Finding the Stunning Sunsets Through the Tangled Vines of Graduate School

Tanga with baby
Tanga and 4 month old baby. One of the first set of chimps the author saw this field season.
By Kaitlin Wellens
February 16, 2015

Trip. Get back up. Vines. Free. Where are these chimps? Keep searching. Chimps. Incredible. Repeat

Perhaps it is that I am heading into my long field season in Gombe National Park, Tanzania straight off the heels of defending my dissertation proposal, but these last few days in the forest seem to be in amazing parallel with what I know of graduate school thus far…


With my gait light, eyes wide, and fanny pack strapped tight around my waist, I enter the forest with the confidence of a brazen, yet in my case, rather unstylish, explorer from the history books. Much like the wave of euphoria one rides the months after being accepted into grad school, at that moment in the field, I was surfing on the magical, complicated, and living beast that is the forest. Unfortunately, as the tip of my foot catches a root and the first grueling group project rears its head amongst the plethora of other coursework, I quickly realize that my idealism of what will come in my field day and my 5 years of grad school is slightly sophomoric. No, I will not be greeted at the forest edge by a group of chimpanzees grooming amongst a bed of flowers, where I can gleefully watch them and nonchalantly discover the next tool use or hunting behavior. No, grad school is not a walk in the park full of solely inspiring, mind opening moments. It is trying. It is tiring. I will trip. But, I can do this and it will only make me a stronger scientist, field researcher, and person.

Get back up.

Brushing the dirt off my stinging knees, I feel my face blushed with embarrassment, as I stand, ready to dodge the twisted root this time around. I step over it, feeling a small amount of triumph, but mostly just realizing I will need time to build my forest legs again. The steep mountains in front of me tease my juvenile trip, but I know that with my newfound cautiousness, I will be able to slowly and carefully ascend. Similarly, as the first exams and group projects come and go, the reality of graduate school sets in, but soon after one’s study patterns emerge, time management skills resurface, and the daunting mountain ahead becomes a series of hills. 


Just as I clear the top of the steep path, the trees ring with the sounds of pant hoots. This is it! We are almost at the chimpanzees. I look to my field assistant for our next move and he motions towards a nearly impenetrable tangle of vines. My heart sinks with my hands and knees as I prepare to army crawl through the hardened, angry, knot of branches.  Just like a comprehensive exam, as much as one prepares for the vines, no one can ever fully know what to expect. Will they pull a question out of left field? Will the vine I am going to grab over there have thorns? One will leave you looking like the owner of a disgruntled cat, arms covered in small scratches. The other with dreams of hominin discovery dates and specimen numbers. Both will be challenging. Both will be exhausting. But both will leave you brimming with pride as you take your first breathe on the other side. 


Breaking through the last of the vines, I stretch my back tall as my feet hit the solid ground of a path. In the forest, paths remind me of the comfort of being curled by the fireplace chatting with your parents. It is familiar, safe, and grounded. Luckily, finishing the comprehensive exams is also normally followed by a long break and the comforts of family and friends. Feeling refreshed, confident, and ready to move forward, I look around and wonder where exactly those pant hoots were coming from.

Where are the chimps??

My concentration for the last few minutes was so focused on surviving the vines, it is only when back on the path that it dawns on me, “Where are the chimps?”  I quickly realize that the struggle is far from over. After the vines comes more searching, just as after comps comes the daunting task of writing one’s proposal. How do I start? Will I ever find chimps? Will I ever defend?

Keep searching

As reality hits that the pant hoots are still a distant dream, I buckle down into search mode. I start honing in on my knowledge of chimpanzees, what fruiting tree they might go to next, what time of the day will they liking take their long siesta, and suddenly feel my excitement grow as this becomes more of a logic puzzle, a game, an adventure. I tighten my fanny pack in preparation for an adrenaline fueled search and remember a similar process with writing my proposal. When I first started the process, I felt like I would drown in the endless sea of research. As my knowledge of the literature grew, however, the game changed and finding my own research path became as exciting as charging a search. 


Turning the bend towards the large fruiting tree I had in mind, pant hoots echo through the forest. I am rewarded for the hard search as one wild and playful young chimpanzee hurls his body at a branch in front of me and then quickly retreats to his mother. When I rest my back against a tree and take data on a particularly charming mother-offspring pair, I am reminded instantly about how rewarding this work can be.  Just like the ecstasy felt when finishing the talk portion of my dissertation proposal defense, as the sweat on my forehead evaporates, it brings with it the challenges of the previous few hours. Whether surrounded by chimps or expert committee members, I am constantly absorbing. Soaking in exciting academic ideas, the brilliance of the forest, and the magnificence of the chimpanzees, I gain insights that will provide useful well beyond the ivy covered halls of academia.  


As I left the room of my defense and the walls of the forest, I felt fueled and eager to approach the next steps. While I like to think the remainder of my 8 month field season and dissertation writing will both be as comfortable and rewarding as a dip into Lake Tanganyika (the lake bordering Gombe), something tells me it will be more like my less than graceful exit from the water onto the lake’s rocky shore. Nonetheless, when I gain my footing and step onto the beach, I will always turn to find the most beautiful sun setting over a perfectly still and quiet lake.