Sooner or later, most graduate students in ecology hit a wall, realizing “I have no idea how to do what I need to do next.” Our careers would of course be unfulfilling if we were never challenged to do something new or unfamiliar, but grappling with this can be dispiriting for a novice researcher. In my case, the transition from my Masters to PhD was hard. I was a freshwater ecologist interested in invasive species: What lets some organisms new to an environment be so successful, and how can we conserve native species affected by their new neighbors? But I found that my earlier training had not quite prepared me for the questions I wanted to ask next, and I was uncertain how to proceed with my work.
For my Masters research, I investigated competitive interactions between native and nonnative crayfish in the Ozark Plateaus using manipulative experiments, both in the laboratory and in enclosures in the field. And it was not that this work did not challenge me, but I completed the degree feeling that I had arrived; that I was already a pretty good ecologist (I was not). As I started my PhD, I found myself working with an adviser and colleagues seeking to tackle these same questions for communities across large, landscape scales in the Pacific Northwest. I felt paralyzed by the limits of my past skill set and conceptual background. It is hopefully some reassurance to current graduate students that you are not alone in occasionally thinking “I don't know what I'm doing.” Your advisers have been there before you.
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