Lonely Conservationists

Renuka (A thesis + a job + a family + a cat = a tired and lonely conservationist)

Written by Renuka Kulkarni

A few weeks ago, I had a breakdown. Anxiety, a sense of futility and hopelessness about what I do, loneliness; you get it. I reached out to a friend, telling him how starting a PhD all over again felt so tough. This man is blunt, and he told me, mincing no words, that doing a PhD is a full-time job and he doesn’t know anyone who did it part-time while working 40 hours a week elsewhere.  So yeah, PhD is a full-time job; what do you do if you have two such jobs? 

It’s a choice that feels like walking a knife-edge. I work remotely for a wonderful organization, where the job is exciting, and the team is filled with extremely passionate and hard-working people. It has given me a much-needed boost of confidence, a good salary, and a way back into a world I had regretted leaving when I got into a PhD program three years ago. 

And yet, it does not give me the same kind of joy that research does. That feeling of freedom, where I get to pursue those burning questions, to find the research gaps in the current state of knowledge. To try and make my way into a career that does not feel easy, that makes me fight to stay in it, that teaches me so much. It plays hard-to-get, almost, and I am hooked. 

My thesis focus is biological invasions in urban areas. My job is at an environmental news organization. How do we balance two great loves? Two equally rewarding passions? I constantly ask myself if I’m being the cat who died by choking on cream by choosing to hold on to two similar, yet very different, vocations. Day after day, the choices change: do I sacrifice sleep to accomplish work and studies today? Should I leave the studying for the weekend, just to have saner weekdays? But what happens if my husband and I want to go out for the weekend because neither of us got much time to ourselves during the week? How do I fit in my cat’s playtime, calls with family and friends, household chores, downtime into my day when the work hours run overtime?  Why does every single day present a different choice, and it just becomes a non-stop balancing act for my mental health? 

Do we try too hard, to do too much? How do we hit that sweet spot, without the doubtful consolation that one day, someday, we will get to relax and that it’s all going to be okay? Does it ever get okay when you are a conservationist? 

My friend asked me why I wanted to do a PhD. Knowing him, I gave practical answers: that I hope this will ensure better prospects for me in the future, higher pay, more opportunities, etc. Ever since I was a child, I was taught that whatever profession I chose, I should never stop trying to get to the top. To the highest position that the profession had to offer. Following this maxim, I’m working hard to hold on to both research and journalism, putting off the decision where I’ll have to choose one. I don’t want to choose. I don’t want to have to choose. 

Do we ever get the best of both worlds, and do we burn out just trying to get there? What are the other goals that we let go of in this pursuit? 

I seem to only have more and more questions today. No answers. The answer varies every day. 

More knowledge and more self-improvements lie ahead, and that is something my tired brain still craves. Maybe the answer is that we just keep trying. That’s the whole point of things, it seems. An eternal work-in-progress. Some days we stumble, other days we soar. No matter how hard we work, in life or in conservation, there’s always going to be one more thing that needs doing. 

For more of Renuka, check out @undefined _wallflower

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