Saturday, October 07, 2006

Young Scientist Depression, Part II

So, I'm actually in a decent mood right now, I've been hacking away at some stuff I really needed to get done, and it has been relatively enjoyable. And, I'm almost done. That helps, too.

That said, I'm not sure why I was in a good mood at all, because I woke up this morning and turned on the tv, as has been my habit since 9/11, to see if anything catastrophic had happened in the world.

The tv happened to be on a station that was showing Life or Something Like It, starring Angelina Jolie.

Now, I love Angelina, and I had seen this movie before and liked it. They happened to be at the part where Angelina goes to see Monk, who's playing a homeless prophet, and he says "Oh, you're already up to Bargaining?"

He was referring to the Five Stages of Grief, aka:

1. Denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

And I realized, I think I've been going through these stages, leading up to accepting the idea that I may not have it in me to put up with the crap long enough to have my own lab.

Denial is what we're all in when we go to grad school.
Anger is where I spent the best years of my life, e.g. most of my 20s.
Bargaining was what I did when I said "I'll do a postdoc, and if it sucks, I'll quit."
Depression is where I've been lately, because it's such a zero-sum game. I don't have anything left to bargain with.

In other pop culture references, last night I watched V for Vendetta on DVD. At first Natalie Portman's posh rendition of a British accent annoyed me, but then I had to appreciate the Phantom of the Opera-esque mask business. And the parts where they reference The Count of Monte Cristo, you can imagine, really appealed to me.

I especially liked the sequence where they keep torturing her, and torturing her, and she keeps saying "I don't know". Finally they say they're going to execute her, and she says "Okay, fine."

I realized in grad school that, as in all negotiations, life is a big negotiation. If you're not willing to walk away at any point, you're never going to get anywhere.

Evey's character in the movie says she's willing to die, and V says: "Now you are truly free."

This is not a new concept. Fearless people really do have the most interesting lives.

I think what's been bugging me lately is admitting what I am afraid of.

I've always subscribed to the saying that brave people are just as afraid as everyone else, they just handle it better.

And I've always been pretty brave, until lately, when I've started to worry that once the denial and the anger wear off, you've lost your two best weapons.

I guess I thought the anger would never go away, or that it would at least last me until I had my own lab. But it does eventually just give in to sadness.

Oddly, though, work can be its own reward, more so than getting credit for it. It's just really hard to remember that every minute of every day.

It matters more that you try, than whether anybody knows about it.

Labels: , , ,


At 5:23 PM, Blogger ~profgrrrrl~ said...

The whole lab thing has always sounded overwhelming to me. I watched new faculty friends trying to set labs up, and what a lot of work combined with tenure pressure at a time when you can't actively do research. I can't what it feels like thinking that looms in your future, or hoping to have that loom in the future.

Although I'm in a very different field, I do think that my willingness to walk away at any point has been a major contributor to my sanity.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous Angela said...

In some weird way, I think that we must be very similiar people. After I put off the dream of going to grad school for a little longer five years ago then found out I was pregnant I went through this process. Only I didn't know it. Some of the stages came and went but recently I realized that I am reaching a place of acceptance. What is so amazing and hopeful about it is it isn't too bad. Coming out on the other side of mourning the loss of a dream (in a certain form), I have discovered I still do want some of the same things. But what I have accepted is that there are now limits on what I can do and more importantly what I am willing to do. I was 28 when I got pregnant (I am married and not going it alone). I am almost 32 now. I read your experiences and see what I struggled with as a lab assistant doing benchwork. I now realize that I may have been a very angry woman (my husband would wonder how that would be possible) had I been a postdoc. I basically got myself fired from my first job by fighting my PI with his treatment of his techs. To the best of my knowledge the work I did hasn't been published and that still bothers me because I put in 60 hour weeks for it (as a BS) and missed time with friends and my husband. All this to say, walk the rest of the way through the mourning process. It isn't perfect on the other side but every day I am finding unexpected gifts of acceptance and clarity about life.

At 3:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've used "zero sum game" twice in the last few posts and I'm not sure you're using it properly.

A lot of things in academia are certainly not zero sum games: your success and the success of your colaborators are often linked and if you invent some great new technique or discover something that opens up a new subfield many people benefit with you.

"But when you pay graduate students and postdocs less than non-PhD staff, AND give them zero job security, AND expect them to work constantly with no reasonable amount of hope of ever making it to the next level...

