When in doubt, go to the library: Relearning what I thought I already knew

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Ciara Hovis is working toward her PhD with Dr. Jack Liu studying the global soy trade using the telecoupling framework between the United States, Brazil and China.

May 15, 2017

“Because that's what Hermione does,' said Ron, shrugging. 'When in doubt, go to the library.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Like many in my generation, I am a Harry Potter fan, and I’ve long identified with the character Hermione Granger (the series’ bookish and know-it-all heroine). Hermione was a role model for me growing up, and lately I’ve taken a page from her book and turned to the library in times of uncertainty.

My upbringing has groomed me for a career in ecology. However, I am finding myself, a second year PhD student in ecology, doubting my ecology credentials. This is demoralizing, to say the least. I should be good at this. Biology and ecology have always been my strongest subjects. But here I am, a year into my PhD, questioning if I really am an ecologist. I have something most grad students would kill for: a place to study site and ample funding to support me and my work. All that’s left to me are the research questions. When I first started, I had ceaseless questions, but now I struggle to define them.

I am told all researchers and researchers in training feel this way, but I still feel like I am failing somewhat.Ciara Hovis with stack of books During these confusing and frustrating times, like Hermione, I find myself comforted by books. Not academic papers, but sturdy, bulky, smelly books. MSU’s library has been a haven for me, and I often head there to collect two or three inspiring tomes. Recently, I found myself in unknown territory, in the education section rather than ecology, amidst a modest collection devoted to advice on how to finish a PhD.

I started with the handbook, “How to write your dissertation in 15 minutes”. Despite outdated index card cataloging advice, I gathered that in order to write a dissertation, one must write. Though this seems obvious, I realized I had not made a serious attempt to write down any of my ideas for my PhD, save for a few notes here and there in multiple notebooks.

I also took the time to crack a book I had on my desk as a running joke with an old lab mate. When I was an undergrad, I was part of a research lab. When one of the PhD students defended her dissertation, I teased her for having a book on her shelf titled, “How to Do Ecology: A concise handbook”. I suggested she better get rid of it now or risk embarrassment since she now had a PhD in ecology. She played along and asked me if I wanted it. I accepted it, thinking it would be a fun memento (and imagined passing it on one day to another PhD hopeful). It never occurred to me to read it. However, feeling stuck, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I’m glad I gave it a try. Ecologists wrote this book for people like me. They gave advice I had heard before but did not have the experience to understand. I still thought I knew what I was doing. My trips to the library have taught me that it’s ok to revisit the basics and that practicing writing helps me focus. Like Hermione, I’ll never stop going to the library as I still have much to learn, which is nothing to be ashamed about.

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