Post-traumatic thesis stress
So, I went to lab for a few hours today, and it was actually not all bad. In fact, I seem to have a reproducible result, which is a huge relief. Of course I can't be sure it's linked to the thing I'm studying, but it is proof that I'm not completely incapable of repeating an experiment.
Unfortunately, I'm curled up with a shot of Jack Daniels and a box of chocolates, because I stupidly agreed to help a friend revise her thesis. Actually the chocolates were a Christmas present that I've been trying to avoid opening for several days, but this seemed like a good occasion to give in to temptation.
Now, I may have mentioned previously that I was my thesis advisor's only student, and that my advisor was not around when I was writing my thesis. I spent several months trying to figure out what to write, and how to write it. It was really traumatic and definitely character-building.
I had the advantage, however, of having published a few papers already. So it could have been a lot worse. I also had unlimited time, since my committee obviously couldn't let me schedule my defense until we figured out where my advisor had gone! Ha ha! It's almost funny now!
My friend is not so lucky. She is using the thesis as an excuse to write up all of her unpublished data, but she has no experience with this. It's a hard time to learn about organization, references, and oh yeah, questioning assumptions.
And did I mention that she's a world-class procrastinator, so she has only a week left?
I'm kind of horrified to have to say this, because my friend is bright and hard working. But. This girl would have fried in the wok of hell that I went through.
I'm worried she's going to find out the hard way when she sends her paper out for review. I'm equally worried that the paper will just sail through review, which it really shouldn't if peer review actually works.
She'll find out the hard way, eventually. But she's not there yet. Whatever her advisor or former postdocs in her lab say or do, she takes it as the gospel. And I suspect her thesis committee will, too. It's disgusting and unscientific, but it's true.
Her advisor is respected in his field, which is to say, he would not survive if he tried to make it in mine- if he were a postdoc starting out now. Controls that would be considered absolutely necessary in my field are apparently optional in theirs. I was told that the thesis is the one document that should be written in first person, but her advisor refuses to let her write in anything but the most convoluted, passive voice. And so on. Our fields are close enough, however, that all the missing experiments are glaringly obvious to me, and it's very upsetting to see this going on right under my nose and know that there's very little I can do about it beyond make some feeble suggestions about how she should, um, consider discussing some of her results and the potential limitations of how they could be interpreted. I can't see how I can do much else without further compromising my own career.
Hence the Jack Daniels. Jack got me through all the miserable, political, degrading subjective crap I experienced in grad school, and I'm vicariously reliving the unfairness of it all by helping my friend out, but from the opposite angle: my friend is the enemy. She's one of the ones who gets to slip through the system, unquestioned. She doesn't have to work as hard as I did, or know her stuff inside and out and backwards. And it makes me angry.
But I feel guilty about being, well, a little bit disgusted, because I really do like her and I think she has a lot of potential. And I'm not sure it's a good thing that I had my potential, shall we say, galvanized, by what I went through. I'm not saying everyone should have to go through that! But they shouldn't get to float through on a bed of cotton candy, either.
In a way it's nice to reconfirm everything I've learned along the way. But this is the perfect example of a lab that runs precisely the wrong way: the complete lack of training, the royal oblivion of the well-named PI and the field that obediently follows in the footsteps of years of untested assumptions.
Goody. And a stack of thesis pages left to go.
I guess I'm thinking about it even more because I read an interesting essay this morning about how to do meaningful research. One of the things this guy said that really pissed me off is that it's more important to be a great scientist than to get involved in fixing the system. I think this is precisely the kind of shortsightedness that has led to the mess American science is in now. So I guess if I were really worried only about my science, I wouldn't have agreed to read this thing for my friend, and I wouldn't be in the emotional and philosophical angst that I am now.
One of my best friends still has thesis nightmares, years later. She gets a phone call from the administrative head of our program, saying that they need more data or another paper and until they get it, she can't graduate. She wakes up sweating and breathless every time. She definitely has impostor syndrome. She still feels like she escaped out a back door at midnight with a stolen, blank diploma and just wrote her name in the slot.
I'm happy to say I don't actually have that kind of nightmare. There is no question in my mind - especially today - that I more than earned my diploma.
Say it with me now, postdocs: I already have my PhD. I made it through. You may have to go and look at your diploma, or your bound copy of the final, signed document, to prove it to yourself. YOU ARE DONE.
And now, onto the next challenge.