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.
To put it lightly, this hasn’t been the best week for plant science in Europe. If, unlike me, you’re not currently working in the field of plant science or you don’t know anyone employed by the European institutions, you might have missed that the Court of Justice just made the process of registering new crop varieties obtained using modern plant breeding technologies much more difficult. I’m not going to get technical here, if you want to read more, have a look at the comments in Science, Nature or Politico.
Or, because we millenials all have blink-and-you’ll-miss-it attention spans nowadays, have a look at these tweets summing it up:
You get the mood. People are (undestandably and justly) pissed off that there will be even more red tape making it nearly possible to let our work ever be put into practice.
Annoying? Absolutely. Can anti-GMO lobbyists (regardless of their motives, sinister or really plain) call it their success? They can. Is it our, scientists’ fault?
Unfortunately, it partly is.
(Beware, there are memes under the cut)
As you might have noticed, we’re at the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. Talking to friends and colleagues, I’ve come to the conclusion that most academics either have experienced some mental health issues, or at least know someone who does. The more I dig into it, the more complex and sensitive the problem seems to me. I’d be an idiot if I tried to pass any judgements, but one thing I know is – we can no longer keep silent. The multitude of accounts of academics crumbling under unhealthy pressure speaks for itself. So, instead of stating the obvious about how stressful PhD is, I will give voice to others, who have already articularted it brilliantly.
This is by no means a complete reading list about mental health, more a selection based on what I recently found. Feel free to adapt it and pass it around, if you know someone with similar experiences.