Monday, January 30, 2017

An Academic Journey: The Joys of Failure


Honestly, I've always kind of enjoyed working out how things work, or why they don't. In the context of science, this would be troubleshooting and optimizations. In general, it's kind of soothing to take it all apart and see where things may have messed up. In a greater context, I like to step back from things that bother me, or my problems, and try to see them from another perspective. I find it can provide valuable insights.

More importantly, I'm comfortable with things not working out my way. This is because I understand that I alone am responsible for my success, failure, or performance 99% of the time. It's on me, and if I do it wrong, or do poorly, it is on me to adjust or fix it. With classes, you maybe have fewer opportunities to adjust yourself to improve grades, though for the most part one bad exam (or class, or semester) won't kill you. You can always learn from it, and try to see where things went wrong. 

In the lab, it's a little more nice that the immediacy is gone. You aren't going to "pass or fail" science based on a lack of immediate results the first time. You're in this for the long game, and you have the luxury of being able to return to a failure and improve it without the first failure really ruining anything for you. In both rotations so far, things have not really been going my way as far as results. Last time, it was a couple bad stains and an optimization that was ruined by a well-meaning undergrad. This time, it is cell cultures getting contaminated and also just having dead cells. The cool thing with both, is that I can address these errors and not have to worry that they will necessarily "make or break" the rotation or my experience. I mean, it seems that most of bench science is optimization, troubleshooting, and repetition. I can do mind-numbing repetition. I grew up shoveling manure and digging ditches for 10 hour days every weekend. Given the choice, I'd rather run another PCR or sit at a cryostat for a few hours. It will at least smell better.

So I know this is a little short, but I'm mostly just letting off some stream of consciousness frustration. Simply, just because you can deal with failure constructively doesn't mean you enjoy it. I wanted my first foray into the work this rotation is doing to come out strong and make a good impression. All it really taught me was their protocol for contaminated cell cultures.

Still, I'm pretty excited to be able to sit and try to parse apart what went wrong, and to refine my skills and technique to the point where I can not only diagnose my errors, but also minimize or remove them. That, of course, will come with training and time. Since I have a long road of training ahead of me, the little hiccups along the way will hopefully inform my improvements rather than discouraging me.

An interesting aside, the school of public health here sent a survey to all of the graduate students asking about what they need for support services. The questions, of course, mainly focused around a few things: 

1) Can you afford to live?
2) Can you afford food, and when you can, is it healthy?
3) Are you experiencing any symptoms of anxiety, or depression?

It seems to me they really already know their target audience. Graduate student stipends suck. My department alone is looking to reduce admissions so that they don't have to pay as many TAs, resulting in an increased burden on current TAs AND a downsizing of graduate students in the department (despite the opening of new faculty positions and labs.) I know that funding is an issue everywhere, so it comes as no surprise that students are stretching their TA stipends as far as they can, with senior grad students all TAing for as long as possible so that their PIs don't have to fund them directly with grants. Add in the science funding crisis, the number of years it takes to get a PhD, and the size of a public university's biology department, and you have a recipe for disaster. On top of the generally low stipends, you also have the compounding of the stress of graduate school to impact your students' health and welfare that can lead to a lot of issues with mental health. These issues, I think, are just now beginning to be talked about openly by people in higher education. In my experience, it is mostly through students speaking out, and not much is being said by the PIs and professors of the world. 

Sometimes it seems like they see misery as a sort of rite of passage, and that seems completely unnecessary to me. It's part and parcel of a larger issue in science, which is the increasing commodification of scientific endeavor, where it is no longer seen as something done for the betterment of society. With an increase in granted PhDs, a longer academic career for tenured professors, and the difficulty facing early career researchers when it comes to securing grants, even academic science has become this sort of high-throughput monstrosity that requires an insane amount of time commitment with what is seemingly little benefit or payoff. Salaries aren't great, even if you GET that position... after you've already spent a decade+ getting the PhD and doing post docs, all of which are underpaid and extremely overworked. The system is broken, but it is so hard to keep up with the pace of advancement and with funding requirements that those involved in the system are doing what they can to just stay In the system. Nobody has the time to try to massively overhaul a system that desperately needs fixing. My generation of researchers will suffer the same hurdles, and until there is a sincerely concentrated effort, I don't foresee a change of any significance. This is unfortunately compounded by a decided lack of interest of understanding in science. It is very hard to convince people that basic research is essential research. it is very hard to get funding to study something for the sake of knowing. if that is your motivation, you damn well better be prepared to spin doctor it into a perspective where it has tangible societal benefits to get funding. That's why biomedical research has so much better funding than basic science, even though both are equally valid scientifically. And as in every field, money talks. In academia, that seems to be the best incentivization: work hard and make your questions address human problems, and you get the payoff in the form of a mediocre salary, grant money to not lose your job, and hope that you can keep that up until you get tenure so that you don't have to start sending resumes. Graduate students see this in the 60-80hour weeks they're typically expected to work on things, because not only is this kind of a norm, it's a necessary survival technique in the world of research. I can't say the preparation is bad. I just don't think that "break them down so you can build them up" is really an effective way to get critical, creative thinkers motivated. It doesn't help that I feel like I'm being trained as a sort of worker bee right now. They want to talk about teaching us creative approaches to scientific questions, but half my time is being spent being told what to do, and how to do it, without any real explanation as to the why or where it's going. Not to mention that the classes are a little redundant a lot of the time. (For example, I've taken 7 biochemistry courses, 4 molecular biology courses, and 3 cell biology courses across my 3 degrees. All required.)

