I recently marked my four-year anniversary of starting graduate school. When I reflect on the years that I’ve spent here, embedded in the practice of science like a mosquito in amber, I’m reminded of a line from that Bob Dylan song: “Then you better start swimmin’ / Or you’ll sink like a stone / For the times they are a-changin’.”
The times are a-changin’ indeed. The biggest thing I’ve learned from my experience here is that science is everything. Science offers us students—most of us overeager, street-dumb twenty-somethings—an unparalleled opportunity to peek behind the curtain of existence. Science allows us to dive deeply into truth-with-a-capital-T and retrieve information to help save the lives of those around us. It’s amazing…and it’s why I entered graduate school in the first place.
But science isn’t exclusively good. Science, the exhausting, elbow-greasy practice of it, is also a blackened altar onto which we sacrifice so much of our lives and our freedom. Science is a jealous god, one who hears the cries of its greatest worshippers and sometimes, more often than we’d like to admit, capriciously holds back its favor and love. We become a wandering people looking to the sky for manna and seeing only thunderclouds forming on the horizon.
I know this sounds hyperbolic and overblown—remember the self-parodical descriptions of us twenty-something graduate students a couple paragraphs ago?—but it’s representative of how I have been shaped by this experience. Even though I’m in a privileged position, working for an excellent mentor whose talent and largesse have made me somewhat spoiled, I don’t think I’m wrong. And I know I’m not alone either.
I should emphasize that while what I’m saying isn’t anathema, it’s not encouraged either. Often, we’re told by our professors and by the administration that these complaints smack of entitlement. You don’t know how good you’ve got it, they say. Back in my day, we used mouth pipettes with no regard for safety, computers were the size of food trucks, and barefoot in the snow and uphill both ways and gasoline cost only a quarter.
Yes, we students know that practicing science is a privilege. We’ve never thought otherwise. But practicing science is also a demanding struggle, one that all your generational rose-colored glasses (the ones with the large lenses rimmed in tortoise shell that were all the rage back in the ‘80s) automatically obscures and makes small.
You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. The truth is, after four years of graduate school, I don’t know in which direction I’m swimming. I don’t think that direction is toward scientific research, actually—I don’t think I’m tenacious or talented enough to continue offering the prayers and supplications to this vengeful god. But I’ve got to keep swimming.
Make no mistake: I will continue doing research. I will finish graduate school. To continue with that Dylan song: “The line it is drawn / The curse it is cast … As the present now will later be past.” As my present dissolves gracelessly into the past, I can’t help but think about the future, about what that holds. Because the times, my friends, they are a-changin’. And so are we.