Back to the Grindstone

With the ski season over, there’s only one event left in my Dartmouth career where there will be spectators. Well, two if you count graduation. But I was thinking of was my thesis defense in the ecology department: The Effect of Soil Metals on Pollination of Subalpine Wildflowers.

I don’t know when it is yet, but I am going to do a great job. The specter of possibly not doing a good job is guaranteeing it.

There were many occasions this winter that I did not rise to, the most important being Nationals, the Stowe SuperTours, Dartmouth Carnival. But a skier can do everything right to prepare for a race, and it can still go wrong. You can spend a year preparing for race season, but training hours are not linearly correlated to results. And in fact, their effect differs greatly from athlete to athlete. There are too many confounding variables.

It’s one of the mysteries of athletics: how two competitors who did the same preparation can get different results. And then the next year, the tables can be turned.

Academics, to me, seems a little more straightforward. It is usually pretty clear what you have to do to succeed, and you know exactly how close to being done you are. Working hard now will have a direct effect on how well I do in my defense.

Yes, people will ask me questions which take me by surprise, which I was not expecting to answer, which maybe I will do a bad job answering. But at least I should have a good sense going in about whether I’m well-prepared or not.

And so I am creating contingency tables for whether sample mass and run order affected detection of metals in my plant tissues.

I am feverishly learning how to analyze nested and crossed variables with the statistical software I bought, and repeatedly asking my statistics professor for help (he must be getting sick of me).

I am reading more and more papers – each useful one seems to have five new references I should check, which in turn have three more new references, et cetera, et cetera.

I am trying to use my statistical software and Microsoft Excel to make graphs, tables, and figures, which always takes an incredibly frustrating amount of time.

The thesis holds an interesting place in Dartmouth culture. Unfortunately, it’s often a culture of holing up in the library and becoming a social recluse. Many people attempt theses; those who don’t pity us and say something like “I’m glad I’m not spending my senior spring doing that!”

Why do so many people want to do this despite the fact that they have spent three years watching senior friends stress out in their last spring? Well, we’re Dartmouth students. We got in here. We’re pretty smart and we’re pretty well organized. Somehow, all of us look at the poor souls holed up at their desks and think, “I could be more organized that that. It wouldn’t be so bad for me.”

And despite the fact that some people inevitably think that athletes are only here for sports, avoid hard classes, and are lousy students, we don’t evade the thesis any more than the general population. We accept the challenge. After all, we’re used to testing what we can do, and we obviously expect a lot from ourselves. There are at least four of five nordic skiers working on senior projects right now.

But everyone, athletes and otherwise, end up stressed and scrambling during in the last few weeks, even though we were sure we could do a better job managing our time than the last year’s seniors. I only know one person who finished his thesis well ahead of its due date. I don’t know how he did it.

At dinner last night I wondered out loud whether every thesis was good. After all, just attempting a thesis doesn’t make you a good student.

As my friend Mark Davenport replied, “There seems to be sentiment here that, by taking on a big project or responsibility, a person automatically will ‘rise to the occasion.’ When really, what makes rising to the occasion such a big deal is that most people don’t. So if you take for granted success, you’re either being overconfident, or you’re mistaking something trivial for a challenge.”

I think I was as prepared for my thesis as any other student. I got the idea for my project a year before I started fieldwork, and I had plenty of time to prepare. I had abundant resources, both in grants from the college, my advisor’s funding, the support of the field station where I worked, and a very full complement of professors and researchers willing to consult on the project.

But just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I realized how much work it was going to be. I didn’t realize how many steps backwards I would be taking for every step forward. I didn’t realize that multiple times, I would want to break down crying as my analysis fell apart in front of my eyes.

This morning, I listened to my statistics professor tell me, “If you have nested data and your replicates are not balanced – you don’t have the same number in all parts of your study – then it’s a nightmare. I think you’re in nightmare mode.”

I am? Shoot, and I didn’t even know it. Back to the drawing board.

But no worry. Somehow, I’ll be ready when I have to defend myself.

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