On developing my dissertation

Written by: Sophia Chau

Primary Source: Human+Nature Blog

“What are you researching?” Since starting my PhD program at MSU this fall, I have been asked this question countless times, but it is one to which I have no definite answer yet.

Some grad students start their studies by joining an ongoing project, while others begin from scratch and create their own project. I fall into the latter category. The freedom to research (almost) whatever I want is both exhilarating and daunting. While this freedom gives me the opportunity to shape my own questions and pursue their answers in my own way, it also means starting from ground zero and figuring out how to put the puzzle pieces together.

Sophia Chau standing in waders

Okay, maybe I’m not starting with nothing under my belt. I have prior research experiences and knowledge that I’ve accumulated through conversations with my mentors and peers, college courses, and the books and scientific literature that I’ve read. By now, I know which kinds of scientific questions spark my curiosity, and I have a vision for who I want to become: an adaptation ecologist. That is, a scientist who finds ways for ecosystems and the people who shape and depend on them to adjust favorably to climate change. My curiosity and vision are guiding me to exciting questions to which there is not yet an answer.

I also don’t have to figure everything out. If the first two months of grad school taught me anything, it is that my dissertation will be shaped by the people around me. It is a collaborative process. Upon arriving at MSU, I felt pretty lost. No one was telling me what I should be doing to graduate with a PhD in (hopefully) 5 years. What I do with my time from day to day is largely up to me. However, as I have conversations with my peers and faculty within and outside of my home department, the puzzle pieces are starting to move even if they aren’t quite coming together yet. Brainstorming and sharing ideas with others have generated new directions and perspectives that I wouldn’t have ever thought of on my own, no matter how long and hard I tried.

Desk with two computers and books on it

So, if you ask me what I’m studying now, my response will probably be vague or different than the one I gave you last week. I might tell you that I’m interested in the unintended consequences of climate change adaptation in agricultural systems, or I might tell you I’m curious how changing visitor behavior as a result of climate change is affecting gateway communities that neighbor protected areas.

Sophia standing on beachBut keep asking me, and maybe in a year or two, I’ll have a more detailed answer for you. In the meantime, follow my blog to read about my moments of insight, challenges encountered, and progress in developing a dissertation.

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Sophia Chau
Sophia Chau is a PhD student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at MSU with Dr. Jianguo Liu. Prior to committing herself to 5+ years of schooling, she studied environmental science at the University of Notre Dame. She also spent some time in California working for the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. Sophia hopes to someday return to the West Coast, where she grew up in Portland, Oregon.
Sophia Chau

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