Change the world? Challenge accepted

Graduate students are angsty. It’s true, don’t try and deny it. We are sleep-deprived and grumpy and covered in emotional bruises from being knocked down so many times. One of my friends posted this all-too-familiar sentiment to social media last week:

 “Ya know, I became a scientist because I wanted to help people. Because I wanted to cure a disease, or find a therapy, or make a discovery that changes the world. And as I sit here reading papers for class I can’t help but think there are much better ways to truly help people, and that this is all just a big joke.”

I can nearly guarantee you that every graduate student has had this thought at one point or another. We came in with such aspirations, such dreams to do something good, but as the seemingly neverending PhD continues, we start to lose our faith in this ideal. In a city like Seattle, many people our age are employed by Microsoft or Amazon, working better hours for more than twice the salary. Knowing that, it’s hard not to question our decision to go to grad school. We make very little money, see very little progress in our grueling day-to-day science, and are constantly bombarded with the premise that we are simply not as smart as everyone else. I am about to start the twentieth grade, for goodness’ sake! What am I doing here?!

177377_631228287443_2045552082_oSometimes, planning out my future feels more like drawing cartoons.

But what I’ve started to learn is this: grad school isn’t supposed to be about changing the world. It’s about changing you first.

As first years, we are as prepared to cure cancer as we are to fly a spaceship to Mars. So, we read mountains of scientific literature that we only occasionally care about (or understand, for that matter). We sit through lecture after lecture of successful scientists, sometimes understanding what they are talking about. We do an exorbitant number of experiments that fail three-quarters of the time… on a good day. But through all of that, we learn how to think. We learn how to problem solve. We learn how to be a scientist. And that’s the point of being a graduate student. At my committee meeting yesterday, my boss told me I needed to start making the transition from thinking of myself as a student to thinking of myself as a colleague. Three years ago, I would have been terrified of that transition, but after three years of grad school, I’ve changed.

Writing this blog, it’s hard to find a middle ground between the angsty overworked graduate student and the motivated inspired scientist. I’m not here to convince you that graduate school doesn’t suck. It does! But I’m also not here to convince you that it’s a worthless waste of time, because I don’t think that’s true, either. I think I am mostly trying to reaffirm that what we are doing, while not immediately changing the world, will make us the people we want to be. The people who cure cancer, who change policies, who reimagine the way science will work in 15 years.

If you were to ask my classmates, I’m sure they’d tell you that I love grad school more than most. I do. I started working in a lab at 16. I’m pretty sure my mom thought I was crazy when I walked into her room and said I wanted to give up my summer and most of my senior year to drive to Frederick and work on cancer. And, to be honest, as cliché as it all sounds, I fell in love with science that year. And until my second year of graduate school, 6 years later, I never once questioned the path I was going to take: college, research, grad school, academic researcher, rounding off my career by curing cancer.

Recently, my goals have changed a bit. I know this may come as a surprise to many, but

I probably won’t be the one to cure cancer.

I may not even be behind a microscope in 10 years (guess I’ll have to change my blog title at that point)! I do know that I love talking to people. I love engaging students who never knew that being a scientist was a possibility. I love trying to fix the Grand Canyon-sized gap between research scientists and the public. I don’t think that I would have realized these things, or been able to formulate a plan to incorporate them into a career, if I didn’t walk the long and terrifying path of graduate school.

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The realization that your scope has taught you more than it’s taught you…

As graduate students, we are, by most definitions, adults. We pay rent, we buy our own groceries, we can vote, drive cars (if we can afford the gas), pay taxes, get married, have children, buy houses. There is a quote from an early season of Grey’s Anatomy that I think describes it best:

“Four years of high school, four years of college, four years of med school. By the time we graduate we’re in our late 20s and we’ve never done anything except go to school and think about science. Time stops… And Meredith, she’s 17 years old, we’re all 17 years old”.

So, here I am, a 24-year-old graduate student, still contemplating what I want to be when I grow up. The answer currently: Who knows! That is the answer of most graduate students these days, especially with an increasing number of Ph.D.s and a diminishing resource of jobs and funding (that’s a topic for another day). But I do know that going through graduate school will be one of the biggest and best accomplishments of my life. And mark my words, I will change the world one day. I just have to work on changing myself first.

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5 thoughts on “Change the world? Challenge accepted

  1. I read this with enormous pride and often wry amusement. You are 24 and not sure what you want to be when you grow up. I am 55 and feel exactly the same. You have discovered the wisdom my love… it is the journey. You MAY not cure cancer….. (the jury is still out on that one.) But you will be extraordinary. You already are.

  2. It’s incredible how old and young the age of 24 can feel, all at the same time. We feel a push from society to “have it all figured out” and be settling in to one particular life path with a house and a family and a job. So many people do, in fact, follow that ideal. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those choices, it certainly can make you feel foolish to admit that you still don’t have some grand scheme perfectly laid out. Spending the first few years of your life planning on curing cancer can make way for bringing science to the people which can lead to opportunity X, Y and Z! And all the steps in between, of figuring out who you really are and how you can have your happiest, biggest impact, that’s the most exciting part.

  3. I just completed my first semester of grad school and it’s so refreshing to know I’m not alone in feeling this way! Sometimes I wonder how going to these lectures and reading all of these papers is helping me at all. I’m going for mathematics education…so I might become a math teacher, tutor, something like that. They definitely have opened my eyes to things I was not introduced to in secondary school or undergrad, so it has allowed me to shape my opinions and think critically of problems. You put this so well, thanks for sharing!

  4. Oh hey you– not only are you a good scientist, but a damn good writer, too. 🙂 I quite enjoyed reading your post. I could relate to a lot, despite my ripe old age of 27. 😉

  5. You made some good points there. I looked on the net for
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