Lately, I’ve been at a loss for inspiration for a blog post. I’ve hit a slump in my PhD research. Basically, that’s a diplomatic way of saying that I’m doing a part that I don’t like and it’s hard and I’ve lost some motivation. I’ve been cleaning data and getting it ready for analysis. A process that is soul-destroying, time-sucking, and makes me question everything in my life from this research to relationships to my meditation practice and what my life purpose is overall.
Getting the data ready
After handing in my first chapter before Christmas and the celebration that followed, I turned my attention to the remote camera data. It’s a freaking mountain taller than Everest and wider than the Pacific Ocean. Honestly, it’s gross. There are literally hundreds of thousands of images. Entering the information contained in those images is one thing, but cleaning the spreadsheets and verifying that data is worse. Each camera ends up as a spreadsheet where each line is a photo. Some cameras are a spreadsheet a few hundred rows long, others several thousand rows long. A statistical analysis is only as good as the data that goes into it, so all that data needs to be “cleaned” before it can be analysed.
Cleaning the remote camera data means deleting all the rows that are empty (a photo of a waving branch), identifying images of grizzly bears and verifying them, and then doing some simple calculations around the spacing of time between events and the number of human use events on the trail. It sounds simple and it’s not overly hard, but it takes DAYS. It takes so long that my eyes go funny and I begin to hate everything in life and feel like I’m not even moving forward at all because there is SO MUCH data. And there aren’t even outputs, this is just an intermediate step before getting in to the actual analysis.
After days of cleaning the data from the 2013 remote cameras, I was ready to go into analysis. Even with thousands of images of people, I literally have 8 pictures of grizzly bears from 2013. So basically, I don’t have enough data to do an analysis yet. I have to clean the 2014 data and then go back into analysis with more data on longer spreadsheets and try again.
A PhD is hard
To be honest, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks feeling a little sorry for myself. A PhD is hard. I’m away from home and my loved ones. And I’m stuck in data cleaning hell.
What the hell am I even doing here? Is it worth it? Why am I doing this to myself?
These are questions I think every grad student asks themselves periodically and they should. The hard reality is that a PhD is hard. No way around that. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. But it’s not easy; it’s really hard. It’s going to test and push me in ways that nothing else in my life ever will. And it should. When I come out the other end of this beast, I will be at the leading edge of people in my field. I’ll be the one who contributes new information to my field. That’s actually amazing if you think about it. New information – expanding knowledge. How cool is that?
So it’s a little up and down. But getting up and brushing myself off and facing the mountain of data is what needs to happen to move forward. So I tackle that mountain, one rock at a time, until I’m at the summit and say YEAH! Boom! Done! (Then on to the next mountain because a PhD is really a mountain range, not just one summit).
Taking some personal responsibility
Lately, there have been a few blog posts from other PhD students on my facebook wall talking about how much a PhD sucks. The money sucks. The work sucks. It’s too hard. These posts focus on several issues with PhD work ranging from non-supportive supervisors, to working ridiculously long hours, to living below the poverty line, to not being recognized for your work. All of these are real issues with grad school and make an already challenging situation more challenging. Sometimes the system is broken. But writing a blog post about it isn’t necessarily going to change that.
I think it’s time for some PhD students to take personal responsibility for their health and happiness rather than complaining about it on facebook or blogs. There are solutions to all of these things. Supervisor issues – change supervisors or find another way to work together. Money issues – take contract work on the side, get more grants to pay you better, or change your budget. Working long hours – deal with it or find a way to have a better work/life balance. Supervisor taking too much credit for your work – start taking credit and making sure your name is first on publications. I put this out there knowing that some students will read that and not see how it’s possible. But the reality is everything is possible, but nothing is free. Changing anything takes energy, time, creativity, and innovation. And as PhD students we should know that better that anyone else because we are at the leading edge – we are creatively and innovatively changing things in our field every day. So why do we sometimes feel so trapped in our own degree? To me, that’s a waste of energy.
Why do a PhD
Here’s the truth. If you went into a PhD to make more money, you should quit and go work for industry or consulting or somewhere where you will make gads of money. Being a research scientist is not a fast way to making the big bucks. If that’s what you’re in it for – get out. When I have those moments of “what am I doing here”? My answer is always “I wanted an answer to this question and nobody could tell me”. That keeps me going back to the spreadsheets to the analysis and to the research. I wanted to move my field forward. I wanted to contribute something meaningful to grizzly bear habitat research and contribute to a better understanding of how people and grizzly bears can coexist on this landscape. I’m doing that in a way and from a perspective that no one has done before me. My work will change things – even if only just a little tiny bit.
Do a PhD because there is a gap in knowledge and you want to fill it. Not just want to fill it, need to fill it. From the bottom of your being, you need to fill it. Because when the lows come, and they will, you’ve got to be able to go back to that passion and need to contribute to your field. If you’re there for the money and fame, you won’t last. And that’s ok too. As long as you’re true to yourself, it’s all good.
A thank you
So thank you to all the PhD students who have written a blog complaining about a PhD because it’s helped remind me why I’m here and why I will stay here until I’m done and the beast is slayed and I am Sarah Elmeligi, PhD. Yup. It’s hard. It’ll probably be the hardest thing I’ll ever do in my life. And at the end, it will be one of the most rewarding as well.
Bring it on!