It really is amazing how different I feel now that I know that this madness is close to being over. To add some spice to the mix, I recently accepted an invitation from the graduate student association at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago to give a seminar about life in graduate school. I enjoyed talking with fellow students about the trials and triumphs of graduate school, and the experience made me stop and think about why my column resonates with graduate students.

Because I write under a pseudonym, I don’t have the opportunity to talk about my columns with many people (outside of the few who know my secret identity). But the positive flip side of that is that having a veiled identity allows me to be candid about my experiences. I was asked by my hosts, “Does your adviser know you write this stuff?” Um, nope. Additionally, through writing this column, I’ve also been able to shed light on my own fears, publicly, without feeling exposed . I hope my openness about the graduate school experience and the madness that goes with it reminds everyone who tunes in that:

a) You are not alone;

b) There might be a solution to your current drama, even if it’s not found here; and

c) For those of you no longer in school, yes, it is still as strange as you remember.

I also hope the column has given students the impetus to talk about what’s going on in their lives--with one another. Individual experiences are unique, but we all face many of the same challenges as we go through the process. As the president of the Rosalind Franklin GSA said as he introduced me, “If you’re going through it in graduate school, chances are Micella has written about it.” Although this thought has occasionally occurred to me (it has been 48 chapters and 4 years this month, woo-hoo!), I had never heard it come out of someone else’s mouth.

In the course of our discussion/seminar, I said some things that I don’t think I’ve said out loud, although I've probably written them down more than once. For one, we lament that graduate school is hard, but why? Here's one possible answer, which I presented to the crowd:

Graduate school is the first time in our lives that we--a bunch of smart people--feel really stupid and have no safety net.

As an undergrad, success is defined, and everyone is measured by the same set of metrics:

  • You have classes (you can choose not to go);

  • You have homework (it may count; it may not);

  • You have tests (although you can choose not to study for them); and

  • You get grades; everything you turn in, almost every effort you put forth, is graded, returned to you, and allows you to be judged alongside your peers.

You then adjust your performance accordingly: I got a 60; I should study more. Or, I got a 105? I’m coasting. This has been our mode of operation since kindergarten, when teachers first evaluated us by whether we stayed inside the lines when we colored. Not much has changed, has it?

Sure, plenty of us did research in college, but that research often had a well-defined beginning, middle, and end; it was sanctioned by a professor, through a graduate student or postdoc, and they had a pretty good idea of how the little piece of work you did, with very specific instructions and parameters, would fit into the larger project. Even if it didn’t quite work, the semester ended, and you got on with your life.

Graduate school doesn’t work that way. Just because it's got the word school in it doesn’t mean it is anything like our past school-related experiences. You walk into an experience that is unstructured (well, you might graduate in 5 to 7 years, but you might not), unmanaged (well, we have to find you some money and space somewhere, but until then, stay in this hole and don't eat anything), unsupervised (I don’t care how you get it done, just get it done), and financially draining (don't worry about it; it's all about science, and science is worth some personal sacrifices). Sure, some of us have loads of confidence, but it can--and will--be crushed.

Because there is no official structure, other than come in, do research, and leave (hopefully with a degree), there also is no “standard” graduate school experience. It’s hard to know what’s “normal,” especially when you’re frustrated and you don’t quite know why. Maybe there is no "normal." For example:

  • You may have to take classes, or you may not.

  • You may get your assignments back, or you may not.

  • If they come back, they may be thoroughly graded, or they may not.

  • You may teach, or you may not.

  • You may have a research fellowship, or you may not.

  • You may have an adviser who's a mentor, or you may not.

  • You may have a wonderful research “family,” or you may not.

  • You may have a variety of research projects, or you may not.

  • Your ideas may be valued, or they may not.

  • You may work in a highly collaborative environment, or you may not.

  • You may work in a highly competitive environment, or you may not.

  • You may work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., or you may work 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Or both.

  • You may have the opportunity to make presentations to others (either your own research or a paper you’ve read), or you may not.

  • The rules governing Ph.D. candidacy may be clear, or it may all depend on the whims of favorite-playing professors.

  • Your research may work, or it may not.

This last one, I think, is the hardest for most of us to deal with. We all know that research requires an immense investment of time, personal resources, and general sacrifice. We enter, naively thinking that we can solve any problem presented to us, not realizing just how much we don’t know. All our lives, we’ve made things work, we’ve made things bend to our will, and if they didn’t bend we tried harder, pushed longer, and lost sleep until the problem yielded to our indomitable intellect.

In graduate school, there are some problems that just won’t yield. The laws of the universe are not always knowable, interpretable, and publishable in 5 to 7 years. At some point, you realize just how much--or how little--your individual contribution means. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering. Sometimes it’s paltry. You start to question it all, wondering, in the end, if all the work has been worth it.

It would help a great deal if our advisers 1) recognized this conundrum, 2) allowed us to talk about it, 3) nurtured us through our frustration, with feedback, and 4) told us about their own experiences. (Contrary to common belief, almost all advisers were once frustrated graduate students, which does not mean they all remember it.) But chances are your adviser is too busy for that kind of meaningful interaction to happen spontaneously. Or--more probably--chances are that, despite having been there, he or she just doesn't have any answers to offer. Maybe because there aren't any answers.

In the end, it’s up to you to take responsibility for your life and your research. Survival in an unstructured, unmanaged, ill-defined world is possible, but you’ll have to adjust your mindset to get through graduate school. It is imperative that you find people--co-workers, adviser, committee members, useful faculty members--to give you good and constructive feedback and to help structure your work. You have to figure out how to build your confidence back up again (after it has been beaten out of you) and how--and when--to vent your frustration. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re doing it alone, but that’s something else that we must dispel, another problem to be solved. You are not alone in the process--you mustn't be--so get out of your own head and talk to your fellow graduate students. Thanks to the GSA at Rosalind Franklin University for reminding me of this crucial fact.

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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.