reality (of) settling in.

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By now I’m a pro at traveling and moving. Over the last two years I lived in four different countries; at this point I’m up to 16 months straight where I haven’t stayed in one country for a whole month, whether it means a “permanent” move or a conference or vacation.

When I left the U.S. on Halloween to move to Zurich, things were easy. Packing went more smoothly than it ever has in the past. The travel was no problem; at JFK I talked my way into the U.S. Airways Lounge by charming the front desk lady. There, I enjoyed free breakfast and stocked up on snacks for my trip. I even managed to actually sleep on the overnight flight.

Moving in and settling down, I thought, would be just as easy. Paperwork? I’ve done that before. Bureaucratic rules? Check. Learning where the nearest grocery store is? Yeah, I’ve done that. (Not to mention, I now have an iPhone so I can actually get directions and maps on the fly, which is huge.)

After all, I have been looking forward to this so much: coming to Zurich, working in an amazing institute, living in one place for three years. Making myself a home and finding a community. Traveling with a backpack, instead of a duffel bag and a ski bag each weighing 50 pounds. Having a kitchen; having a living room. Having a bedroom that is separate from those rooms. Having a yard! Having plants. Being able to get into a routine, to have habits like going for a run in the morning. Having space to plan in.

I’m certainly well on my way to those goals.

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But surprisingly, the moving-in and settling-down part is proving harder than I had expected. Way harder. And I don’t mean that it’s a stuggle: most things were checked off my list in the first day. I have a phone number, a bank account, a train pass, some furniture. The main things remaining are university registration (all my documents are in but the University of Zurich inexplicably takes up to three months to process it?) and, once that’s complete, insurance. And the migration board. Switzerland lets you in as long as you have a visa, but then waits to offer you an appointment to get a residence permit – so for weeks, potentially, you’re living with no Swiss-issued permission or ID. Which prevents you from checking a whole bunch of other things off your list.

What’s hard is that every day when I come home from work, I’m exhausted. Totally, completely done with the world. As I recently wrote in an e-mail to one friend, ” I get home and I melt into a puddle of useless sofa-glop.” (At least I have a sofa.)

The things that I want to do in my evenings don’t get done. I don’t go for that jog or do that circuit workout. I don’t read that paper or work on that manuscript left over from my masters degree. I don’t even reply to e-mails from my friends – the act of typing out my thoughts is too much. I don’t write the article for FasterSkier.

Probably, I peruse the internet and, in a haze, read some pop culture news that doesn’t even absorb into my brain.

Why this is so, I can’t seem to explain.

There’s been a lot of discussion in academic circles recently about how we all complain about how busy and stressed we are, but that’s only because we choose to see ourselves as busy and stressed. There have been some fabulous rebuttals, my favorite of which comes from Timothée Poisot:

“the raw volume of things we have to do increases over time; so does our productivity, but with a delay. We are essentially in a Red-Queen dynamics with ourselves: more work to do means that we have to develop a new coping strategy, in the form of more productive habits. Then when we feel comfortable, we take on more work, and become overworked again.”

(If you’re not familiar with the Red Queen hypothesis, here‘s a nice explanation of how a chapter in Through The Looking Glass is related to evolutionary theory.)

Looking back over the last few years, I totally see this in my life. That’s why I think it’s such a great explanation. I’ve gone from producing 50 to 75 to over 100 race reports (of increasingly better quality) for FasterSkier every winter, while simultaneously holding better and more serious jobs – hell, I did a masters degree which involved writing my own grants and administering a field season. I never feel totally comfortable, but as I pile on more things, they always seem to get done with no more stress than the previous, slightly-smaller workload.

Do things get lost in the lurch? Yeah. Personal relationships. But I still have good epistolary (ok, e-mail) relationships with some great friends, and things always fall back into place when I see them. I still wish I was better though, and wish I was closer to some of the people I care most about. And I wish I had more time to exercise – that for sure gets lost. I’m in the worst shape of my life since high school, but on the other hand, I’m still certainly in better shape than most people. It’s just my personality and life experience that keep me saying that this isn’t good enough.

Business, and busy-ness, marches onward, to both ever-new heights and exactly the same height.