Isn't this what they call a zero-sum game?"

Not really.

At 8:02 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anonymous, I know I'm not using it correctly in the sense that you mean. I would hope that the work I do will benefit someone, or science, somewhere, in the grand scheme of things. I hope that it will. Maybe it will take 20 years for someone naive grad student to find one of my papers and get a great idea from it. Or maybe my papers will be buried as one-hit wonders, and not stand the test of time.

No, I mean for each of us, as individuals, in terms of the sacrifices we make to do science, it's all or nothing if you're in academia. There is no job placement service for postdocs. There's no obvious place to go from here. It's not a degree, and most of the skills don't transfer. Sure, there is no doubt in my mind that I could somewhere and do something else and be fine. But what a colossal waste of NIH-funded training!

postdoc + $$ = nothing?? If you add up all the money spent on my schooling, it would look something like this:

~ $125k total for college tuition
~20k/year "salary" for grad school, x5 = $100k
~40k/year "salary" for postdoc, x5 = $200k
+ a few thousand for travel to conferences, books, xeroxing, etc.

All told, between my parents and various funding agencies, my "training" should be worth ~ $500k, at least on paper.

Where does that money go if I quit science? Into the great beyond?

Angela, I'm confused. I thought you said you were doing research now-? I think we're a bit different in some ways that may or may not be fundamental. I see that you're married to a pastor and have kids?

Having given up other interests in order to do science, I can tell you that it's easier to quit the earlier you do it. Mourning over not going to grad school is different from investing every summer starting in high school, 5 years in grad school- which sucked, btw- and now 5 years as a postdoc. It's a lot of time to spend on something and then say, "Well I came this far, but now I'm going to give up." And maybe because it wasn't my first choice, I didn't enjoy the whole process of research as much as I could have. Maybe I wouldn't have seen it as a sacrifice if I could have followed my first passion(s).


Thanks for the words of sanity.

And while we do a fair amount of writing, your job scares me, because I think the lab part is the most fun part of science. Sometimes it's the only reminder I have that the work can stand on its own, no matter how much scientists try to fuck everything up with their politics and personal issues.

I think it's funny everyone focuses on their fear of the tenure clock. At my stage, that seems like putting the cart before the horse. So I guess my attitude has always been that I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. I had no problem with my thesis defense, which lots of people think of as a major hurdle, at least in my field.

So my fear has nothing to do with setting up the lab or all the work required to do that. I guess that's because I've already done it. I've worked in labs at all stages of the lifecycle- pupa stage, larval stage (which some labs never get out of), adult stage, and nearing retirement. So I know what's involved, and I know I can handle it. What's driving me nuts right now is trying to figure out how to get that message out to search committees.

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you graduate from high school early? Your timeline seems strange to me. You say you're "almost 30" (29 I'm assuming). Subtract 5 years of postdoc and 5 of grad school, that puts you at 19 when you graduated from college? And no breaks between college and grad school. I must say, if true that is very impressive. But it probably does work against you in that most postdocs at your stage are quite a bit older, thus they might be taken more seriously. I'm not saying this is right, but I'm sure it happens.

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Angela said...

Oh, I am sorry. I wasn't implying we were just the same. Now I am not doing research now. I live in Montana and that makes that type of job difficult. My point was some empathy with your struggle of decided where to go from this point in life having made the decisions/sacrifices that you have made. Yes, I made a very different choice than you when I first got married and then decided to allow my husband to pursue some dreams. That how I ended up working as a BS level tech. However, I am very glad I did or I very well could be in shoes a lot more like yours. Thanks for visiting mine as I have never said that my husband was in the pastoral field. You can not post this comment because of this but here is my very very limited take on this, no matter what the dream is and how much you have invested in it, it will always be had to see it go and it can be personally devasting. That is what I was responding too. But if that isn't the case then ignore me or better yet you can just delete this comment. I will check back and if it isn't here I won't bother you anymore.

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Zhou Rui said...

wonderful blog!

International Professors Project:
wish to invite
1. scientists
2. either in and out of academe
to apply for 25 openings among our Fellows and three to step onto our Board of Directors.
3. F/T, P/T acdemics, both four- and two-year college professors wanted graduate students, postdocs and independent scholars welcomed, from anywhwere in the world; oh yes, professors emeriti and retired academics welcomed, very much.

we abide at


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home