Looking on the Brighter Side: Lessons from the Field (Part 3)

I was thinking about just skipping this week’s blog post because I’ve been in the sourest mood this week. Many things have gone wrong and it seems that every day there’s been a new problem. As such, my first attempt to write this post became a whiny, complaining mess which in my opinion was not very fun to read, and I feared that I would deter some younger readers from the idea of field work. Because, yes, field work is messy and complicated. When things go wrong, they really go wrong and require a lot of tireless improvisation. But field work is also an exciting and rewarding experience. I would have never learned as much as I have these past few weeks by simply staying in a lab all summer. I’ve met so many cool people, learned plenty of lessons from the field campaign veterans and got not only a really unique and hands-on experience in the field of instrument development, but also a crash course on the awesome science we’re studying here at the PROPHET site.

And besides, important lessons seem to arise from difficult times. So here is the third installment of my Lessons from the Field series! This time, hopefully, with a more positive twist.

Lesson 1: Adapt and Avert

Field scientists have a single mission: to adapt and avert. We must adapt to the changing environment, the spontaneous failure of instruments and the constant questions, pressures and “suggestions” from our bosses. We must also avert. Avert all crises, ignore our exhaustion and do whatever it takes in order to get the data we need in the little time we have. And I’m only partially exaggerating…

However, it’s not as bad as I may make it out to be, because by adapting and averting you’re also growing. Growing as a person. Growing as a scientist. I have tried so many new things in the past year because of this project that I never thought I would do in my life. Did I see myself wiring and programming an instrument when I first applied to grad school? Heck no. Did I imagine myself fixing said instrument a top a 100-foot tower when I stepped foot on Caltech campus? Not even in the slightest. But, now here I am. A much more experienced person that’s less scared about stepping out of her comfort zone and getting her hands dirty. I’d say in the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty awesome thing to have gotten out of this experience.

Lesson 2: Perfection is the enemy of the good

Though you must adapt and avert, you must also realize that you’re in the field and things will not be perfect. It’s not like you’re in a comfortable lab environment hidden from the elements with needed tools and parts at the ready. You will instead probably be in the middle of a swamp, on a boat, on a plain or even on a tower in the middle of a forest. So, your experiments may not run smoothly and your repairs may be haphazard. But if it works, just leave it. Or else you may just make an already annoying situation so much worse. Trust me.

Lesson 3: Doing what you love can still make you miserable

Yes, I know I’ve complained a lot. But, I still love my field. It’s fascinating and is something that I still want to make a career out of. However, that doesn’t mean that I’ve enjoyed the fact that yesterday I spent 18 hours staring at a computer screen hoping…praying…nothing goes wrong with our instrument. Nor does it mean I’ve enjoyed the many hours I spent up on the tower in the hot sun fixing whatever the tantrum our instrument decided to throw. Nor does it mean that I don’t desperately want to push our instrument off the tower the second it gives us more trouble. But who said that doing what you love was easy? Don’t for a second think that I’m not grateful to even get this opportunity to do research in something that’s even bigger than myself.

Lesson 4: Burnout is a thing…

I have spent one month working somewhere between 12 – 18 hours a day, with the first two weeks being a complete scramble to even get the instrument on the tower, working and programmed. Prior to that I spent a little over a month working 10 – 12 hours a day just to finish the instrument in time and spend a measly three days testing it. Factor in the fact in the stress that comes from an approaching deadline, plus the 3 long days of driving time to even get to Michigan…and it’s a wonder that I’m not asleep right now (though it’s very tempting…).

Burnout hits suddenly, and it hits you hard. And it’s frustrating because you know that you should be a good, productive little scientist, but your body and mind just refuse to cooperate. However, during these times I’ve learned to give myself a little break. Yes, I must respond when duty calls, but taking more frequent breaks in order to read a book or take a nap is completely acceptable (though perhaps “The Almighty Powers above” may not think so). Besides, most people can’t work the kind of schedule I’ve described above. In fact, if other people were forced to work these hours, there would be riots and lawsuits (or at least overtime pay…). It’s only grad students that seem to have this expectation to work constantly without complaint and I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, it’s not healthy and not at all reasonable, even in the field. So, yes, burnout is a thing. But it’s just your body’s way of telling you to take it easy. And I highly recommend you listen.


I hope you enjoyed part 3 of Lessons from the Field. As always, I’ll end my post with a few pictures from the week which you can find down below!

Also, here’s a nice reminder that Fellowship season is pretty much here, and that if you’re an incoming first or second year grad student you should check out this list to see which of the typical fellowships you’re eligible for.

Anyway, thanks for putting up with my rambling these past few weeks. Venting on the internet is a great way to relieve stress, in my opinion. In terms of blogging, I have one more week before we start packing up and driving home so my internet presence may become more even sporadic. Bear with me. Hopefully I’ll be making more advice posts soon.

Have suggestions for the upcoming advice posts? Let me know!

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