What I can’t reason my way around is my sudden crash once I moved to Zurich. If anything, I’m less “busy” than I have been: the grind of the PhD has barely started. I’m still reading papers and trying to feel my way out. I will start seminars and journal clubs for the first time this week; up until now I got out of many of the demands of my position by virtue of being “new” and “still settling in”. Compared to my classmates all around me, life is a breeze.

So perhaps it comes down to this. For the last two years, I have known that every move is more or less temporary. That I need to make friends, but maybe not worry about them too much because I’ll just leave them soon. That the main thing I need to do is keep myself happy from day to day. (And in the course of being happy, of course, you end up making friends who are much more than temporary.)

Now, there’s a lot more pressure. I have to find the things that can keep me happy for the next three years. I have to make better, lasting relationships. If I go for a run, I’m thinking, oh yes, this is how my morning run will be! Which means, wait, what if I don’t like that morning run?

Which is silly, of course.

Yesterday I went for a hike with my friend Timothée (not the same as the guy who wrote the blog post). I randomly picked a place on the map where there were nice-looking mountains (at least according to contour lines) that wasn’t too far from Zurich. We took the train for an hour and set out.

It turned out to be up, for 3000+ feet straight. No breaks, no little flats or downhills as you head for the next ridge. It took impossibly long (well, just 1 1/2 hours with some breaks to look at chamois and sketchy cable cars) to reach the point I had marked on the map as where we could decide which of several routes to take onward. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I’d look at my watch and realize that it had only been ten minutes since the last time I looked at my watch, thinking, we must be getting somewhere by now.

Of course, we eventually got somewhere – somewhere with beautiful views. It was rewarding and I was thrilled to be in the mountains. All of the things that you remember when hiking as soon as the part that sucks stops.

And that’s a little bit like what starting in Zurich is like. It’s uphill and I am more and more exhausted, and I keep thinking, somewhere up ahead is a trail that traverses across the side of the mountain. Sometime it won’t be uphill anymore. It must be right around the next corner.

The bottom line is that moving takes a lot more out of you than you expect. Over the next few months, things will get easier. Routines will develop without me consciously thinking, “oh yes, this is a routine which is developing.” Days will become a blur of office, seminars, meetings, lunch with the lab group, German class, presentations. Weekends will be for skiing and reporting. I won’t notice so much the weird starkness of settling in before you are settled in.

And I will get back to being busy as a student, as a writer, as a crazy-ass human being. You know, like usual. For some reason, that doesn’t exhaust me.

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up by the bootstraps.

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Amid the recent economic downturn, there has been a lot of criticism of my generation. We say we have no jobs? Well, we’re lazy; we expect everything to be handed to us; we don’t plan for the future and then complain when the future is not good. That’s why we don’t have jobs. One common refrain is “well you should have majored in a STEM field, not the humanities, and you’d have a reliable job.”

It’s certainly true that there are jobs in the STEM fields. It’s true that a degree in biology, for instance, teaches you skills like data management and statistics which may be transferable to normal jobs. Recent census data shows that only 1 in 4 people with a bachelors degree in a STEM field go on to a job in those fields. So: there aren’t that many jobs available, actually. Good luck getting one. (Also, no shock here, most of the people who do get these jobs are men.)

It’s also interesting to hear people’s reactions when I say that I am about to start a PhD program. Getting a PhD is still so respected, so mythical: people tell me that they could never imagine receiving a PhD offer, much less doing the work to get the degree. Maybe I’ll learn otherwise, but I disagree. Do you have to be smart? Yes. Do you have to have done good work in your career up to this point? Yes. But in my mind, the biggest challenge to a long-term research degree is working really hard, working long hours, and staying motivated when there is no end in sight and things aren’t going well. It can be a very discouraging slog; many people hate their PhD project by the time they finish.

But more and more people are finishing. More and more degrees are being handed out. According to the NSF, the number of doctorates awarded increases by 3.4% annually. Clearly, achieving this is not an impossible feat: it just takes a lot of sacrifices and hard work.

Hard work is something I’m good at. That’s why I feel comfortable taking on a PhD. I think I can muscle my way through. But will it matter, in the long run?

