Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you’re in year 3 (or maybe even 4) of your PhD program. You can no longer claim to be a new grad student, and are rapidly advancing towards “senior grad student” status. You’ve finished taking classes, passed your qualifying exams, and maybe defended a thesis proposal. On paper, it seems like you’re progressing well towards your PhD. But then you realize: I have no data.
My hand is raised. Is yours? The scenario in the preceding paragraph pretty well describes me as a third year grad student and, based on conversations and observations over the years, it seems to be a pretty common experience. Yet, despite being common, it seems like every grad student going through this feels like they’re the only one in this situation. When I tell grad students now that I was in the same boat as a grad student, they are often visibly relieved.
I spent my first two years in grad school thinking I was going to work on hybridization. But then, after reading more about parasitism, I realized that was what I really wanted to work on. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t switch, though, given that I’d spent two years working on hybrids. I was worried it would put me behind (though, now that I think about it, I don’t know what “behind” really would have meant). Fortunately, I had lunch with one of my committee members, Doug Schemske, right around the time I was considering switching to working on parasitism. Doug pointed out that what I do my dissertation research on would launch me on my research career, and that, even if switching made it so that grad school took an extra year, that time would be well worth it if it came with the payoff of working on questions that truly interested me.* And, of course, he was right.
So, in year three, I switched to working on parasites. Except, as I’ve written about before, I accidentally worked on hemoglobin for the first half of that field season. When I realized my mistake, I seriously considered dropping out of grad school (as I discuss in that earlier post). It’s amazing how many people have stories of major dissertation disasters like this. A mink got into their fenced study site and ate all their nestlings. Their carefully marked plants (at a study site at a National Guard training facility) were run over by tanks because it turns out that flagging tape isn’t visible with night vision goggles. Fish were introduced to previously fishless ponds, removing the ability to compare fish and fishless systems. (Does that count as a demonic intrusion?) Customs holds up all your samples so that they’re all dead when they finally arrive 6 months later. A plumber hooked up the DI water with a copper fitting, contaminating all your glassware. I could go on, but you get the idea.
I really like this post from Arlenna at chemicalbilology on grad school soul-searching, which deals with the most important part of these struggles: when your project fails (and it does for everyone) and you realize you don’t have any/much data towards your dissertation, you start to wonder whether you’re really cut out for this, whether you’re good enough. As she puts it, “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.”** Unless you are doing science because you really want to know the answer to the question you’re working on, it’s going to be pretty hard to stay motivated through the huge amounts of failure that are an inevitable part of science. (This is another reason why Doug Schemske’s advice to me was key.) But I think it does help to know that pretty much everyone goes through this phase.
So, if you’re in what Arlenna refers to as “the hardest, crappiest, soul-searchingest phase of graduate school”, hang in there! And, if you’ve made it through that stage: what helped you get through it? What advice do you have for grad students in this stage?
*I was recently on a panel for grad students considering careers in academia. One of the students was asking about making a pretty big shift in research area for her postdoc, because she thought she was much more interested in that other area than the one she was currently working on. One of the other panelists advised her not to do that, because it would make it harder to get a job. To me, that was bad advice. While it may be true that it would make it harder to get a tenure track position (quickly), wouldn’t it be worse to be stuck working on something that doesn’t really interest you? There was an interesting discussion about when to change systems in the comments on my system envy post and in this recent post from Jeremy.
**I love the mental image of this! Maybe Personal Research Trainers should be a thing?
Postscript: After putting this in the queue, Jeremy alerted me to this gif from the whatshouldwecallgradschool tumblr. Definitely appropriate!