Repost: Graduate School Soul Searching

Reposted from 8/2008, right before I started my job as an assistant professor

I spent a few hours this week at a retreat for the undergraduate interdisciplinary scholars program from my postdoc institution (run by my postdoc mentor and another friend of mine), since it was at a center about half an hour from my new house and so it was not hard to pop over for dinner and a career panel session. These kids really are excellent, they go to a top-level undergrad school and got into a top-level research program that gives them some funding etc. Most of them leave their undergraduate career with graduate-student-level experience and some even leave with graduate-student-level understanding. Many end up with multiple papers from their projects, in high-end journals.

It was a lot of fun talking to them and hearing them present their posters, and laughing inside at the contrast between my own understanding of my undergraduate research and how well some of them REALLY GET what they are doing. I barely had a clue, I had good hands and I understood the overall point of what I did but it took until I was in grad school for me to think back and say, "Ahhhhhh, so THAT'S what I was doing..." But still, they are college kids and their enthusiasm pretty well outstrips their sophistication for the most part. The reality check of a long-term project, the weight of being responsible for your own destiny (and the research-life lesson that NOTHING EVER WORKS) hasn't hit them yet.

The theme of our career panel discussion was 'failure.' What do you do when things don't do what you want them to? When suddenly you're not a golden child anymore? When it dawns on you that YOUR ideas have to carry this enterprise, and suddenly your ideas aren't working the way they always did before? When the people around you aren't as supportive or nice, and the care bears undergrad special tea party is over? We all had plenty of stories, the kind of stories that probably just sound to the kids like 'and uphill both ways with no shoes in the snow blah blah blah...'

But in addition to us young faculty examples, there was an alum of the program back to talk about graduate school. As an undergraduate this kid was the star, he got so many papers in seriously good journals and worked so hard, all the while being a pleasant person to be around and staying generally popular. His research mentor pushed him really hard, got things out of him that he didn't know he had, and pulled his level of understanding of the science he was doing to that of at least a mid-year grad student. Succeeding was the norm, reinforcement of worth and purpose was the norm, and everybody talked about how well he would be able to do in grad school with such a start. Definitely golden-child paradigm, and just 3-4 years out of the program, already a legend to all of them.

Grad school however has been a different story for him. Not because he has done badly by any outward measure, or come anywhere close to failing, or even not made enough progress for his program's or his PI's requirements. Instead, it's the waking up to the real process of science and how it works for most people (even most high-level people), the part where hardly anything you do works, you have to keep plugging and plugging away at problems that seem so stupid, and nobody is there saying 'Come on, let's go, you can do it, one more rep' like your personal research trainer. It's having a PI who is much more 'watch and wait,' who leaves things up to you because it's your job to figure them out. And, how it feels when that progress just doesn't flow like it used to.

The room just quietened as he opened up and talked through it all, about coming to a place where you really start to ask yourself 'What am I worth? If I can't do this as well as I thought I could, if I can't make the contributions and have the ideas and jump to the starting line as easily as it looked like I could, am I still worth as much to it as when I could?' He articulated so simply and profoundly that classic struggle of growing up, between the 'ego' (in the psyche-sense not the colloquial), one's self, and relationship to WHY we do science: Because we can? Because it matters? Because people reward us for it? Because we want to know? And watching him let all those other kids in, to see in real-time what it is to transition from being a happy undergrad just having some fun in the lab, and doing really well at it as they all are, to an individual human being trying to find out if they are able to be worthwhile and important to the overall enterprise, was REALLY moving. He helped them to understand what graduate school is really all about in a way that we faculty people (even though we were all only about 10 years older than them) were just too far out to bring to them.

It is so fascinating to see someone grow like that. And although this guy is still in the middle of the hardest, crappiest, soul-searchingest phase of graduate school, you can see that his abilities, thoughtfulness and curiosity will bring him out of it. He really is sharp and an excellent communicator, and he has that fundamental individual reflective drive that makes the highs higher after coming through the darker lows. THIS is one of the reasons I want to be an academic scientist, for the opportunity to watch and be there for people coming around that bend--it's more than a little selfish, mostly for my own satisfaction and amusement, but I can comfort myself that it has value outside of that as well. Whether or not I can effectively help guide them around it will be another story--and besides, it really is something you figure out for yourself or you don't, no mentor can do it for you. But at least I get to have a job where part of my role is to be there to see it.

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