the sometimes senseless ravings (and the occassional rant) of an aspiring marine ecologist who may enjoy killing things a little too much

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


as the impending end of my career as a grad student approaches, i am nagged by an ever-present buzz of panic in the back of my mind. being a student is all i know. it's all i have ever done. i have of course been working toward a goal - earning my doctorate. and i almost have it. in a few months, i will officially be a doctor. and suddenly that scares the crap out of me.

in a moment of blinding self-doubt that struck while i was waiting to meet with dr. v. to discuss a couple of ideas for grants, it occurred to me that i have absolutely NO IDEA what i'm doing. i haven't the faintest clue how to be an independent researcher. what i really want to study. how to find a job. how to impress prospective employers. or how to successfully procure the necessary funding for what i want to study. even now, those questions hook their claws into my brain and dig in, trying to induce a full blown panic attack.

as i was unsuccessfully struggling to go to sleep the other night, i hyperventilated a little and pondered what it means to be scientist. an ecologist. why i do what i do. why i want to do what i do. because if you can't answer those questions for yourself, how can you expect anyone else to take you seriously? thinking about why i want to do what i do forced me to take a step back and look at things objectively. and i realized that my biggest weakness as an ecologist is my tendency to get caught up in the details. to lose sight of the big picture. dr. v. says this all the time, but we scientists are inclined to do things because we can, not because we should and not because we think it's important. sadly, that is very true.

ecology is by definition the study of interactions among organisms and between organisms and their environment. i study chemical defenses in seagrasses, which fits right in with the most basic definition of ecology. but it bleeds over into a more specialized field of ecology (chemical ecology), and it's all too easy to get lost in the minutiae when dealing in chemical ecology. that is something that i desperately want to avoid. so i started thinking about the significance of chemical defenses, where they fit in the grand scheme of things, and that led me to have a sort of mini-epiphany: asking and answering questions is exactly the point of science. answering the big picture questions is the goal, and experimentation is the tool to help me achieve it. i just have to remind myself to take a step back every now and then to remember the big picture and ask myself if what i'm doing helps me piece together the puzzle.

so maybe i can do this. but the real world, the one in which i'm no longer a student, still scares the crap out of me.

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