What is the value of recognition?  Of getting a heart-felt, honest, two-thumbs up, “Good-onya mate”?

We graduate students are mostly left to our own devises. Trust and fraternity are earned in the ability to generate ideas, undertake experiments, summarize results and, adequately convey their importance. This currency is how we are judged and how progress is encouraged. For most of us there are countless hours of investigating the best way to proceed with currently accepted methods. Hundreds of questions we consider before accepting one. And we usually do this with the minimum of guidance.

Whether by essential Platonic design or as a result of the overflowing workload of our advisors, we grad students are left to founder on the rocks of intellect; to wade through the countless volumes of work put together by those who came before us. Rarely is a consensus convened to accept or deny the path we have chosen. Rarely is there enthusiasm in the amount that assuages our doubts and conveys Yes! Yes! Yes!

But there are events that beg to fall within the realm of “yes”, and one of them is the comprehensive exam. It is a process dedicated to reviewing our ideas, methods and the depth of thought we have given to the structure of our dissertation. At CU, the preparation involves a 15-20 page dissertation proposal, which is sent to all of our committee members 10 days before the planned three-hour meeting. The meeting, made up of the graduate student and their committee members, involves a 20-30 presentation (a summary of the proposal) and questions from members regarding the thinking behind each chapter or questions of interest. The idea is to have a constructive conversation in order to focus research and glean experience from the assembled committee members.

But grad students don’t always get the message that this is not a test, a make-or-break situation in which a single “um” will sink all prospects of advancement. We don’t get the memo that this is a chance to defend our thought process and open up a dialogue. Instead we perceive it as a stressful, scary, uncertain event in our education.

I spent that past few days in California with my girlfriend. We ran with Daisy the dog, ate great food and surfed. I am emerging from a winter (well, not quite yet) of recovering from a surgery to repair damage in my leg; a result of a skateboarding accident. And I am so excited to note the progress that each week brings. Five months after surgery, to the day, I was able to get out on a surfboard and catch my first waves of 2014. To suggest I was ecstatic would be an understatement, especially when I was originally told the process of recovery could take up to a year.

While sitting on my board, waiting for a wave to come in, I could not stop myself from raising my arms in joy and celebrating where I was. It was a long way from lying in the road, three muscles of a hamstring torn away from my pelvis, and unsure of what would happen next. That moment atop my board was an acknowledgement of having persevered, followed advice, and arrived at a place I was not sure would be available. And it struck me that my experience with my comps exam last week was similar.

I went through my comps exam last Tuesday, a week ago. I passed. Upon leaving school that day, I called Jana (my girlfriend) and sobbed with relief and pride, the latter something I am not all that comfortable with. And what rolled over me, as I enjoyed the Ventura coastline, was that I wasn’t reveling in pride. No, pride was not the fire in my belly. What I was happy about was knowing that this is where I wanted to be and this is what I had worked to achieve. In essence, I was accepting the value of what I am, what I have chosen, what I work for, and of where I am going. In the end it was a realization that the value of recognition resides only within. Others may signal to you, well done, but until we do that for ourselves, believe in our abilities, our thoughts, and our path, there is no value, only recognition.

So what is the value of recognition? Surely it rests in self-recognition of our own value.   



Appreciation is sometimes slow in arriving. It took me years to enjoy single malt scotch. Decades ago I used to compare taking off my ski boots to sex; yea, that was way off the mark. The love of watching bats artistically flutter against the backdrop of a mountain sunset is, at this time in my life, more poignant than seeing The Who in concert. The point is that interests and passions change. And while time is synonymous with age, finding your passions can slow the march of time.

I have recently, just this morning, finished reading E.O. Wilson’s Anthill. It is the first novel of a first-rate ecologist, and it likely will not change your life. What it might do, as it did for me, is rekindle an awareness of the passions you had as a younger you. And by younger you I mean any time before today.

The truth is that I should not have been reading anything of the novel genre. I have a comprehensive exam proposal due tomorrow. It is a document that clearly and solidly demonstrates my path to finishing my PhD. 15 pages of succinct scientific method and proof that I have read the primary literature and basically that I deserve to someday be granted the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Biology. On top of that I actually have to send the thing to people who know something then get up in front of them and do a presentation about the proposal and then withstand another 2.5 hours of questions and discussion about my topic. So I should not have been pleasure reading during the holidays.

Or maybe I should have.

Dr. Wilson’s parable took me back to being a kid and learning about (note I do not say discovering) the extraordinary world of the army ant (Genus: Eciton). I remember clearly when and where I heard about them: an impressionable 7 year-old at Twin Springs Farm Day Camp in Ambler, PA. My counselor, who I do not remember, had talked about the marauding army ants in Africa. And it stuck with me, dormant at times, but never to achieve its half-life. And here I am, south of 50, studying ants and the impacts of humans on nature.

Anthill traces the life of a young naturalist. And it exposes the strangeness that is the human species. In so doing, Dr. Wilson confronts the naïve and powerful influence of open-minded, unprejudiced observation; something we lose later in life and, as a consequence, I believe the World is worse off for (nice grammar).

What I carry away from this reading is the joy of the resurgence of my juvenile trust in nature. What is most surprising is its ability to persist. And it is this dismantling of all the stresses involved in being an adult, or graduate student, or seeker of career options, that lent energy to the writing of my comps proposal and the acknowledgement that I am pursuing my passion and that this passion has been there for a long time. It is a lesson from the annals of childhood. And it is a suggestion that we should stop and reconnect with who we are and dismiss the whom we think we should be.

a quiet post

Hello everyone,

It has been a long time. I am here and aching to write. Yet as I sit down and catch my breath from the holiday rush, a 3000 mile road trip, writing a proposal that moves me along in my education, and start a new job as lab coordinator for CU’s Principles of Ecology lab, I am at a loss as to what to write. So I will just type this…

…Happy New Year and may all your crazy dreams and desires become real after the appropriate amount of effort has been put in to achieve them.

Chat soon.