JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

INDEX OF ARTICLES

Slipping into Darkness

Droll thing [grad school] is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of unextinguishable regrets.

The quote above is from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, except that I've substituted "grad school" where Conrad has written "life." It seems to describe, with such eloquence, the point I've reached in graduate school--some level of hell.

I think I finally reached the point in my program where I've begun to loose touch with true reality and reason. All that matters is the journey I'm on: getting the data and making as many incremental steps towards graduation as I can, and then putting them together into some sort of coherent story. Sometimes this means staying through the night to complete experiments. Other times it means hiding in the library so as not to be bothered by my advisor or coworkers and their problems.

It's getting a bit scary in here.

Sunlight in My Rearview Mirror

Post vacation, I was up, I was motivated, and I was ready to go. Ready, that is, to do whatever it took to get far, far away from lab. But gradually I settled back in. And now, nothing matters but the work. My social posture has become one of harried, irritated inwardness, a ?what more do you want I'm not giving any more to you', ?get out of my way if you can't help me' kind of angst. Everything that matters is here in the lab. Nothing else is real.

Chill out, you say. Relax, you say. I try. The little things that used to bother me in the outside world don't anymore...or, rather, they matter only if they distract me from my work. A postdoc arrives an hour late for an experiment that I have to set up and help him run; the air sizzles around me, his rushing all the more irritating. I can waste my time very well on my own, thank you; I don't need any help. In casual conversation I can feel myself drifting off; I'm bored, irritated; I see no point in this conversation. Antisocial? No doubt. Am I more conscious than ever of my own particular needs and wants than I have been before in my life? Definitely.

Into the Tunnel!

Towards the beginning of the month, despite my best efforts, my experiments decided they weren't going to work anymore. This after spending 16-20 hours in the building, working through the night, and sleeping between runs. At first I denied it to myself--this couldn't be happening--but eventually I came to the bleary eyed realization that it just wasn't working. Motivation took a walk; desperation took over.

Just What is Lab Rage?

Lab rage: Noun. The madness that ensues instantly on the results of an experiment or calculation, or on a comment from an advisor or colleague.

Nobody ever talks about the lab rage, or its first cousin, lab envy. It's one of those subjects, apparently, that we aren't supposed to talk about. Surely I'm not the only one who has experienced it. I thought I didn't have a jealous bone in my body; I was surprised how green I became in the face (no pun intended) of someone else's glowing success. During that dark time, enthusiasm could send me off. It's not even as if any outward manifestation of this rage came about (translation: I didn't throw anything or do bodily harm to myself or anyone else). It was simply this sinking feeling that the other shoe had dropped, and no, it's wasn't going to get any better.

Dysfunction Junction

Two funky people in one office do not a happy home make. Laura, my office mate, is also in a funk. Her funk seems to be related to Jeff's (my advisor's) determination to antagonize her and take joy in it. Laura wants to graduate--badly--and she deserves to, in my opinion. But their battle has now become a fully fledged war. And guess who's stuck in the crossfire? That would be me, Micella. Yes, it's my time, personal space, and patience that are being imposed on.

Meanwhile, another conflict's brewing, between Jeff's lab and another lab, over equipment. It's something that's been in the background for awhile but has lately taken center stage, with nasty emails, heated conversations, unveiled contempt, and insults tossed about hither and yon'. I've got no time for this, and no patience. I've got my future to think about. I intend to succeed in science. I do not wish to become one of the walking dead.

I never thought that life as a graduate student would be so harrowing. A crop of unextinquishable regrets. Battling over equipment, to be understood, to just exist as a human being and not a drone, to continue to believe that there is, indeed, a pot of something--maybe not gold--at the end of the rainbow, can be so taxing that sometimes you loose touch with your humanity. Welcome to the dark side.

Coping

Eventually, I figured out the problem. Experiments started--grudgingly--to work again. But it took a while for the lab rage to subside. I could feel my whole body on edge. My rage--at my project, my advisor, myself, and my obviously flawed decisions--grew daily. Visions of others' success drove me to distraction. How do you cope? My best advice: have your lab mates hide anything that could be used as a weapon.

More seriously: I can hear you all saying, "Don't let it get to you." That works for some people and for certain times. It had been working for me. But this is not a good solution to lab rage; indeed, that very suggestion can be like alcohol on a hot fire. Speaking of alcohol, for some people, inebriation helps, though alcohol is not always the drug of choice. Gaming, reality TV, working out...all these things can be used to calm--or numb--your mind to the frustration and hopelessness about your life in graduate school, about the project you're working on, about the prospects for your future.

But why does it seem to be so much easier for some people than it is for others? We toil late into the night while others are out seeking their preferred form of inebriation. Yet in the end we get the same degree.

Somehow we have to come to realize-- the hard way is usually the only way--that it is only temporary, even if it is hell. This mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose ... this, too, will pass.

This Time It is About You ... And Your Friends.

The challenge for those who have toiled into the night while their colleagues do an easy 8 to 5 is to tune everyone else out and do what needs to be done to accomplish YOUR goal. Granted, it's easier to do this when you don't have to interact with your coworkers or professors either over equipment, or office space, or whatever, but tough cookies kiddies. The lab is where the better portion of our lives is. But it should not be the spot where we plant ourselves in the hopes that someone will notice, care, and help us out of our funk. We have to seek sources of comfort, our confidants, in other places. We need a point of reference outside the lab that will let us bemoan our current reality and then challenge us to put it all into perspective and deal with it (because it matters to the end game), or not (because it will do nothing but distract you).

Remember friends: this, too, will pass?

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.