Agency as a graduate student

Last fall I took a course called Mentoring in the Sciences. It was led by Laura Oxtoby, a post-doc here at UAF. Although the focus of the class was on mentoring students in the sciences — particularly those underrepresented in STEM fields — the class was for graduate students, and our conversations often drifted towards difficulties we were currently facing or had encountered in the past. I felt it unifying that so many of us had experienced the same obstacles — absent advisors, lab frustrations, tenuous funding, etc. In addition to finding unification through struggle, I think many of the students in the class discovered additional common ground through admiration of our instructor, who is unyieldingly inclusive, compassionate, and creative. I am happy to share with you her responses to my questions about her current work as a postdoc and her reflections from past experiences as a graduate student.

What is your research topic?

I am an Arctic ecologist. I use stable isotope and molecular biomarkers to study food web structure, energy flow and diet among a variety of subjects, including invertebrates, marine mammals, and people. After completing my doctorate, I received training in qualitative and mixed methods research and intend to apply these analytical techniques to pursue research in the Arctic that is community-driven and community-engaged.

Describe your daily routine.

Perhaps the best and most frustrating part of my job is that I don’t have a daily routine. Each day, month, semester seems to require my time and attention in new ways. This month I spent two weeks mentoring high school students, so my daily routine was to ask thoughtful questions, share science stories from my career, and help students troubleshoot problems with scientific equipment. Now that the summer science program is over, I hope to get some writing done and reconnect with my undergraduate mentees. We are going to be working on writing their first conference abstract.

What practices do you employ outside of work time to support productivity and enthusiasm once you’re in the office?

I tend to get restless when I sense a routine developing in my life. As a result, I’ve always been drawn to juggling different activities and schedules at different times. I spend time cooking and eating with friends (Fairbanks potlucks never disappoint), taking long bike rides, playing hockey, reading books not connected to my research, and working on house projects.

What is the most productive part of your day?

Sometimes I hit my stride mid-morning. Other days, I work best after exercise. Sometimes, it’s not so much about timing, but more about where and with whom I’m working. Last spring, I regularly met up with a friend for weekly writing dates that we carved out of our weekly schedule. Those tended to be especially productive and far more enjoyable than hermiting in my office.

Do you have any rituals or habits that keep you going through the workday?

I make an effort to connect with people around me throughout the workday. I’ll have lunch with a postdoc I just met or spend 20 minutes chatting with a coworker in the hallway or kitchen. Making time to build relationships at work is a way that I affirm that my role here at the University consists of more than research papers and grant proposals. It also helps to have friendly faces around or someone with whom to chat on days when you’re feeling unmotivated or challenged.

What do you admire most in your supervisors? Do your supervisors ever act in ways that compromise your respect for them?

I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have worked with several excellent mentors from whom I’ve learned not just the practices or skills necessary for science, but also healthy mindsets toward science that will help sustain my career.

My current supervisor is one of the most influential mentors I’ve had in my science career. She is hard-working and detail-oriented but brings a clear, level-headed calm to our working relationship. She is always willing to assign herself the more menial tasks that could be delegated to others, which signals to everyone on our team that those tasks are no less important than other research responsibilities. It also shows us that she’s doing the work, not just managing the work. I admire the way she gives me and others the genuine feeling that she has time to talk despite having a busy schedule and many commitments, including a family. When a situation arises in which there is potential for conflict, she calmly opens a conversation, asking questions to better understand my perspective.

My former graduate supervisor is another very influential mentor of mine. He is exceptionally positive, always driving research forward despite setbacks and challenges. He has a can-do attitude which helped me (as a novice) focus on what was going well rather than on what was going wrong. I deeply appreciate people like this in a culture where criticism tends to play a central role.

My graduate supervisor once lost his temper as a result of an equipment failure. It was an incredibly stressful moment because many project samples, including those from other PIs, were potentially compromised. He was angry and rebuked me for my role or perhaps lack of role in mitigating the unforeseen situation. I became defensive. We communicated poorly. We never resolved the conflict, but we both gave each other time to cool off before resuming a productive working relationship.

Do you ever feel that your efforts in graduate school go unnoticed? Describe.

During graduate school, I worked closely with my committee members in the field and in the lab, so they were aware of the challenges I was facing and had a sense for the amount of work our research involved. They were incredibly supportive and encouraging. I am certainly one of the lucky ones as I know many graduate students’ efforts go underappreciated!

What is your favorite way to distract yourself from working?

Being on a computer for most of the day every day lends itself to a warren of distractions on the internet. I often come across interesting, but unrelated articles that are too tempting to save for later. I also have been taking lots of breaks to practice french throughout the day for an upcoming trip to France in August!

What are some of your greatest doubts or anxieties surrounding your research?

I have been involved in such a wide variety of research, ranging from science identity development to phytoplankton physiology that I often feel unclear as to how to describe or define my niche as a researcher. Part of this uncertainty results from the fact that I’m still actively discovering what my niche is by branching into new fields and exploring new analytical techniques. On difficult days, I feel lost. On good days, I feel like I’m paving my own path and expanding the scope of what’s possible, which I wouldn’t have any other way.

In general, do you think that your fellow graduate students are healthy mentally and/or physically? Do you think that your graduate student environment is supportive and understanding?

I’ve seen positive examples of ways that graduate students bolster and buoy one another. There is a research group at the University that meets for lunch every day (including faculty and students, but mostly students). This group cultivates a sense of community through organized social events (birthday celebrations, potlucks), but also in the way that they welcome new and prospective students. They also share a large office space, which helps them to stay connected on a daily basis. I didn’t have a cohort like this when I was in graduate school and wished I had.

When I taught a Mentoring in the Sciences course for graduate students last fall, I found that many students had raw experiences and tender feelings to process around graduate school. From my perspective as an instructor, I felt that the most useful part of the course was creating a supportive discussion space so that students could listen to one another. Even if there isn’t a clear solution to a problem, it helps to know that you aren’t alone in feeling discouraged or frustrated or insecure. Sharing stories from our own experiences in graduate school also drove discussions about how we could do things differently. I think helping graduate students see that they have agency is key to engineering a more supportive and understanding environment.

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