January 31, 2011

It's called re-search for a reason

by flickr user Okko Pyykkö
I hope no one misunderstands my rantings against graduate school. I believe that scientific research is incredibly valuable and immeasurably necessary for the advancement of our society. I just wish students were better prepared for it and that the support system was something better than "sink or swim". Research can be shockingly frustrating for young graduate students, even if they have been exposed to it as an undergraduate at their institution or through REU programs. The most difficult part of research for a young scientist is the way it assaults your ego. You pour yourself into a problem, taking what has already been reported in the literature and trying to extrapolate it in the hopes of reporting a new insight. It's hard not to take it personally when your best effort fails and you have to start over from square one.

At first I struggled with my damaged ego, but I came to accept that I couldn't know everything and every result, whether positive or negative, could tell me a little bit more about my system. I joined a chemical biology research group, and was excited to learn new techniques and strategies since I had little prior biochemical experience. This excitement lasted through the first year and a half until I started to feel that regardless of what I discovered it wouldn't do much to change the world. (In my personal statement for my grad school application I was sure that I could change the world, cure cancer and world hunger, all in the course of a 5 year graduate program.) This is also a difficult realization. As young students and even as a member of the general public, we view science from the leaps it takes and we rarely hear about the baby steps that constitute the majority of research efforts.

As I became comfortable with the new biochemical techniques and the literature surrounding my project, my enthusiasm started to wane. I liked discussing my work with people, I just didn't like doing the work at my bench. I found myself again questioning whether grad school was the right place for me, just as I had when classes were the most difficult my first year. In the end I quieted my doubts and persevered onward. I felt like leaving graduate school would be an admission of defeat, and I had never quit anything in my life. I just had to suck it up and hang in there a few more years, then I could have my dream job as a professor at a small liberal art school....

No comments:

Post a Comment