For people in our grandparents’ generation, becoming a college professor was a good, secure, respected life. By no means easy or necessarily affluent, but solidly middle-class. Things have changed. In 1969, 78% of faculty positions were tenure-track; today that number has dipped to just 33%. The good jobs are disappearing. There are three times as many part-time faculty jobs as there were then, and reports of adjunct professors who have to work at multiple schools to pay the bills, or go on food stamps. Obviously it’s not like that for every person, but it’s not good.

So once you have gotten a doctorate, the future is really no clearer or more rosy than it was before. Friends and family might consider the achievement some sort of pinnacle or achievement; the labor market might not agree.  The same NSF report states,

“The proportion of doctorate recipients with definite commitments for employment or postdoctoral (postdoc) study fell in 2012 for life sciences, physical sciences, and engineering, the third consecutive year of decline in these fields. In every broad science and engineering (S&E) field, the proportion of 2012 doctorate recipients who reported definite commitments for employment or postdoc study was at or near the lowest level of the past 10 years, 2 to 11 percentage points lower than the proportion of 2002 doctorate recipients reporting such commitments.”

Only 2/3 of PhD recipients in science fields had definite employment commitments after graduation, in 2012; this was lower (closer to 60%) for life sciences, my field, than for others. If you want to stay in academia the costs are high, as a post-doctoral position earns less than half the average salary of an industry job.

I’m still not sure if I want to go down this road all the way, to become a PI (Principal Investigator: usually a professor, someone who gets a grant is in charge of a research project). But it’s clear to me that if I do, it will be challenging. I’m confident in my ability to finish a PhD, do good work, and continue to publish papers. But is this good enough to be able to have the type of life that I eventually want to have? Being smart is not enough to guarantee a professorship.

The journal/magazine Science recently made a widget for young career scientists to figure out what their chances are of becoming a PI. I filled in the information on a whim. I feel like I’m doing pretty well compared to many people at a similar point in their masters; I have a lot of research experience both in my masters and as a technician, I have a few papers published, I have made connections. I have applied for and received my own grant funding, something which is rare for students of my cohort.

Even if I don’t become a PI (or don’t want to become a PI), I think of other dream jobs – “reach goals” – and imagine that they might have similar requirements. Want to get a National Geographic Explorers Grant? Work for a nonprofit nature research group you admire in a cool part of the world? In order to choose your own future, you need to be pretty much a badass.

So I was discouraged when I saw this.

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I’m a girl, so lucky me, I’m sitting at 6% with my chance of becoming a PI.

I have written, maybe on this blog or maybe just on facebook, about why there are fewer women in science. There are more women in the life sciences, actually, than men, at early career stages. But that changes over time. There was a great article about why in the New York Times last fall. Read it. But regardless, I’m pissed: it’s not fair that I’m down at 6% while the boys are so much higher.

6%!? With all the hard work I’ve already put it? It felt like an insult.

The cool thing about the widget is that you can toggle the different variables and see how the line changes. The most important thing, it seems, is the number of first-author publications you have. I began thinking about what I could change in the next year. I will move universities to a more prestigious one and start a PhD program. But hopefully, I’ll also publish more. Publication is a long process, so the odds that anything from my work this summer is published by Christmas is zero. There’s hope though. We have one paper in review which has actually come back from reviewers and is sitting on the editor’s desk: hopefully, with revisions, they will take it. I have two other papers in progress where drafts are already being circulated among co-authors. On those two, I would be first author – the coveted position which I haven’t occupied so far.

The thing that makes a difference.

If all goes well, by the end of the year my chances could look more like this.

goal by the end of September

So I have to get to work. And that’s science, for you: there is no relaxing. You’re in the field in a remote location? Doesn’t matter. You have to be working on papers. Haven’t seen your family in months? Too bad, keep working on papers. On vacation? Keep working on papers.

That’s the future I maybe have to look forward to – if I’m lucky and make it through.

I knew that it was tough to become a PI. Over the last decade, getting a tenure-track job is no longer the most common outcome for PhD recipients (and to be clear, I don’t mean the most common immediate outcome: I mean, outcome at all, even after one or a few postdoctoral positions). In the biological sciences, only 8% of PhDs receive a tenure-track job within 5 years of getting their doctorate.

If you get a postdoc, the future isn’t much better. 10% of postdocs are unemployed: that’s actually higher than our country’s unemployment rate. In 2012, 20% of postdocs were handed a faculty position.

