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.
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.