Oh Friends.

It’s been a week. Friday is here, and while I’m not particularly interested in making this blog an outlet on how tough life can be, I needed to let it out here. I know I am blessed, and I know I have so much to be thankful for. But today I know that there are other people who struggle and it is part of my humanity to suffer with others. 

I apologize for the radio silence, especially since I’ve started on my scrapbusting adventure, full-force. I promise, this weekend, there will be pictures.

But I am feeling so wrung out. Completely.

I’ve cried, I’ve cried, and then I’ve cried some more, especially this week. I knew it would be hard (there’s a reason the PhD isn’t granted to just any old person on the street), but I didn’t think, in a million years, that it would be this hard, and definitely not in this particular way.  I have been strong for almost 6 years now, through what I thought should be unimaginable professional struggles. And just when I thought the end was in sight, I realized that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel feels a lot more like that proverbial oncoming train instead of the end of the line.

I think there are a number of things keeping me from losing it. Today I thought that maybe a memoir of a grad student would be a great way to process, but then I worried that people would read it and think that this is the way it should be.  Because even my grad student friends are appalled at some of the things I’ve put up with over these long six years.

And yesterday, I was kept together by remembering that I am blessed beyond belief by dear family, friends, and co-workers that love me and care for me and about me.

And this morning, it was that I have kept it (mostly) together through the worst bits, and I’m not sure how it could be worse than it has been, so I can tough it out for these last few weeks or months or whatever it will be.

I ran a marathon two years ago (and am training for the same one this year), and around mile 9, my left IT-band started acting up, something that hadn’t ever happened before, and by mile 18, I was completely handicapped. I couldn’t run at all, it hurt so bad. So I walked the last 8 miles of the marathon and when I finally saw that finish line, I sucked up the pain (it was pretty bad) and skip-ran my way across that finish line.

And as dorky and obvious as the parallels between that marathon and my grad school experience probably are, I’m finding it terribly hard to focus on that finish line right now. I’m exhausted, I’m in pain, and I don’t want to feel this way any more. The marathon had a finish line, and I knew that every single mile marker that I passed, every single time I saw my family and friends along the side, I was closer to the end. The distance was measurable, and if it took me 3 hours to run x miles, it would take me 2 hours to walk y miles. I would finish.

Marathon running isn’t for everyone. The training was hard, and I gave up a lot of sewing, knitting, and loving my friends in order to make it happen.

And grad school isn’t for everyone. I’ve sucked down my pride, I’ve learned that I don’t, in the grand scheme of things, know anything, I’ve swallowed my tears, gone weeks without positive results, cried in the dean’s office, cried in the lab, cried at my desk, cried at home, at caribou, and in the hall while people walked by, not sure of what to do or say to me. I have hit the absolute lowest points in my life in grad school, been more depressed than I thought I could be, and been absolutely mortified to the point that I never wanted to show my face again. And all of that is just a by-product of the graduate education. Every student experiences just about all of these things (well, maybe with fewer tears).

The rest of it, the ridiculous accessory things I’ve dealt with in grad school, the politics, the sabotage, and the totally unacceptable things that go on in labs sometimes, those are the things that I think might have broken me. Science selects for a certain type – passion, focus, enthusiasm, creativity, and a strong backbone are all absolute requirements for success in science, and really, in any sort of profession. But when the science becomes the only important thing, and with our current funding crisis, the human element is forgotten much faster than it should be.

I think I’ve somehow found myself in that crevice – where the science is more important than the humans who do the science. I know I don’t want to spend my career here, nor do I think I will have to. But what I don’t know is whether I want to stay in a field that is so prone to the cultivation of cutthroat meanness and disinterest. Something is broken about the way we function in the labs that I’ve been a part of. I can’t fix it, and the culture is so entrenched that I am viewed as immature and insecure for pointing out that the things and behavior we tolerate daily should not be tolerated.

Being a scientist is hard, and it’s not the science that’s hard. It’s the people. Truer words were never spoken. But it shouldn’t be this hard, I don’t think.



  1. Emily Ramirez

    Hey Rachel – I stumbled on your blog, and holy YES! I have said and written those
    exact same words more than once. Specifically, it’s hard in ways I didnt expect it to be hard and this career selects for a specific personality type i.e. mean people. I firmly believe that the selection process is detrimental to scientific progress, and we need to fight to both make it through and to not turn into an asshole. I want to write a book someday called “I got my PhD, and that shit was hard” — it will discuss all of the ideas you mentioned. We should talk sometime!

  2. rachel

    Emily! Thanks for the kind note – you are right. The way that science allows (and in some respects selects for) an attitude of “science is king and nothing else matters” has been a disappointment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to “not get all emotional about my data” and wished I could be more stoic about it. But now I realize there’s a REASON I’m not stoic about it all, and IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY. Diane Jelinik said it best – “you don’t have to be an a****** to be successful in science.”

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