There are many pros and cons to getting a faculty position, or a tenure-track one, at that. I’m years away from deciding if that’s right for me. But the knowledge that despite everything I’m doing, I might not be able to? It’s frustrating. It motivates me to work harder, but also to hate the system a little bit.

I have pride in the work that I do. I’m not asking anyone to hand anything to me. What irks me is that for myself and the many very talented, motivated students I work with, our work is not valued.

I hate being told I can’t do something, when I know that if I was just given a chance, I’d hit the ball out of the park.

It’s the worst feeling.

Science today is not the same as science used to be.

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On a final strange yet amusing note, here’s a predatory publishing e-mail I received today! Good for some laughs – until you think that people fall for this scheme. The paper they are asking about has already been published in an established journal, downloaded hundreds of times, and has copyright. So, nope, I’m not interested in paying you to publish it in paperback…. just no.

I guess to one extent, you know you’ve made it when you start receiving predatory publishing e-mails.

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online dating, academic-style.

Being as I defend my masters thesis in November, I recently started looking for a PhD position.

I wasn’t looking hard: most positions being advertised right now start in the fall, which I can’t do because I’ll still be working on that thesis. I assumed I’d finish up, move home and spend a few months with my parents while I searched for my next job. I just wanted to keep an eye out for what was being posted.

So I was surprised when I saw an advertisement for a position studying something I was interested in, starting in January. The lab’s research topics were like a list of my own favorite concepts in ecology. The supervisor wrote a widely-read and sometimes witty blog about theoretical concepts in ecology. It was in Canada, and I had just spent a few e-mails discussing with my friend Jean how happy she is in her PhD at the University of Manitoba and how she feels that in some respects she is ahead of her peers who are at American universities.

The posting was like an online dating profile of a match designed especially for me. If this was Tinder, I would have swiped right immediately. I was excited. (was I being catfished? stay tuned)

It wasn’t Tinder though – it was a slightly more involved online dating program, with more than a one-night stand on the line. What I had to decide was whether I would be auditioning for the chance to be married to this guy for five years. And I did want that. I wanted to reply right then, right away – pick me!! But you don’t want to seem too desperate when you’re marketing yourself around, do you? You have to play hard to get, nonchalant. I waited a day.

(just to be clear: I have no romantic designs on any potential supervisors. this one, in fact, is married.)

The PI (principal investigator) had set out a series of questions for potential applicants – what are your interests? your background? your goals? your math skills? send some unofficial transcripts too, please. I spent one weekend evening crafting an introduction letter, answering each question in turn, then realizing that an entire 15-line paragraph for one question was too much and cutting it down. My tone was lighthearted and I joked around, but then I wondered if I wasn’t being serious enough. I didn’t want to depict myself as boring, either, though. Luckily my fingernails were painted a blaring warning-red color at the time or else I would have, unnoticing, bit them down to the nubs as I wrote and rewrote each sentence, wondering if it was good enough.

I attached my CV, my million transcripts (three universities during my masters alone), contact info for my references, and a project proposal from a recent grant application to prove how I thought about experimental design. It was Sunday morning. I hit send.

Immediately I was overcome by nerves.

Would I get a first date?

On Monday, I got a reply to my e-mail. The PI wrote that I was “clearly bright and experienced, and you have a very clear-eyed sense of yourself” and he was interested in learning more about whether we’d work together well.

He likes me. I felt a flush of pride and validation. Lately nobody had been telling me I’d been doing a good job at work, because my current supervisor doesn’t even usually read the methods sections for the analyses that I do for him. He’s the equivalent of a deadbeat boyfriend in that regard.

But this new guy? He had picked me out of a crowd. Yeahhhhhh.

The response included a few more questions, as well as asking if I had any questions for him. I tried to think of good ones: how does funding work in Canada? What is the department like? How big is his lab and what is their working style? What about the school or the city make you want to stay there? Would there be money for me to go to meetings and conferences, or to external courses if I needed to learn a new statistical technique that nobody taught at the university?

Again, I had to delete about two different versions of this e-mail so that I wouldn’t seem overeager. Maybe my perception of the first date and his perception of the first date were different. I didn’t want to demand a second date, like, tomorrow. Maybe he was just being polite when he told me he was impressed with my CV; maybe he was telling that to all the other girls (um, I mean applicants). How many were there, anyway?

