An “escape from living a normal, mundane life,” is how one reader called her lab research as a grad student. Another mentioned the “moments of wonder that punctuated the darkness.” Yet another “started grad school with enthusiasm and ended, like most people I knew, slightly bitter and just wanting the pain to end.”
The responses to Justin Chen’s First Opinion essay, “Coming to terms with six years in science: obsession, isolation, and moments of wonder,” were as varied and nuanced as the article. Submitted by current and former bioscience graduate students and postdocs, they suggest that Chen’s piece touched a nerve among this large community.
Here is a sampling of reader responses to the article, lightly edited for clarity.
I had just about the same experience — family, friends, and physical/mental health falling by by the wayside — except that I was very lucky to have had an amazing husband who was able to stick it out with me. This is the most honest and captivating writing I have seen on the subject — probably because it mirrored my experience so closely. For a long time, I feared that my Ph.D. journey had broken me — but now that I have been away from the bench for a while, I also feel nostalgic about the “moments of wonder” that punctuated the darkness.
I cared about my work when I started, and I no longer cared by the time I graduated, because my principal investigator didn’t care about it — or about me. I neglected it in favor of spending time with friends, because at least in that space I could pretend for a few hours that I didn’t have to go back to the lab the next day, that I didn’t have a million things to do that inevitably wouldn’t work, that I maybe had some hope of graduating and getting a job somewhere where I would be happy and successful and productive. I thought about switching labs or dropping out almost constantly. I thought I was terrible, lazy, and stupid, and that I didn’t deserve to be on this earth. That maybe I should put myself out of everyone’s misery. Now that I’m on the other side, I can see those thoughts for the depressed lies that they were.
A few weeks ago I was forced to return to that lab to show a postdoc where some materials were stored, and every step I took deeper into the building, closer to the elevator, into the lab itself, felt like walking towards a firing line. All of the horrid thoughts and memories and feelings rushed back to linger for a few hours. I grew a lot as a person in grad school, I did amazing things, and I met amazing people. I still don’t know if it was worth it.
School was my escape even from a young age. Escape from an unstable home, escape from poverty, and escape from living a normal, mundane life. I love grad school, I love my work, and I love the people I get to work with each week. It isn’t always wonderful. It is a balancing act between feeling like I should be working harder (even though peers/mentors say I’m doing very well) while trying to maintain relationships with family and friends outside of grad school. One of the hardest parts of going to grad school in your hometown is having to maintain old connections with family/friends while creating new ones with others in grad school who understand your situation the best. In spite of all the hard parts of grad school, I love it and I have (and always will) put my career first because it has been such a key part of my identity and it is how I want to live my life.
I attempted a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and took a terminal master’s degree instead when I realized I couldn’t engage in Ph.D.-level laboratory research and maintain essential life happiness (despite being a very happy person on a baseline level). Now I’m towards the end of completing a Ph.D. in epidemiology. I’ll likely finish this one.
However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Ph.D. system is a ridiculous system of exploitation. Outside of highly sought-after research faculty positions (which, after witnessing a lot more about them, I’ve realized are not something I would ever desire), most of the increasingly interdisciplinary biology-focused jobs I will soon be qualified for can also be had by people who studied business or computer science as undergraduates. In the extended time that I’ve made a meager stipend working on a Ph.D., they’ve gotten sufficient experience for a hiring manager to consider them roughly equivalent to me, all while making decent salaries. And during this well-paid time, they’ve generally worked on teams where they’ve been considered colleagues, and gradually, team leaders, rather than perpetually being towards the bottom of the Ponzi scheme of academic professorship preparation.
Overall, I accept the path I’ve taken, and I’m excited by the light at the end of my Ph.D. tunnel. But if I could do it all over again, I would probably do computer science and then transition in the workforce into companies and projects that work on biological questions, learning my biology while working. And I would never recommend a Ph.D. to anyone unless they are very aware of what the incredibly stressful life of a research academic is like, and genuinely believe that they couldn’t possibly do any other type of work. With the path my life has taken, I feel very much financially behind my peers, and I’ll likely feel some compulsion to strive more quickly for senior positions with their attendant stress, just to make up for the opportunity cost of all my years of minimum wage Ph.D. training.
I would play devil’s advocate and say that for some people, perhaps those that are more inclined to be different or reclusive, graduate school is a breath of fresh air … the expectations of being social or a rowdy twenty-something are lifted. I would argue that every career choice has the potential for overworking, and it’s more about the choices that the individual makes over something inherent in graduate school. I loved graduate school. It allowed me to be absorbed in things that I love and to create my own routine. I worked too much by anyone else’s standard and would do it again in a heartbeat.
