The Lakes District offers some of the UK’s best scenery and is a popular destination for weekends and summer retreats. Before I moved to England for my post-doc, a friend of mine took me for a day trip to the region during my visit to Durham in 2013. It was a spectacular mid-August day, with not a drop of rain and just a touch of wind. I remember looking down into the valley from the summit and feeling like it was a scene taken straight from The Hobbit. Another trip to the area a year later recalled a similar mood: with gorgeous greens contrasting stony heights and shimmering lakes, who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend wandering about this amazing landscape?
But as much as I and the rest of England love the Lakes District, it has a notable and well-earned reputation for crappy weather. Storms can come from nowhere and leave you wet, cold, and uncomfortable, and summits that leave you exhausted even after only a 1km ascent. After the two previous sun-filled summer trips, my husband and I went by train to hike around Lake Windermere in March of this year. While not expecting the lavishly sunny warmth of our last visit, the ever-present fog prevented any sort of view that day. This past July we made a full weekend trip to try to summit the tallest peak, Scaffel Pike, only to finish summitless due to disorienting fog before becoming drenched to the bone by cold driving rain, shivering in the car ride back to the hostel and spending a good 20 minutes in a hot shower trying to warm up again.
I thought back on these previous Lakes District jaunts this last weekend, as we headed to take on Scaffel Pike a second time. While the leaves hadn’t changed to their autumn colors like we had hoped, we were rewarded with a fantastic weekend at Wast Water Lake: no rain, small crowds, and a chance to breathe fresh air and stretch our city legs. At the same time, I couldn’t help but reflect on previous hikes, as well as my own ongoing ‘journey’ through a career in science. While I’ve already drawn parallels between getting a black belt and getting a PhD, I can also see a parallel between the joys and challenges of the Great Outdoors with those of becoming a professional scientist. Both offer challenges, opportunities, and rewards, and the parallels between the two can give us insight and perspective on how we should approach the hard times we inevitably encounter while navigating our way to a rewarding career.
Be prepared and ready to adapt. A day on the peaks can be glorious or it can be dreadful, sometimes back and forth in the very same day, so be ready for hot, cold, wet, and/or windy weather. Carry a good map, plenty of water, and some extra socks, although after your first hike or two you’ll probably learn the hard way what you really needed in your bag. At the start of graduate school, I thought my undergraduate coursework in biology and chemistry would be all I needed to start research, but I quickly found out this preparation wasn’t enough. So I got deeply familiar with the literature, learned to optimize assays before running important experiments, and reached out to advisers and professors when I got stuck. These are the things that kept me dry through rainy spells of my PhD project.
Know when to take in the scenery and when to keep going. While the summit or the trail’s end might be the ultimate goal, knowing when to enjoy the moments before the ultimate goal, and when you need a break to help you get to that goal without being exhausted, will make the trip more rewarding. At the same time, there will be times when you can't make a break at every view point and moments when you need to push through a bit of discomfort or tiredness to get to another milestone along the trail or a more sheltered place before the rains head in. As with the previous post on rubber versus steel, the key is to maintain a trajectory for your ultimate goal while recognizing that if you just push for that goal without stopping you’ll miss so much along the way (and arrive at the end exhausted).
Stay focused so you don’t trip, but don’t forget to look up now and then to see where you’re headed. Some parts of the trail will be easy, where you can look around at the sights along the way, oblivious to precisely where your feet land. Other times there will be boulders, steep drop-offs, or slippery rocks that you’ll need to watch closely as you walk. As a scientist, there will be crucial moments that require your full attention: a technically difficult experiment that you get one shot at, planning an annual sampling expedition for the two weeks of the year that you can get samples, or writing code that will take months to run before you get an answer. When these moments come, give your focus to them and think about each step you take, and what can go wrong at each point, in order to achieve success during that crucial moment.
