Finding support in a four-legged friend

Finding support in a four-legged friend

My dog, Roxanne (Roxy for short), has been by my side for my entire graduate career. I adopted Roxy before starting a two-year Master’s program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She moved with me to the University of Maryland for my PhD program. Now in the second year of my PhD, I cannot imagine PhD life without her. Roxy has helped me navigate the most challenging aspects of academia.



Image by Lori Willhite

It can be lonely to be PhD student. We move to new places to work long hours on our research. It can be hard to find time and energy to make friends outside of our departments (especially this past year during the pandemic). There are many moments where I am incredibly grateful to come home and have Roxy just follow me around the house. In 2018, during a summer internship in a different city, I did not live in the dorms with most of the other interns. Yet, I was never lonely because I had a friend to explore the parks, trails, and city with me. For my PhD position, I moved to the other side of the United States. With my trusty sidekick Roxy by my side, I was not afraid to drive and camp my way across the US. She also helped me make friends when I got to Maryland, because everyone stopped by my office to give her belly rubs!


One quarter I was a teaching assistant for a challenging and time-demanding class that had field trips every weekend and a significant amount of grading to do. I was also taking my own classes, some of which were quite demanding (one class would require 15 hours of homework each week!). This overlapped with my most busy laboratory schedule for my research. I could not let myself fall behind on any of these responsibilities without affecting the success of my students, my own research, and/or my lab group. So, I had to make sacrifices somewhere else: self-care. I stopped exercising regularly; I stopped grocery shopping and cooking healthy food. I felt guilty spending any time not working. Except… I had to take breaks to take Roxy on two walks per day.

Image by Lori Willhite

It turned out, walks are not enough exercise for young border collies. Roxy started to act out when I was too busy to exercise with her or take her on weekend adventures. Because of Roxy, I started going on short runs again, skating, and finding time for hikes. On one occasion, I was feeling particularly overwhelmed and plopped down face-first onto the sofa. Roxy came over and hit me with her paw several times and let out a little whimper, as if to say, “We both need to get some fresh air!” We went to the dog park, and I watched her have fun and run around with new friends, while I chatted with other dog owners in the crisp, cool air. These activities were healing at times that I was overrun by my own anxiety. They made Roxy her happiest self, too! When I had the choice to take care of myself or not, I had allowed myself to choose research over self-care, but with Roxy, I did not have that choice because she relies on me to survive. She forced me to take care of myself in the process of caring for her and reminded me that I am my best and happiest self when I make time for self-care.

Roxy reminded me that I am my best and happiest self when I make time for self-care

Image by Lori Willhite

It is easy to take yourself too seriously in science sometimes. Roxy likes to provide constant reminders to stop taking myself so seriously. She is an incredibly athletic and intelligent animal, and yet I regularly catch her clumsily tumbling off the sofa or slipping on our wooden floors. In these moments, I realize that her little goofs and mistakes do not take away from her talents, but instead add to her character. She is a very playful dog and will bring me toys when I am working on my laptop. She literally demands that I take breaks to play – a good reminder for those of us who tend to get obsessed with work. A lot of PhD students chose this career path because we have fun doing science. Roxy reminds me to let my personality shine through my work and have fun with it. I also try to be transparent about my failures, rejections, and mistakes. I want to show my colleagues and my students that making mistakes is not only common, but is an important part of the PhD process, and that mistakes do not subtract from our abilities and achievements. I am still learning and growing as a scientist and mentor, so I am grateful that Roxy constantly reminds me to make it fun!

Mistakes do not subtract from our abilities and achievements


On each first Monday of the month, The PhD Chronicles blog series gives a special place for PhD researchers to share their successes, challenges, and failures. Would you like to share your story? Contact us here.

Lori Willhite is a PhD student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She has a B.A. in Chemistry with a minor in Earth Science, a B.S. in Biopsychology, as well as an M.S. in Earth Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lori uses isotope and trace element systematics to study the evolution and chemical geodynamics of terrestrial planets. She is also involved with the development of mass spectrometers for future space exploration of terrestrial planets and satellites. Roxy is a border collie mix and rescue.

Anna is PhD student at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics group at ETH Zürich, Switzerland. With the use of numerical modelling, she studies the interior dynamics of the Earth and Venus. Anna is the Early Career Scientist representative for the Geodynamics Division of EGU, and the topical editor for The PhD Chronicles blog series for the division's website. She tweets under @AnnaGeosc.

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