Grad school, in students' own words
The chemistry graduate school experience
In 2018, C&EN invited graduate students to submit essays about some aspect of their graduate experience. More than 80 students accepted that invitation, and we presented a few of those essays in the cover story “The Chemistry Graduate School Experience.” Now we’re seeking more essays from graduate students in the chemical sciences. To submit, send an essay of roughly 250 words about an issue you face as a graduate student to email@example.com. Include your name, university, country, and year in school. Please also include a photo of yourself with a drawing that reflects some part of your grad school experience. We will publish a new essay online every month.
I hate this phrase. But I hear it reemerge in one of many conversations about struggling during grad school. “It’s not normal,” I say at first, referring to an environment where depression seems to be cultivated. Then I change my mind. “It shouldn’t be normal, but it is. It’s grad school normal.”
There’s a comfort to be found in the knowledge that I am not alone. I am not the only one in my circle of friends and colleagues who struggles within the ivory towers of academia. But there’s a grief to be found here, too. Why have I chosen to put myself in an environment that breeds these thoughts, these feelings, this negativity?
Graduate school hosts an environment unlike any other. In some ways, I count this a blessing. I’m participating in cutting-edge research and have access to resources I wouldn’t find elsewhere with a community of people who share my daily struggles. But in other ways, the uniqueness of this setting can be its greatest curse. I still haven’t figured out how to explain to my family what exactly it is that I do, and I get caught in “what ifs” when I talk to friends who chose a different path, have a “real job,” and are making a real wage.
Still, there’s something to acknowledging the way things are, even while wishing they were different. Perhaps admitting that the patterns and practices of academia are not always healthy ones is the first step toward changing them.
I almost quit my PhD program last spring. Despite passing my second year exam and making progress in my research on cervical mucus, I was unhappy with where my life was going. I knew that I didn’t want to go into industry, but the more time I spent in academia, the less appealing that sounded, too. Why work for a PhD if it wasn’t going to open doors I wanted to walk through?
Ultimately what it came down to was this—I hated going into lab. Instead, I wanted to write and teach. I love finding new and interesting ways to make chemistry accessible to a diverse audience. I sought out every opportunity to communicate my research to the public. My intense desire to share my love of science was getting in the way of me actually doing the work. Something had to change.
That was when I discovered that you can make a whole career out of science communication. We need more trained scientists bridging the gap between active research and the lay public—and I was already developing the skill set to do just that. But what does it mean to pursue a career in communication when I am being evaluated solely on my research progress? Developing these “soft” skills has certainly made me a better scientist, but I still have trouble justifying the time away from the bench to my advisor. I wish grad school culture did a better job of supporting students who want to pursue alternative careers.
After a nearly hour-long battle with a stubbornly capricious malefactor (that is, the scanner), I finally scanned 244 pages of undergraduate and graduate homework, stained red with blood (just kidding, with red pen, I swear), with only a few wrinkled casualties and seven paper jams.
During my first teaching assistant session, I was a nervous wreck. Self-conscious about my presentation, I stood at the front of the room before undergrads one to four years younger than me, and yet I was expected to be the authority on the subject when really I was in the same place just last year.
I was already a bit irked that only one or two of the handful of students even looked at the homework problems prior to coming. From what I understood, however, they had just finished an exam in that same class and had two more the following day. Been there, done that, I thought. I should be gentle.
But instead of being nice, I realized I was simply being boring and unhelpful. As I spoke through each problem, I would say, “This problem is fairly straightforward. You all will find what you need from section xyz in chapter 4 of the book.” Then I’d give them a link to a helpful or interactive website that I liked, but I wouldn’t go into deep detail. I thought I was helping by telling them where they could find and figure out the problems, but I realized the whole session was vague and uninteresting.
I became the very TA I disliked when I was in undergrad.
Key takeaways for future sessions? I came up with five: Know your stuff. Define your goals. Know your audience. Engage in interaction. And be a human. Application of this theory to the real world is TBD.
The most difficult thing I’ve had to do in grad school so far is find my voice. I’ve always been a smart kid. I got good grades and jumped through every hoop put in front of me. I thought grad school would be the same. I was so, so wrong. I didn’t realize that while being smart may have been what got me into grad school, it wasn’t going to be what kept me there. Because I was a quiet, anxious kid who kept to myself, interpersonal stuff was always hard for me. I didn’t realize that deficiency would catch up with me in graduate school. I had to learn to communicate my needs, whether that was getting help with experiments or getting help resolving conflicts with coworkers. I had to learn to confidently communicate and defend my ideas. I had to learn to stop apologizing for putting time and energy into mentorship of others and science communication. I had to learn to speak up as a woman, LGBT person, and person with anxiety because otherwise my voice wouldn’t be represented. I had to learn to speak up because I have important things to say. When I started grad school, I didn’t realize the vulnerability required for me to become the scientist I wanted to be, the person I wanted to be. But on this side of the experience, I’m grateful for the lessons.
