Essays

The endeavor to be scientifically proven

On January 13, 2012 I sent my thesis committee an email announcing the completion of my research proposal and the need to set a defense date.

On January 14, 2013 I sent my thesis committee an email announcing the completion of my thesis research report and the need to set a defense date.

Those two sentences sound minute, and significant only in the fact that they reference the space of one year plus a day. But for me, the reference is quite significant. I’ve been telling people it’s taken me two years to write my thesis and it blew my mind to realize that’s it’s only been one.

I think anyone with a graduate degree who has created and conducted a research project can understand the arduous and painstaking process that it becomes. There’s Tumblr feed that hits the nail on the head in a hilarious way, but it’s only hilarious because if we don’t laugh at the intensity of the experience we will go insane.

At the beginning I knew nothing. I knew that I knew nothing, but I didn’t realize just how little I knew. And as my knowledge grew, so did the awareness of my ignorance; but my acceptance of the impossibility of knowing everything also grew, as did my confidence of what I did know.

The process bent me nearly to the point of breaking. Group therapy, alcohol abuse, avoidance, anxiety, depression. Weeks at a time in front of a computer screen. The sadness of being single and alone in a struggle through a world that only I understood because no one ‘got’ my research. And my non-academia friends couldn’t even fathom why I looked so languid on the rare occasions they saw me. Medication. Crying. Poverty. Debt.

What the fuck was I thinking? This sucks SO bad, and I have NO clue what I’m doing. This was a HORRIBLE decision.

I would love to say, being nearly on the other side of it, that it feels like a rewarding decision. I would love to say that my research will make an impact on the scientific community and help further the understanding of the hydrologic capabilities of isolated wetlands in the Southeastern United States and the relevance of assessing soil profiles and climate patterns when predicting the behavior of the surficial aquifer. I would love to say that my findings will help form legislature for the need of isolated wetland protection and will be the foundation for future research. I would love to say all of those things because I believe them; but I can’t say those things, because it doesn’t feel realistic.

I’m proud of myself for sticking it through. Were it not for the commitment to myself and the combined support of friends, family, the counseling center, and commiserating grad students, I might not have made it. And I do think my research is cool. But my co-workers don’t care. My supervisor doesn’t care. My family and friends congratulate me for the effort, but they don’t understand what I actually did. My advisor and committee members–in addition to a few other members of the environmental science and hydrology fields–are the only ones who understand the research and its implications. And while their sincere interest excites me, there’s still an anti-climatic, unsatisfactory, empty feeling. Since January 2011, I have poured my Self into something that became very significant to me. And now what? It just becomes a notation that I get to put on my resume? Just a thing that I did for a little while? That is so depressing! (Again, the laughter).

The reason for going to grad school was two-fold. 1) I was about to be laid off 2) I thought that if I wanted to teach others about water stuff, I should know what the hell I was talking about. Water and wetlands are important and relevant and people need to know that and why. But completing this seemingly significant research while surrounded by individuals with associate degrees who are simply here for a paycheck, and attending festivals to teach children/people who are only interested in grabbing whatever free item on my table, is indescribably unfulfilling. I feel like I am the only person who cares what I did (or about water and wetlands) and that makes me very sad.

And so, I’ve begun chasing the high of recognition and validation. I’m seeking the approval, interest, and commendation of the scientific community because I need to see that people care. I need to know that what I did was not for naught. Is this why researchers publish their work? Not because they want to ‘make the world a better place’, but because they want to be heard? And noted? Commended by a grantor, interviewer, fellow researcher? Or is it just my arrogance and insecurity?

Or is the display an earnest effort to make a difference and find others that share the vision?

Maybe this is what it means to be a researcher. Maybe falling down the rabbit hole of significance is meta to falling down the rabbit hole of investigation. Maybe science isn’t just about building knowledge; maybe it’s also building our individual Selves.

Maybe that’s what graduate school was supposed to teach me.