There’s a vision people have of graduate students, particularly those from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that conjures quirky expertise — someone with enthusiasm, confidence, ingenuity. I was not one of those students.

The night after my thesis defense, falling asleep in bed, I reviewed the past six years of my life. I thought of the first time that I saw fish and frog embryos, and the gleaming, wooden table where my adviser and I had hourslong conversations about biology. I thought about the experiments and obsession and isolation. I saw my 20s passing by in a flash and wondered: Was it worth it?

I had come to MIT to study developmental biology. I wanted to understand how an embryo grows — how an eye, brain, or tail emerges from a formless lump of cells. Under the microscope, I watched cells crawling over and under each other, forming hollow tubes and staggered sheets of tissue as the soft architecture of the body took shape.

In the laboratory, I felt like I understood life. It wasn’t just the brutal desire to survive — the panic and hunger of prey and predator — but also the logic of cells and their compulsion for order.

The scientists I worked alongside had their compulsions as well. Obsessed with our projects, we worked 60 to 90 hours a week. Together, we normalized our monomania. At times it was beautiful — a force building upon itself to generate new ideas and discoveries. But academia also enabled our worst workaholic impulses.

I usually went into the lab over the weekend. Without a break, the days and even weeks blurred together. Was it Wednesday or Thursday? What time was lab meeting? Occasionally, I would leave the Whitehead Institute, where I was conducting my research, to attend a seminar in another building. Arriving 10 minutes early, I sat in an empty auditorium congratulating myself for being on time. As the minutes passed I wondered where the speaker and audience were. Only when I reread my email to check the room number did I realize that the talk had been scheduled for the following Thursday.

For me, the best timekeepers were the cars in the parking garage, which I watched from my window on the fourth floor of the Whitehead. Late in the afternoon, just as I was vowing to go home, I would begin labeling test tubes. I was fooling myself into believing that I was on the cusp of a breakthrough or that I would only do the first step of an experiment, after which I would do the second and third and so on. My compulsion was only stopped by headlights — a thin, quavering line that swept clockwise through the room and flared into my eyes: My whole world was lit up by a flying car about to crash through the window. Then the vehicle turned down the ramp, continuing its descent out of the garage. I was left in the dark, my heart thumping, startled back into time.

My girlfriend, Samantha (a pseudonym I’ll use with her understanding), and I argued over my work habits. I was rarely on time to dinner or anywhere else; if I was, I made a grand proclamation and fished for compliments. Sticking to a schedule was difficult because each experiment was different and some of them could only start once the laboratory frogs had laid their eggs. If I was in a rush, inevitably some never-before-seen issue would arise and ruin my plans. As graduate students we joked: However long you think an experiment will take, double it and add 15 minutes.

But many times the issue wasn’t the experiment, it was me. I couldn’t bear to tell Samantha how long my work would actually take, so I offered an estimate that was unrealistically ambitious, half-convincing myself in the process. Then, at the last minute, I would call to say that I would be late.

When I arrived home, I often found Samantha reading on the couch in the middle of our studio apartment.

“Do you know how stupid I feel waiting for you?” she asked.

“Well, I’m here so let’s do something,” I said. Why were we spending the few hours we had arguing about how little time we spent together?

“I’m lonely,” she said.

Sometimes I stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders. Other times I suggested that she pick up a hobby or spend more time with friends.

Years later, after our relationship had ended, Samantha recalled solitary evenings and nights. “I just so badly wanted to spend that time with you,” she said, “that I didn’t reach out to other people in case our plans fell through.”

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zebrafish embryo
The underside of a zebrafish embryo larvae with its cartilage stained blue. Justin Chen

When I entered graduate school, I was prepared for long hours, but I was surprised by how bleak the job market was. For the other graduate students and myself, the reality of academia’s open secret gradually sunk in: A large majority of us would not fulfill the main goal of our education — to become independent research scientists and open our own labs. There were too many of us and too few tenure-track positions.

At a panel on finding academic jobs, a postdoctoral researcher I admired stood up on stage. He was an expert in protein biology and had published a few high-profile papers. “To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m on this panel,” he said. “I’ve spent the past year applying to jobs without hearing back from anyone. But, hey, maybe I can teach you what not to do.”