Implicit, or unconscious, bias is getting a lot of press. As scientists, we often consider ourselves as experts at placing our biases aside and simply being objective. However, in the world of publishing—you know, the way we gauge our success and value—we as the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) community have done very little to prevent bias from affecting the outcome of scientific work. The review process is single blind: Reviewers know the names of the authors of a given submission and the institutions they represent. This doesn’t sound too bad, except the whole point about implicit biases is that we don’t realize they’re affecting our judgments of others. This means that bias can exclude authors according to their gender, perceived ethnicity or nationality, or institution without reviewers even realizing it.
My first paper was published recently. After nearly a year of submitting, revising, and submitting to different journals, I finally decided to change the format of my name, giving it the appearance of being masculine. We changed other variables, including the journal that we submitted to, but I can’t help but wonder what part my name played. As a woman scientist, implicit bias in the peer review process likely affects me negatively. The STEM community needs to be aware of the impact of implicit bias before we can start fixing the leaky pipeline. We need a double-blind review process, even though some people will be held to a higher standard than they’re accustomed to. How many pioneers have we discouraged? How many more are we willing to lose?.
The hardest part about being a blind student in graduate school is the inaccessibility I face everywhere. I part crowds with a wave of my hand ... OK, maybe it’s my cane, but people scatter like mice that just saw a cat either way. Searching for the copy room or projector lounge can feel like a scavenger hunt as I walk through hallways marked only with room numbers in braille, like room 175.
In class, “This arrow means the molecule pictured goes here,” my professor says. Without a tactile diagram, I can guess we might be talking about a molecule going into an enzyme active site, or maybe it’s a mechanism. The exam is tomorrow and I still haven’t gotten any of the braille documents I asked for, so it’s another test of learning everything I can about the few things that were clearly named in lecture.
When taking the test, I have to keep things in my head as my reader reads my exam like it’s in another language. “There’s a funny thing that looks like a fish above a big C” or “pie-rid-nye-um eye-own” are common things read to me on exams, and I must translate that in my head to “α-carbon” and “pyridinium ion” before I can even attempt solving the problem.
While it might seem like everything is stacked against me, these kinds of hurdles have made me a natural problem solver, which in turn makes me an even greater scientist, as I will never stop questing after the answers to all of life’s problems.
Like most students, graduate work is far from my only responsibility. Officially, it’s not even my primary responsibility. Because I am employed full-time, university policy dictates that I enroll in a part-time Ph.D. program. Of course, I don’t stop being a chemist when I’m away from the lab any more than I stop being a parent when I’m away from my kids. I inhabit my many and varied roles simultaneously in a kind of superposition. I am a student, Air Force officer, classroom instructor, father, husband, brother, son, lab supervisor, ammunition specialist, diversity advocate, writer, mentor, and trainee. Whichever version of myself I collapse into at a given moment depends entirely on how and where and with whom the interaction occurs. In other words, I am a quantum chemist.
“Part-time” is an administrative and not a practical distinction, but the consequences are no less real. Just as my part-time label excludes me from accepting the scholarships I need to pursue my research, other students’ full-time label excludes them from accepting the work they need to pay their rent. Constraints originally intended to improve outcomes are leading to anxiety, burnout, and program attrition when they fail to address the student as a coherent, complicated whole. The classical model of student life was useful when the academic career path and those who sought it were nearly uniform in background and outlook. It is past time for institutions to embrace the constructive interference arising from students making complex waves.
As a graduate student in a developing nation like Nigeria, I face lots of challenges. My research deals with extraction, characterization, and biological activities of plant volatile compounds from aromatic plants grown in Nigeria. Hindered by an unstable power supply, I have to monitor the stability of electricity to carry out my experiments. This has extended my course of study.
I also don't have access to necessary analytical instruments like ultraviolet spectrophotometers and infrared, mass, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. I overcame these challenges by collaborating with research institutes such as Nigeria's National Research Institute for Chemical Technology, where such resources are available.
There is no research body or foundation in place that provides grants, scholarships, or loans to facilitate the successful and timely completion of my program. This has required me to spend huge amounts of money on tuition, accommodations, and travel to both local and international conferences. For example, I had to sponsor myself to attend the ACS national meeting in New Orleans.
I also face the challenge of finding employment after graduation due to the limited number of industries and research institutions where I could apply my acquired skills.