After I fired off that missive, the PI told me he’d start looking into my references and get back to me later. I fervently hoped that they’d say nice things about me, and then began to worry that they wouldn’t say the right things.

I also began to do my own homework. After all, me and this PI were about to get into a pretty serious relationship. It would be a five-year partnership – that’s longer than 20% of marriages last in the US – and breaking up would be hard to do. This has got to be one of the very few fields where you make such a long, binding commitment to someone after knowing them only very briefly. Seriously, it’s like getting married – and in a hurry. You see the person almost every day, and your success depends to a huge extent on them. If the relationship sours, or never even starts off right, a quick divorce looks a lot worse on the “education” section of your CV than it does in a real-world dating scenario.

Worse, you can’t make it through life just being single, which has been my (non-)dating approach for about four years now. You have to have a supervisor. You can’t do an independent-study PhD.

This was a lot of pressure. To put it differently: in no part of my life have I ever made as large a commitment to anything as I am potentially about to make to a PhD supervisor. And I hadn’t even talked to the guy yet. Our relationship was online-only.

I found that I had two friends who had worked in the department at various times, so I began asking them what they thought of the PI. It was like asking your buddies about that cute guy you hung out with at the last party, but aren’t sure if you should call. “Well he seemed nice, but I only met him that one time – what do you guys think?”

They – and their friends they put me in touch with – had decidedly mixed responses. Some thought he was a nice guy, a great explainer of ecological theory. Others thought he was not a good supervisor. They pointed to potential red flags I should pay attention to, like how some of his students had dropped out.

(That’s not unusual, exactly, and in case I end up working with this PI I won’t go into too much detail about my deliberations and conversations about his relationships with his students….)

After all of this, I was intrigued. The university and its city sounded like great places to work and live, and I have other friends living in the area. There was nothing about the PI that made me feel like running in the other direction. One friend said she thought I’d be “a great candidate to have a healthy relationship with him”.

Apparently my references/friends also said nice things about me. Later in the week, the PI asked for a skype meeting. It happened. We were both nervous and very awkward when we picked up the phone (er, the webcam). In the middle of the call, his computer crashed, although I didn’t realize it right way. All I saw was that our call was dropped, and I freaked out wondering if it was my fault and if he was offended. Hanging up on your boss isn’t exactly a good interview strategy.

We spent a lot of time talking about ourselves, trying to make ourselves appealing to the other person. Actually, this is kind of the part of dating that I find disgusting and hate.

“Well, I’m a pretty strong writer, or at least a fast one so I don’t think that finishing my manuscripts from my masters thesis will be a problem,” I said at one point, before turning bright red because I hate giving myself compliments and sounding like a self-congratulatory asshole.

“Wow, that’s something most students don’t say about themselves,” he laughed. “That’s great.”

Ugh. barf.

But things seemed possible. The project seemed right up my alley. He invited me to come to the university to visit his lab.

Wow, our relationship was moving quickly.

Then he offered to pay for the trip.

$1500, it costs to fly from Stockholm to this part of Canada on two weeks notice. Yeah, our relationship was moving really quickly.

I’m excited to go on the trip, but at this point I face an emotional conundrum that has ensnared many a woman. I like the research and learning opportunities that are being offered to me. I’m not sure yet if I will fit in well with the lab and the PI. Obviously, going to visit is the best way to find out, and even if I decide “no”, it will be really useful for me in my future searches. Free vacation! (actually, a whole day flying, two days there, and then another whole day flying – not sure that counts as a vacation)

But it’s like when you get taken out to a really fancy expensive dinner. At the end of the night, the enlightened feminist in you thinks, “I don’t owe this guy anything, we just enjoyed a lovely evening in each other’s company.” The vestiges of female guilt bred into us for generations upon generations make you think, “wow, this guy just spent a lot of money on me, I probably owe him at least a kiss.”

Basically, if I fly to Canada on this PI’s dime, he’s probably expecting me to put out. i.e., take the PhD position.

Should I go if I’m not completely certain I want to do that?

Am I using him if I spend $1500 of his money and eventually say “no”?

What kind of person am I? Do we have any independence in this life?

Ah heck, I’m going. I’m sure even shotgun weddings occasionally have runaway brides.