The biology department also hosted panels on “alternative careers” in industry, patent law, science writing, and science policy. We attended, but kept our plans secret from our advisers out of fear that they would take us less seriously. Better to make it seem like we weren’t interested in networking or volunteering on the side. We also knew that our advisers might see our choices as a reflection on themselves — that they had, in some way, failed to train or inspire us properly. There was the feeling of not wanting to disappoint a parent.

Halfway through graduate school, I realized that I preferred writing to performing experiments.

I had studied creative writing as an undergraduate and missed the empathy that writing and reading required. Biomedical research, by its nature, asks how but not why. How do nerve cells store memories? How do plants use sunlight to make sugar? The why of all this, which requires understanding the motivations of cells and interpreting billions of years of evolution, is difficult to answer. Novels and short stories asked why, and the answers were the contradictory hopes and desires of their characters. When I read, I lost myself in the protagonists: Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, poets plotting a kidnapping, teenagers struggling with addiction at a fictional tennis academy. No matter how alien their lives were, I saw pieces of myself in them, and their experiences became as vivid as my actual memories.

Looking through hundreds of pictures of embryos that I had painstakingly taken or spreadsheets of measurements, I felt a quantitative grandeur but nothing that struck me in the heart.

Once, while snacking in the fourth floor lunchroom, I retrieved a crumpled piece of paper from the floor. Someone had written “The Future Was Here.” It could have been a playful paradox — the future as something that could never be caught except for this instance. Or time wrapping back on itself so that the future brushed by like a ghost, unnoticed by the present. But there was also a melancholy interpretation — some place, a lab or institute or country, once full of cutting-edge research sinking into obscurity.

Samantha and I played a game where we turned everyday phrases into titles of books. In the evening, during dinner or just before bed, we announced our findings.

“A manageable walking distance,” I said, “a surprisingly readable debut novel.”

“More of the same,” she replied, “the long-awaited short story collection.”

“The future was here,” I said. “A collection of personal essays by Justin Chen.”

Notebook
A view of the author’s notes on embryonic development. Courtesy Justin Chen

My adviser had a saying: You have to believe that Sisyphus was happy. It was a reference to the grind of research — weeks of preparation, building anticipation, and careful execution — that often ended in failure. Most of the time, the researcher had erred and would puzzle over which of the dozens of steps could have gone wrong. Perhaps the embryos hadn’t been preserved in formaldehyde properly or the stocks of DNA had degraded. Other times the mistake was obvious. Across the hall from me, a woman had spent several months coaxing stem cells to grow into neurons. Her efforts were wasted when a nocturnal power outage shut down the machinery keeping the cells alive.

After the worst failures we vowed to quit. Why do we do this to ourselves? we asked. But usually, by the next day, we were back, ready to begin pushing our boulder up the hill again.

During the second half of my Ph.D., I began experiencing weeklong bouts of fatigue. I had been spending more and more of my time alone, mostly in windowless rooms performing

Justin Chen
The author in New York City, winter 2013. Courtesy Justin Chen

experiments and listening to the negative voices in my head. Slowly, I was losing the will to socialize or even come into work. Waking in the morning, my limbs felt extremely dense but floppy. It took all my concentration to stand and dress myself.

The lab, due to a lack of funding, had shrunk down to two scientists. The postdocs I relied on for advice and encouragement were moving on — some of them uprooting their families to different states and countries in search for jobs. It seemed as if they were here one day before vanishing instantaneously and leaving their detritus behind: old test tubes still clanking against each other on the shaker machine, cans of Coke hidden in the bottom drawer of their desk, to-do lists and cartoons taped to the wall.

I spent days at home in bed with Samantha’s cat, Moe Howard, curled beside me or purring on my chest. I trained him to respond to his name and discovered that he liked to play fetch with an earplug. Mostly we slept.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s, I slept 12 to 16 hours a day. When I awoke my head was buzzing and heavy, the same numb weight of a hand that has lost its circulation. I had the dazed conviction that I was forgetting something important. By chance, I discovered a partial cure: eating grapefruit or lemons. Their sourness puckered my tongue, tensed my body, and built to a flashing pressure in my mind. When the sensation ended, I had been yanked back into the alertness. A few days later, I biked to lab, still not quite myself, but ready to start the uphill push once again.

After defending my thesis, I spent several more months in the laboratory. During that time Samantha, for reasons other than my life as a scientist, ended our four-year relationship. “There was nothing more you could have done,” she said. But I saw, with a doomed clarity, all the times that I had left her alone and how I would not have the chance to make up for it.

