The things I do for my PhD…

A little tired, but the sun is shining and the hiking is sweet!

A little tired, but the sun is shining and the hiking is sweet!

It’s literally half way through my field season. I’ve got two and half months left and I have to admit that I’m getting tired. Without even thinking about the data analysis and writing that lay ahead, the field season feels overwhelming, intimidating, and exhausting. Even though I am loving this field work, it’s not only physically hard (because that I can handle) but it’s mentally draining too.

Field work is so much work than what happens in the field

When I describe my field work, it sounds so awesome. I hike around, I put cameras up or take them down, I talk to hikers at trailheads. It is truly awesome. But there are a lot of moving parts to this PhD – remote cameras, surveys, tracksticks. Each of these parts has their own randomly-created schedule, which I have to coordinate into one massive field schedule. There are a lot of logistics to consider with each schedule and how they combine. Remote cameras are up for 21 days and there are a limited number of cameras so I have to make sure that I never have more out than I own. I also have to make sure that there are never more than 2 teams of people putting up cameras on any given day as there are other equipment limitations. Surveys are handed out 5 days a week and tracksticks happen on those same days. Sometimes all of those things are happening on the same day at the same time in three different locations across the National Parks.

Volunteers help with all of these things (thank goodness), but I’m starting to feel a little short. (Incidentally, if you’d like to help out with remote cameras in the back country, or with visitor surveys please email me). This means that I literally end up shuffling around my schedule and my interns (thank goodness for her patience) as we try and make sure that all the data is collected on time and according to schedule.

This field scheduling literally takes me several hours per week, some sleepless nights, some hair pulling, and more than one “how the heck am I going to do this” ciders.

I get a lot of help from my intern trying to fill spots on the schedule and making sure all the equipment is in working order and ready to go for the next round. Without her, I’d be lost. There is no doubt about that.IMG_1723

When I’m going out into the field, I have to get myself and my volunteers ready. There’s the process of deciding where the cameras will go and making a map. If we’re going in to the back country, I have to reserve the campsites, set up the SPOT for safety, prepare food, pack my bag, and make sure all my personal camping gear is ready to go too. All of that also takes time and energy – time that I always feel like I should be spending on data work or writing the thesis itself.

The things I do for my PhD

There are mornings that I wake up and all I want to do is go back to bed. A combination of long days in the field, late nights, and too much driving to and from field sites is starting to add up. The other day, I woke up and it was foggy and cold in Canmore. The last place I wanted to be was on a hiking trail collecting remote cameras. But that’s the thing about a field schedule, it’s non-negotiable. The data needs to get collected and it doesn’t matter if I’m tired, cranky, or just want to go back to bed. The data doesn’t care.

So, I dragged my sorry butt out of bed and got ready for a day in the field that I was certain was going to be miserable and cold and gross. And I was treated to one of the best days in the field yet. The fog cleared and the hike was gorgeous and I saw a new part of the Park, which was stunning and left me wanting more. And therein lies the rewards of field work – it’s awesome out there.

The gloriousness that sometimes awaits in the field. So it's worth getting out of bed!

The gloriousness that sometimes awaits in the field. So it’s worth getting out of bed!

A couple of weeks ago, I rode 22Km on my mountain bike to put remote cameras up. That may not sound like a big deal, but I’m not a mountain biker. I maybe get on my mountain twice a year and I hardly ever ride 22Km. But it doesn’t matter, data has to be collected and if that means sucking it up and riding a mountain bike for 22K then that’s what it means. Some days, I leave the house having literally no idea what adventures will lie ahead for the day but knowing that I don’t have a choice and I just have to do it. I have faith in my ability and experience as an outdoorsey kind of woman that I’ll be able to handle it… whatever it is. While I appreciate the adventure and spontaneity, it’s not always a great way to leave the house.

A little deadfall climbing with a mountain bike... yeah... that was fun!

A little deadfall climbing with a mountain bike… yeah… that was fun!

