Guaranteed steps to a PhD project you love
How does one end up studying sea turtle ecology for a PhD? Well, I’m not exactly sure if I chose sea turtles or they chose me.
When I speak to those planning for graduate school (the target audience of this post), a consistent question that comes up is what process I went through to find my graduate research project and advisor. My answer always starts with some version of: “well, ask a bunch of graduate students and you will likely get a unique answer from each.” And ain’t that the truth. People come at it from different backgrounds with different goals in mind and, further, many universities and programs have different procedures to get in. Let’s just start with graduate faculty directories for an example – some schools have well-organized webpages that make it easy to find people with similar research interests, and some are relative nightmares. Some prospective advisors prefer that their mentees have well-thought-out research questions ahead of enrolling, and some are happy to help students form those questions in the first year or two.
The best starting advice when searching for graduate school opportunities may be to cast a wide net and directly communicate with as many potential advisors as possible. Now at this point, I hope the sarcasm of the title of this blog post is becoming apparent… This post is a quick version of my story of starting graduate school, for just one entry out of the diverse potpourri of grad school origin stories (yep, I squeezed the word “potpourri” into my blogpost).
When I graduated with my undergraduate degree (a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Spanish), I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to take. I knew I was interested in conservation biology, and maybe I should be grateful I had the opportunity to narrow it down that much. But I didn’t know where I wanted to go in life. I considered grad school as a strong future possibility, but not a concrete goal, and was ready for a break from school. So, over the course of three years, I lived a transient life chasing seasonal field jobs. A position of privilege gave me the ability to travel between different locations for relatively little pay, and I think the fact that our field relies on this kind of labor needs to change in order for opportunities to be available equitably. For instance, I had health insurance under my parents’ plan and did not have to consider this factor when searching for employment. In fact, the prospect of losing health insurance at age 26 was a big motivator for me to seek out grad school options (that include student health coverage). But I digress – I worked in three systems over those three years: barrier islands in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, national refuge lands in the Florida Keys, and rivers of Puerto Rico. For two of these jobs I worked for NC State PhD students and, thus, my connection to the university was established.
As I became a more confident researcher through my field experiences, I started to formulate my own questions about these systems and see a career for myself in biological research. Moreover, as I observed graduate students progressing through their programs, I thought to myself: “I could probably do that.” So I started the (arduous) process of searching for potential advisors and sent out a lot of emails. One such email was to a professor that had a long history studying sea turtle ecology in Antigua, but I soon found out that he was transitioning toward retirement and had passed on oversight of that sea turtle program. I doubled down with him anyway by asking follow-up questions about his sea turtle work and, in a stroke of luck and serendipitous timing, he forwarded my email to the current director of the program right in the middle of planning for the impending field season. Things went well from there, and my collaboration with Dr. Seth Stapleton and the Jumby Bay Hawksbill Project (JBHP) had begun. I feel pretty lucky with how these events unfolded, and then it turned out that I couldn’t get enough of the field research itself — so, in some ways, I feel like the sea turtles chose me.
However, Seth was a postdoctoral researcher unable to take on students at that time, and the JBHP is not affiliated with a university. Fortunately, through the project and its annual budget I would be supported to travel to Antigua and pursue research. However, I needed to find an academic home (and funding!). This is when I revisited my NC State connections, and found an advisor willing to take me on as a Master’s student with support in the form of a Teaching Assistantship. So in summer 2015 I traveled to Antigua to work for 5.5 months monitoring a hawksbill sea turtle nesting beach and developing graduate research projects, and then in winter 2016 I enrolled in a Master’s program. Fast forward to 2020, and I have spent another 15 months or so in Antigua, joined Dr. Martha Burford Reiskind’s lab, switched into a PhD instead of a Master’s (much like my lab mate Emily), and am still loving my research. Grad school has certainly been full of ups and downs, but the downs in particular tend to melt away while doing research on the nesting beach (and occasionally after putting together a manuscript or analysis I am particularly proud of).
And so there you have it! Guaranteed steps to a PhD project you love.