Through these trying periods, I almost lost interest in the program, but I was fortunate to attend an ACS symposium organized by the ACS Nigeria International Chemical Sciences Chapter. I presented a poster and—to my surprise—won the best poster presentation for the M.Sc. category. Winning the award has motivated me to keep moving forward. I hope that the Nigerian government will provide adequate infrastructure and prioritize the funding of education to help students like me achieve their goals.
My old graduate student mentor will get his Ph.D. on Wednesday. When I saw the announcement, I was frozen. It wasn't until I said the words out loud, over the phone to a friend on my way home, that the tears came. I dodged strange looks shooting at me like bullets from passersby on the busy city street. The tears came again while I was in the lab, mumbling to my boss about military homecoming videos as the reason for the tears on my cheeks. And then the tears came again when I was at home, lying on the carpet, staring at the ceiling as a thunderstorm roared outside. And then they came again when I was 10 miles into a 16-mile run; I had to stop because I couldn't breathe.
My harasser will get his Ph.D. on Wednesday.
I did everything right. I reported, I spoke up, and I made sure that he would never mentor another undergraduate. I won my Title IX case.
My attacker will get his Ph.D. on Wednesday.
I thought I did everything right. I fought for myself. I "won" Title IX.
Here I am, a year later, still as shattered as that day, always looking over my shoulder, never the same as I once was.
He will continue with his life as though nothing ever happened.
The tears still come for me.
A note from the writer: How do you move on when the world seems to stop for you but continues to spin for the rest of the world, harasser/attacker included? How do we continue to pursue our passions when so much of what we do is a constant reminder of what we have tried to put behind us? How can we not give up when a terrible person seems to suffer no lasting consequences? Whether or not we choose to speak up or press charges or report incidents, how can we continue with the aftermath of broken bodies and hearts and minds? I truly don't think I'm alone. I want to express to other men and women who have been broken by workplace harassment or assault that they are not alone and that we can move forward, together and stronger.
I know this guy. Let's call him Bill. Like me, Bill is a grad student in chemistry. His favorite T-shirts use "science" as a verb, and his spirit animal is the Large Hadron Collider. When he's not in the lab or reading Journal of the American Chemical Society as-soon-as-publishable articles, he's working at science fairs, delighting children with flaming gummy bear demonstrations.
I worry that I'm a bad scientist because I can't replicate Bill's enthusiasm. I thought I loved this work. But as in an ill-considered marriage, the infatuation has faded, and we're just staying together for the thesis.
Some call grad school a clarifying experience, a "try before you buy" for research life. It's normal to switch careers, so why am I racked with guilt for even thinking about leaving? Although many people aren't madly passionate about what they do for a living, I feel obliged to leave simply because I'm not a Bill.
Perhaps it stems from the duality of a Ph.D. It's a job in that you exchange your services as a researcher for money. But by calling that salary a scholarship, you're conditioned to view this sub-minimum wage "gravy train" as a great personal favor. Like you have no place here if earning a Ph.D. is anything less than a dream come true.
Does that make me selfish for staying in grad school? My space could have gone to someone better. I could have paid for my sister's tuition or bought a home with my partner with the money saved from a real salary. How much must I love it to be a worthwhile grad student?
Sometimes the most annoying thing about being a grad student is that "student" is a misnomer. Grad school is so different from the typical school experience that family and friends can't wrap their heads around what we do.
There are about five basic misconceptions that come up in almost every conversation I have about my life:
1. So you're getting your master's?
Saying "I'm in grad school" sounds less pretentious than "I'm getting my Ph.D.," but it kind of hurts every time I have to explain straight-to-Ph.D. programs and terminal master's.
2. You're done with classes? When are you graduating?
"Oh, I'm done with classes, but I have four more years of research," I say, smiling like this is a campaign ad and not a perpetual reminder that I AM NOT GRADUATING ANYTIME SOON.
3. What are you doing this summer?
*Points at the desk my lab mates and I labeled "Cabo" with a sticky note*
I'm working. I'm working. I'M WORKING.
4. Wait, why do you call it—
BECAUSE IT'S A JOB.
I'M SORRY FOR THE ALL CAPS,
BUT THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT MY LIFE.
I AM NOT ACTUALLY A STUDENT.
I GO TO MEETINGS AND WORK YEAR-ROUND AND HAVE A BOSS.
JUST LIKE YOU.
ONLY I WORK WAY LONGER THAN 9–5.
AND WEEKENDS TOO.
BUT I'M UNDERPAID,
BECAUSE I AM TECHNICALLY A STUDENT.
