Not everything will go as planned
When you first start graduate school, you will do A LOT of brainstorming and planning. You will write draft after draft, until you have created the perfect project proposal. But remember, just because you have your project planned to the very last detail, does not mean everything will go as planned. Field work is unpredictable. This is especially true if you are working with wild animals. When I travelled to Papua New Guinea, I knew of an island that has a predictable manta ray aggregation, and that is where I planned on doing all of my satellite tagging. Once we arrived, we did not see a single manta rays for 4 days. My advisor and I had to start thinking of alternative sites to visit, or I would have no data for my thesis. We finally identified an alternative island that local communities and satellite tags confirmed had manta rays. Once we arrived, we saw at least 4 manta rays in one day, and even more the day after. I learned that no matter how much planning I did, I still had to be prepared to re plan once I was in the field.
Embrace failure to achieve success
This point ties in with the first point. It is pretty self-explanatory, and can be applied to almost any experience, but I think it is still important to emphasize here. You will often find yourself working your ass off to discover your final product is useless, or that there is a better method to achieve what you want. Don’t let this put you down, or distract you from your work. Failure is important and you will learn from your mistakes.
Networking is your key to success
This is probably the most important lesson I learned during my first year of graduate school. Put yourself and your work out there, whether that is on social media, at scientific conferences, or within your own department. Don’t be afraid to approach people and have a conversation about your work. You will be surprised with what tools other people have to offer that you may not have considered before. One student in my program found her advisor at a scientific conference because she approached him during a coffee break. I met someone while presenting a poster at a conference who does similar work, and he offered to help me with the statistical analyses of my project. Networking opens up the door for collaboration, which is particularly important in the field of conservation.
Don’t be afraid to disagree with your advisor
You advisor will typically be an expert in your field of study. They have had years of experience in research and teaching, and can be a great source for advice and guidance for your thesis. All of these qualities can make your advisor appear intimidating, and it can be easy to fall into a pattern of agreeing with everything your advisor suggests for your thesis. As a graduate student, it is really important to remember that you have valid ideas and opinions as well. You were accepted into your program and chosen by your advisor for a reason. You should never be afraid to express your own opinions, and reject changes your advisor suggests you make to your thesis. Even if your idea ends up failing, it is important to think for yourself and test out your own ideas before immediately using someone else’s suggestion. There have been many times I have fought for projects to go my way, and I think some have turned out for the better because of it. Even if every idea you have isn’t accepted by your advisor, or turns out to be the lesser of the two, it is important to have those conversations and break down each proposal brought to the table.
You must know why your work is important
This point is important not just in the field of conservation, but any type of research. This will be the question that grants, scientific publications and potential funders are looking for. People need to know why giving you money, or publishing your research, will help your field of study. Your reasoning needs to be more than “will provide valuable information to local organizations and government.” You should have measurable outcomes and realistic goals that will covey important information to your area of study, and can be applied to similar areas of study.
Please comment with other important things graduate students should know that I have not included here!
Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay for future blog posts 🙂
– Shannon Murphy
How do you make an octopus laugh? With TEN-tickles!