I’m an applied math Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. I empathize strongly with the author of this piece. I, too, have experienced the cold water of coming to grips with how competitive academia truly is and with how mono-experiential and austere academic work can be. So far I have mostly held depression at bay, thanks primarily to having good friends in the department and keeping other parts of my life well nourished. But that said, “it doesn’t depress me” is not a good reason to work 80-hour weeks. While I believe strongly in the value of science and mathematics, it’s hard to believe that you’re good enough to meaningfully contribute when you *know* you’re not good enough to get an academic job.
I started grad school with enthusiasm and ended, like most people I knew, slightly bitter and just wanting the pain to end. I suffered through mild sexism on a regular basis and never felt comfortable with my colleagues who would occasionally sabotage each other and were always talking about each other’s weaknesses behind their backs. I went six months without talking to my adviser just to see what would happen, even though he’d pass by my bench each morning. I had regular migraines each month and for several weeks would cry each evening as I drove home due to the helplessness and frustration I had with the lab, my research, and where I was going. It felt like indentured servitude, I couldn’t leave or I would be left at the same place I was before entering grad school. My only hope was to persevere.
I gave up benchwork science and moved into science policy as an alternative career. Although my work is only blocks away from my former adviser, I never talk with him. He was embarrassed that I was unable to follow his career path and work as an academic scientist. But I have no regrets leaving; I just wish we could make the graduate school experience more worthwhile and fulfilling for future scientists.
Years later as I look back, I know that during the majority of my graduate school experiences I was in a depressive state.
The work is rewarding but to this day I feel that I exist in a bubble that I struggled terribly to get inside and cannot, now, get myself out of. I applaud J. Chen’s honesty. It is the beginning of what I hope will be an important conversation.
I found so much of Justin Chen’s essay to be profoundly relatable, down to the long bouts of depressive fatigue in the latter half of graduate school and finding solace in writing. Initially, I made my way to graduate school in part because I wasn’t quite satisfied with the level of questioning I observed as a pre-med — I was interested in the “why” of the world, and I found that in biomedical research.
The other reason I went to grad school was as a reaction to grief. When my mother was dying, and I felt helpless and out of control, understanding the molecular underpinnings of the cancer that was killing her felt like a small amount of control. There was a wild beauty in the endless fight for cellular survival and the fine balance required to maintain homeostasis at microscopic levels, and it was a fight I could observe from a distance, separated by layers of glass and intellect. In those ways, the work was initially rewarding — as distraction by intellectual rigor, as a ritual. And after my mother died, I could propel myself forward with my work and feel that I was, in some small way, tackling the disease that killed her.
But of course, I wasn’t, and even if I was, it was no real comfort for the loss. After a few months of 20-hour days and injecting small mammals with experimental drugs and getting bitten in the process, I couldn’t keep convincing myself that I was doing any of it for any truly noble purpose.
Biology wasn’t my enemy. I came to realize that I liked thinking about ideas, and I enjoyed synthesizing information to craft stories about science far more than the day-to-day of performing experiments. And yet, even after that realization, so many of my days were consumed by the sad grind of lab work (and often animal work) — if the mice reached a certain age on a weekend, I had to set up the experiment on the weekend. My days were mostly the same for several years.
During long incubations, I would go to the gym and drag a fellow unhappy graduate student with me when possible. Other times, I went off to do an interview for the school newspaper. In the evenings, I might take another break to go to a meeting for some extracurricular activity or other, desperately trying to find a path out of the laboratory. I spent so much time in the lab that my kitchen at home was empty — I kept all my food in the bottom right drawer of the communal fridge. I became close to people based on geographical and emotional proximity. I envied those who weren’t bound by the confines of the lab, who didn’t have to cut social activities short to “run to lab to check on cells” every weekend, if only for an hour. I hated myself for that envy, for being unable to interact normally anymore, and I withdrew from many of my friends. What I really wanted was to escape myself. The beginning of graduate school had been marked by a frantic propulsion away from grief, and by the end of graduate school, I was back where I started, desperately pushing myself away from something certain and unhappy.
I am an M.D. who did a 2-year lab post-doc after a pathology residency. There are three M.D./Ph.D. holders in the pathology practice group I’m now in. It’s impossible to judge whether the “lab time” was fruitful. One thing I do know: When I entered academia in the 1980s, you stood a 1 in 4 or so chance at NIH funding. Appropriately, you were evaluated for promotion based on getting independent funding. It was certainly a test of writing, politics, and some creativity. The chances for funding are now in the 1 in 10 range, or lower. The clinician scientist is mostly an endangered species when defined as a scientist with extramural funding and a lab. Indeed, academia has changed. Jobs were obtainable in the 1970s and 1980s, now assistant professorships are unattainable. However, the tools and technologies available to us now are fabulous. Carving out a career path is more complicated. We live in the best of times and the worst of times …