In her absence, experiments took on a new importance — not as a way to learn but to carry out rituals.

I was soothed by the mundane and the meticulous: the puff of chilled vapor when opening the freezer or the snap of a test tube’s lid. Hunched over a microscope, I spent an entire day performing surgery on frog embryos. They were beige and shaped like kidney beans — mostly formless except for a groove, the premonition of a spine, running down their backs. With a pair of fine glass needles in either hand and minuscule movements, I turned the embryos from side to side. What strange lives, not yet marked by thought or memory, contained between my fingertips.

What I remember most about my final weeks as a scientist are the runs from the laboratory back to my apartment. It seemed like I was emerging from a prison, a sanctuary, a home, someone else’s life.

My first few strides take me out of the Whitehead’s sterile air into a summer evening of wind and moisture. The small park on my way home is dotted with families and young couples enjoying the fading light. A father hands water balloons to his daughter. She wears goggles that are too big for her head and throws the balloons at her feet laughing uncontrollably.

What I like most of all is to catch glimpses of people in restaurants. At Bukowski’s the windows are open. The air is thick with the smell of grease and meat. I haven’t seen a human face in hours and each smile shared by friends across a table seems to explode out of their face with a mystical import. I can feel that people are happy. It’s a small vision — a couple leaning in closer together or a large bald man laughing with his head back and accidentally hitting the woman behind him or people turning in amazement when the food arrives. A great tenderness washes over me. They all seem like children, their lives uncomplicated and ephemeral.

When I think back on my life as a graduate student, I see myself from a distance like one of the diners in the restaurant.

In my mind, I am floating outside the fourth floor of the Whitehead Institute seconds before a car’s headlights pierce the darkness. Through the window, I see my younger self poring over a stack of notes. He is mumbling under his breath while reviewing the growth of an embryo: the grinding of cells dividing against each other, the first exploratory sloshing of blood through veins, the somnolent somatic dream of a fluid life. He still thinks that he will be on time to dinner with his girlfriend. He is on the verge of a breakthrough. My heart fills with compassion for him. Of the future, I would tell him nothing.

Tell us about your experience as a Ph.D. student

Justin Chen is an external affairs associate at OpenBiome and a former AAAS mass media fellow at STAT.

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  • Justin, you have found your voice. Physicians who experienced similar feelings during training and found beautiful writing as their therapy and for others who read them resonate with your advisor who said you had to believe Sisyphus was happy. Medical writers such as Oliver Sacks, Paul Kalanithi, Atul Gawande, and others, have reminded us of the humanity that is the root of such arduous training and research that doctoral level education entails. One learns from all experiences, the good, bad, and the spectrum between. It’s what makes us human, and your sensitive writing about it reminds us all of that fact. Very best wishes for a fulfilling future.

  • Justin, your piece is moving and so real.

    I got my PhD at a time when taking a tenured track position was the normal next step. But I wanted to try something different from academia. I joined IBM Research and it has been wonderful. There is a world outside academia that is fascinating, complex, and can be very rewarding.

  • Somehow, it sounds very much like my life as a family physician. Never telling my husband how long it really would be until I got home – because I didn’t know. Now that he has died, what have I left? No friends, no church, no time for any roots. It is good that the PhD in the story found out while he was young.

    • Yes, now that my husband and I, both physicians and both disabled, are too ill to work, we find we have nothing else and no support system. We were too busy working.

  • Captivating story… can’t wait for film. Who is working on screenplay?
    Really, people will find this fascinating from your point of view.
    Best’
    Mike

  • One of the best pieces on this topic that I have ever read. So visceral. Made me feel like I was right back in that dark, hopeless place.

  • Wonderful recollections and vivid descriptions. Thank you. My recollection is not as a Ph.D. student, but as a medical student. During my first year, I found myself absorbed and alone dissecting my cadaver the evening before a test. When I looked up and saw no one but cadavers in the lab, I felt a wave of loneliness and fear overcome me. My thought was. “I’m done. Not for me.” I got over it, moved on, became a physician and never looked back except at that palpable, rather frightening moment. Thanks for rekindling my memories.

  • I enjoyed very much reading your article, it allowed me to go back to very long past when I was a graduate student and a postdoctoral in the early and mid sixties. I love to talk to you about it. I don’t use email that often since I have dislaxia . My phone # 435 232-5056

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