And maybe I’ll decide that we will have a fun and productive five-year PhD student-supervisor marriage.

swimming in the sea.

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Last week I got an e-mail from my mother. It was about a lot of mundane things, planning for a family trip, car rentals, the like. But embedded in it was the following description:

“just can’t imagine how to do all the different things I need to do. I lie in bed and think about what I’m going to do and it seems maybe feasible, and then when I hit the ground and start, it just keeps piling on.”

Sorry to air your dirty laundry, mom, but it was remarkable: I think that there is something genetic going on, because these days, that is exactly, exactly how I feel.

Being a student requires focus, diligence, and time management. In the years after I graduated from college, I remember looking back with my friends, and we would laugh, how did we manage to pull that off? We literally couldn’t understand how we’d made the time to do well in our classes along with the many other obligations we signed ourselves up for, and the fun stuff, too. We couldn’t imagine being that busy ever again. After a few years rest, I for whatever reason decided to go back to school, to plunge right back into that.

And being a scientist is hard. So being a science student… is particularly hard.

Science has its ups and downs. It’s not an office job where you have a skillset and work steadily for month after month, year after year. Science requires a variety of skills, from labwork to statistics to writing. Experiments can be failures or victories; manuscripts can be accepted or rejected; grants can be funded or ignored.

And so life, too, is up and down. One day I will be on top of the world: my research group in Oregon finally published our first paper from the big experiment. I’m an author on it, and it’s in a good journal. I gave a talk at the Northeast Alpine Gathering, my first conference presentation, and it went really well. Shortly after that news, I completed a draft of another paper, which may be published or may just be part of my thesis. I was out in the light, accomplishing things, ticking them off my list. It was rewarding.

But so quickly, you can find yourself in the deepest parts of the ocean. I don’t mean in the fun scuba diving way. I mean, stuck, far down, no light coming in, being crushed by the pressure of tons and tons, meters and meters and meters, of water weighing down on you. You are paralyzed. You try to move but you can’t. Just like my mom, you wake up in the morning, and you just lie there. To me some days, getting out of bed seems pointless, because what are you going to do anyway? Even if you work hard, you will never get everything done. And science offers its own particular hell: if your data do not make sense, you can neither support nor reject your hypothesis. You are in scientific limbo, your hours of work have been useless, and you’re set up to fail, floundering around with no direction.

I don’t think that I inherited this sense of overwhelmingness from my mother. Rather, I think what might be genetic is the predisposition to take on the absolute maximum amount of things that you can handle. Not more – as far as I am aware, neither of us has had a serious breakdown – but the amount that can become cripplingly exhausting. We do and do and do until we are so fatigued not of the doing itself, but of the starting of the doing. Each new task becomes a mountain. It’s partly because we have a sense of pride: no thing should be left undone because we were too busy or too tired to do it. If someone else can’t do it, we’ll take on the responsibility ourselves. We never want to be the weakest link. We are proud of ourselves, so we tell ourselves, yes, of course I can also do this other thing.

Science is a place where that kind of attitude gets taken advantage of, particularly at this point in my career. An open letter from a PhD student in Lausanne is making the rounds among my friends. It is a withering critique of academia, with many salient points. But one of the ones that got to me the most is this:

(2) Academia: Work Hard, Young Padawan, So That One Day You Too May Manage!
I sometimes find it both funny and frightening that the majority of the world’s academic research is actually being done by people like me, who don’t even have a PhD degree. Many advisors, whom you would expect to truly be pushing science forward with their decades of experience, do surprisingly little and only appear to manage the PhD students, who slave away on papers that their advisors then put their names on as a sort of “fee” for having taken the time to read the document (sometimes, in particularly desperate cases, they may even try to steal first authorship). Rarely do I hear of advisors who actually go through their students’ work in full rigor and detail, with many apparently having adopted the “if it looks fine, we can submit it for publication” approach.

Apart from feeling the gross unfairness of the whole thing – the students, who do the real work, are paid/rewarded amazingly little, while those who manage it, however superficially, are paid/rewarded amazingly much – the PhD student is often left wondering if they are only doing science now so that they may themselves manage later.

