One thing that’s really neat about grad school is that the experience is different for everyone. The life of a grad student varies between schools and departments and even within departments. Here at Gradifying we are really intrigued by this and as such we are devoting April to exloring what grad school looks like from each of our perspectives. What is a day in the life of each of us like? What is life like within our respective departments? What are our lives like outside of our departments (do we have one)?
A typical day for me really depends on the time of year. My life is pretty boring in the winter; I’m not going to lie. I read papers, play around in excel and R, work on manuscripts, etc. My life from about April to October (or DECEMBER in the case of 2013) is in the field. That’s when I’m really in my element so I’ll approach my ‘day in the life of’ from that direction. Disclaimer: when I get talking about my life in the field, I get carried away. Given that winter is seemingly endless this year, I will probably get really carried away. I am itching to get out there.
As I have alluded to before, I am a field biologist (literally), so all of my research takes place in abandoned agricultural fields. My days start pretty early (7-8AM) and we drive up to one of my field sites (we being myself and the field crew (1-3 other people, some field techs, others Honours thesis students)). I have two main field sites where I have experiments set up and both are on properties owned by the Queen’s University Biological Station (or QUBS for short). One is located along Opinicon Rd (about 40 minutes from Kingston), and is a ten minute hike down a laneway from the road, it’s locally known as Wire Fence field (and much to your surprise, there is no Wire fence, let alone any fence around Wire Fence field). My other site is located at the Bracken tract right near Westport (about 55 minutes from Kingston) where QUBS owns another 400 acres (and is about a 1km hike through other abandoned fields or a quick drive on the ATV). Depending on the day of the week, and what needs to get done, I might visit one or both of these sites in a day.
Last summer I spent a lot of time locating populations of wildflowers and collecting seeds from them and also spent an entire month digging holes to set up my big experiment. This coming summer most of my days will be spent tending to my seeds I have in 200 experimental plots at the Bracken site, also building cages out of rabbit fencing, taking soil core samples, estimating small mammal abundance, taking photos with an agricultural camera, doing species and abundance counts, wandering around abandoned sand quarries and collecting seeds from plants, etc. We work in the dead head heat or pouring rain. There are times when you swell up like a balloon because you’ve been bitten by so many deer flies or you get covered in mud because the field van gets stuck. But for the most part it’s my favourite thing about my PhD. I can’t imagine not being outside for the better part of every year, it’s just part of who I am now. I soak it all in when I’m out there too. I take photos of everything. I stop to look at every deer I see. I’ll turn the van around if I think I saw an interesting flower. I stop to pet the farmer’s horses and I have my favourite donkey that I stop to say hello to every day. It really is amazing I ever get anything done.
The Biology department is a big one, with lots of Faculty, graduate and undergraduate students. As the outgoing Secretary/Co-Chair (2012-2014) and incoming (2014-2015) Chair of the BGSC (Biology Graduate Student Council) I have always tried to be really involved in our departmental community. There are probably give or take 60 to 70 graduate students in this department (quite a drop from when I started my MSc in 2010 but still a lot more than your average department). We have weekly coffee hours to take a break and chat, and every Friday around 5PM you can find a good chunk of the department hanging out on the 2nd floor of the grad club having a drink and shaking off the week. We frequently have movie nights and order pizza, hold departmental lunches, go on weekend retreats to the QUBS Elbow Lake facilities, etc. We also have 5… yes FIVE seminar series in this department: EEB (Ecology, Evolution & Behaviour- this is the one I most frequently attend), CMIB (Cell, molecular and integrative biology), Limnology and the departmental seminar series which run weekly, so there is lots of opportunity there to hang out with colleagues. The fifth series is BEERS (Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution Research Seminars) which is a grad student run series where grad students can present their talks to their peers without faculty pressure. Although, many grad students in our department come to every event, some come occasionally, and others never come, but the overall feeling at these events is very welcoming and inclusive and there’s a good core group of about 15-20 of us that are out at most if not every event. It’s nice having so many people you can relate with and the atmosphere is really supportive and positive.
Being involved in the department wasn’t hard. You are by default a part of that community and that community is only as good as you make it. On the other hand I’ve always struggled with having a well-rounded life outside of grad school (and the safety of the Biology department), but I do my best and have been getting a lot better at it. On Sunday afternoons for the past few months I started playing badminton at the YMCA ($9.25 if you’re a student without a membership) and also am on the Biology curling team on Sunday nights (with KSSC). I have a little sister through Big Brothers, Big Sisters who I see once a week and do crafts, watch movies and play games with. I try to get to the Kingston Humane Society as much as possible to cuddle cats and walk dogs but I also volunteer at almost all of their special events including adopt-a-thons, info booths and fundraisers. In the winter I try to do fun things outside but my naturalist mentality is in full swing the other 3 seasons of the year. In the summer, especially before it gets brutally hot, I usually hike around some conservation area in Kingston, or down by the water several evenings of the week. Watch the sunset, watch the ducks, skip rocks, just doing whatever. I like to walk around with my field guide book and try to find some new species to identify (plant nerd right here). Or after a long day in the field sometimes I will just hang out and fish at one of the lakes until dusk and then drive back along Opinicon Road right as the sun is setting. I invented the “deer game” and try to play it as much as I can in the summer and fall (how many deer can you count between one end of Opinicon Rd and the other (~25km)? – FYI the record is 28).
I hope you enjoyed a day in the life of me and hearing about grad school from my perspective. Tune back in next week to hear from Atif! And of course, we’d love to hear from you so comment and let us know what grad school is like through your eyes!