The hardest part about grad school, by far, has been the fact that I have to rely on myself to create the standards by which I will work. I choose many of my deadlines, I decide what my working hours are and what my time management looks like, and I decide what’s “enough” in terms of effort, quality, and quantity with my research. Sure, there are some structures in place for me – applications for funding have to be submitted by a certain date, other people will make decisions about publishing or not publishing my work, and there are explicit and implicit pressures to not overstay my welcome and turn a two-year program into four years or more… but none of that really helps me in my own day-to-day thesis work and decision making. I love to exceed someone’s expectations of me and to hear that my contributions are a job well done. I’ve always been great at assessing the requirements for an assignment or project and finding a way to take ownership of it, make it my own, maximize my time doing what I want to do and am good at, and avoiding altogether (if possible) the portions of the project that I don’t like or at which I am less skilled. With my undergrad papers, I often took a philosophical approach, and played around with big ideas (that’s the fun part), and then would pound out some of my thoughts the night before the paper was due, minimizing the time I had to spend actually writing the paper. I rarely proofread my work before I handed it in, and because I’m generally pretty articulate and have an eye for spelling, grammar, and formatting details, this level of effort was almost always enough to get me my desired grade (an “A” of some variety). I’m really, really good at gauging my effort and outcomes based on other peoples’ standards… and pretty terrible at setting my own outcomes when I have nothing to go on.
A couple weeks ago I had a game-changing conversation with a very hardcore achiever-perfectionist friend who just finished an MSc in medical biology and felt uncertainty throughout the whole of her three years that what she was doing was “good enough.” She is one of those people who has a really high threshold for stress and busyness and probably gets more done in a week than I get done during the whole year. ANYWAY, she worked 12+ hour days in her lab, every day of the week, (not unusual at all for many grad students), and still questioned if what she was investing was really adequate. I have heard from SO. MANY. grad students that the hardest part of grad school for them was the lack of built-in structure, and learning to define their own standards and the parameters of their project. So I finished this call with this friend and I thought, “I’m not going to waste my time wondering if I’m ever going to impress my committee, or if I’m going to get published… I could put twice the time in that I’m putting in now, and there’s no guarantee that I would feel happy or fulfilled or be proud of my work. I’m going to decide for myself what I want to get out of this degree and I’m going to pursue that, make that my focus.”
So… what do I want to get out of this degree? Honestly, I came here because, in an oversimplification of everything, ever, The Glaciers of the World (TM) are fucking melting and they’re REALLY, really cool, and I want to see them in person goshdarnit before that opportunity is no longer there. I had a small background in tree-ring science because of my undergrad, and I love geomorphology, and especially glacial geomorphology, and I had a really incredible experience during my undergrad fieldwork standing in the presence of a 400-year old oak. That’s literally why I’m here; I wanted to hang out more with trees and glacially-created landscape features (and the glaciers themselves) with other people who know shit about them. I’m here to build relationships with trees and to love a transient landscape while it’s still here. I’m not here for the letters behind my name (although my childhood dream was (and is) to be a doctor scientist and a teacher), or to get published, or to get academic accolades. Rather than letting my worries about what I should be done at this point and what I should be doing consume me, I think I’m going to try to focus on that larger-picture goal: is my knowledge and love of the creation growing? Am I getting to know the Creator better as a result? I honestly think these are the parts of my education up until this point that I enjoyed the most, and I think at the end of the day these are the things that will inspire gratitude and contentment in me.
In so many other areas of my life, I’ve been learning to say, “This might not be the most impressive of its kind, it might not even be noteworthy to anybody else… but I like it, and it’s good enough for me.” I’ve never really said that about academia before, although I think it’s been an underlying principle the whole time, manifested by my drive in high school and undergrad to tailor school projects and assignments to my interests and specifications. So here we are, saying out loud the scary words as I bumble through this degree: I’ll do what’s good enough for me.