Like last year, I’m almost too late with my tiny contribution to Mental Health Awareness week. In the previous edition I’ve compiled a masterpost about mental health crisis. I think it’s safe to say that by now we all know that yeah, things are bad. Instead of bathing in our academic tears, I’d like to offer a solution that did wonders for me – finding an online community. Let me tell you why.
For anyone who does not know me personally – I owe you a small explanation that it takes me longer than initially planned to complete my PhD. The money well dried up last September, which means that I’m not being paid by my research institute for more than half a year now. In fact, while I am still a PhD student and will re-enrol after summer holidays, I’m no longer my supervisors’ employee. Many factors contributed to that and as a former gifted child I was understandably frustrated by it (which I already mentioned in my first post here), but I’ve I finally come to terms with it and can wholeheartedly stand by my decision to take a longer and often winding road to get my degree.
Let me tell you why it’s worth it, especially if you’re not sure if you belong in the PhD programme at all.
I stopped regularly watching news a while ago and don’t miss it at all. It doesn’t mean that I no longer care about what is happening in the world – on the contrary, I try to stay informed but carefully curate the content that I consume. From news websites, to paper magazines, books, podcasts and video channels. Of course, this means I stay in my (leftist, progressive, liberal, woke, call it whatever you like) bubble most of the time. While I am aware of the limitations, I see no added value in watching news in mainstream media, especially TV and biggest portals. The truth is, these information sources and their prepacked messages do nothing for me except induce anxiety and fear that the world is going to end any day now. They certainly do not give a balanced view of what’s going on because most news programmes and websites – at least in Poland, where I come from – are completely devoid of any science topics, thus completely lack the cautious optimism that science news bring about.
You know what they say: no failure, no science.
It couldn’t be more true for any type of science that requires a lot of experimental work. After 4 years in the lab, I’ve grown much more appreciative of the enormous amount of sweat and tears that goes behind every sentence in Materials and Methods section of any paper. M&M, the section you only read when you need specific details about a practical aspect of the experiment that you want to replicate. By far the easiest part to write, but also the one that glosses over the most pain and suffering.
Like many other romanticised endeavours, research is like sausage – nobody actually wants to know how it’s being made and failures are not commonly talked about, let alone published. Because of that, when your experiments are a big mess, it’s really easy to think you are the only one that keeps failing and everyone else knows what they are doing. To bust that myth, I would like to try and explain how much you actually have to work sometimes to even be able to write one sentence in your paper. Starting with something that can easily take more than a year to do and then be summed up in one phrase:
The protein was heterologously expressed (…)
Welcome to hell.
As a PhD student, I have no self-esteem and I’m almost sure my opinions and beliefs are pretty much useless (thanks, academia). Nevertheless, I’m going to pretend that I know the answer to one of the most discussed questions among PhD students feeling sorry for themselves, ie. why is doing a PhD such a soul-crushing experience?
Because being an academic is treated as a calling, and being a grad student a privilege.
Okay, I am fully aware that it’s not the only reason. There are many more, and as a scientist (in the making?) I know that the truth is always complex. Being a Star Wars geek, I also know that only the Sith deal with the absolutes. Still, let me ramble about this particular belief and all the implication it brings about.