I work every day. Every grad student (past and present) knows this. A PhD is all consuming. It takes over your entire being. Even when I’m taking a day “off”, I’ll often sit and think or brainstorm about my thesis, the methodology, the field schedule, the analysis, the bears and what they’re doing. It doesn’t ever stop. Ever. I think this is one of the most challenging things about grad school. Some days I work for 12-14 hours and some days I work for a couple of hours, but I work every day. For the 3 years that it will take me to do this, I will work every day.

Finding a work-life balance

This last bit doesn’t necessarily relate to a PhD, but I think it becomes even more crucial when working on anything that is all consuming. When I started my PhD, I said this time would be different. I wasn’t going to let my PhD do to me what my Masters did. I would remember to take time for myself and not let the few minutes, hours, or days that I took off make me feel guilty or like I should be working. This is hard and some days are easier than others, but I am doing some things differently this time.

I meditate. Almost daily. Sitting in stillness each day for 20-30 minutes is like a little reset button. I allow my mind to become blank, I listen to the birds and the sounds of the town around me. I meditate in the field a lot, which is great. I allow my mind to become focused rather than scattered. It’s incredibly helpful and I can’t say enough how this practice has changed my life, my perspective, and how I handle stress.

Sometimes even a few minutes of meditation with my feet in a cold mountain creek can be enough to bring me to the present and be reminded of how amazing life truly is.

Sometimes even a few minutes of meditation with my feet in a cold mountain creek can be enough to bring me to the present and be reminded of how amazing life truly is.

I am flexible. My schedule is all over the place and I try to just surrender and go with it. I don’t make plans that often. I pencil things in my daytimer and if I’m not in the field, I’ll try to make it happen. This means that I don’t get to do everything I want to, like outdoor concerts, but it does mean that I take advantage of all my time when I have it.

I try and connect. I am lucky to have a strong network of friends and family who support me in all things, including this madness of grad school. I try and make time to connect with them, even if it’s not often. I also try and combine my field work with my friends as much as I can. My friends help me put up cameras sometimes, or I meet my friends at the closest campground after finishing surveys for the day. These stolen moments keep me going in so many ways.

I put it into perspective. For all my joking around, I know I’m not changing the world or anything. It’s just a PhD. This is one step in my career and while it feels like the biggest thing I’ll ever do, it may not be. I want to do a good job, and I know that I will. So I’m not going to kill myself for it… not yet anyway.

Keeping a work-life balance is key to not losing yourself entirely in a PhD, or in anything for that matter.

A little truth

I try to keep this blog positive, because I love what I do and how I’m doing it and all the learning that comes with it. But there’s a reality here that is worth sharing. Not everyone does a PhD and that’s because it’s hard. And that’s not just something people say – it is actually hard. Even when you’re awesome like me. But with a little help, support, and living in the present I’ll manage to get through this field season, and the analysis, and the writing, and next year’s field season, and and and…

At the end of the day, I love it. All of it, even the hard bits.

At the end of the day, I love it. All of it, even the hard bits.

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2 responses to “The things I do for my PhD…

  1. Great summary of the PhD experience! Any advice on meditation? I’ve heard repeatedly what a great stress management technique it is, but whenever I try, I end up worrying about the dissertation, finding a job, and so on.

    • Hi Wild Eyed Vireo,
      My best advice when it comes to meditation is to start slow. Try with some simple breathing exercises. Sit in stillness and focus on your breath; try breathing in for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6. Close your eyes. Every time your mind wanders, just bring it back to the count of 4-in 6-out. See if you can sit for 2 minutes, then the next day 3, then 5. Slowly, you’ll work up to sitting for 10 minutes. I start every meditation with this breathing exercise for 5 minutes. Then I go into a meditative state where I just observe my mind. It’s ok for your mind to wander, just don’t hang on to any particular thought for too long or follow it. It’s like sitting and watching your mind in a playground – it just goes where it will. Avoid trying to control it. There are some great intro to meditation websites that have some exercises on them too. Just google meditation for beginners! Good luck!

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