Due to the recent threads on social media ,and articles about early career scientists and potential scientists (such as kids) feeling discouraged from entering science based on the seemingly endless hurdles, I decided to share this post. On the surface, most graduate students and senior scientists appear to have everything all together. To a young scientist, their mentors and science idols have these incredible careers or projects that may seem impossible for anyone just starting out to obtain. You don’t hear about their stories of working miscellaneous jobs and under-the-table work unrelated to the field just to get by or pay for projects. You don’t hear about the countless job applications and grant proposals they send in, only to be shut down time and time again. You don’t hear about the days, weeks, months, or even years where they struggle with self-doubt and question whether they made the right life choices leading up to what they strive for. And you certainly don’t hear about the fights against anxiety and depression from various frustrations. What is often portrayed is only a small fraction of the whole story. Similar to an iceberg, the bulk of the reality scientists constantly deal with is kept hidden.
I am often asked what the hardest part of my fieldwork is. Most of the time I’ll toss out an answer about language barriers, culture shock, or unpredictable environmental conditions. Saves on getting into more personal discussions. In actuality, the hardest part is rest days.
My field team is very small. It’s just myself, and one or two others who are locals. Even if I am around more people, I only have one person who speaks English to really talk to so more often than not I spend a lot of time feeling alone. On rest days, my teammate and I relax to give our tired bodies a break from climbing mountains, and give each other space since we spend so much time together. Physically, rest days are amazing. Mentally….not so much….
The following is an excerpt from my field journal which describes the mental battle I face when not busy doing fieldwork. It can also be applied to the time in between field seasons, when life is significantly less stable since I’m no longer affiliated with a university, and not directly affiliated with any organization. I’m in a transition as an independent researcher, and that alone has a vast array of hurdles:
“… Lazy days are great to a point, but get boring fast. I’ll be done with my last remaining book soon and already exhausted the songs on my MP3 player. These days do provide undisturbed time to contemplate my current situation in life and wonder about the future once I return home. So much uncertainty! Very few people truly discover their life’s calling. I have. Yet, the part where I can support myself lingers on as a persistent obstacle. All I can do is take things one step at a time, see where my side projects and new networks lead me. Its just more pressing to settle into some self-sufficient life of my own as I further enter my 30’s (having a delayed start to my science career journey due to military obligations and a plethora of other roadblocks).
For now, all those ideas of things that may happen, and things I know will happen in time seem so far away. Life on the steppe, up against the shelter of mountains has its own pace, dictated by the harsh climate and extreme seasons. In a way, Mongolian life is much more laid back. There are many things you can’t control so you have to take everything as it comes. Don’t think, just do. At the same time, you better be physically and mentally prepared for the winds to change or you will feel left behind like the countless sun-bleached bones scattered throughout the landscape.
Perhaps that is exactly why I’ve been drawn to Mongolia. Not just for the rich culture and hospitable people, but for the sheer unpredictability of conditions here that reflect the route my own life’s journey has taken. This land represents the ultimate challenge on various levels, from working in the field on unforgiving terrain that is the complete opposite of where I’m from, to finding a niche studying one of the world’s most endangered and elusive big cats – a concept that I’ve been told was impossible my whole life. It makes me glad I refused to listen to all the negative criticism and not simply settle for the lifestyle people have repeatedly suggested.
I still wonder how differently things would have been if any of the more traditional career paths I tried for actually worked out. Would I be happy? At the very least, content? Most likely there would still be that part of me yearning for travel, desiring a sense of adventure, risk, and a chance to push beyond personal limits. I don’t know what the future will bring, but right here, as I listen to my teammate and host speak in their language to each other while smelling the aroma of tonight’s mutton boiling on the stove, I’m just accounting the fresh memories of the mountains I’ve climbed for signs of an unknown snow leopard population. Right now, I’m living the dream.
Maybe it’s the stubborn Army veteran side of me who hasn’t let go of the first two lines of the Warrior’s Ethos: “…I will never accept defeat. I will never quit…”, but I refuse to let anything destroy this sense of purpose I’ve discovered…”