Many years ago as a graduate student at the College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, my former officemate (Noelle Relles) and I came up with a novel idea: take all the disparate information out there about strategies for getting into graduate school in the natural sciences and coalesce them into a single concise yet comprehensive text. Essentially develop a How-To book about graduate school. But we wanted the book to be more than just instructional anecdotes. We were scientist, and thought it would be useful to add a level of empiricism to the book. We wanted to write a How-To book where the conclusion were driven by results from a national survey of graduate admissions offices in the USA. At the time, writing a book based on a national survey of graduate programs seemed like quite a long-shot as we were both a number of years removed from getting our PhDs, and the most pressing issues in our lives at that time were graduating and finding free food and alcohol.
Living the life of a graduate student at VIMS’ infamous Fall Party. (Photo credit: Kersey Sturdivant)
Running the winch at dusk
The A-frame shuddered as the box core, heavy with mud and reeking of sulfur, emerged from the water. We knew that it had found its mark 2300 meters below. Soft sediment from the seafloor oozed out the sides as I slid the safety pins into the spade arm. There was nothing visibly special about this mud. No ancient arthropods or primeval polychaetes crawled through this muck. It was a cubic meter of sticky, stinking glop. My first sample.
We were in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras. Our cruise objectives were to characterize the pelagic and benthic fauna associated with deep-sea methane seeps. For me, it was a ship of opportunity. In exchange for and extra set of hands to work the gear and process samples, I could add my own small research project to the cruise objectives. My goal was to collect sediment cores from multiple sites and survey the diversity of fungi associated with these methane seeps.
The 12 hour shifts rarely left me enough time to eat meals. Though I had never seen the equipment before we left port I became the acoustic tracking technician, out of necessity. Things consistently went wrong. Nets tore, gear broke, a misfired box core almost crushed my leg. Two hurricanes, one a category 5, hit the Gulf of Mexico while we were at sea. Work was exhausting and rest was brief, when existent. I loved every minute of it.
The end of that cruise was the high point of a 4 year project that began with unbridled optimism and early, exciting results, only to decay into drudgery, failure, desperation, and collapse. In the end, it would rise from the past for one small victory. In hindsight, so much of those four years seems painfully trivial, but this story is really about how much of a human being is poured into a scientific manuscript.
This year marks the beginning of my fourth year as a Ph.D. graduate student. Over the last three years, I’ve participated in five research cruises, organized two of them, had multiple grants get rejected and a few accepted, published papers, failed to publish papers, had my entire thesis fall out from under me, completely change fields, passed my qualifying exams, and discovered that my experience is pretty typical for graduate students. So looking back on the first three year, what do I wish I had known at the start?