My own version of The Blindside, yet without countenant skill

Posted by on September 21, 2011 at 6:08 pm.

A new chapter has begun yet again.  I am the perpetual nomad.  From northern California to northern West Virginia, here I am at West Virginia University in Morgantown.  I’ve begun graduate school (in pursuit of that Master’s degree in Wildlife biology) and have been here since mid-August now.  The transition from a year out-of-school to a new year back-in-school has been smoother than expected.  Well, that’s good.  There’s only one real issue these days though:  for the first time in my educational career, I am having difficulty with the intellectual rigor involved in my pursuits.  Classes are fine; they are a real walk in the park.  It’s the demands of the research prior to experimentation that is so vexing.

The research concept is outstanding.  My focal species is the Golden eagle, and this fact alone gets me psyched.  As mentioned in previous posts, this is the bird that got me started in this circus act that I’m calling my career.  Back to the research concept: I’m being charged with developing a new computer model to map and predict eagle movements in the eastern U.S. during biannual migration events.  In addition to that, they want me to discover a new method to estimate the current population size in the region–a difficult task alone, in of itself.  Highly mobile, elusive populations are the most difficult to quantify.  These two research goals are indeed intriguing to a person like me, who’d like to make a good first impression in the field of raptor research.

Aspiring wildlife biologists, beware.  This stuff isn’t as simple as it sounds.  I’ve known this for quite awhile now, but only over the past month have the intellectual challenges really set in.  For me, this project is getting very technical and way too fast I might add.  Should I blame myself for not being more prepared?  Should I criticize the inconsistencies in my undergraduate program?  I’ll avoid doing either for now, but one thing still ways heavy on my mind–something that a past professor had wrote concerning my graduate pursuits.

During the second go around (of applying to graduate schools), I became a bit more conservative surprisingly.  Always thinking strategically, I gathered reference letters in clusters way before individual program applications were due.  I felt that this would be the most convenient for my recommenders (have them write all of their letters, collect the load, and prepare to send them in one group after application submissions).  After applying to the programs that I wanted to, I had a few groups of letters still left over.  Of the three recommenders, I was given explicit permission to read only one.  This professor was a real friend to me in undergraduate school, and with this special permission I felt that he showed his respect for me.

The other two professors, when compared to each other, were different polarities.  One was a simple mannered man, who was always cordial with me, so I never worried about his reference.  The other was a bit of an intimidator.  This professor liked to discourage me, often without intention I assumed–perhaps it is just his nature to come off like an elitist.  During my last two years at SIU, he assisted me with a small research project that really did not interest him; that much was obvious nearly every time we met.  Considering our proximity to working together, I asked him to write me a reference.

Now this is where things come together…

We recall that I had a few groups of recommendation letters left over that I hadn’t distributed to a few select programs (programs which disinterested me in the end).  I read the recommendation letter of the first “friend” professor long before this–it was simple, straightforward.  The letter of the “simple mannered, cordial” fellow was the first to be inspected–breaking that assumed student-mentor “rule” of letter confidentiality.  His letter was also what was to be expected; it was quite flattering really and quite the gesture from someone who had interacted with me rarely outside of the classroom.

Finally, the moment I had been waiting for had come.  I was about to have my chance at reading what the “discouraging” professor had to really say about me.  He obviously assumed that I would never read the letter (cf. the confidentiality convention).  His approach was acceptable, in my opinion (half of the letter highlights my strengths, the latter half touches on weaknesses).  That’s fine.  A well rounded discussion is welcomed, encouraged.  What made my jaw drop was what resided at the conclusion of the letter.

Concerning one of my weaknesses, he writes: “…this issue should disappear once he has to buckle down in a graduate program where real results become the currency of one’s merit.”

This single comment has been on my mind the most, recently.  In the pursuit of “real results,” I am feeling the stress from the intellectual demands of the science itself, the underlying statistical analyses, the anticipation of computational demands to come, and the descriptions of past works which form the supporting evidences for this research.  Due to the technicality involved with these past works (i.e. other scientific studies in the journals), they often seem written in a foreign language to me.  Am I really this dense?  Am I not intellectually strong enough to understand these methods, their results, and the implications of their findings?  The words of that professor just continue to plague my mind all the while.

I don’t know yet how I am going to meet these new challenges.  I just feel blindsided here.  “Oh, and by the way Andrew, your project proposal is due at the end of this semester, so you had better catch up quickly,” says that little voice of disillusionment in my head.  What a frustrating start this is proving to be.  I feel like my mind may explode at some point.  This could get messy…

Leave a Reply