The light amidst the darkness

First, I want to thank everyone who reached out after the last post. While I realize I am not alone in this struggle, it was overwhelming to receive such positive feedback. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

Last week I was reminded of one of the most rewarding aspects of my time in academics – my students or “kids”, as I affectionately call them (since I don’t desire to have children myself), or “minions”, as one of my former students fondly named the collective group, I have mentored over the years. I don’t mean either terms, kids or minions, in a negative way AT ALL, so don’t freak out about that.

As a graduate student, I mentored several undergraduate students because many of the faculty did not seem to have time to do so (or maybe they just found me more approachable). There are so many incidents that I fondly look back on during this time from a group of undergraduate students bringing back a 6 pack of Polygamy Porter from field camp in southern Utah (which was cracked open when I submitted my dissertation) to them all showing up for my dissertation defense (I have not seen a turnout of undergraduate students like that at any other dissertation defense while I was in graduate school) and then celebrating with me afterwards (hopefully those pictures never surface). There were also random emails, phone calls, or office visits to ask for guidance, and one even designed a tattoo I got in remembrance of the loss of my first dog – this meant more to me than I can ever describe in words. To that student, you know who you are, I am forever grateful for that fact you did that for me. Two of these students are nearing the end of their PhDs at great graduate schools, where they are working on projects that they really love. Two others went on to receive Master’s degrees, where one works in the oil and gas industry, while the other is a hydrologist overseas.

As a postdoc I formally advised or co-advised 3 undergraduates, and informally mentored several other graduate and undergraduate students. The students I formally advised both went on to great graduate schools, one even received a National Science Foundation Graduate Student Fellowship. I ended up serving as the senior thesis advisor for one of my interns, in which he earned best thesis that year at the department’s banquet ceremony (I blame United Airlines for missing his senior thesis defense, which I desperately attempted to attend), and we published his work his first year in graduate school. He defended his Master’s in 2016, which I was fortunate to attend, and now has a permanent position with the USGS. The third student I advised was during my most recent postdoc, where I served as his Honors Thesis Advisor on a qualitative science education research project. I was informed today, and yes I literally mean today, that he just obtained a job as a hydrologist.

Then there were those I informally advised, while I was a postdoc. Some were graduate students – one received a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and is now a research scientist at a great university; another is a geoscience education professor at another great university. One of the undergraduate students I helped advise recently got into the graduate school of her dreams, and is working on a project that has taken her to Indonesia to study volcanoes. Another went on to obtain an analyst position with a state survey where she excelled in ways I always knew were possible, even though she had hesitations about her abilities due to a less than great performance as an undergraduate (many of us have been there, and I wish academics would stop judging students on their performance as an undergraduate…we are all young and dumb and make mistakes – but that is for another time) and the fact that she would be a minority in a RED state.

All of these examples come from a time where I was embedded with students on a regular basis, but it is what came next that really fills my heart with joy.

One such incident occurred at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Annual meeting, when I ran into one of my former undergraduate students from while I was in graduate school, and who was approaching the end of his PhD. He stopped me and asked if he could schedule a time to speak with me sometime during the week. I said, “Of course! What about?” He replied, “Just wanted to catch up and chat about stuff.” I was not sure what he meant, not that it mattered, of course I would make time for my minions;) When we sat down at our scheduled time he preceded to talk about some of his options for the future, how he was feeling about academics, what he liked and didn’t like, and simply wanted to talk things over with me because he “trusts me and my opinions” and thought I could help provide some sort of insight. We spoke for quite some time; whether I actually helped him or not, I cannot be sure (seriously, what do I know at this point), but he thanked me for taking the time to speak with him… of course I would. After I left that meeting, I was struck by how much it meant to me that he sought me out even after several years had past because he truly valued my opinion and guidance. I saw him again this year at AGU, and he is almost done with his PhD and excited about the plethora of opportunities he has on the horizon.

That same year I was given a save-the-date to the wedding of one of my other students.

And remember the minority in the RED state… she is now moving on to a great position in the private sector, and I could not be more proud. She lacked the faith in her ability to succeed, but I always knew she would go on to do great things, because at the end of the day she has a passion for science that runs deep and that is worth something.

I am not sure how to properly end this post, but to say that even though I have struggled greatly, and, particularly recently as I constantly question why I chose this road and wonder if it was all worth it, there are definitely moments when I know it is/was. To those students whose lives I have affected (and I know there are more than those I mentioned here…and that is not to sound like a narcissistic a$$hole), thank you. Your continued hard work and success gives meaning to all the struggles.

A quote from one of my minions: all your efforts and accomplishments did not fail as they live through your minions.

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