Monday, April 07, 2008

This Just In: Misery Really Does Love Company

I've been feeling pretty depressed for, oh, the last year or so. No, not a lie-in-bed-chain-smoking- Nicaraguan-boredom depression, more like a crying-in-the-work-bathroom depression. If you've been reading this blog, you're probably aware of the fact that I'm currently in the process of getting a Ph.D. in microbiology. Year five and counting. I don't talk about work much, because hey, bacterial ribosomes aren't exactly hot blog fodder, and I generally make an effort to keep things light. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a bad deal: I like my project, I like my coworkers, and I'm getting paid to get an advanced degree. However, on the smaller scale, it's failed experiment upon failed experiment, 60 hour workweeks, very low pay, no finite ending, and the only feedback you ever get is negative: "You haven't made enough progress. These data don't support your hypothesis. You're not thinking deeply enough. You're overthinking things. You didn't do the proper controls. You need to be doing more experiments simultaneously. You're all over the place- you need to focus." I don't take it personally- that's how scientists are trained to think, and how they're training me to think. Find the flaws. Identify the alternative explanations to your data. Design and execute experiments accordingly. The problem is that after five years of hearing people tell you that your work isn't good enough, you start to believe them. Maybe it isn't. Maybe I'm not cut out for this. Maybe I've chosen the wrong career, after all. Then you feel like shit, and you feel like shit about feeling like shit. Geez, it's not like I'm in a refugee camp in Darfur. There are far greater tragedies in life than a few crappy Western blots.

So, that's the mindset I've been battling for the last several months. On Friday, the first member of my incoming class of five defended her thesis. We went out for martinis on Saturday with a couple of other grad school friends to celebrate. We started talking about our various struggles, and I learned something. They're miserable, too! No progress. Fighting with their P.I. (Principle Investigator, a.k.a. lab boss) . Lack of a publication. Stress. Endless this experiment, then that one, then another one, then maybe you'll have enough for a paper. Listening to their complaints, a wave of relief just rushed over me. It's not just me! Grad school depresses everyone. It's not that I want them to be unhappy; it's just nice to know that I'm not alone.


Tina said...

Don't worry, Eileen. I always feel that way--when I was in the lab and hell, even now. I think it's going to be like this for awhile. Hang in there, you are not alone!!

KcM said...

Yeah, no worries, you're definitely not alone. :)

I've come to the conclusion myself that grad school is a sucker's game. Or, as I put it to my history friends, it's 1840, and I make a really great shoe...but, guess what, they have factories that make 'em now. Sorry!

I can't speak for the science side, which I know is very different in many ways. But, yeah, I know how you feel. To be honest, I'm actually proud of myself for making it through the past eighten months. Other than my one emotional crutch, li'l Berk, I've taught myself to become as self-sufficient as possible, and to (mostly) stave off the stark raving depression that accompanies so much of what we do.

And, yeah, I know we're not in Iraq or Darfur, which is orders of magnitude worse. But, nevertheless, this is not how people are meant to live. And I can't wait to be gone from it, degree or no degree.

March 4, March 16, March 22, and tonight. Those were the only four times in the past month I've spoken to someone else in person (other than deli counter folk.) Such is humanities grad school. It's an isolation test, of your sanity more than anything else.

But the big breakthrough I made recently to survive, and it's been key, is ridiculously inflating my own self-importance. Basically, I just tell myself every morning that I'm the bomb and noone else could do what I'm doing. That's not even close to true, of course, but that's not the point. The trick is to convince myself that I know enough to write the dissertation, and that I'm grounded and somehow worthwhile enough to withstand another day of this.

But, lordy, I can't wait until it's over. So, trust me, I feel your pain. :)

bigglesworth said...

i've got a great remedy for depression: walk into the barbershop and ask them to give you the highest, tightest flat top, then grow out your navy regulation mustache for a month. (you by the way would be absolutely HOT with that combo)

no matter how shitty your life is, now matter how shitty your surroundings & the people you work with, you'll be able to laugh at yourself at least once a day. and that's a start. after that it's just changing your perspective;)

no, i really don't have an answer to the grad school blues but i can hear the tracks you're laying down, mama. let me know if you need me to check any P.I's with tha quickness.

Anonymous said...

The real world is the exact same way. There is no finite ending, expectations are always increasing, lousy bosses, low pay and minuscule increases. Everyone is depressed in one way or another.

