’t apply for many federal funding sources. I don’t know what the solution should be, but the current situation is demonstrably unfair.

The actual experience of doing a dissertation was not very helpful for me. The final document comprises a set of papers, all of which are either published or in review at scientific journals. These papers will be widely read and discussed by the scientific community, because they are searchable and available on the public internet. The actual dissertation, on the other hand, will probably languish unread in a university library for the next several decades. I was required to spend a large amount of time formatting and collecting chapters for this document. I think that process was a waste of time that will not benefit myself, the university, or the wider scientific community, but which costs a large amount of administrative time as well as fees paid to private publishing and printing companies.

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Someone asked me if it feels different to have a degree rather than to be a student. It does and it doesn’t. I think about science questions and work on manuscripts just as before. I get more respect from some people for no very good reason, other than that a few letters are now attached to my name. I feel like an unwanted barrier has been placed between me and some friends who are earlier along in their graduate school experiences. But there is much joy in having accomplished something difficult, and I look forward to being able to operate with more independence and chase after my own sources of research funding.

My degree will be conferred this Saturday, but I won’t be attending the ceremony. I’ll be teaching a program at the Sky School, and will then be disappearing into the outdoors. Exploring these natural worlds is what keeps me excited about science, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Congratulations on a massive accomplishment, and thanks for your thoughtful reflection on the experience — a lot to consider about as I prepare to take the plunge myself this fall. Will you be headed to Gothic this summer?

  2. bblonder says:

    Thanks! I think you’ll bring a lot of experience and skills to the experience that most incoming students won’t have. I will be in Gothic this summer but only for about three weeks in the beginning of August. Will you be gone by then?

    1. I’m going to be working in Boulder this summer, but I hope to come back to Gothic to visit a fair amount, so maybe we’ll cross paths. Best of luck with the next step!
      – Ethan

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