Chasing Ice (aka Do What You Want with Your Grad Degree)

27 Nov

Last weekend there was a free screening of James Balog‘s film “Chasing Ice” here in Vancouver, organized by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement and the Environmental Youth Alliance. I only just read about James’ project in National Geographic’s 125th Year Special Photo Issue last week (lucky!), so this movie immediately went into the Saturday night spot in my calendar.

The movie focuses on the Extreme Ice Survey project that James started. The idea is to document the changing glacier landscape using time-lapse photographs. While the idea seems simple enough, the execution is hardly the case. Just imagine carrying all the camera gears, some of which you have to build yourself because they don’t exist yet (not built for extreme weathers or long duration without care), climbing hours in -40C weather, and checking regularly to make sure the cameras are taking photos instead of being knocked down by falling rocks or having their wires chewed up by wolves. They also lost the first few months because of malfunction timers, so they ended up making a few extra trips in order to replace all the timers. This is not to mention James had several knee surgeries done in order to complete the project.

Yup, that’s what they did.

But the results were astounding. While you might not understand statistics or mathematical models, one thing you can clearly learn from his photos is that our climate is changing, the glaciers are disappearing, and at once we can really grasp what climate change means. All that ice must be going somewhere? And that is a consequence we can envision.

Through nearly a million time-lapse photographs, we now have indisputable, gut-wrenching proof that ancient glaciers are disappearing…The photographs show glaciers breaking apart and melting faster than we had imagined.

– James Balog, National Geographic

Interestingly, James actually has a background in research, with a graduate degree in geography and geomorphology. He admitted in the movie that he was not so keen on the numbers and statistics associated with research work. However, it appears that he developed photography skills while he was working on his master’s degree, and eventually found passion in documenting humans’ interaction with the natural world. To me, it is clear that his research background supplemented him tremendously in his photography work as well as the Extreme Ice Project, making his photography a work of art and science.

In fact, his story is familiar one for me. When I was working on my PhD, I found myself drawn to chatting with and writing to people about science instead of my *actual* research work. In fact, it was during this time that I got better with writing grant applications, editing people’s work, and planning outreach events. It took a while for me to make up my mind not to stay in research, by which time I was already half way into an expedited PhD program and finished my comprehensive exam. I then did something unthinkable (my boyfriend at the time went “you did WHAT?”). I called my supervisor and transferred myself out of the PhD program to complete with a master’s instead.

Do I ever regret it? Maybe a tiny bit, once in a while, when many of my friends from graduate school are now being called Doctors. But that regret goes away oh so quickly because I love my job so much, and I know that for some friends, I have the dream job that they want. I could not imagine what would have happened if I didn’t take that step to do something about it.

My point is – regardless of whether you are working on your master’s degree or your PhD, your life is really, well, your life. While there are many talks about the lack of academic positions for the number of graduate students we are training, or whether going to grad school is worth the time and the money, perhaps ask these questions instead: Do I really need a PhD to do this? Do I really want an academic career? Can the skills I develop during grad school help me do something I love? And, don’t doubt the value of what others might consider “lost years” if you don’t end up with an academic career. James got really good with photography, and I had plenty of opportunities to work on my writing and event planning, all during graduate school. In fact, now that I think about it, there is so much flexibility in graduate school that it probably is the best chance to spare some time and  do something you love.

I remember talking to my mom about the decision to get out of PhD in one of those sleepless nights, and my mom said,

“Theresa, life is too short, so do what you want.”

I guess that is why James Balog was chasing ice, and I am now writing/talking science. That’s why we don’t let our degrees define what we want our lives to be.

On the topic of making your life an adventure, check out Terry McGlynn’s great post On creating your own path through life. And, regardless what your attitude toward climate change is, I highly recommend that you check out Chasing Ice. For the story, for the striking imagery, and for potentially the last evidence of our glacier that might disappear in our life time.


9 Responses to “Chasing Ice (aka Do What You Want with Your Grad Degree)”

  1. Chad Atkins (@chemchad) November 28, 2013 at 12:29 am #

    Your mom sounds like she knows a thing or two 🙂 And I agree, the flexibility you can have in graduate school provides opportunities to do lots of things you’d rarely have the time to explore if buried in an industry job.

    A big take away from the movie for me was his passion to get it right – perhaps all photographers are like this, but hiking a cliff face to mount a camera to get a perfect shot really says a lot about his dedication to capturing the story through film.

    • Terrific T November 28, 2013 at 10:22 am #

      I think many photographers have the commitment to get it right – it is not unusual for one to stand at the same spot for hours, waiting for the moment the sun is in the right spot in order to get the right shot. But he definitely went to the extreme (“Extreme” Ice Project!) – the challenges he had to overcome are tremendous and his dedication was incredible. I personally think the movie is inspiring.

      My mom is awesome. Never for once she told me “you need to be a *insert a professional title* .” I think she really gets it 😀

  2. Jared Stang November 28, 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    This was a great post for me for two reasons: 1. Chasing Ice is the best documentary I’ve seen recently (it made me wonder briefly if there were more important things than theoretical physics), and; 2. As I’m nearing the end of my degree, I’m thinking seriously about what I ‘want to do’ (and thinking more and more that it will likely not be the academic track).

    In terms of reason 2 above, posts like these are great for perspective and support as I’m facing the reality and excitement of finding my own path through life.

    Thanks! (And thanks for the good links too!)

    • Terrific T November 28, 2013 at 10:56 pm #

      I agree – it is definitely on the top of my list. I am glad that you find the post helpful. When i was making my decision – it was a very scary time, but also full of possibilities 😀 Good luck!

  3. Sarah Boon December 4, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    “Your life is really, well, your life”.

    Exactly. It took me a long time to figure out this basic premise, and kudos to your mum for supporting you in figuring it out (not all peoples’ parents are so great…).

    When I was writing my Medium piece about academic boxes/altac careers/etc, I realized that this is ultimately what it boils down to: what you want to do with your life, not what your supervisor/parents/friends/significant others/uni system thinks you should do.

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience with this basic – but oh-so-hard to grasp – idea.

    (BTW Chasing Ice was pretty awesome! The glaciologist geek in me wanted more technical details, but I could see how effectively it communicated the climate change/glacier story regardless of viewers’ science background).

  4. Patricia Gongal (@EnglishEdition) December 4, 2013 at 8:49 am #

    This is a lovely post. I think “do what you want” is actually pretty good career advice! Finding a match between your career and your passions/talents is so important. It sometimes seems like “the academy” considers the tenure-track as the one and only pinnacle of human achievement.

    I have a book of James Balog’s photography- it’s amazing.


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