Why Graduate School?

When I miss an opportunity or mess up on a question, I tend to take it as a challenge. A few weeks ago I traveled to Knoxville for my formal interview with the Animal Science graduate committee. Looking back, I would sure like to have a redo on a few questions. Surely, I am not the only one that looks back on things like interviews and thinks of better answers that could have been…

From the time I was a kid, I have always been passionate about working with cattle. Hands down, my favorite time of ranch life has always been calving season. I am pretty sure if you ask my dad today, he would agree that I drove him nuts always asking “Why” about everything on the ranch. That is just the person I am and just the way I think. So when asked why I want to go to graduate school, at the University of Tennessee, and study animal reproduction, my answer wasn’t quite up to par. The first response in my mind was “How can you not get excited about it? Just the whole system working together, creating life from nothing, and the fact that we can study and learn about this system, and how to manage it better.” Maybe not the answer these guys were looking for, but it was what came to my mind.

Why not graduate school? Looking back, I have to admit that I have never been content with just working. Ranch life is my passion, but academic work comes easier for me than it may for others. My ultimate goal is to retire on my front porch watching the sunset on the ranch, but I know there’s a long road before I arrive at that point. There is so much to learn, and I want to opportunity to share with others what I love most. Graduate school in Tennessee only makes sense. There are so many resources and opportunities in this state with the size of the beef cowherd. I want to gain a better understanding of cattle production. How can we do more with less? I want a better understanding of the production cycle and how we can better suit cows to our specific environments. Why not graduate school? Why not study under people I want to be like and learn more from? I can always learn from the school of hard knocks, but why not be one to help other ranchers be better producers too?

Why reproduction physiology? Many of my fondest memories as a kid include checking on calving cows with my dad and the rush and excitement of helping newborn calves into this world when trouble would arise. There have been many times when I would be shoulder deep in a cow, lying in the mud, watching snow fall, and suffering from arm cramps, just to deliver a calf that might or might not live. In those times, my head was spinning with questions. I thought this bull was an easy calver? Why is this heifer having trouble calving? (Why the hell can’t they calve in the daylight when it’s warmer???) As I grow up and learn more, my questions become a bit more. What can we do to improve our breeding rates? How can we help this heifer reach her full potential as a cow? How do all of these hormones come together in just the right amount at just the right time? How will stress during pregnancy affect this cow’s offspring? It truly is fascinating to me, and there is a never-ending list of questions. The big circle of life for these cattle, and I can keep learning more and more about it.

So where do I see graduate school taking me? Hell if I know. I do not have my heart set on one specific job description. I know my passion lies within the cattle community. I know that I love helping other people and sharing what I am most passionate about. I know I want to stay involved in cattle production (and no, “production” does not mean I want to get a degree and stay on the farm all my life), because that is where the best things, people, and places in my life reside. I cannot tell you right now if I want to work specifically in Academia or Industry. I cannot tell you exactly where I will be in 5 years. But one thing I do know is that I will continue seeking opportunities to learn, grow, investigate, and share because it’s what I love doing. Ultimately, it’s like what the apostle Paul said in Philippians…

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Maybe this still isn’t what those guys were looking for, but it’s what I’m going to be.

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IF you want to be successful, its just this simple. Know what you are doing. Love what you’re doing And believe in what you are doing. — Will Rogers


  1. Just remember that if you do stay on the ranch, that does not mean your learning stops. If you do make it into graduate school, just make sure you don’t focus your learning so much you lose the big picture.

    You would have had a love/hate relationship with my 1997 calving season. Just before the halfway mark we went through the records and discovered I had puled 35 upside down calves. Didn’t even want to count the total at the end of calving!

  2. I sat in your shoes about 10 years ago. I didn’t realize how long ago that really was till this moment!! I sat in front of the firing line at several well known land grant Universities trying to convince them why a ranch girl from Colo would be good for their program and what I could bring to the table. I am sure there were questions asked that I would of liked to re-do at the time but looking back I can’t remember them. All I can tell you is to just be yourself, they will see the passion and excitement when you talk about what you really want to do and that will go farther than you think. They want students that are enthusiastic, hard working and that can think for themselves to solve problems, if you can show them you can work hard, and have a passion for learning repro then you shouldn’t loose any sleep about how you answered a few questions. Sometimes it is not about the answer it is about the process of getting the answer!!
    A bit of advise – don’t get caught up 100% in the academic side of learning, what looks great on paper or in a lab can be a complete train wreck in the “real world” the books can tell you a lot but don’t forget about your common sense.

  3. I think that you will enjoy graduate school! I also think your answer at the interview was perfect. I do know that you will have a future on the ranch and will always keep learning there also. But, in the meantime enjoy graduate school and learn all you can learn!

  4. Ryan,
    You are just starting out on your adventure of life, a most exciting time for most folk; I am at the other end and just started blogging, and a lot to learn.

    You talk about difficult calving and was it the bull, in my experience cows are best calved in the spring, when they can have a three month hard weather and lower nutrition on the lead up to calving.
    The calf does not grow so big and you get easy calving, but of coarse the cows need to be in good condition going into the winter.
    Its just nature, if we interfere and give them extra feed on the run up to calving it grows the calf.
    In the long run nature knows best, I don’t mean starve them, just don’t feed them from the “bucket”. Medium silage is all that needed.


    1. Thanks for the comment Fred! Nutrition for the cow during gestation is definitely one of the things I have learned not only in the classroom, but also in the pasture. Every situation is different and unique and that’s what makes raising cattle a fun challenge.

  5. I also love calving. The wonder of God’s creative work is for me summed up in that wonderful little calf. I cant resist becoming emotional every time. My teenage daughters roll their eyes and say here she goes again, but the next time we are checking the calf camp and find a little calf nestled in the grass they say, ” Go on Ma, you know you have to do it”, and I can only thank God that two pieces of slime produced this wonderfully efficient animal.

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