by Lucas Greville (ComSciCon-GTA 2020)
As I sit in my living room, I search for the motivation to finish writing my doctoral thesis. Finishing graduate school should be an exciting time, but in the midst of a pandemic, away from my friends and colleagues, away from my research, I find it anything but. Writing hasn’t come easy during the pandemic either. But slowly I’ve realized that the current state of the world isn’t the issue. Years of hard work culminate in a dissertation, a small contribution to the scientific field that will forever be attached to my name. Graduation is a time to step forward in life towards new opportunities. There will always be uncertainty in the future, but even that doesn’t bother me. What keeps me from writing is knowing that the journey is almost over.
I’ve spent the last 8 years studying reproductive hormones and behaviour in bats. Frankly, I’ve become known as “the bat guy” to many. Like many science majors I entered university thinking I wanted to be a medical doctor, because what else would you do if you enjoy science. Honestly, I didn’t know at the time what it meant to “do research.” I joined the McMaster Bat Lab as an undergraduate and quickly became involved in a collaborative pilot project with a behavioural endocrinology lab. This experience would end up guiding my future graduate research. I wish I could say that I had a lifelong passion for the field or a reason to study behavioural endocrinology, but I don’t. My passion developed over time as I was given the freedom to integrate my fields of study into my own research. Throughout undergraduate classes you just follow experimental procedures and complete the lab report you’re told to do. By working in a lab, I got to experience the real freedom of research. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, I’ve been lucky to have the freedom to take my research in the direction I wanted — to ask the questions I wanted to and create my own experiments to test my hypotheses. I always loved learning how the world worked, but integrating years of knowledge into a big project was far more fulfilling than the memorization of bizarre facts could ever be. Yet, if I didn’t seek out research myself, I likely never would have been exposed to it. It’s always bothered me that I was never told about research and graduate school the way I had been told about medical school.
When I tell people I’m in graduate school I usually get a nod of approval and the follow-up question of “what field” before the conversation dwindles out. People think I’m just taking more courses, like in undergrad, where in fact I only take a few. The reality is most people don’t understand what graduate school is. And I get it, there isn’t a set path to success in graduate school like in other professions. Engineers build. Nurses care for patients. Teachers teach. Graduate school trains students to think and communicate their thoughts, which doesn’t fit a set role in society. After so many years of education students yearn for a set direction into a career. And while graduate school offers the freedom to think and explore, it definitely does not provide a structured lifestyle.
The whole point of a graduate degree is to attempt to answer important, often open-ended questions, and connect it to past knowledge in the field. Even niche fields have a seemingly endless amount of background knowledge to establish. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and find a good review paper or textbook chapter, but often you end up spending hours trying to access old publications. And while most people are interested in the study’s conclusion, a scientist’s job is to think about the paper more critically. Do the methods used test the question asked? Do the results support the hypothesis? Is the author’s interpretation of the results realistic? (It’s amazing how often they aren’t). After you’re familiar with the established field it becomes your turn to ask questions, which is the easy part. Once you’ve set your mind on a question that you think you can answer, you need to come up with a way to test it. Then analyse the results. Run statistics (and probably cuss a little). How do your results fit with the current ideas in the field? Do they align, or do they challenge current ideas? Only then can you write up your project and submit it for publication. Oh, don’t forget to keep up with new publications too!
On paper “science” seems pretty straight forward, but I can tell you first hand that each step can take days or weeks or even months. Sometimes years. You think you have the perfect experimental design but then find a paper where that design failed. You’re ready to start your experiment, but chemicals are on backorder. Labelling hundreds of vials takes twice as long as expected. Midway through experiments crucial equipment stops working and you troubleshoot in hopes of saving your time-sensitive data. Protocols that worked last week don’t work this week. And when you go to write it all up the words don’t always flow. Don’t forget your teaching assistant duties and sporadic meetings throughout the day, all of which can derail your lab schedule. It’s easy to see how a day in graduate school doesn’t follow a simple routine but rather forms a cycle of tasks that each require you to think and solve various issues.
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all of this. Is it for friends and family to better understand what graduate school is? To justify the direction I’ve chosen to take my life? And the endless hours spent troubleshooting experimental designs? Maybe a bit. But it’s also about the progression of knowledge. Progress can be slow, tedious, and even painful. But whether progress is personal, cultural, or scientific, progress is about moving forward, and we can’t shy away from it.
Graduate school has allowed me to progress in more than just my thinking. I’ve built leadership skills teaching courses and mentoring undergraduates as they enter research. I’ve strengthened communication skills discussing research papers at journal clubs and over drinks with peers. I’ve published results in meticulous detail and developed my written skills. The tedious progression of these skills while in graduate school isn’t for everyone; you need to enjoy it. Luckily for me I enjoy it all. I’m lucky enough to love what I do, but that’s also why it’s hard to end this journey.
The graduate lifestyle isn’t for everyone, but it is for me. I hope to find a career that allows me to continue doing the things I love. To many I will always be the bat guy. But it’s time for me to make my own progress and to be open to new and different opportunities, just like when I started working with bats. It’s time to finish the dissertation. It’s time for me to leave my batcave.
Lucas completed his BSc and MSc in the McMaster Bat Lab, where he is currently in the process of finishing his PhD. Lucas’ research focuses on quantifying sex steroids and their transfer between individual big brown bats, potentially influencing behaviour and acting as a pheromone. Throughout graduate school Lucas has become passionate about teaching, mentorship, and educating others on the fascinating life of bats!