J.R. said...

So as your companion in this science PhD thing I hear ya. My last year has been maybe less then stellar and sometimes it gets depressing. But don't let the bastards get you down!!

Cause here's the upside... We have utter freedom! And ultimately, science is a friggin blast. We're getting paid (marginally, but still!) to dick around with our ideas, which is pretty rad. I know you like that part of it a ton. And truthfully, what makes a good scientist in my opinion is curiousity. Some of us are better at memorizing things, and someone of us excel on the bench, etc etc., but ultimately, if you you are engaged by ideas you will be a good scientist and one who continually gets better. And you have this quality. I know, because you've introduced me to most of my scienceblogs for example. You belong. Don't doubt it.

5th year is a tough time. But I've seen your data and believe me there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just keep the chin up. You're almost there even if it doesn't feel like it.

Kevin said...

Are you depressed because Ryan Seacrest stood you up? Anyway, you know he's ... well, I don't like to spread rumors. Hang in there!

eileen said...

Hey, thanks for all of your comments, guys.

Kevin - I do think those of you outside of the biologial sciences have it worse- less funding and more isolation, so I give you extra congratulations for your accomplishments. And you'll be done soon! Oh, I'll be in NYC in a couple of weeks, so I'll treat you to a congratulatory martini.

Tina and JR- yeah, you guys know what it is like, so thanks for your support. JR, you've been struggling too, so I'd like to take this opportunity to let you know that I think you're avery talented scientist. Tina, you suck. (just kidding! i often think i should have gone for an MPH. very jealous!)

Anon- that's a pretty bleak outlook. But i've been in the real world, and trust me, grad school is worse.

Buddes- man,leave it to make me look on the bight side, no matter what. The flat top might not be an option, but i could always bring back the mullet :)

Kev- be on the lookout for any infectious disease fellowships in London....

eileen said...

um, please ignore all the typos in my last comment.
Typing after many beers = troublesome.

Tricia said...

I only got a masters, and not a real academic one at that, and I know that my sanity, my marriage, and my physical health, would never have survived a PhD. I am so happy to be out of school and no longer working (or feeling guilty about not working - which was much more common) nights and weekends, and not defining myself by the quality of my research and writing.

Hang in there!!! I have the ultimate respect for you. Even though there are greater tragedies, persevering through constant internal and external criticism and low-grade depression is really, really tough. I'm glad you have supportive family and friends. I love hearing your weekend updates and seeing what a fun and fulfilling life you have, regardless of the lab-centric career.

Nitsirk said...

You are not alone. It took me 6.5 years and the last 3 sucked. I still don't have my paper done and I have been gone for a year.

Having people tell you that you suck is not healthy. You do start to believe it and it eats at your self esteem. It happened to me and to my husband who is still healing. I have been in the "real" world for a year now and it rocks. I have a boss who respects me and my work and believes in positive reinforcement. I am still trying to learn the proper way to receive a compliment on my work.

Hang in there, the degree is worth it in the end. Know that you aren't alone. If you need to commiserate, go see the sole remaining member of my lab. Honestly I had forgotten what it was like to be happy. It gets better though, year 5 is definitely the point where you start to second-guess your decision.

Kris said...

RT, I get so used to reading your blog (and yours too, Kevin) and thinking of you guys as, like, competent grown-ups in a way that I could never be. And then you post stuff like this and I feel guilty at how relieved it makes me feel. Yay, we all suck! Seriously though, get a cheap phone card and call me sometime. We'll commiserate. :)

Kevin said...

Infectious disease fellowships? Is that where people with a shared infectious disease get together over scones and tea? I'm sure we have a few of those here in London! I'm not sure if infectious disease fellowships pop up in the news sources that I look at, but I'll keep my eyes and ears open all the same.

eileen said...

Thanks again for all of your feedback, everyone.

Kristin- It's definitely nice to hear stories from the other side. I need to remind myself that I shouldn't let my failures (real or perceived) as a grad student ruin the rest of my career.

RT- How abouts I come visit you instead, when I finally finish this whole PhD nonsense.

hh said...

hang in there - sounds like when i was a chegger at ND - they're always trying to break you down. if it makes you fell any better - at least you didn't leave boston to live in a poor, rural, uneducated, bible thumping town?!?!?