Written by Renuka Kulkarni
“Oh, you’re a wildlife person? But don’t you sit in a library all day?”
We all have that one aunt/uncle/extended-family-member-you-don’t-remember who can sniff out weaknesses like a bloodhound, and who just never wants to try to understand what you do for a living. “I’m doing a PhD” is a somewhat acceptable answer, but you’re also praying inside that they don’t find out about your lack of funding.
Yes, aunty, my personal black hole agrees with you that I am a burden on my parents: a 27-year-old, unmarried, secretly depressed burden who watches MasterChef Australia (MCAU) reruns to get through days paralysed by self-loathing. I’m Renuka, by the way. Doing a PhD in environmental history, trying to highlight the problem of invasive plants wrecking unique habitats in India, by combining evidence from vegetation surveys, historical natural history accounts, and current conservation programs. If this sounds like a reach, I know it is. My PhD thesis was born out of my experiences as a chemical ecology intern, an archivist, a science writer, and a realization of how decisions by various people throughout history shape our natural landscapes.
My field site is one of the last evergreen forest patches in India: beautiful, mountainous, quiet in some spots and crowded with tourists in others. I love it there, but there is a part of me that actually fears those dense forests, and that has been a bitter realization. Most conservation biologists do what they do because they utterly love the natural landscapes they roam, because they feel at home in those quiet woods/waters/mountains/swamps, away from the crowds. At least, that is what it appears to me. Whenever on field trips with my classmates or volunteers, I always admired how confident they were during vegetation surveys, or their ease in identifying birds or butterflies or reptiles.
Growing up, I was a fairly confident kid with good grades and a lot of extracurricular activities, but not a lot of friends. As I’ve grown older and chosen careers that seemed fascinating and great opportunities to learn, it has also isolated me more and more, feeding into a lack of self-belief, feeding into the fear of people and their judgement, to the point where I actually feel invisible at times.
You’d think I’d feel at home in a dense forest with trees that don’t ask questions and creatures that don’t expect you to socialize with them. But I don’t. I feel afraid of those quiet, lonely, sunlit places, or maybe, it is my Ph.D. that has made me feel this way. It is perhaps my Ph.D., struck dead by a pandemic, unfunded and geographically isolated, not quite completely understood by anyone except me, and me is paralysed by being an archivist in a wildlife conservationists’ world and a wildlife conservationist in a historians’ and political scientists’ world. This comes after being a biologist in a journalism school, a
biodiversity student in a newspaper office, and a journalist in a classroom of wildlife biologists. SO many labels, eh? I can’t decide if these words are a form of narcissism, an arsenal against my imposter syndrome, or phrases I’ve heard from loved ones trying to bolster their own selves that I am worth all their efforts and sacrifices.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been that hard, had I only been somebody else, someone who could talk more and didn’t always castigate herself for being too boring and bookish. I’ve always loved books. I’ve always felt consumed by them, and I always read the same books again and again a million times because I find something new in them every single time. A part of my thesis data collection is looking through old herbarium records and government correspondence, and I love going through those neglected, often-mouldy and dusty pages stored in old-fashioned cupboards. But even there, fear has crept in.
Is it the PhD that I fear? Born from a lack of trust about my own abilities, born from this enormous, unique professional experience that is famously said to teach you more about what you don’t know? It makes me afraid of missing out on a crucial record. It makes me afraid of this lovely landscape I’ve chosen to study. My mind keeps running to the quiet seaside-projects I once volunteered for, and I sometimes wish I’d chosen marine biology as a career. But then again, if I had, would I have started to fear the sea as well?
Fear. It lurks in all of us, accompanied by despair, followed by a sense of loneliness. Fear is what keeps an organism safe from harm, so that it can survive and live to see the day it can procreate. But fear also keeps you in your comfort zone, and no episode of MasterChef goes by without the phrase “you grow far more when you’re out of your comfort zone than when you’re in it.” I should know: I’m watching MCAU season 7 right now even as I write this, and Reynold, the dessert king, is trying to cook fish perfectly, something he’s reminding us is out of his comfort zone. (He loses this challenge, by the way. And gets eliminated.) Some people drink to numb their insecurities and fear. I watch MCAU reruns, episodes I have already watched before, because I know how they end, and I am reassured by that, by the knowledge that I know what’s going to happen.
The root of fear
I live with my parents and my cat. I don’t have a lot of friends, because most people my age are married with full-time jobs, and are too busy to spare much time. My sense of guilt stems from the fact that I do not earn any money, or at least, not enough to be financially self reliant. There are intricacies of this that I wish I could write, but I can feel the fear rising in my chest at the thought of it. At the thought of writing things down for you to read, and then judging me
for it. To an outsider, I must appear absolutely privileged, and I am. I have a roof over my head, parents supporting me, a good and kind PhD supervisor, a loving and encouraging boyfriend, a brat of a cat who makes me laugh every day. And I’m still unhappy. I love my subject and I’m excited about getting my PhD before I’m 30, but the fear, that black, suffocating Dementor, keeps hovering.
The mantra keeps coming: you’re out of your depth, you’ll get attacked by bison and leopards during your field work, you don’t know your plants as much as you think you do, you should know your archives through and through, your work is not going to make any difference whatsoever. But most of all, the biggest Dementor of all: you’re a fraud. My Patronus: I just want to do the best I can.
The only way out of this is through it, and my mind knows it. So, I’ll fight it and go through it every day. I’ll fight the imposter syndrome by checking and rechecking my references. I’ll fight the sense of failure by doing something that makes me feel positive, like learning how to drive a car. I’ll fight the fear of thick forests by walking through them, looking for familiar plants. I’ll not fight the wild bison and leopards, but just keep an eye out for them and not get in their way.
I’ll just try and do the best I can. Every day. Because that is all that I, or anybody else, can do. And I hope that the person reading this takes a deep breath, and hopefully feels a little bit stronger to live another day as a conservationist.
For more of Renuka, check out @undefined_wallflower on Instagram