Day in the life of an anonymous PhD student
A response to Fix the PhD, Nature 472, 259-260
I scramble across the breezy campus, struggling to keep a lagging backpack strap high on my shoulder as I reach down for my cell phone. On silent. I fumble with the buttons until the familiar green vibrate mode symbol appears… wouldn’t want to miss any nagging emails requesting my presence back at the medical campus to pick up some nondescript samples, or attend yet another rambling seminar. They call it ‘broadening our knowledge base’. But the ramblers rarely incorporate an intro slide into their muddled PowerPoint’s… men and woman scientists traveling from prestigious campuses and far-sounding locations… let me see an intro slide! Your topics are as foreign to me as polar bears are to the hidden swamps of south Louisiana.
After sitting in five mandatory seminars just this week, I still feel the need to fabricate a good excuse to veil the fact that I am visiting the career center today. Perhaps I could say I was studying for an upcoming exam… Ahh! Performing electron microscopy imaging at the request of a senior graduate student, that was a good one. Unnecessary lies. I could simply admit I was meeting with the woman from the career workshop. She had a bright face, so deep a contrast with the stoic academic faces of my more common acquaintances, inhabitants of the laboratory. She must be harboring a secret, a fugitive aboard rough PhD research waters. So I gave her a call. Why I was so keen to discover the source of her misplaced, brave demeanor, I do not know. I do know I was hesitant to tell my professors the true reason for my absence from the lab this afternoon. After all, it WAS time taken away from my experiments. Repeats of repeated experiments. “Mrs. Faye is waiting for you, down the hall and to your left.” The room is a clutter of papers and homey furniture. Hoping the best for my confessions to this bright stranger, I settle down in the plush of a chair cloaked all in red. I’ve made many blunders in this first year of a biomedical sciences PhD, and I hope this doesn’t turn out to be yet another. Research has been the easy part. “You must be Paige. I just love your hair. Tell me about yourself.”
Here goes nothing. The conversation goes well, if dull-knife thick with anticipation. “I’ve been thinking about my career path… I want to be a science writer.” There it was. Out. A life-long sciencey type wants to be a writer. Met with silence, I continue: “I was also considering letting my PI know, so that perhaps he could facilitate my involvement in review articles and news features about the lab in University and local media. Of course this will come second to my research.”
A wave of not-so-subtle concern swept over the career woman’s face as she moved her lips, like whispering white crests breaking surreptitiously upon a distant shore. “I wouldn’t let that cat out of the bag yet. If you tell your prof your plans to pursue science writing, he will probably write you off…” (Ironic) “…and not take you as seriously as he will the other research grads.” Sure, it made sense, if I didn’t think on it overly much. On the walk back across campus I felt estranged by the shushed chattering of students, their faces low, running together like inseparably faded paint colors. What musings do they hid behind their stolid, studying eyes? Days pass, and I reflected on the career woman’s advice. Something seemed lost in translation. My PI would honestly, rather not-so-honestly, refuse to give me equal time and effort if he knew that my future plans might not center around academic, at-the-bench research? Even worse, many profs might do so subconsciously. It wouldn’t be for my lack of taking my education and research seriously.
In the cover of my unspoken reality, I dared to be disappointed with my top 5 academic institution, where to entertain creative ideas of a non-traditional career in the sciences was to be exiled from the class of ‘serious’ scientists. A lullaby for a weaker child of chemistry. Enjoy your dreams of a lesser biology. She couldn’t make it in the big leagues, they’d say. So I hide my dreams of translating science, colorful pages lost in a library of dull covers with obscure, impossible-to-pronounce titles. Surface Plasmon Resonance Series – Nanotechnology-based Sensors. Professor, here is my secret: such a library of science begs translation for the curious non-scientists. Thrilling stories of scientific discoveries that will make our fellow non-scientists as curious as we. Put me in coach. The only thing I know better than science, is the art and draw of language. Editorial (2011). Fix the PhD. Nature, 472 (7343), 259-260 PMID: 21512527