The phoenix and the fairy god-parents: the story of my master's degree

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgThe theme for this month's Scientiae carnival asks us to talk about a challenging point in our lives and describe how we overcame the adversity. Did we have help along the way, and are we better scientists for having been through the trial by fire? Truthfully, I'd have to say that the last two years have been the most challenging of my professional life. I don't think anyone could be prepared for the combination of first-time motherhood and a new tenure track job. I certainly wasn't. But I haven't gotten past that challenge yet, and I've been blogging about it along the way. Thus, a better post for this month's Scientiae comes from my transition from undergraduate to graduate school - a time when I went through a professional crisis of faith and came out with a renewed sense of my true scientific calling.

I didn't intend to go straight from undergraduate to graduate school. What I wanted to do was move to a certain region of the country and work for a few years, but I didn't really know how to find a job, especially at a distance, and I didn't want to move home while I looked. So I applied to one M.S. program, and I enrolled in the inter-departmental program mid-year, despite all good advice to the contrary. I finished my undergraduate classes at elite private university (EPU) in December, moved cross-country and started at giant university (GU) in mid-January.

Almost immediately, I realized I'd made a mistake.

I was supported by a research assistantship which tied me to a specific project, and it took only one week of getting introduced to the project before I realized that it was the last thing I wanted to spend the next two years of my life working on. There were a few tiny shreds of things that interested me, but by and large I was turned off by both the subject and the research site. On top of that, I was experiencing a massive culture shock going from the resource-rich EPU to the relatively resource-poor GU, from a science department to an inter-departmental engineering program, and from a relatively gender-balanced environment to one with almost no women. Within two weeks, I'd made up my mind to resign the RA and I was spending my time between classes in the computer lab, applying to any and every remotely-relevant job in the metropolitan area and beyond. Four weeks into the semester, with no alternative in sight, I felt compelled to tell my advisor I was quitting the RA and that I intended to quit the program. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn't going to spend two years working on that project. Moving home suddenly seemed like a more attractive option.

Yet, 21 months later, I defended my M.S. degree in the program, and I began a Ph.D. program perfectly happy confident in my abilities as a graduate student, a scientist, and a picker of research projects. I never doubted my choice of Ph.D. advisor or project, and I've been incredibly satisfied with the way my career has developed.

What saved me from giving up on graduate school and taking a dead-end entry level job? Two* people allowed me to make mistakes and wander in the wilderness but continue down a scientific path. And to those fairy-godparents I am deeply grateful.

When I sat down with my M.S. advisor and told him that I was quitting the project, I intended to quit school too, because I didn't see any point in continuing classes if I wasn't going to get the degree. He convinced me that while there would be no black mark on my record for dropping out of grad school after the semester, there would be a big black mark if I withdrew from all my classes partway through. He encouraged me to spend the rest of the semester talking with other potential advisors and finding a project that was a better fit for me. Then, using his powers as the program director, he arranged for my semester's tuition to be covered by a scholarship, so that I could afford to stay in the program for the semester. My second year, he found me on-campus, relevant employment that paid decently and gave me tuition remission. I credit my M.S. advisor for making it logistically possible for me to get my degree.

My second fairy godparent was my undergraduate advisor at EPU. A chance conversation with hir ended in the offer of a trip-of-a-lifetime to work as a research assistant, and the work I did on that project turned into my M.S. project. My time in the literal wilderness also allowed me to reconnect with the part of science that I really loved, and by the time I left the field I was committed to making the best of my master's program and going straight on for the Ph.D. to work on my first intellectual love. To my undergraduate advisor, I give the credit for sending me on a vision quest and for introducing the technique that above all else has defined my research career.

So out of the ashes of a rash, ill-planned entrance to grad school, a phoenix emerged 7 years later with a Ph.D. Crucial to allowing that happen was the support of good-hearted, insightful and resourceful people in positions of power. They recognized that in this young woman making all sorts of mistakes there was a good scientist struggling to get out, and they went way out of their way to help me succeed. Someday I hope I can pass along the favor.

*Actually, three. To Chica I owe more than I can ever say.

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Fabulous post, SW. Beautifully written with a fantastic ending. I'd say you missed only one point in not giving yourself enough credit for reaching out and finding options that made sense for you and your career.

One factor I sometimes forget is that everyone stumbles - gets confused or disheartened or demoralized - and the choices that are made in that state are often defining of our futures. You identified people with the means to provide assistance and insight and I have every confidence that you'll react in similar ways when students turn to you for the same. It was also a reminder for me as I work through some challenges. So thank you.

This is a very nicely worded post, SW! I always wished that I have advisors like you did, but in reality, the field of conservation biology isn't a very big one, and my country is only about the size of New Mexico, which leaves me with not much choice when it comes to choosing my advisor.