I FEEL LIKE THIS IS UNINTENTIONALLY TURNING INTO A POEM.
5. Wait—they pay you?
Yes, thank goodness. No, I'm not mooching off my parents. No, I'm not going further into debt. No, I'm not penniless (technically). But no, I'm not saving for retirement either.
6. And before you ask again (bonus!), NO, I'm not graduating anytime soon.
I walk by a mural of a flowchart that starts with this question. It's on the way from my parked car to my lab.
I see it every single day:
"Are you happy?"
I am anxious because my experiments failed again yesterday and I have a meeting with my PI today. And crap, I forgot I have homework to do for a class I don't really need but is required by my National Institutes of Health training grant. Whew. I'm going to go with no, I'm not happy.
So on the mural, I follow an arrow with a "no" next to it that leads from the first bubble to the next one:
What can I change? I could go to lab more. I could master out of the program and find a job. I could chase another dream.
But I do go to lab every day possible without losing my sanity. And I have worked so hard to get here. I can't just quit. This has been my dream since I was a kid.
I'm where I want to be.
I am happy. I am happy. I am happy.
I follow a different arrow, the one marked "yes":
"Keep doing what you're doing."
I walk past the mural. Until tomorrow.
When I began studying chemistry at East Los Angeles College, I never imagined I would pursue a doctoral degree. Being an undocumented, first-generation Latino college student from a poor, working-class immigrant family, I faced many barriers throughout life and my undergraduate education that made me feel many of my goals were simply out of reach. But I never let those barriers deter me.
I vividly remember the day former U.S. president Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program: I felt a flame of hope being ignited. With DACA, I applied and was admitted to the Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Rochester.
Soon after starting my graduate career, I faced a whole new set of challenges. I was hit hard with impostor syndrome, especially after publishing my first paper and being awarded graduate fellowships. As the only DACA recipient in the entire graduate studies department, I felt alienated and that I had no one to talk with.
When the decision to rescind the DACA program was announced by the Trump administration, I felt that everything that I worked so hard for was going to be taken away. These stresses took a toll on my mental health; I developed anxiety, and I could no longer get a good night's sleep. It wasn't until I began to openly discuss what I was going through with my friends and professors, along with practicing meditation through a class offered at my university's health center, that I regained control over my mental well-being.
Regardless, my future and the futures of all DACA recipients remain uncertain. But my graduate student experience in chemistry has taught me to embrace the challenges that life (and science) throws at you and to never fear the unknown.
Graduate students have a lot on their plates. They are expected to do exceptional research, publish frequently, take classes, teach, train new students ... the list goes on and on. Eventually, the primary tasks become finding a job and graduating. An issue that can affect these fledgling chemists is the lack of information and support for those facing the decision between master's and doctoral degrees. The availability of more information about this decision might eliminate the population of graduate students without clear career goals who stay in grad school because they see no other option. In my experience as a chemistry graduate student, a master's degree is viewed with contempt even though there are a significant number of jobs in chemistry for applicants with a master's degree. Yes, these are frequently "limited" to jobs in industry—another idea that is often viewed with contempt by those in academia—but that does not mean they are lesser. There is limited information in graduate school about jobs in industry because everyone exists in an academia bubble. Professional societies like the American Chemical Society are trying to combat this, but more support needs to be available at the university level. In addition to that, more support should be provided at the undergraduate level to prepare students for the graduate degree that fits their needs. With changes like this, graduate students could focus on their present responsibilities, knowing that they can be more confident in their future career, whenever it comes.
"May I have a can of Coke?"
"Can cannot; bottle can."
Because I'm a native English speaker, moving halfway around the world to Singapore from Scotland to pursue my Ph.D. should have been a breeze. Singapore's primary language is English. Science, generally, is communicated in English. No problem, right? However, in Singapore there are three mother tongues—Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. Naturally, family and friends of the same race will converse mostly in their own mother tongue, but how do friends of different races communicate? In English, right? Not quite! In Singapore they have their own dialect, "Singlish," which is a mash-up of all mother-tongue dialects with English. Not only that, but even Singaporeans will admit that their use of English is rather lazy: Sentences are shortened as much as possible. However, redundant words are often added to the end of sentences. Add to that the fact that a lot of their use of English comes from almost literal translations, or lack thereof, from the mother tongues. For example, there is no direct translation in Chinese for "yes," so other affirmative words are used—"can" is very common. To the unfamiliar ear, Singlish can be a crazy jumble of words that makes very little grammatical sense. Learning this new language was one of the biggest challenges I faced at the start of my Ph.D. Combine that with the clash of accents, and I was repeating myself a lot when asking for something as simple as a can of Coke!