I love when excellent blogging leads to more excellent blogging, and I don't even have to do any of the blogging myself! Inspired by the amazing Potnia Theron's thoughtful post on the relationship between rejection and depression in academia, the brilliant and wise iGrrl had some thoughts of her own, which she has graciously put into sentence form for all of us. This is important stuff, folks. Read.
I had previously worked as a tech at the school where I matriculated, and one of my former PI's collaborators came up to me at the 'welcome new grad students' reception with a Why are you here? expression on his face. When I told him I was entering the neuroscience program, he said, "Ah! Getting your union card, I see." He was so right about the end product, but the process? When we're long past it, it's like childbirth: you forget how bad it is.
Being a student again was a shock. I'd gone back for my PhD at 30 after a peripatetic early adulthood. The intensity of that first year, the sense of how high the stakes were, of being molded into something very new and different, can be easily forgotten. I hated the more senior students who dismissively said, "It's fine, you'll get through it." I figured they'd just forgotten, like childbirth. I swore on a stack of Stryer; Kandel, Schwartz & Jessel; and all those journal articles I'd photocopied to read for class that when the next crop of grad students came in, I wouldn't feed them that dismissive line. I would tell them the truth: First year of grad school sucks, and is hard. Plenty of them thanked me for it, for recognizing that what they were going through was insane and hard.
And that's true, but the rest of graduate training is hard, too. I won't argue for a kinder, gentler PhD program. To survive in academic science, you have to learn to be in charge of your own education, to realize that you will be judged harshly for the rest of your career (grant review sheets, anyone?), etc., but you also have to find ways to deal with the self doubt and depression. It may be that not everyone experiences it, but most admit to experiencing some level of both after their second beer.
We joke that the only praise in academe is the absence of criticism, and that feeds into the problem that smart, competent people often have, which I'll call the anti-Dunning-Kruger effect. True Imposter Syndrome is the more extreme example of this, but it's that constant feeling that you're not measuring up, but you're not exactly sure what the standards are, or that they are unobtainable. There is no better way to for smart people to get depressed and self-doubting, and when the culture is that your work is your life and your self, research setbacks have an outsized impact. This changes with time and perspective, as Potnia Theron recently blogged, but when you're in the middle of it, well, let's just say that most of us deal with cortisol excess.
I spent years in grad school where I was angry all the time. The anger was a mask for depression. Lab work did not go well my first three years, and I had to switch projects. Having to throw away all of that work = life = self was infuriating and depressing. I started looking for other avenues to get any kind of positive feedback, so I developed on-line relationships in a tech community and wrote a terrible novel*, but those activities were 'distractions' from research. The combination of oblique comments from others and my own self scorn (born of buying into the work = life = self) just made everything worse.
I would never have finished my PhD if I hadn't taken two weeks completely off, visiting friends who were not scientists, learning to scuba dive, and hiking Oregon mountains. I went back with a sense of perspective that work was work, that the love of science was a part of my self, but not the whole thing. I was reminded of the world outside the hermetic bubble of graduate training, and that perspective allowed me to get out from under the anger and depression, buckle down, and get my union card.
*After writing a novel, writing a dissertation wasn't scary. So, no, I don't consider it a wasted effort w/r/t my time in grad school.