Sunday, May 26, 2013

The point of all this

I was on the phone with my mom yesterday, and she asked what I was doing next week. “Going to a large shelter in [big Southern city,]” I say.

“I’m not sure what the point of all this is,” says my mom with her PhD, who had been so enthusiastic when I told her that I was planning to do a PhD in the genetics of dog behavior after I finished my internship. “But you have known what you’re doing before, so I guess you do this time too.”

“Do you want me to try to explain it?” I ask, and she allows that this would be acceptable.

So I try to explain why I’m doing a year of clinical work in shelters if I am so interested in dog brains. The thing is that I have always been interested in both research (and teaching and writing peer-reviewed papers and being hidden in the ivory tower) and in being in a shelter or in the field and getting my hands dirty and making a tangible difference. I do want to figure out the mechanisms behind pathological fearfulness in dogs, and what makes domesticated animals like dogs different from wild animals like wolves. But I also want to keep connected to the world of the animals who are actually suffering from shyness, both so I can get new ideas about what needs studied, and so that I can try to apply some of what I learn.

I have always felt that my two interests, in fearfulness in dogs and in clinical shelter behavior, are closely intertwined. But the institutions I’ve learned from don’t seem to see it that way. Four years of clinical work for a DVM degree (in which we were told again and again that more veterinarians are needed in research, but in which we had no classes about research topics). One year of a research Masters. One year of a clinical internship. Next, several more years of research. My internship mentors worry that I am too interested in research and not enough in clinical work. My PhD mentor worries that I am too interested in clinical work and not enough in research. When do I get to do both at once?

After I’m done with schooling, maybe. I’ve learned a lot about how shelters work in my internship, and maybe even more importantly, I’ve seen some possible career paths in consulting for me. Part time work, called in on a temporary basis to work for large animal welfare groups dealing with issues such as enrichment in temporary shelters after large seizures of hundreds of animals, or behavioral evaluations of large numbers of seized fighting dogs. The other parts of my time spent teaching? Doing some research? It’s way too soon to try to figure out the details, but at least I have ideas of where to look to put together my perfect patchwork of jobs. And hopefully with my internship under my belt I will have the street cred to say that I know how shelters work and what their common problems are.

Maybe I should have just said that there are lots of broken dog brains in shelters, and left it at that!

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