Thoughts Of a Graduate Student

By Luke Lamb-Wotton


The sun sets over the horizon as viewed from my apartment in South Florida. Just over the horizon lies the vast Everglades wetlands, an area of land where the only thing constant is change.

Change. Past. Future.

[Please now take 30 seconds to reflect on these words and what they mean to you before reading further].

As my first year of graduate school ramped up and all the obligations my over-zealous first semester self piled on, I’ve been thinking about how what I am doing now is helping move me along the academic career trajectory I have envisioned for myself.

When I first moved to Miami to start an M.S at FIU, I remember bringing up my “grand scheme”, as I like to think of it, for how I will accomplish my career goals in the ultra-saturated academic market. (Check out the 2015 NSF report on Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities for the breakdown on degrees awarded but I do suggest reading it with a glass of the hard stuff).

People seemed rather alarmed at how calculated I was trying to be. One specific instance came about when I was talking with another grad student in my lab who is finishing his Ph.D this semester (side note he got it done in 4.5 years y’all it IS possible!). He got an M.S. before pursing his doctorate and so I was curious what his experience was like during the transition. He gave me some words then said, “but you shouldn’t be thinking about that now, you just got here!”.

While most people would agree, I would like to respectively disagree. Perhaps it’s a product of how I grew up during high school? Let me explain.

For four years I physically existed in the present but mentally operated in the past. That’s a good chunk of time to spend with a twisted sense of reality. I hated the present, yearned for the past, but kept on keeping on because I knew things just had to get better. I don’t mean to be misinterpreted here. I lived in a nice home, was given a small weekly allowance, and had a car at 16. While I am much more fortunate than many in that regard, it came after the misfortune of the death of both of my parents, my mother at age 10 and my father at age 12. While I never truly had to experience the broken U.S. foster care system, the year after my father died set off a year of instability that crippled my mental state for the years to come.

Regardless of my past and whatever the reason is for why I think the way I do, my brain has gotten me this far and I like to think I’m doing alright.

The point I mean to make by sharing this is that I can no longer afford to allow time to passively tick by and take a backseat to my existence. Graduate students, such as myself, need to actively shape their career fate. As I like to say, we have to keep 1 eye on the present but 1 eye on the future. We must be calculated. We must plan. Not only for our own benefit but because it is our DUTY to better science as an institution that seems to be so ripe with issues.

So what’s your 5-year, 10-year, 15-year plan? What are you doing now that will make your job application stand out among the rest of the search committees stack? But also how are your extracurricular activities helping you build the tools you will need to aid in the betterment of the scientific institution?

The difficulties in landing a tenure-track position are not going to change. In reality, they are probably going to get worse. But the difficulties associated with the scientific institution certainly can be changed we just need to work out the mechanisms. Sometimes when I think of the word “change” I think of those old Obama campaign pictures and naturally ask afterwards, “What would Obama do?”

I don’t know what Obama would do given he is a politician and former POTUS and we are scientists (but if somebody could ask him anyways I’d really appreciate it), but that’s exactly my point. The change science needs will have to come from within. The career goals we envision and set for ourselves won’t be fulfilled by anybody but ourselves.

An interesting article was just published in the ESA journal EcoSphere co-written by members of the ESA Student Section. The Student Section organized a horizon scanning exercise among student members to, “evaluate where careers and the culture of ecology stand and envision how we might cultivate a more inclusive and effective scientific community that is highly regarded to the public”.

Students were polled about the challenges and opportunities they felt they were most apt to face during their ecology career. Submissions were then categorized and binned and three themes emerged: 1) expanding ecology-career opportunities, 2) dissolving barriers to engagement in ecology, and 3) improving communication and the era of translational ecology.

Clearly, it is imperative that students think actively about how to individually accomplish their intended career trajectory but also think actively about how we can communally accomplish change within the scientific institution at larger. The change that always seems to be sitting just on the horizon.  We watch the horizon, are captivated by the horizon and during this euphoric state we sometimes forget that it is the Sun that gives the horizon life and the Sun isn’t always on the horizon but actively moves TOWARDS the horizon everyday (yes I know that’s not scientifically accurate since the Sun doesn’t actually move but I hope you get my point).

As Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and renowned Stoic philosopher, said in “Meditations , one of the greater philosophical works known to humankind (translated by Gregory Hays):

“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”

It’s up to the individual student to envision, shape, and actively move along their career trajectory and it’s up to us as a community to ensure we are perceiving the right change, as change is going to happen whether we like or not.  In 30 years when the current generation of graduate students lives are spent answering e-mails and doing admin (oh the joys to look forward to!) because we planned ahead, we don’t want the horizon to look the same.

Author Biography: Luke Lamb-Wotton (Luke Lamb) is pursuing his Masters in Science in Biology at Florida International University in the Wetland Ecosystems Ecology Lab and strives to take interdisciplinary approaches to answering climate change related, ecosystem-scale questions. He is currently serving as Managing Editor of Rapid Ecology and is passionate about the active building of sound fundamentals in science communication by graduate students, among other things.

Catch him on Twitter: @Luke_LambWotton