When I sat down at my computer to write this, my first blog post since last March, I was not exactly sure what to write. Over the past ten months I have attended the Drosophila Neurobiology Cold Spring Harbor course (which changed my science life), written a qualifying exam, done edits to my qualifying exam, achieved candidacy, presented a poster at the Drosophila Neurobiology Cold Spring Harbor conference, had margaritas with my great science grandfather, and even managed to go to Disneyland when it was all over. Last year was a roller coaster with very high peaks and very low valleys and I think I am not yet convinced that the ride is over; at any moment I expect another spiral, turning my graduate experience on its head. Looking back on the last ten months and conversations I have had with various people about what it means to be a graduate student, what we are supposed to do, and what we actually have to do, it strikes me how little most people know about today’s graduate student experience.
Graduate school is a purely unique experience in education. We are here to be trained as scientists. We are given a general outline of when to take what classes, a general window during which we are supposed to take an exam, and we must balance our classroom studies with what we are actually supposed to be doing, i.e. research. Some faculty understand this, some do not. The graduate school experience is formed by individual student-faculty, student-postdoc, student-technician, student-student, and faculty-faculty interactions. There is no guide on how to deal with criticism, communication breakdowns, personality conflicts, privacy violations, and multiple, sometimes divergent opinions. Neither are there guides on how to deal with general depression or unrest in the work environment – students sense faculty unrest and when faculty are unhappy, students are generally unhappy too. There are therefore many intangibles in our daily lives that we, the student, do not and cannot control.
But graduate school is also unique in that the ultimate goal, the thing we must do to receive our degree, is that we must contribute something new and novel to our field. We don’t just sit at a desk, writing and reading, memorizing things we might need to recall years later and get a degree. No, we are in the trenches, knee deep in the forefront of knowledge. Looking at something, seeing something no one else has ever seen (or at least published) – that is the moment that makes graduate school worth it. That is the moment when we are in our element. Of course, I should not speak for all graduate students, but I think few would fundamentally disagree with me. Personally, when I sit down at the electron microscope to look at my preps, I swear I know exactly how Christopher Columbus felt upon seeing land on the horizon. Charting the uncharted, writing the unwritten – these are the things we as graduate students are being trained to do, as scientists must do, and the “thing” we do ultimately control.
Jules Verne reminds us in Journey to the Center of the Earth, that “Science… is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” This statement holds true not only for the process of discovery, but also for the lifestyle that is science. I think, fundamentally, graduate education has made, and continues to make, mistakes. Today’s graduate experience reflects those mistakes in the bipolar nature of it: on one side we pursue our science and our training as our science forefathers did, but on the other side we worry about our future and the fact that we cannot all stay in science. Our futures are intrinsically uncertain. For now, though, speaking as a third year, our shared experience is the search for the new, the novel, the solution to the unsolved puzzle. We are all working toward, and for, knowledge. Today we are the searchers for truth and tomorrow, in the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, is another day.