Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Grad School Blues

During my first two years of grad school, when I was juggling a full-time course load, a full-time teaching fellowship, and a ghost of a personal life, I got very good at managing my time.  Lunch breaks, train rides, and office hours became excellent moments to squeeze in twenty or thirty pages of reading about Neanderthal developmental patterns or orangutan conservation.  The couch in the department lounge turned out to be a great place to catch up on 30 minutes of sleep following a late-night paper-writing stint and an early morning section meeting.  I even got used to marathon study and grading sessions on Friday and Saturday nights.  It wasn’t always the most pleasant schedule to maintain, but there was nary a wasted hour in my day.  I was going full speed ahead all the time.

Nowadays, in contrast, I frequently feel as if I am drifting on a windless current, or straining against the inertia of an anchor.  Ostensibly, I still have just as much to keep me occupied: finishing the lab work for my dissertation, writing said dissertation, teaching undergraduate courses (more often as an instructor than an assistant these days), maintaining my newly launched blog, and spending time with my husband and friends.  And yet, I find that without the forcibly structured schedule of those first two years, entire days can easily disappear with nothing productive to show for them.

Part of this is due to my natural tendency to procrastinate (one which I have apparently been honing for many years; last year I discovered that my mother once called me “lazy” in my baby book).  But I think my current round of malaise is just as much about the future as the present.

When I started my grad school program, I did so excited to continue learning about anthropology, and eager to design and execute an original research project.  I confidently imagined my PhD conferral as the inevitable conclusion of a challenging but rewarding journey, hopefully followed by a career in a university or zoo setting.  I had no illusions of scientific grandeur.  I just wanted to travel the “normal” grad school path and emerge on the other side with a plan for my life.

Yeah, right.

The ugly truth about grad school, which I think many learn the hard way, is that the “normal” path is littered with countless unanticipated obstacles.  In my case, the 2 largest of these were
1. my original thesis adviser unexpectedly left for another university, and
2. I had to find an entirely new research project after bureaucratic changes at the site where I planned to do my dissertation work led them to rescind their invitation at the last minute.
These were not exactly small setbacks, and alongside myriad smaller problems and disappointments they illustrate that grad school for me has consisted of more “challenge” and less “reward” than I hoped.  This is not the first time I’ve had the Grad School Blues.

“But T.P.,” you’re saying to yourself, “that’s all in the past!  Now that the finish line is in sight, shouldn’t you be full of renewed enthusiasm?”

Perhaps.  But while I am looking forward to finishing my degree next spring, I also find myself reluctant to face the post-grad school reality of finding a job and putting my PhD to work.  Who wouldn’t be, when it is becoming more common to see articles lambasting PhD programs in general, and knowing the well-documented challenges that women in particular face when trying to balance an academic career with a family?

The whole prospect is terrifying.

When I take a few deep breaths, I have no doubt that my present bout of Grad School Blues will pass in due course.  I will overcome the troubles I’m facing in the lab and compose a scientifically sound dissertation.  And I will graduate next spring, future unanticipated obstacles be damned!

But let my experiences stand as a cautionary tale to any readers contemplating a PhD journey — make sure you know what you are getting yourself into!  As for those of you who know me personally, I’ll just remind you that homemade fudge is an excellent G.S.B remedy, and say thank you in advance for giving me a shoulder to cry on if the Blues should return again.

A matter of perspective

I recently finished reading Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us, an extended thought experiment about what would happen on Earth if humans were suddenly to vanish tomorrow, and I am unsettled.  My emotional mind and my academic mind are in conflict, battling one another over what to take away from the book.  It’s like a series of dominance displays in my brain.

Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.  But I am having difficulty settling on a perspective.

On the one hand, each of Weisman’s chapters emphasizes a way in which humans, through our industrial and technological innovations, will leave a legacy of environmental degradation (or at least change) that can be expected to last thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of years.  By imposing our will on the natural world, we not only have carved out a niche for ourselves; we have simultaneously altered the habitats of other organisms in ways most people don’t even realize.  How many people, when they take their groceries home in plastic bags, stop to think about the fact that these bags may end up in one of the floating garbage patches that are slowly expanding across oceans and affecting marine wildlife?   Do you or anyone you know ever consider, as you laugh at Homer Simpson’s antics in the nuclear power plant,  the problems inherent in storing tons of radioactive waste or how that waste would affect surrounding soils if its containers began to erode?  Out of every 10 cell phone calls you make, after how many do you pause to reflect on the millions of birds that are killed each year by communication towers?

