If you’re a graduate student like I am, PHD comics is an essential source of comfort. Emotionally and physically, graduate work is difficult. You’re working long hours with little pay and often (but not always), little gratitude. There are reasons for this, but to get the job in the first place you’ve got to be bright and have at least some modicum of passion to get through it.
There’s a lot to be said for obtaining an undergraduate degree. The course work can be really difficult and it’s often done at a time when you’ve got no real idea what you want to do with life. Aside from the *ahem* classical experimentation, you’re exposed to a lot of new ideas for the first time and for many, this is the first taste of independence. Personally, I spent my undergrad years living half an hour away from school while trying to figure out how to work two jobs that were a 20 minute commute from one another. I did this all while juggling classes, relationships and a kid.
I got accepted to a school halfway across the nation, and met up with a new set of challenges both personally and intellectually. I’d spent some time away from home as a teenager, so I was emotionally prepared to some degree. However, I’ve found it difficult to maintain a long-distance relationship with my child while having a really heavy workload. The lab I work in is also pretty heavy in biochemistry, but the last chemistry class I’d taken was in 2007 so I had to quickly re-learn some pretty basic skills.
When I say that being a graduate student is taxing, it may sound like I’m whining but I’m really not. Mentally, science can be very difficult. Many find the knowledge generated by their chosen field simply amazing, but the work required to generate that knowledge tiring and boring. I’ve met more than a handful of students who truly love their field, but absolutely hate their day to day work.
There are good reasons for this. My undergraduate work consisted of caring for bees, with the occasional PCR work. I had a good idea of how to generally read some data, but when it came down to reading some of the western blots I was generating there were a lot more subtleties than I realized.
These things are really quite normal as far as I can tell, and every student deals with them to some extent. There’s a lot of self doubt which comes along with the job because you’re learning to do things which are very precise for the first time. When you’re learning in undergraduate work, the experiments are pretty much pre-designed and almost always cookbook type labs which have a high probability of success. Mentally, it’s hard to prepare a student for a three month string of failed tests.
Undergraduate learning is mostly about learning whether you’re capable of understanding the generalities of the field. Proteins do this, this is how the organism makes them… that sort of thing. The answers are in books, and there’s a lot of wrote memorization but unless you land a research position there’s not a whole lot of real applied work. If you do land a research position in undergrad, it may or may not necessarily be similar to what you do in graduate school… and what I’m doing now can’t possibly be any more different than what I did while I was an undergrad.
Truth be told, I don’t know if I’m good at what I do. I think I am, or at least with a bit more experience I think I will be. I’m generating data and learning how to be more efficient at what I do. With every test, I’m learning more and more about how to pick out the subtleties of the tests despite the fact I still have a tendency to over-read my tests or occasionally overlook a relatively simple test which could answer a question I have about something or other. I’ve come a long way since I got here, but I’ve still got a hell of a way to go.
I’ve opined before that scientists are rarely treated as actual people. Science is hard work, and to make it in the field you’ve got to be good at what you do. Every one of us has their own personal backstory, some tragic, others not so much… but ultimately we’re all people who’ve got a passion for a certain subject and rack ourselves day in and day out to try to make the world a better place by making sense of the universe.
If this movie is anything like Cham’s comic (and the scenes in the trailer do correspond to Cham’s comics…I’ve read every single one) this movie is a must-see if you want to see what it’s like to be a scientist.