Mountains to climb: an allegory for the struggling veterinary graduate student

Mountains to Climb

I’ll never forget that cool morning in late summer when I awoke in the back of my friend’s pickup truck at the base of Mount Borah, Idaho’s tallest mountain. I had been out of veterinary school for just over a year, and just barely turned 30. The previous day I had given my two weeks’ notice at the clinic I had been working at for the past 5 months. Prior to starting there, I had completed a large animal internship, but the position I was about to leave had been my first real job out of veterinary school, and the future was uncertain.

I had graduated in the throes of the global financial crisis. Many of my classmates had struggled to even find jobs, and here I was leaving one. The internship had come about largely because the dairy industry had been particularly hard hit by the sub-prime collapse, and the dairy jobs that had seemed plentiful in 2008 had all but disappeared by the time I graduated in 2009. At the completion of my internship, the prospects for a position as a dairy veterinarian in my home state of Idaho had not improved much, so I had taken a job at a mixed animal practice in rural Montana.  I had expected to do mostly cattle work, however it turned out that my employers had expected me to do more small animal and equine work than I was comfortable with. So, when the opportunity came to take a temporary position as a relief veterinarian for a large dairy practice in Oregon, I jumped at the chance.

Now here I was, staring up at the peak of a mountain roughly a mile higher than the trailhead where I stood, with only about 3 ½ miles of horizontal distance to cover in order to reach the summit.  First came a short, easy ascent through a wooded canyon followed by a few meandering switchbacks; long and tedious, but manageable.  Next came a scramble over a high ridge of jagged rocks, known colloquially as ‘chicken-out’ ridge, so named for the high proportion of hikers who looked at the sheer drop off over the edge of the narrow trail and said “nope!” Last of all came the long, steep climb through the shale fields at the base of the summit; a grueling ordeal made all the more difficult by the rarefied atmosphere that exists 12,000 ft above sea level.

The canyon and switchbacks passed by pleasantly enough, but soon I found myself astride a narrow path atop chicken-out ridge. Getting up to the ridge had seemed like an accomplishment in and of itself, however once I was up there, all I could see around me were gigantic peaks that seemed to tower over me and amplify the sense of vertigo I was starting to struggle against. It was hard not to feel intimidated by the sheer scale of my surroundings. To the Northeast I could clearly see Borah Peak standing stark against the clear, blue sky. There were other hikers already at the top, I supposed they had either left much earlier and/or were in better shape than us; it was hard to say for sure because from my vantage point they looked like ants. Nevertheless, I kept plodding along, conversing cheerfully with my hiking buddies to distract myself from the terrifying, 1000+ feet drop-offs below us as we scrambled our way across the ridge towards the saddle immediately below the shale fields.

Reaching the saddle felt like another milestone, and I noticed that I was already looking down on many of the peaks that had seemed so large just an hour before. However, once we started up the shale, my legs began to feel more and more like jelly. My lungs burned in the thin air, and it seemed like every step required an order of magnitude more effort than any of the steps I had taken earlier in the day. Notwithstanding, we started setting small, manageable goals to motivate ourselves and kept making incremental progress. At times the progress was so slow that it was tempting to despair and contemplate turning back. However, we kept on plodding along, stopping every so often to rest our legs and our lungs. In the moment, that last climb through the shale seemed like an eternity, but in reality we reached the summit after about an hour and a half; no time at all. Standing on top of that peak made all of the other mountains, that had seemed so large earlier that morning, appear rather small, and I could see for 100 miles in every direction. Someone had a left an Idaho flag furled in a weather-safe PVC container for hikers to hold aloft once they reached the summit. I proudly held it up while one of my friends took my picture with my flip-phone. We spent a short while enjoying the scenery, but didn’t linger too long as that area is infamous for sudden, unexpected afternoon thunderstorms (being on an exposed ridge at 12,000 feet is no place to be when there is lightning coming down). We soon made our way back to the trailhead, however, standing on top of that mountain had invigorated me. The doubts and anxieties of the morning had fled, and in many ways, I felt like a new person with a renewed sense of confidence and direction.

I share this experience, because over the past couple of years I have come to realize that working on a post-graduate degree (or doing scientific research in general) is a lot like climbing a mountain. The backgrounds of those who take on the challenge are varied, as are their motivations, but once you start on the path, it usually starts out pleasantly enough. However, it doesn’t take long before the sheer magnitude of what you are trying to accomplish can seem overwhelming. There are times when the progress is slow, or where you might feel like calling it quits and heading back to the valley of the familiar. However, if you stick with it, and draw upon the collective strength of those who share your journey, over time the obstacles and challenges that initially seemed so daunting will gradually become less, and less intimidating. The clock never ceases to tick, and though the days may seem to drag on at times, it will be over before you know it. When that day comes, take a moment to stand on top of that mountain, unfurl your flag, and take note of the new person you have become. It is not the end, there will be other mountains to climb (plenty that are much higher, and more technically demanding), but now you will be able to climb them knowing that you did it before, and you can do it again.