Unexpected Gains

by Natura Richardson

Editor’s Note: Grad school is hard, there’s no question about it. It is a time of immense personal and professional growth, which can be exciting but is also challenging and intense. The process of learning to master a craft – whether in the sciences or arts – requires confronting uncertainty, climbing steep learning curves, and a deep and sometimes uncomfortable examination of one’s own strengths and limitations. It takes perseverance. Natura Richardson, a Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab alum and author of today’s post, would call it grit. It also takes a support system of peers and mentors, friends and family. (We will discuss the importance of mentorship in an upcoming post.) Even with that support system, many graduate students – and post-graduate professionals – face feelings of inadequacy. The term impostor syndrome was coined in the late 1970s to describe people who feel as though they are a “fraud” despite evidence of high achievement. There have been some excellent articles written about this phenomenon as it applies to early career scientists (e.g., here) and the importance of scientists from all career stages sharing their own stories. In this post, Natura reflects on how she confronted her own feelings of being an imposter and other stresses of grad school, and the strength and resilience she gained from her experiences.

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I officially graduated from the Coastal Fisheries Ecology Lab in May 2016, although that already feels so long ago. How can something that was only a year and a half ago feel like it happened way back during the Jurassic period? I’ll tell you how: because graduate school is HARD and you try to forget it. While in school, I had amazing support from my husband who drew a bath and put me to sleep, an employer that provided field support and reasonable use of work time, an advisor who knew how to encourage, push, and laugh with me, and fellow students and lab mates that would lend a listening ear or help me with analysis or R script. The deck was stacked in my favor, and yet, for me, graduate school was this weird alternate universe, where I worked harder than I ever had, yet I often felt inadequate and irrelevant. After graduation, I was ready to move on and never look back. But the truth is, I do look back. A lot. There are certain experiences and lessons that I continue to positively draw from for my personal and professional growth.

Everyone has a different experience and not all students struggle so hard, but for those of you who are in the throes of grad school and need a little pick me up, here’s what I have to offer for motivation: my unexpected but oh-so-great gains from graduate school.

Out-running the anxious stress monster

Over the years I practiced all the standard graduate student responses to stress and anxiety: crying, complaining, getting frustrated or angry, drinking, and avoiding my advisor and hoping she would somehow forget I existed. Shockingly, none of those worked.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks campus in Juneau is located on Lena Point, with access to forested trails leading to ocean views, right out the front door. One day, rather than break down in the student offices, I put on my sneakers and went for a walk. After a few walks, I started to run (although it was more of a shuffle). Be it walk, shuffle, or run, whenever I did something, I felt better. I tried to be consistent in going outside and getting exercise but with a constant fear of deadlines, it was hard to justify 20-40 minutes away from the computer. So I did something else I feared. I signed up for a 50-mile race. I was not a runner, had never run a marathon in my life, yet somehow I thought running almost double the distance while working on my Master’s thesis was a good idea. Boy, grad school was making me really crazy. But that commitment forced me to take a break, get outside, and do something else every day. From that daily commitment, I improved my mental clarity, physical energy, and perspective, which in turn helped me to become a better student, researcher, and less of an anxious stress monster.

Without the relentless stress of grad school, who knows how long it would have taken me to figure out that doing something for myself everyday would have enormous impacts on my mental and physical health? I’m done with graduate school now, but I am not done with running. If I ever feel the anxious stress monster trying to come out, I pull out my sneakers and run away from her. If you’re familiar with the anxious stress monster, I recommend identifying your stress-relieving, non-school activity and figuring out a way to make it mandatory. Believe me, it will be there for you after you’re done with your thesis.

Natura Kesugi Ridge_photo by Michael Bach.jpg

Natura outruns the anxious stress monster on Kesugi Ridge Trail near Denali National Park, Alaska. Photo by Michael Bach.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

While in grad school, I said to myself over and over, repeated like a broken record “I can’t,” just like a whiny adolescent child. As it turns out, I’m a liar, liar, pants on fire because I could do it. I am capable. Working on my Master’s thesis was the first time that I realized how often I play that broken “I can’t” record and how much wasted energy goes into that. It was also when I discovered how capable I am and that I need to quit lying to myself. So it is from my thesis days that I now frequently draw strength when I start to doubt my abilities.

Remember that 50 miler I signed up for? At mile 35 the “I can’t” record started playing, but then I thought, “If I can finish that thesis, I can do this!” I bucked up and finished that race…then puked.

I have accomplished other goals, big, small, professional, and personal. I applied for a competitive job that I didn’t think I could get, and then got it. I busted out written management plans and fishery summaries in very short time frames. I painted the exterior of my house by myself, when I was certain I couldn’t without my 6’6” tall husband or hired help. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that because I finished a Master’s thesis I am now Superwoman in disguise, but I do remind myself to quit wasting time lying to myself with the “I can’t” talk and get cracking on whatever it is I want to accomplish.

Go through the grits

Many individuals are capable, smart, and maybe they are Superwoman in disguise. But just because someone is Superwoman and she can do something difficult, doesn’t mean she will.

My thesis did not happen overnight, over a month, over a semester, or even over a couple years. It took several years of field work, lab work, data analysis, writing, re-processing lab samples, re-running data analysis, re-writing chapters, incorporating edits. Did I mention re-writing? There were feelings of failure, adversity, and frustration that came with what felt like only minor victories or successes. But for some reason, I just kept going. And going. And going. Relentless. Forward. Progress.

Post-graduate school, and thanks to psychologist Angela Duckworth, I have put a name to this determined behavior: Grit. Angela Duckworth says grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals. Having grit means maintaining determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. How many folks actually hold to their new year’s resolutions? Or lose those 20 pounds? Or write the peer-reviewed journal article after the committee has signed off on the thesis? Not that many. It takes some serious will-power to turn down chocolate cake, or put on your running shoes, or close your web browser. Pick a goal that cannot be achieved in a few days (or even just a few hours), throw in a lack of willpower and some tough challenges, and I bet that goal is likely to sit by the wayside, especially when the new season of [insert popular TV show] is released.

Sandpaper grit is measured as the number of particles per square inch. Wood can start out rough, scratched, and blemished but sanding with increasing levels of grit removes the scratches from the previous grit until the scratches are so fine that the wood is smooth as a baby’s bottom. Like a woodworker, I had to “go through the grits,” starting with a stripping 80-grit, to a smoothing 150-grit, and finishing with a 360- to 600-grit. In hindsight, I recognize that all those perceived failures or setbacks actually gave me grit. Now when I get a report back from a colleague that is bleeding red with edits, instead of crawling into bed and hiding, I don’t think anything of it. That’s just the first stripping grit; I want to get to the polishing grit. When it gets hard and you want to quit, just remember to go through the grits.

Graduate school is arduous, but for all your sleepless nights and caffeinated days, you do gain some great skills. You might graduate with fluency in computer programs like ArcGIS or R, you might become a stock assessment modeling genius, or you might be the expert on Pacific staghorn sculpin reproductive strategies (a highly coveted title, by the way). But for me, it has been the unexpected gains of healthy life habits and recognizing my capabilities and grit, where I have found the greatest value.

CFE Lab Oct 2014.png

It takes a village to raise a child…and to get through grad school. Natura (3rd from left) gives her advisor a break from parenting duties and enjoys the camaraderie of labmates.

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Natura Richardson received her M.S. in Fisheries from UAF in 2016 and is a groundfish and shellfish management biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Kodiak, Alaska.

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