Thoughts on dogs and grad students

I am a grad student. And I have a dog.

When you are a grad student you work very, very hard. The general public knows this already. I actually have seen people cringe when I share with them that I’m on the road to a Master’s in Biology. Something that non-sciencegradstudents might not know is that becoming a grad student is the beginning of a new brain, a new identity, a new person.

Being a grad student is like having a cloud of something amorphous yet significant surrounding you at all times. You simply cannot just be Sara anymore. You are Sara-as-a-grad-student. I imagine it is similar to becoming a parent. You are no longer Dani Aubert anymore, you are Dani Aubert-with-an-Eowyn (disclaimer: I realize the amorphous yet significant cloud of having a child is, simultaneously, less amorphous and more significant than a new grad student identity). Graduate studies are remarkably different than undergraduate studies. Allow me to grossly generalize: as an undergraduate, you are concerned with learning a lot of facts, listening to a lot of lecturing, and taking tests. It is about grades. As a graduate, it is about training, or grooming. I’m grooming myself with a giant, all-encompassing comb to be a scientist. I am not learning how to get A’s, I am learning how to be a contributive, meaningful, successful, and provocative scientific person.

This expected outcome of walking the graduate path is intimidating. Science is collaborative, yet science is also competitive. I went to a talk today for 10 minutes on how to apply for a National Science Foundation graduate grant with a 12% award rate. It provides you with $138,000 over three years to do research and to eat. Listening to the presentation made me feel stressed and nauseous, so I left to blurt this all out to the world.

I’m scared to become a scientist. Yet, curious scientific discovery is incredibly fulfilling to me. Being a scientist is desirable and absolute feels like the right orientation for my life. Lately, old worries have been surfacing: I won’t be good enough, I won’t be smart enough, I’m not doing enough, I haven’t read enough papers, my ideas aren’t impressive or interesting enough. Only incredibly intelligent and creative and hard-working folks become successful scientists, my mind says sadly, kicking the dirt, head lowered. I’m worried I’ll never make enough money. I’m worried there are job opportunities but none of them will be in Fairbanks. Allow me a gross exaggeration: if there is one thing I know for certain, I know I can’t live anywhere besides Fairbanks.

There are a lot of “not enoughs” in that preceding paragraph.

Maybe this would be a good time to cut to my announcing that I adopted a dog from the animal shelter last Friday. I named her Junie. She is a 30-lb Alaskan husky that was found along the highway, emaciated and without a collar. She is pure love. Her main interests are to sniff things, run, and love me. Yes, I wonder what that really means, that a dog can love. But if love is unconditional acceptance, if love is an undying energetic fire of curious, personal interest, then Junie is that.


I feel vulnerable in sharing this because my description of love between person and dog feels so overdone. When I announced that I had adopted Junie, my brother said, “you should get one of those “Who Rescued Who?” bumper stickers!” “Haha,” I said.

I rescued Junie, yes. Did she rescue me? More accurately than “rescue”, what Junie gives me is companionship, an encouragement to go on lots of walks in the most gorgeous dreamland nature I can imagine, and the feeling that I am worthy of love. Something deep in me didn’t realize that before. How much has this compromised my life, a deep belief that I am not worthy? Why can an animal assure me of that within days while all the wonderful people in my love who love me aren’t convincing “enough”? Why can’t I convince myself?

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