Now. I do not mean to imply, at all, that my current (or former) supervisors are like this. They are not. They are wonderful and I love working with them. Christian in particular has his hands in a lot of pies and was out doing fieldwork on a lot of different projects this summer. My supervisors are no slouches! Nothing I write should be taken as a criticism of them. As you’ll see, many things are actually my fault, most of all.

But institutionally, this critique is very, cery true: many senior scientists barely set foot in a lab or in the field. They rely on armies of people like me to do the grunt work, and they give varying levels of oversight on the writeups and analysis, perhaps depending on how novel the results are. I knew to some extent that this was the case, and this summer I laid myself out as a bargaining chip. I so desperately wanted to work in Davos that I agreed to come, for free, without being paid. This is the kind of thing that make science go round. In my mind, I would repay the great favor of being allowed to work by writing a manuscript, or two, that we would all be authors on, together, and voila – yay! Everyone would benefit!

Pause for a second and think about how messed up that is. That I owed them something for allowing me to work for free. This is the culture that is ingrained in science today, and it is messed up. Some places even charge research assistants a fee for being able to come and work on the project. That means paying to be able to work! In what other field would this be acceptable? The work-and-pay model has always made me very angry and I have told my friends never, ever, to do this, so that we don’t make it seem like this is an okay way to operate.

But I digress. Having obtained a place to do my masters work, the next step was actually doing it, and navigating the lab group situation. Steve Stearns, a great biologist from Yale University who taught at the Guarda workshop I attended this summer, wrote a now-famous screed titled “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students.” Before I even knew who Steve Stearns was, much less met him, I had read his recommendations. Here are two excerpts that stuck with me:

Nobody cares about you.
In fact, some professors care about you and some don’t. Most probably do, but all are busy, which means in practice they cannot care about you because they don’t have the time. You are on your own, and you had better get used to it. This has a lot of implications. Here are two important ones:
1. You had better decide early on that you are in charge of your program. The degree you get is yours to create. Your major professor can advise you and protect you to a certain extent from bureaucratic and financial demons, but he should not tell you what to do. That is up to you. If you need advice, ask for it: that’s his job.
2. If you want to pick somebody’s brains, you’ll have to go to him or her, because they won’t be coming to you.

and

Keep your advisors aware of what you are doing, but do not bother them. Be an interesting presence, not a pest.

This didn’t faze me too much. I don’t want to beat my own drum too much, but I am a highly motivated worker. I’d even say self-motivated. I do need feedback, affirmation, to keep up the furious pace of my work – but it doesn’t have to be extensive. Just acknowledgement that I am working is enough to keep me going. The rest of the story I construct in my head: I can convince myself that people are recognizing my hard work even when I am in fact one of the last things on their mind.

What made me hesitate was the “don’t be a pest” warning. In my working style, communication is key; I’d rather everyone know what everyone is doing, so that you can help each other. I like getting progress reports; I like giving them so that I can get feedback. I abuse my e-mail, and I’ve realized over the past few years that I’m something of a freak, nobody is in their inbox as much as I am, and they probably wish I’d shut up. So I took this warning to heart. I resolved that I’d work hard for longer periods of time and send my supervisors only fairly packaged-up bundles of work to solicit feedback on. I wouldn’t bother them with the daily grind.

I thought this was the right move. I thought I was doing them a favor. I thought I would be a great masters student.

Now it’s time to be writing, and I have put myself in a tough position. Because my scholarship comes from the European Union, and because Switzerland is not part of the European Union, I could only stay there for three months. The second half of my thesis project had to be located at one of the universities in my program. No problem: I moved to Munich. I thought it would be fine to write from there. I’d do my hard work, and every once in a while e-mail back a batch of stuff. We’d talk that way. E-mail is a great mode of communication.

That was a miscalculation. As Steve wrote: people are too busy to care about you. They are trying to write their own manuscripts, and struggling with their own data. Maybe they are stuck working on grant proposals. In my supervisor’s case, he is taking care of his infant daughter – his first child, a life-changing and busyifying event. My e-mails would lie unanswered for days. I’d wonder if my supervisors remembered that I existed. And, let me make this clear, I don’t blame them for this. It’s not them. If I were them, I probably wouldn’t reply to my e-mails either.