Anyway, that tangent got pretty real. It's just something that I think about a lot in my day-to-day as I go between classes, lab, and teaching, and talk with peers in other fields or at other institutions. The long and short of it is that if you don't love it enough to be miserable sometimes, then you should really consider finding something else. I may not be the happiest, or best adjusted I've ever been, but I still can't see myself doing anything else. You have to make sure that it's worth what you give up to do it. Also, try not to get too discouraged. Life happens. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

An Academic Journey: When Things Don't Go As Planned


My mantra for this first year as a PhD student has been something like "When things don't go as planned, plan around them."

It must seem like half of what I do in grad school is complain about being in grad school, and most of what is left is just being really bad at what I do, but honestly it has been a great experience. Unfortunately, a lot of the time that's simply because it is what I'm making it out to be. My goals for rotations and the disciplines I would rotate in have all sort of been throw to the wind. It now looks like I'm well on my way to having to do some clever forward thinking to end up doing what I wanted to do originally, and that's fine. I think a key component of graduate school, and of science in general, is related to an old military maxim: No plan survives contact with the enemy. 

Now, in the case of graduate school, there really isn't an enemy, but replace "enemy" with any number of factors, up to and including just the stochastic nature of life, and you'll see that it becomes a sort of cliche. The thing is, you kind of have to get used to things not working as planned. That's 90% of all experiments, and probably 95% of just general living life. Plans change, things go wrong. Hell, sometimes things go right in a way totally different than what you expected. It is the thing they can train you the least for. You just have to be used to things not going your way, and be able to spin every failure into a learning experience. Again, broadly applicable to life in general, but more so to grad school. People lose funding. Labs fill up. Experiments fail. Reagents may suck, or things may get contaminated, or an undergrad may put your 2 weeks of staining optimization into a protease bath. 

What do you do? 

Well, after a hardy grumbling and maybe stepping away for 5 minutes to contemplate the career opportunities as a carnival worker or street performer, you kind of just need to take a deep breath and shrug it off. (Or laugh it off.) Then you reformulate a plan of attack, and maybe you start all over again. The cool thing, I guess, is that you can always take the stance that even negative data is data, and even a failed experiment can teach you something, even if it's just teaching you how far you can stretch your patience. (I hear the going rate for that is about 7 years, and then you graduate).

Little obstacles suck. Especially issues over which you have no real control or means of responding to. That kind of powerlessness can easily lead to a downward spiral of frustration ending in apathy or resentment. It's not a good place to be when you're starting out in a profession that is 20% frustration, 70% grant writing, 7% failure, 3% underwhelming success, and 100% science. Again, it's because science has to be a labor of love, and the result of a passion. You have to be doing it for the right reasons, or you're better off not doing it at all. Academic science these days is a high-stress, low-reward profession that requires mastering so many skills that you are never remotely taught. You're an accountant, a mentor, a teacher, a manager, a technician, a troubleshooter, a writer, a communicator... plus a grant proposal machine, and any time you can get to spend in the lab. It's a wonder that anyone goes into the field, really, knowing that they have to look forward to long years of low paid servitude followed by longer years of high stress, high activity professional life that may or may not be rewarded at all. In a way, I'm pretty grateful that all I have to worry about right now is passing my classes, studying for qualifying exams, and impressing my rotation mentors. 

Still, from the student standpoint, it can seem like an uphill battle against failures and detours and myriad other things that suck. I know that there are definitely times when I dislike being here, and when I feel like I hate myself for having done this... but at the same time, i don't regret it, because it's easy in a field like this, to really see the big picture, and what it is leading to. 

I guess what I'm saying, is that it's alright to be optimistic, so long as you're prepared for every goal and plan you have to be outrageously denied to you by the callous hands of fate. Which is to say, that the system is bigger than you, and in the beginning, you spend a lot of time just being at the mercy of the ebb and flow of bigger things going on around you. Don't get too discouraged. Adaptability is just another trait of a good scientist. Most of being successful is just not letting the disruptions and failures get to you long enough to keep you from moving forward.