My emotional mind weeps at these thoughts.  It mourns the species we are rapidly driving to extinction, and it worries about how humans’ continually increasing population size and demand for resources will affect our own future.  Reading this book, the magnitude of our impact on our surroundings frequently left the conservationist in me feeling panicked and hopeless.

And yet, on the other hand, Weisman reminds us that the earth’s habitats and organisms have weathered disaster before, and that given enough time, even Homo sapiens’ most durable creations and byproducts will eventually be diluted and recycled by natural processes.  We may leave the planet in an altered state —  with higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, more radioactive soils, and widely distributed toxic dioxins —  but we are unlikely to leave it barren.  Life, via evolution, will ultimately find a way.  This too shall pass.

My academic mind, playing the role of the optimist, wants to focus on this long-term perspective.  After all, as an anthropologist I am used to talking about vast swaths of time: Homo sapiens first evolved around 200,000 years ago, humans and chimpanzees last shared a common ancestor approximately 6 to 8 million years ago, primates first appear in the fossil record close to 60 million years ago, etc.  Even if the planet takes hundreds of millions of years to “recover” from our activities, isn’t that just a drop in the bucket compared to the 4.5 billion years it has already been around?  Put another way, if in the past 250 million years biodiversity was able to rebound from the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out around 95% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates, will the impact of humans’ actions on the environment really be that significant?

As cliched as it sounds, only time will tell.  In the meantime, given the unlikelihood of our species simply disappearing, I would be interested to know how Weisman and his collaborators picture a future in which the human species continues to grow (Weisman’s suggestion that we try to scale back our imprint by voluntarily adopting a ‘one child per woman’ policy, though coldly logical, is highly unlikely) and play out its existence through more realistic, possibly even radical, means.

And what about you?  What’s your perspective?

The Full Spectrum

Let’s talk for a moment about the special status that humans have in the natural world — or rather, the special status that we often accord ourselves.   Though most people no longer think of the world in terms of Aristotle’s scala naturae, we still have a tendency to consider ourselves unique, separate from and far more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom.  And it’s true that humans do lots of things that other animals don’t: we  build cities, we fly airplanes, we write books (and blogs) and create works of representational art.  As a species, our accomplishments are substantial.

But if there’s one thing that modern ethological research has demonstrated, it’s that many of our abilities and behaviors can be found at least to some extent in other species, especially in the primate family.  Since Jane Goodall’s early observations of tool use among wild chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park led her academic adviser, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, to comment that “now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human,” several once-vaunted hallmarks of humanity have been eliminated from the list of defining characteristics that separate Homo sapiens from other species.  Primatologists have provided evidence that chimps hunt, participate in campaigns of organized aggression toward neighbors, maneuver for status in Machiavellian ways, and reconcile following conflict.  Research on language use by great apes similarly suggests that in many cases the difference between humans and our closest relatives is one of degree rather than kind.

The existence of this behavioral spectrum  has been illustrated yet again in the new issue of the journal Current Biology, in which anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Sonya Kahlenberg report that young chimpanzees in Kibale National Park in Uganda carry and play with sticks in a manner similar to children with dolls.


A female chimpanzee holds a “stick doll” between her leg and body. (Sonya Kahlenberg)

Examples of play among juvenile animals are not new.  But it is intriguing that these researchers identified a sex-based bias in their data: as in humans, female chimpanzees were more likely to carry stick dolls.  Does this mean that young females are simply practicing for the future by imitating the mothering behaviors they observe within a group?  Or might it suggest innate psychological differences between young male and female chimpanzees?  In either case, how do these data pertain to studies of sex/gender differences in humans? Nature/Nurture debaters, start your engines!!

Whatever the long-term implications of this new study, it serves to illustrate that the more we learn about the behavior of other animals, especially apes, the less reason we have to consider ourselves wholly separate from them.  Of course, this isn’t to say that you should expect to see orangutans in Indonesia building treehouse cities anytime soon.  But try not to be too taken aback the next time you read a story about a wild animal doing something “surprisingly” human-like.
To read more about play-related sex differences in non-human primates, click here.  And don’t forget to subscribe to The Tinkering Primate if you want to get emails about new posts.  Just click the “Yes Please” button underneath the chimpanzee on the site banner.