Monday, January 21, 2008

Where to go? What to do?

Last week I had a meeting with Leo to discuss my research ideas (for my whole Ph.D.), an issue which is very closely related to where I'll be doing fieldwork this summer. I've been fretting about this decision for the past two months or so, and I wrote about it at some length here and here.

I have to decide where to do my fieldwork for my Ph.D. This is a big decision, as basically all of my research will be done in the field. Where I decide to do my research is related to many professional and personal considerations.

For my NSF GRF proposal I developed a project to study critters at African Field Site within the context of broader questions and issues such as fragmentation. Last semester I wrote a review paper related to this topic and got even more excited about the research idea. Then, as I started talking to Herb and Leo more about my ideas, it became increasingly apparent to me that African Field Site would not by the best place to test the hypotheses to answer the questions I've gotten excited about. So, I have a good idea for a research question but not the best field site for it.

I could do my fieldwork someplace better suited to answering my question, such as Neotropical Field Site where Herb will be working. Or, I could consider an entirely different field site. For answering the question, one of these two options is probably best. But, in my heart of hearts, I desperately want to go back to African Field Site. I finally came out and said that to Leo last week. I'm sure it was already apparent in our conversations and correspondence, but I hadn't ever said it without scientific justification before. Still, the more I talked about my grand research ideas with Leo, the more convinced I was that I was going to have to give up my dream of returning to African Field Site. If Leo had said, "Karina, I think it would be best if you did your fieldwork somewhere else," I would have resigned myself to that. I was half expecting him to say that.

Instead, he said, "It sounds like you have to decide if you're going to follow your head or follow your heart. You really shouldn't underestimate the value of following your heart in a decision like this."

Gosh, this is so complicated! We went on to talk about all of the potential advantages of me working at African Field Site. For example, there are very few people working on my particular critters in Africa, but many in the Neotropics. I could make a name for myself and potentially make significant advances in the field without worrying about genuflecting to the right people or stepping on toes. Relatively little is known about my critters in Africa so I could make important contributions to understanding their ecology. Also, I want to do outreach at my field site and I know that African Field Site has a grassroots environmental organization that I could tap into instead of using a haphazard approach to outreach at a site that doesn't have an existing organization.

There are many disadvantages to working at African Field Site in addition to the fact that it's not a good place to test the best research idea I've come up with so far. It's probably more dangerous. It's more primitive (i.e. not a fancy ecologist's dream of a field station). Since less is known about the ecology of my critters, more of my time will be spent figuring that out which may take time away from answering bigger questions with broader application (part of the reason I was inspired to go to African Field Site in the first place is because so little information is available about these critters- I'd like to change that).

I need to consider how the different experiences and opportunities I will have in each potential research avenue will contribute to my development as a scientist and a teacher. How will this decision affect my marketability when I'm finished with my Ph.D.? I'm in graduate school now because I love science and my goal is to be a professor at a small college or university at lead foreign study programs. I really want to be well prepared to begin the job I want when I finish school.

I had a brief meeting with Herb last week after I talked to Leo to get him up to speed on my dilemma. I asked Herb for a deadline by which I need to make this decision. He said I can make a decision in March or April when I hear about the grants, and that will help make the decision for me. Herb said this is a perfectly normal position to be in and told me not to fret yet. I know other first year graduate students are having the same struggles but this feels like such a huge personal and professional decision. My regular readers can expect to hear more on this topic during the next semester.

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