How to Hate Ecology and Still Write a Thesis

During my first year as a graduate student, a week didn't go by where someone didn't ask me "So what's your research question?"  I hated that question more than anything.  I had combed the literature, searching for research ideas, only to discover everything I was interested in had already been done a hundred times over.  All of the mysteries of the environment had been answered and there wasn't anything left to be studied.  "Why am I even here and why are any of us doing science," I frequently asked myself.  "Ecology is stupid.  Ecology is hard.  I hate Ecology!" were also common chants I shouted in my office (and by office, I mean the spare lab next door that was used for storage and sleeping quarters for homeless grad students).  Then, one day, it suddenly all made sense.  I realized I was being punished by my adviser, because he was punished by his adviser, and his adviser's adviser punished him, etc. etc....

Then I stopped blaming the world, sucked it up, and read some more literature.  Every idea I had, I wrote down.  I carried around a notebook to every meeting, every class, and any time something came to me, I wrote it down.  Alot of them were bad, very bad.  But I wrote it down anyway.  It fostered more ideas which led to even better ideas which then led to terrible ideas, and so on and so forth.  I shared them with fellow labmates and post-docs who helped me refine them.  I had meeting after meeting and exchanged numerous emails with my adviser, who dismissed many of my ideas and forced me to use my brain more than I ever had.  Eventually, I figured it out.  Ecology didn't seem so stupid anymore.  It was still hard...very hard.  But it wasn't stupid and I didn't hate it, at least not as much as I once did.  

And so my lesson to you, boys and girls, is that it's o.k. to hate ecology.  Spit on it, kick it, throw it in the trash for a week and ignore it.  It doesn't mind.  It will still be there waiting for you to explore its insides.  Although often times it's hard to see this, there are still plenty of mysteries to be solved.  Heck, you may even find a new species of monkey or discover millions of microscopic marine life.  

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


  1. Ecology is hard because there are so few "hard limits". Everything is situational; in fact, most ecological questions can be answered with the phrase, "It depends!". Why? Because the everglades ≠ the ocean ≠ a grassland ≠ desert spring ≠ a temperate forest, etc. It's frustrating for students to define something in an ecological sense, when ecology can't even define itself! In a way, it's much easier to do research on something highly predictable like Mendelian genetics, because humans have this (ridiculous) need to categorize everything. It's much easier to do this when we have a specific set of rules to follow, which is NOT the case in Ecology. Who likes to play by the rules anyway?!

  2. Oh I definitely have felt the punished by adviser because it's tradition thing. Not because my adviser isn't wonderful but because of the pressure to figure out something new and useful. But once you do find a glimmer of that something, you realize why you started this grad school business in the first place.

  3. This made me feel a lot better about hating Grad School life. It doesn't bite you back; professors do that job for it. Your writing reminds me of a few articles I read on It's very light and yet I could relate to the pain. Well, probably because I've been through the same thing. Still, I enjoyed reading it!


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