by Kristen Thomas
We all enter graduate school knowing that we will be challenged intellectually. We’re prepared to take more tests, to memorize more obscure brain regions, and to learn the finer details of experimental design. Yet no one warns us that the journey to a PhD will be at least as demanding emotionally. On a particularly difficult day in lab, I sat down to describe a few of these feelings that are truly unique to the graduate school experience.
Shameless Science Sorrows
Sometimes nothing is going right in science. Nothing. Add onto that the fact that life doesn’t always cooperate and make the non-science parts of your day any better. It’s okay to cry: in the bathroom, in the dark microscope room, in the cell culture room. Just preferably not in your advisor’s office. Trust me.
First Year Humility
After months of advertising how smart and talented we are, we finally enter graduate school and realize we’re at the bottom of the science totem pole. I feel like my first year was the peak of my perky science optimism. Then exams, rotations, quals, and lots of science failures hit and I felt my scientific spirit breaking. Science is hard, very hard. Nothing could have prepared me for discovering that I’m not nearly as smart or talented as I once though, but I’m grateful for the experience because it came with a huge dose of humility. I know my limits. I can ask others for help, and I’m open to other people’s input. It’s made me a better scientist and a far better human being. (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about here and you’ve made it past your second year, there’s a good chance everyone secretly hates you.)
Minions: The full emotional spectrum
I think many of us have forgotten how useless we were when we first started in lab as undergrads. We broke equipment, mixed up samples, contaminated cells, and created lab chaos that our mentors had to deal with until we slowly gained experience. Now that I’m a mentor with a small army of my own minions, I get to see the process from the other end. I was prepared for the chaos and the constant demands on my patience, but I wasn’t expecting to feel so proud of my students when they finally start to get it.
Although Emory offers plenty of opportunities for us to learn more about this phenomenon and try to overcome it, I know many of us continue to experience imposter syndrome: the feeling like we don’t belong here and if we aren’t careful everyone will find out that we’re imposters. While this feeling isn’t unique to graduate school, I feel like it’s particularly heightened here. We’re high achievers who spend most of our days surrounded by other high achievers. When I feel like I don’t belong here, I take a trip outside the ivory tower and talk to the non-scientists about what I do on a daily basis. Instant ego boost.
Many, if not most, of my experiments have worked the first time I’ve tried them. That’s when I think, “Oh yeah, I’m starting to get the hang of this science thing.” If I could trust this feeling, I would have graduated already. Early success is a trap, designed to lure unsuspecting graduate students into months of repeated failures. I no longer feel any joy about science until p<0.05, and even then I’m a little suspicious.
Most people are jealous that their neighbor has a nicer car, their friend is in better shape, or their co-worker got a promotion: I’m just jealous of your data. It’s usually when I’m convinced that I’m never going to graduate and I see one of my classmates presenting an endless stream of statistically significant data that tells a coherent story. I have to remind myself sometimes, that posters and presentations are the scientific equivalent of facebook; no one wastes space on obstacles and failures. They only show the good stuff. Now I try to stay focused on my own project and my own life.
Quals prep panic
The autumn weeks leading up to my oral qualifying exam are a bit of a blur. The more I read the literature relevant to my proposal the more convinced I became that I knew nothing and I was doomed to failure. I think this panic is a necessary part of the process. Without it I never would have finished the near-endless stacks of papers I kept on my desk, in my backpack, and on my dining room table that fall.
When I started making this list, I knew I was going to have a hard time filling out the positive end of the emotional spectrum. (I’ve already expounded on the joys of alcohol in another post.) Grad school isn’t all depressing though, mostly because we’re all going through it together. I’m lucky to be in an environment where we support each other. But even without our friends, there’s one emotion that I think keeps us all here:
Every once in a while, we manage to get something right, p<0.05, and we get to put a * (or even two!) on our graph. Then we remember why we’re here.