Lonely Conservationists

Nick (The beauty of rock bottom)

Written by Nicholas Horne

I started this blog nearly 6 months ago, I really wanted to contribute to the Lonely Conservationists as I feel it’s an exceptional idea that can promote so much positivity. However, it has been extremely difficult to write about my past experiences.

So why did am I back writing this blog? Because I am struggling.

I thought that providing myself with some reflection on when I was mentally very low may help me gain perspective on how far I have come. Hopefully this may help others do the same.

So, here is the time I hit rock bottom.

I had just handed in my masters thesis after studying Applied Marine and Fisheries Ecology at Aberdeen. The year of study had turned me from someone that likes science into a scientist – it was the toughest but best year of my life. Despite the pride I had in what I’d accomplished, I was still shocked and overjoyed when my thesis supervisor offered me a short-term contract working for one of his PhD students. Straight out of my masters into working at my first paid job as a marine biologist…I got stuck straight in…the contract will be sorted ASAP…no worries.

So, there I was with 3 months of paid work ahead of me and to top it off I had an interview for an amazing PhD in the far north of Scotland! The dream. It was to research collision risk between birds and onshore wind turbines. It involved three things I love:
1. Behavioural ecology
2. Modelling
3. Massive gigantic birds of prey!!!

So, between my days of hard work sorting through salmon scales I got stuck into cramming for my interview for my dream PhD.
I was so happy.

After an amazing first week in the lab I headed up to my interview and had a great couple of days. The interview went amazing and I felt like I couldn’t have possibly done any better – it felt like things were meant to be. I headed back down to Aberdeen and continued with my work waiting to hear about the PhD, oh and still waiting on that contract to get sorted but I’m sure that’ll be fine.

The slope

After a few days I found out…I didn’t get the PhD position. It went to someone else – someone I actually knew and I was extremely happy for her – but that didn’t remove the feeling of failure I had in my stomach. Sorting salmon scales suddenly went from being an organised lab project to a slow and monotonous process that my brain didn’t want to engage in at all. Instead my brain wanted to focus on every last detail of the interview, what did I do wrong? Will I ever find a PhD like that? But, I still had the job to get on with and with having my foot in the door more opportunities would arise I’m sure.

Another week of sorting through scales and I had run out of time on my accommodation and had no more money. And still, no contract. I had to leave. In the space of a week my dream PhD and my first job as a marine biologist had slipped through my fingers. Failure.

Did I even care enough about marine biology if I wouldn’t work for free any longer?

Tumbling to rock bottom

Back home living with my parents seemed like the ultimate kick in the teeth.

Disclaimer: I am an extremely lucky and privileged person. I love my parents to bits and they have always been there to take me in, rent free, and support my dreams. None of what comes next is in any way caused by them.

Arriving home I had to find some work in a restaurant. Working in a place that shuts at 10pm, in a city, with a bunch of 18-21 year olds means one thing…after work drinks.
I was spending 100% of my income on going out and drinking to numb the pain. That is all it did. Numb it. My head would not let me forget my feeling of emptiness. Things continued to get worse – aided by multiple rejections I was getting from jobs and PhDs (I must have applied for nearly 50 positions in this time). Nothing seemed to make me happy. The realisation of how bad it got hit me like a brick one morning…

I had woken up, feeling awful as per usual. Managed to heave myself out of bed and start to make my way downstairs to get some food. Those ten paces to the top of the stairs seemed to be the hardest thing in the world in that moment. I reached the staircase. Collapsed to the ground and began crying. It was like a flood of emotion. Taking over my whole body my heart pounding, my legs giving way and I had lost all control. This was my rock bottom.

Yes things could get worse. But I decided that day I wouldn’t let it. I realised that I was the only person that could truly solve my problems. So, first of all, I made a drastic change – stopped spending 100% of my income on drinking – I dropped it to about 50% (I had to have some fun still). This meant I could begin saving money. I wasn’t sure yet what for but I knew I needed money for when the opportunity arose.
A small step in the right direction.
I began searching harder than before. More applications and more searching for what to do next. I looked into visas for New Zealand and Canada and all the opportunities that could arise. I did take on voluntary position as the digital editor of a conservation based publication – this had me on the board of a charity and running a website. It took up very little of my time, kept me thinking about conservation and gave me someone for my brain to chew on.

I continued with the search and finally an opportunity worth taking the leap came up. I had saved enough money to put myself forward for an unpaid position monitoring marine mammals in Ireland. Yes, unpaid. However I decided this was a great opportunity and worth it because, well firstly I was pretty desperate but also, adult reasons:
– There was no fee and accommodation was included.
– It was with University College Cork and therefore a great opportunity to network for future prospects
– Ireland is awesome (maybe not so adult but still)

The 3 months I had there were fantastic and funnily enough didn’t end. These situations are where the phrase ‘you make your own luck’ come from. An awesome job investigation seals stealing fish from fishing lines came up. This was with the same people I was working with and was short notice so needed some in the right place and the right time – which was me! I immediately put myself forward for this job and got it. I had a contract posted over in no time. A CONTRACT! My first paid job as a marine biologist was here. I was over the moon.

It doesn’t end there. Being on the same island as a close friend – he visited me out in County Mayo. Upon his return to the Queen’s University Belfast Marine Laboratory he spoke to his supervisor about his weekend visiting me, and my work on marine mammals. Funnily enough they were working on a PhD proposal looking at seals and collision risk and asked if it would interest me. Obviously, I was keen as can be! So here I am, at my desk doing my PhD on seals and collision risk.

The lesson

Am I still struggling with the lows? 100% but I do know, when I think back to being collapsed on my parents staircase crying, I am in much better place than I was then.
The biggest lesson I learnt from this situation is that surrounding yourself with people that understand what you are going through is so unbelievably helpful!

My friends and family back in Essex are great but they do not know much about conservation work or academia. Talking to them about my problems wasn’t very helpful. But, once I had surrounded myself with like-minded people, my confidence and drive started to return. I had others in the exact same situation and it felt great to share the burden but, also support them.

I am so grateful now when I look around me, at my fiancé – who, also a scientist, gives me so much support and is always there to talk to and, at the network of friends in science that have been through the same things and are so open and ready to talk about my worries at the drop of a hat.

So, the things that are meant for you do come. You will come against many failures in whatever career path that you take, but with those failures come the wins and they will feel sweeter knowing what you have overcome to achieve them.

For more of Nick, check out @wearevanimals on Instagram

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