At the same time that staying focused on one step at a time is important, don’t forget to look up now and then and see where you’re heading to make sure it’s still in the right direction. It’s easy to think that because we’re still on a trail that we’re going the right way, but oftentimes we might find ourselves on a side path we never intended to be on if we are only looking one footfall ahead at a time. If you find yourself staring down at the same assay or experiment over and over again, take a look at the bigger picture and see if it’s still the right direction. Even if you thought that this was the right way, it might turn out that the data is trying to tell you otherwise, but you may need to look up from your pipettes in order to see it more clearly.
The journey is better with friends. There are times when a solitary hike is a good thing, but more often it makes for a better time when you share the road with friends. You’re less likely to feel bitter in a downpour or to get mad at yourself for missing a turn if you’ve got good friends and colleagues who are on the same road with you. At the end of a long hike you’ll have someone to laugh with about the casual mishaps and to exchange stories with at the trail’s end pub, celebrating feats of strength and good views and commiserating with each other about the rainstorms and the sprained ankles.
While you may be the only one wrapped up in your specific project, you likely have a lab or an office full of other students or researchers who are on the same journey as you. Share your joys and challenges and listen to theirs in return. Even if you’re working on completely different topics, you’ll often find a lot of intersections you can meet at or parallels between your separate journeys, whether it be rejected papers or terrible lab meetings. Keep these people close during your own journey, and let them remind you that you’re not out there in the wildnerness on your own.
There will be ups and downs. Some hikes you’ll do will be fantastic, sunny, and you won’t get lost or even tired out. Other hikes will absolutely suck, it will be rainy and windy and you won’t even get to the summit, or you’ll get there and there will be nothing to see but a giant cloud. Likewise, some experiments will work the first time around, you’ll have beautiful results for publication, but other experiments won’t work at all, or you’ll get results that confound everything you did already and you’ll sit there scratching your head about what to do next. The key is to persevere through the rougher times, knowing that if you keep on going you can reach another valley where the sun is shining and the p-values are significant.
Part of the destination is the journey. As many millions of ways as it’s been said before, it’s not just about where you end up but how you get there. If you get to the end exhausted and not having seen what was along the way, was it as worthwhile as it could have been? If you went straight to your destination without facing challenges or enjoying the sunshine, did you learn as much as you could have? You learn as much about the end result along the journey itself as much as you do just from arriving at the end. The gear you really needed and what was superfluous, what trails led to something good and which ones got you nowhere, and finding the balance between the moments of intense focus and moments when you just enjoyed the walk.
When you actually get there, you’ll recognize the importance of every step you took more so than when you’re on your way. I had this stark realization at the end of my PhD defense. I gave an hour-long seminar about 4 years of work, then I was asked a few questions about future experiments and experimental design for maybe 45 minutes by my graduate committee. Then I was done, and in a matter of a few minutes deliberation and signing paperwork, I had a PhD. My first thought wasn’t exuberance, it was … Really? That was it? And now I’m a PhD? I felt a bit cheated, like I hadn’t done enough to warrant the end result of becoming a doctor. Soon enough you realize that it wasn’t that hour-long seminar and a few questions that got you the PhD but rather the 4 years of work that led up to it. The years of staying focused on answering questions while knowing when to take a side path and explore something else, of pushing through the rainy days while enjoying the sunshine when it came, and also writing a really long, probably rather boring 182-page word document. But that’s a topic for a future blog post.
One of the things I love most about hiking is that it’s one of the things that truly anyone can do. You’ll see everyone on the trail: from the power couple with matching Gore Tex jackets, a laminated topographical map, and a portable oven for making steak and ale pies on the summit, to the stag party guys in tennis shoes and jeans. While everyone comes to the mountain with their own set of gear and motivations, we all get up the mountain the same way: one step at a time. With the right mindset, navigating to a rewarding career (or just getting through your PhD) is something that everyone can do by taking it one step at a time, by being prepared, and by learning from the journey as much as working towards getting to the destination.