A (very) personal account of how I eventually arrived on the doorstep of postgraduate research

In the last few weeks, I’ve received some really good news and feel like I’m on my way to becoming a real, proper entomologist. It’s be a long and sometimes emotionally draining journey to arrive at this point.

For those of you who know me personally, you’ll be aware that the last 18 months has been somewhat of a battle to maintain that so-called work/life balance. I’ve always worked full-time and studied part-time, and two years into my undergraduate degree I fell in love with a wonderful man who had two equally wonderful young boys (now 10 and 4 years old), so - BAM! - instant family. A short time later we bought a house, so - BAM! - instant domestic goddess with floors to vacuum and mop, grocery shopping to do, meals to cook, clothes, towels and linen to wash and hang on the line to dry and then fold (I’m pretty good with fitted sheets, by the way), dishes to wash, bathrooms and toilets to clean, beds to make, and bills to pay. Then I added two adorable indoor-only cats to the mix, and along came feeding time at the zoo, various litter trays to empty, accidents to clean up, and grooming to make summer-time shedding a little less horrendous.

Without the invaluable support of my very helpful partner I don’t think I’d survive. He is the reason I keep going when I feel like curling up in a remote cave and being a hermit sometimes. I’m not kidding.

My job is particularly stressful at times, and sometimes feels very thankless. I wish I could teach myself not to care, but I’m not that sort of person. I’m proactive, I’m a problem-solver and I like to go the extra mile. But I haven’t always been able to rely on receiving the support I need from those higher up to get through each day with my sanity still intact by the end of it. In the past, I have faced some pretty destabilising and distressing moments when trying to juggle my studies and work, which have sometimes left me bewildered (to say the least), considering I studied at and worked for the same institution. The worst part was, I didn’t feel there was anything “wrong” with me… just the situation I was put in. I resented being solely responsible for fixing the problem. A problem I didn’t feel I had created. I felt suffocated by bureaucracy, frustrated by the lack of innovation, helpless, unappreciated, overlooked, and outright ignored. The solution seemed so clear to me, but it seems in a large organisation solutions quickly get lost in amongst all the noise. So sometimes I’d sit at my desk crying into tissues, hoping my open-plan office colleagues thought I was suffering from hay fever, even when it wasn’t allergy season. In less public environments, I often had emotional meltdowns over the smallest things and really didn’t like the person I was in those moments, which only added to the vicious cycle of self-defeat I was in.

I found support and encouragement from particular people, and appreciated those times when they just listened and sometimes shared their own experiences. But where I needed support and acknowledgement the most - at my place of employment - I felt alone and isolated and full of self-doubt, and this really impacted on what I had always loved to do: study. I crawled to the finish line of my undergraduate degree. At one stage I didn’t even want to go to my own graduation ceremony, but my loving partner changed my mind. I got there in the end and celebrated with a wonderful group of family and friends, some of who had travelled long distances to share such a special event with me.

Graduation Day!

Graduation Day!

So, here I am now, on the verge of finally commencing my postgraduate research studies, which I honestly thought had slipped through my fingers. I’ll explain how I eventually made it here. Towards the end of last year, the Associate Professor I had planned to study dung beetles with was awarded (along with three colleagues from other organisations/institutions) a sizeable ARC Discovery Project grant to assess the effects of thermal stress (i.e. climate change) and differential resource limitation on ecosystem function providers (i.e. ants). In mid-November last year he asked if I could make some insecty treats to share with his Insect-Plant Interactions students while he gave a short lecture/tutorial about entomophagy - the consumption of insects as food. While I was handing out my entomological delicacies (mini quiches and banana bread made with mealworms), he said we needed to talk about the grant-funded projects and whether or not I was interested in taking on one of them instead of dung beetles. He mentioned a generous scholarship, but it still wouldn’t be enough to meet my financial obligations. I’d still have to work.

Over the next few weeks I thought a lot about the opportunity and knew I’d be mad to pass it up. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about studying dung beetles or ants or any other six-legged critter; it was about working with an academic who I admired and respected and whom was well-respected in his field. Additionally, being part of an ARC Discovery Project also had the potential to catapult my entomological career very quickly. All pros, really. I met with the Associate Professor in mid-December and I think I actually used the words, “OK, let’s do this!” - I had done the sums and if I worked part-time and studied full-time, with the scholarship on offer I’d be able to afford it. The tricky bit was that I needed the part-time hours to be flexible, in case I was required to head off on a week or two of fieldwork, or (later on) to attend and present at a conference.

But I didn’t like my chances of gaining that sort of support at work. 

I was wrong.

My gut instincts had told me I’d have to fight, so I was already formulating arguments in my head and finding clauses in the collective agreement and points in the shiny new strategic plan that would support my request. Thankfully, this research opportunity coincided with a restructure in our department, and I am now reporting to a different supervisor. Her response was very encouraging and sometimes, just sometimes, I think she might be a bit more excited than me about this project. With verbal approval from the Assistant Director, I’m now planning my work and study schedule for the next two years, to ensure I can meet my employer’s expectations, my academic supervisor’s expectations and, of course, my own expectations.

This experience has restored some of my faith in “the machine” that we occasionally and unwittingly become a part of.

I submitted my Master of Environmental Science (Research) application for candidature on Christmas Eve, and it’s now awaiting approval. Given the nature of the project, I’ve no reason to think it will be rejected, so it’s just a waiting game now. I’m ridiculously excited about starting the project, but it’s tempered by a few proverbial butterflies in the stomach, which I think is a pretty healthy approach for me!

The next hurdle will be how Human Resources copes with the logistics of my irregular roster… so wish me luck!