Every graduate student dreads this question from family: “When will you be done?” I hated this question because it brought up every tough feeling in graduate school—the feelings that you’re not making any progress, that you will never graduate, and that your family doesn’t really understand what you are up to. Even though I had family members with graduate degrees in the sciences and engineering, they didn’t have a solid understanding of what my everyday reality was like.
It was even more difficult communicating the nuances of chemical research and graduate school to my elderly grandfather, whom I spoke to in my not-very-good Mandarin Chinese. He didn’t understand the details of writing a thesis or getting a postdoctoral position. He just wanted to know two things: What was I doing, and when would I be done? I didn’t begrudge him these questions, as there was a real concern about whether he would live to see me graduate. Whenever he asked what I was doing, I would tell him I was chīku (吃苦), which translates to “eating bitter” in English. This Chinese phrase is one that my grandfather knows well, and he would nod and repeat, “吃苦.”
In Chinese culture, the virtue of 吃苦 is enduring great hardship for a greater purpose. The Chinese character for hardship (苦) is the same as the character for bitter, as in the taste. Appropriately, the bitter melon, which is used in Chinese dishes, is not a mild bitter—it’s a deeply penetrating bitter that you can’t ignore. When you “eat bitter” you are internalizing the hardship.
We chemists know this feeling of eating bitter very well. That first time you spent puzzling through the intricacies of molecular orbital theory? You didn’t enjoy it, but you worked at it until the concepts made sense to you. Learning to perform experiments in the laboratory is another difficult endeavor when you have to teach yourself the intricacies of laboratory chemistry and work with unfamiliar equipment. But all this learning and trying and failing and trying again is at the heart of doing chemistry as well as the virtue of eating bitter.
This mentality of perseverance is useful but can go awry in different ways. Laboratory research can lend itself to an unproductive approach to eating bitter, in which chemists convince themselves that if the process of learning requires discomfort, then the unpleasant tasks they are doing must be productive. Chemists may find themselves running many experiments and working long hours, especially when experiments aren’t going quite right, because the accumulation of notebook pages is at least something, and it certainly feels like eating bitter.
What if there is a different way of looking at enduring hardship in science? I recently heard someone describe productive hard work not as doing more but as doing what is hard. Sure, running a lot of experiments or working long hours is hard, but it’s not as hard as the critical thinking necessary to progress in science. I propose that an extremely difficult and ego-bruising task involves the painful work of self-reflection on what needs to be improved. Hard work means not just doing the experiment again until it works. Rather, it’s determining why the experiment isn’t working or why our hypotheses may be incorrect. It may be easy to run the experiment another 10 times; it’s harder to step back and acknowledge that the experiment is not working and to understand the science behind why.
Science is often solitary, and we may be tempted to withdraw when we are facing the bitterness of failure in the laboratory. But I believe that part of the hard work is learning to talk about our failures with lab mates and mentors and opening ourselves up to their questions and ideas about how to solve problems. Doing innovative chemistry research in the lab involves a lot of failure, which can be bitter. But we don’t have to eat bitter alone.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.