Earlier this summer, I headed out to the field with one of my graduate students to conduct some initial soil sampling on a new set of plots in the San Juan Islands. With the assistance of our cooperators, the work went extremely smoothly, and we were able to catch the morning boat off Waldron Island.
Our good fortune on that trip reminded me of the short-term nature of graduate research programs, and how little room for error we often have with our projects. You generally have only two to five years to complete your whole master’s or doctoral program, which means your research efforts have to be meticulously planned and executed, with as little backtracking as possible. Yet these programs are often a student’s first or second serious research effort, so even with the guidance of a supervisor and graduate committee, errors, delays, missteps and revised study plans are the norm.
Research, especially at the graduate level, is a process of trial and error. It’s about generating a hypothesis based on observation or existing knowledge in the published literature, creating a reasonable set of experiments and experimental methodologies to test the hypothesis, and executing the work in the field, greenhouse or laboratory. This process can be excruciatingly slow for someone on a short timeline, and it requires graduate students to be exceptionally focused and nimble—and willing to absorb a fair amount of surprise—in order to nurture their work to completion.
With time and schedules so compressed, after all, our students don’t get to relax or head home for the summer; they head out into the field. Indeed these months, though deceptively quiet around campus, are often the peak season of research for graduate students. They have to maximize their production in the span of several weeks, knowing that even with the best-planned programs, data collection can go terribly wrong. Whether in the lab or far afield, students can be at the mercy of stochastic events, such as a wildfire (especially last year), animal intervention such as elk browsing on electrical wiring, or a simple human error, such as forgetting to start a data recorder.
For my own MS experience in Montana, I was investigating whether elemental sulfur inoculated with acidifying microbes could enhance soil phosphorus availability for plant uptake in alkaline soils. I used a combination of laboratory, greenhouse and field investigation to test my hypotheses. During my second summer (and only full field season), a farmhand plowed right across our carefully laid research plots, eliminating one out of my three field sites. I was fortunate that our missing data didn’t undermine my overall project, but I’ve never forgotten that my first publication included a table where dashes replaced numbers for that one site.
Still, for all the hang-ups and headaches, the stress of a graduate research program is hugely rewarding and beneficial. Our students learn how to be resourceful and innovative while maintaining the scientific integrity of the original project. They discover that no matter how tired, dirty and hungry you might be on those long field excursions, you can never sacrifice the rigor of your research. You might not have another chance to conduct the study, and you can’t predict how cutting corners will impact your findings. While the pressure can be exhausting in the moment, it breeds precisely the discipline that will make your future research and career successful.
So as I look at the travel request forms from our students this summer, I can’t help but muse about the effort and planning that went into preparing for this field season. Dozens of projects are well underway or just getting started, including programs exploring fire, earthworms and phosphorus cycling in northern Japan; fisher reintroduction in northern Washington; carbon cycling in the Columbia river basin; pollution influence on microarthropods of forest canopies of western Washington; epiphytes and canopy soil development on the Olympic Peninsula; influence of salvage logging on site recovery in eastern Washington; the displacement of passerines (songbirds) by various human activities in Denali National Park in Alaska; and numerous other fascinating projects.
The next couple months offer a precious window of research activity for these graduate students. They’ll be learning on the go, adapting to a host of hiccups and hardships, and shepherding their research through it all. That experience, from the development of their projects to their growth as people and scientists, will be priceless.
Tom DeLuca School of Environmental and Forest Sciences