keep a tiger in your boatMind-blowing cinematography aside, one narrative moment stuck out for me in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi film adaptation. With only the dwindling lead of a single pencil to keep his mind occupied, Pi explains how his forced cohabitation on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has actually helped him in his daunting drift across the Pacific Ocean: “My fear of him keeps me alert,” Pi says, “Tending to his needs gives me purpose.”

Let’s take a closer look at his situation. Pi is surviving on very limited resources. His family and friends are oblivious to the challenges of the journey he is on. His rickety boat is subject to the whims of a force he can neither predict nor understand: at times he is hurled into the eye of an unforgiving storm, but often is left alone in an endless expanse, with little wind to propel his sails and no land in sight. He delights in the smallest victories and steadies himself against the unknown perils lurking below. His love of free food knows no bounds. Do you see what I’m getting at? I think we have a great metaphor for grad school here.

Why is the tiger so essential to his endurance? As Pi notes, the danger the tiger presents keeps him vigilant. He has to actively pursue survival, because passivity is death. And his sense of responsibility for the tiger’s welfare gives him imperative goals: he must feed the tiger.

How can we introduce tigers into this boat that is grad school? No, the tiger in this metaphor is not a particularly vicious advisor. It’s something that scares and challenges you on a daily basis, but that you invite in anyway.

What is it that inspires vigilance during these years of charting thesis waters? Sure, there will be submission deadlines or presentations to prepare, but often projects stall, or equipment breaks down, and tangible goals seem far beyond the horizon. During these stretches, when grad school feels like a vast expanse of slow moving water, how do you prevent a slip into complacency? Keep a tiger in your boat.

Think about what that tiger is for you, and also how you’ll feed it. If you are petrified of public speaking, sign up to give science demos at local elementary schools. If coding has always intimidated you, sign up for Code Academy. If your future career plans (or lack thereof) make you nervous, complete Science Career’s Individual Development Plan and hold yourself to the goals you set with IDP’s scheduled email reminders.

For me, that tiger is this website. Writing these posts is a challenge, and to be honest, CSS and HTML scare me at times.

What’s the tiger in your boat?