And I put myself in this stupid situation, with the old familiar strain of “sure, of course I can do that, I don’t care if it’s hard!”. If I’d been in Switzerland, I could just walk down the hall and ask them. But I’m not. I’m in Germany, because that’s where I put myself, because that’s what was required to do this project that I was so desperate to do. Yet my supervisors are my only tether to progress. When they don’t respond, I come unmoored, floating aimlessly, not sure what to do next. I can waste whole days like this.

It’s clear that I’m not alone. Graduate-level research has some serious psychological perils, not least of them depression. There’s a website called Students Against Depression which chronicles story after story of how your work can mire you down. The problem for graduate students in the sciences is so widespread that it merited a piece in Nature back in 2012.

For early-career scientists, competing academic demands simmer in a stew of isolation, high expectations and sleeplessness that can boil over into debilitating depression, agonizing bouts of anxiety or even suicide attempts. Even if students feel that they can handle the isolation and stress of a graduate programme, extra stresses, such as problems in a relationship with an adviser or a partner, can tip them over the edge.

It’s not just depression. A 2006 survey at Berkeley found that “45 percent of graduate students polled said they had a mental health issue that affected their well-being or academic performance.” A 2009 study by the American Psychological Association found that 87 percent of psychology graduate students reported experiencing anxiety, and 68 percent reported symptoms of depression. Even suicidal thoughts — with a prevalence of 19 percent — were relatively common.” (source)

Let me be clear: I’m not depressed. I’m fine. I operate completely functionally in the many other theaters of my life. It’s only my research where, for days at a time, I can become listless and completely lack focus and motivation.

But isn’t that scary? I consider myself fairly healthy. But seeing how directionless and overwhelmed I can feel for a week at a time, and how much I can procrastinate and work on other things just because I can’t face my research, makes me understand, easily, how students can slip into depression. It makes me see why almost a third of students who enroll in a PhD never finish it.

There’s not always much chance of immediate improvement. Masters degrees are two years; in the U.S., PhD positions can take five or more years, although they are usually just three in Europe. For me, I have a whole ‘nother year with no end in sight. My projects will only get more complex, my workload more severe. The rewards may be bigger, but I will have to fight for them. I have boxed myself into some corners by seeking the work that interests me: compared to many of my classmates, my projects have more moving parts, supervisors and co-advisors, multiple universities, even writing my own grants, which masters students rarely ever do.

Besides the time frame of the degree itself, the future is increasingly unsatisfying for us students. After a masters, we might get a PhD offer. After that, if we’re lucky, we will find a postdoctoral position. Those are difficult, although sometimes satisfying; they also pay roughly the same salary as a construction worker. It’s not much better outside academia. Here’s The Economist, in 2010 (things have not improved since then):

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction… There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.

And here’s the Chronicle of Higher Education, last year:

“I will be nearly middle-aged by the time I get my Ph.D., I won’t have a family, and probably won’t have a job.” That comment, from a female Ph.D. candidate in history at a University of California campus, is a familiar refrain…. Is this 19th-century German model of apprenticeship suited to the 21st century?… Unless we are more accountable to our Ph.D. students, we will no longer attract the best and brightest to a profession that requires a commitment of a good chunk of someone’s young working life to train for a stressful, underpaid job that might not be available.

We are students because we love our fields and we love our work. But in the darkest days, it’s pretty easy to wonder what the point is. The odds of getting a job doing what you love, and getting paid for it, are certainly no better once you have a graduate degree. They might even be worse.

When I began my masters, I thought I had an unusual ability to work hard and stay focused and self-motivated. I thought I was well-prepared to push through these projects and reap the rewards at the other end: most likely, papers.

But lots of people can work hard. That’s not the catch. The real challenge is making sure that you don’t get stuck in the middle. We bought into a system that needs people like me, willing workers who are not compensated. The system doesn’t much care, though, what happens to us after we do this one chunk of work.

Last week was one of those bad weeks. As I waited in the library of the university for a meeting with a professor, I saw, on the shelf, the newest issue of Ecology – the one that had our paper in it from Oregon. I went over and picked it up. I had seen the table of contents online, opened our paper, and marveled at the big lettering, the official formatting, and, most of all, my own name right there. But as I held the paper copy in my hands, it felt so much more meaningful. It was tangible, this step I was taking though the pipeline. Hopefully, it would help lead me out the other end. I wanted to take that journal with me and hold it up like a beacon, so that I wouldn’t get lost again.