Why I chose to do my doctoral work in geography

It started when I was in grade 3.  Me and my friend Robbie used to go straight home after school and the first thing we did when we got to Robbie’s house was go to his room and get out the National Geographic Atlas of the World.  Robbie lived close to ET Kenney school in Terrace, BC, where I grew up, so we didn’t have to wait long.  We walked fast telling stories or jokes or having deep conversations along the way.

Encouraged by the best teacher I ever had, Ms. T (now Mrs. S) Robbie and I developed a love of geography.  When she would ask the class “what do you want to be when you grow up?” and kids would raise their hands Robbie and I always had our hands up first and we always answered (not quite in unison, since Robbie was outgoing and I was shy) “CARTOGRAPHER!”

I don’t remember what the other kids answered.  I would like to think Robbie and I were sophisticated beyond our years, that we danced circles around the other kids and their standard self-serving answers of “doctor” or “teacher” or “truck driver.”  In fact, Robbie and I were snobs, and furthermore, we were not embarrassed about the fact that we were snobs who wanted to be cartographers.  We lived in our own elite world of dinosaurs, rockets and discussions on god and the universe.

We were postmodern.  High and low mixed in a profusion of ideas, voiced mostly by the ‘performative’ and extroverted Robbie.   What we did when we got back home was open the atlas as though it was a sacred tome and proceed to a map of interest chosen somewhat at random.  Then, by a mysterious process of selection, our fingers would move to a place on the map and, driven by our overactive imaginations, we would move them across the page and tell stories about the places across which our fingers traced trajectories and shapes.

By the time I had finished high school I had convinced myself I wanted to be an engineer only because I was good at physics, chemistry and math.  Lest it sound as though I’m bragging, I’d like to point out the abject way  which I excelled at those subjects.  They did not make me happy.  After two years in university (and a brief dalliance as a math major) I switched to geography.

I never looked back, and I have never been so sure of, or happy about, a decision in my life, before or since.   One of the best things about geography is that you get to go outside a lot.  Urban, rural or wilderness, it matters not.  A city person could study urban geography.  I have always been attracted to the landscapes of my home region, in and around northwestern BC, way up by the Alaskan panhandle.

In that area of the world, you have a fascinating mix of cultures co-existing in an uneasy tension.  One thinks first of the logging and mining interests, then of the aboriginal peoples: the Tsimshian, the Haisla and the Wet’suwet’en.  In Smithers and in Vancouver one of the most important court decisions in Canadian history played itself out, legitimizing aboriginal oral history within legal settings (Delgamuukw v. British Columbia).

Thus, I came to find the topics that would drive me through my master’s and doctoral work.  The conjunction of mapping and indigenous peoples is fascinating and endless.  That is a good thing, because as my chosen field of specialization, I will be writing papers and conference presentations on indigenous mapping for the rest of my career.

What an incredible thing to know what you want to do when you grow up!  But I have not always been so confident.  I sometimes (jokingly) tell people that I want to be a such-and-such ‘when I grow up.’   I still sometimes wonder if I made the right decision.  Why (other than masochism) did I stay with engineering for so long?  There were quite a few years in which I had no idea what I wanted to be.  I had forgotten about Robbie and me.

Now, as grad students, we think we should have all this figured out by now.  But for those who, like me, sometimes still wonder, I have some words of advice:  do what you love.   This might sound obvious, but it sometimes gets lost in the woodwork.  Grad students are probably overall a pretty idealistic lot.  But not as much as you’d think.  We get caught up in expectations: how to publish, how to get a great job, how to make money, how to just get the degree done and move on.

Finishing both my master’s degree, and now my doctoral degree, I have at times had to be quite instrumental, even cold, in my approach to my own work.  But it is only that deep love of geography that has kept me keeping on through the hot Montreal summers and the rainy snowy dark winters northwestern BC.

I’ll say it again:  do what you love.  In life, in school, in your imagination, in your dreams do what you love and dream of.  The payoff will come when one day you wake up with your head down on your desk after working ten hours straight on a comprehensive exam essay, wondering how you got to his place, and what you are doing anyway.  Realizing there’s no way out, you’re too far in now, you’ll actually find the feeling comforting because you’ll come to see that your shackles are of your own making, that they are made flowers instead of iron, and that they’ll set you free.

8 thoughts on “Why I chose to do my doctoral work in geography

  1. Hurtling across the black space of the nighttime highway through the west, I see you sitting like an owl in the volkswagon bus, clutching the road map, always the navigator, even at an early age.


  2. What an awesome story. I can totally relate with the first three paragraphs. I wish you the best and I will take your advice to “do what you love.”


    1. I’ve lost track of Robbie but I think my third grade teacher (Mrs. S) was in touch
      I plan to ask her when I go back to Terrace next time
      Thanks for your comment!


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