Academia's Inferno

April 4, 2016

Kimiya Memarzadeh

In high school I read a book called Inferno by Dante Alighieri. You may or may not have read it, but this is what happens: Dante is taken through hell, which is depicted as nine circles of suffering, just to end up back on Earth at the end. In a more light and slightly comical take on this famous poem, I want to take you through the nine circles of suffering every graduate student experiences on their journey to defending their thesis. I’m sure there are far more than nine forms of struggle that graduate students go through, but for the purpose of the analogy, we will stick with nine.
The first circle of suffering is failure – a circle we all know too well. In my experience, almost everything fails: experiments fail, hypotheses fail, and even entire projects fail. Lucky for us, our goal isn’t to not fail, but it is to maximize the learning opportunity hidden in each failure.
The next circle is fear. Fear is the few minutes right before your committee meeting begins. It is your PI’s reaction when you tell him none of your experiments from the past week worked. Fear is standing up in front of your colleagues and allowing them to tear apart your presentation. Fear rears its ugly head in so many situations; it feels like sweaty palms and a pit in your stomach. I’m not sure if it serves a purpose other than giving you stress acne and keeping you from sleeping – but it is definitely a circle of suffering.
The third circle of suffering – exhaustion. Exhaustion can be physical. It is that fourth cup of coffee you know you shouldn’t have, or struggling to keep your eyes open in a 4PM seminar. In my experience, physical exhaustion usually results in an unproductive day of delirious giggling and transferring my western blot backwards for the umpteenth time. Exhaustion can also be emotional. Sometimes science feels like a nagging boyfriend that takes up all your time and energy, and just gives you heartache in return. In those cases the best remedy in our lab is to eat chocolate, blast Latin music and dance it out. My only bit of advice in this circle is to find what works for you, but importantly to surround yourself with good people. At the end of the day, no matter how exhausted you are, at least you’re not exhausted alone.
Anger… strategically placed after exhaustion. Why? Because nothing is more infuriating than being at the last step of an eight-hour experiment, and being so under-caffeinated that you inevitably screw something up. So many hours of work, so many days of preparation – all for nothing. Through this circle, I have learned that no matter how badly I want to be on the couch in my PJs eating cheese, it is imperative to be as detail oriented in the last step as I was in the first and to never take shortcuts.
The fifth circle of graduate school suffering is monotony. I understand that as scientists there is an inherent level of repetition, but I am referring to the art of balance. Here is where organization and time management come into play. The most productive weeks for me are ones where I have planned and carried out my experiments, gone to seminars, attended journal club, read new papers, maybe even had a coffee date with friends. When your week consists of different activities (all contributing to your graduate education of course) it is easier to maximize productivity and enjoy your time during each activity.
The sixth circle of suffering is complacency. This is a tough one, because often we fall into a state of complacency without even realizing. Complacency can be failing to reflect on your experiments and results at every step of the way. Complacency can be doing the experiments you are told to do without taking time to understand why this is the best experiment to answer your question. There are endless manifestations of complacency, so I find it extremely important to do a mental check every now and then to stay vigilant.
Inferiority… the white elephant in the room. That thing we have all felt at some point, but no one ever talks about. If you are unfamiliar with this circle, let me acquaint you – it is sitting in a room of senior students thinking, “I will never know as much as they do”. It is feeling like you’re not smart enough to be in graduate school. It is wishing your project were advancing as fast as your lab mates. Getting caught in this circle is dangerous, but lucky for you it is self-inflicted and avoidable. Never compare yourself to others. As someone once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” So bottom line – your past self is your only competition.  Don’t compare yourself to your colleagues.
Defeat is another circle that graduate students become quite familiar with. It happens so often that around the two-year mark of grad school, most of us seem to get desensitized to it. We learn to separate our self-worth from the worth of our work, and to focus on doing the best we can without letting defeat get in the way of our confidence. We build a thicker skin, and if nothing else, this circle of suffering will prepare us for a lifetime of rejected grants and harsh criticism from pesky “Reviewer Three”.
This brings us to the last and probably most dangerous circle – doubt. Part of being a scientist is being a skeptic. However, if you constantly doubt yourself, your progress, or your ideas, you will inevitably make your graduate school experience a painful one. Go confidently in the direction you pursue, and if you fail – well then you’re just back at circle one.