Every so often, Sci hangs out with other grad students, or sometimes recent post-grads. If we are relatively good friends, there will almost always be some rendition of the conversation Sci likes to call “no crybabies in science”.
Now I think we all know by now that science is no care bear’s tea party. But Sci still wonders if the sheer…unemotionality…of science is similar to that of other disciplines or jobs.
As a first year, grad students learn quickly not to show too much emotion. Many of the students (male and female), and even the PIs Sci talks to will tell her about the ONE time they cried. Usually, this follows with a story of how they were told, either gently or otherwise, that Thou Shalt Not Cry. Not where anyone can see you, anyway. And you are never to ADMIT you cried, either. The person who saw you will give you a pass. This time. But don’t do it again. It’s embarrassing.
And this is hard. Science ISN’T a tea party. It’s not easy. It’s frustrating, difficult, and you often feel like you’re stonewalled at every possible opportunity by other scientists, lack of funding, or data that stubbornly tells you your hypothesis was wrong. Hugely expensive equipment malfunctions. And grad school is a pressure cooker. Long hours, low to no pay, classes and lab and papers AND a thesis…you might as well be on reality TV. Relationships often suffer, emotions fray, people are on edge. Possibly because of this, scientists are often…not nice to each other. Challenging people’s ideas is PART of science, it plays a huge role in what we do and why we do it well. But “challenging” is not always nice. If you’re lucky, it comes out as “I think you’re wrong”. If you’re unlucky, the person didn’t get a lot of sleep and has a grant due, and it comes out as “I think you’re stupid”.
And it hurts. But don’t let THEM know that. Thou Shalt Not Lose Thy Temper. Thou Shalt Not Cry. Thou shalt not snap at someone, whine, or betray a grievance. You shall not even say “that was rude”. Because most importantly, Thou Shalt Not Make Enemies. If a big, bad prof insults you to your face, you smile and thank them as though pearls did indeed drop from the lips of that horrid swine. You might need a letter of recommendation from that guy one day. If you cry or generally act upset, you very quickly earn a reputation, one you don’t need when you’re trying to convince a PI that you should become their next All-Star grad student.
Now, Sci is sure the vast majority of this is really just growing up. Grownups don’t cry in meetings, grownups don’t get angry in public (though this tends to be more acceptable if you’re male, which is a whole new can of worms), and grownups don’t “bring their emotions to work”.
But what I think might be peculiar to science is that this doesn’t apply only to the negative emotions (though those are generally the objects of dressing-downs and ridicule), but also to the positive ones. Scientists…are not encouraged to be happy about life, at least not outwardly. Many scientists SAY they want a bright, motivated, excited student in their labs. But really, it seems they only want bright and motivated. Excited means bothersome. Excited means new directions the PI may not want to go in, and excited means maybe speaking out and saying something stupid in front of people and embarrassing your advisor. And when you present your data and you’re TOO excited about your findings, you get bad reviews.
If you’re TOO excited, there must be something wrong, or you must be uninformed. The proper scientist is excited only in a very moderate, controlled way. The proper scientist is tempered with cynicism and disdain. The proper scientist doesn’t dare act too excited, because excited often comes across as naive.
In fact, there’s a certain amount of cred that goes along with being negative. You know the younger students, those are the ones with bright eyes and bushy tails. But you know the ones who almost ready for PhDs, too. These are the grizzled veterans, the cynical, sarcastic, flat-toned lab recluses who gaze upon the new students with a cynical eye. Dang first years need to get on their lawns. In THEIR day, they had to take advanced biochem and LIKE IT. And these old timers, they spread their cynicism willy nilly to the new students: You want to do teaching and outreach? *snort* Wait til advisor wants your ass back in the lab. You think that idea is going to WORK? Oh, honey, no. You’re totally excited about the opportunity to learn to write a grant?! Great, we’ve got a new one fresh out of the cabbage patch, who doesn’t know what pain is.
And Sci has a problem with this. I have become one of those cynical, grizzled veterans. It’s how I know I’m almost ready for my PhD. But I’m not a fan of what I’ve become. Since when does it give you cred to act cynical toward the bright-eyed happy youngster? Since when did blasting someone’s experiment down become something you feel like you should do? Why should I take down those who WANT to do outreach and teaching, when I was the same way myself? And yet, Sci does these things. Part of it is a misplaced kind of sympathy, Sci wants to let you know that won’t work. It’ll save you a LOT of pain from trying to MAKE it work. But it never comes out like that.
Grad school is a rough time. When you come out, you are honed into a scalpel blade, an expert in your tiny, tiny field, presumably ready to wield yourself against the world (or at least against your post-doc). But all that honing makes you sharp in more ways than one. Suddenly, you have no patience for the young, naive, and excited. But maybe you should.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so great to be so cynical, and cred shouldn’t be given to those who are snarky. Maybe we should remember what it was like to be a first year, and remember all the things we WISH people had said and not said to us, to make our lives easier. And maybe we should say those things, and help out some n00bs. Who knows? Maybe, if Sci is nice and patient to the first years who remind her so much of who she was, she’ll begin to remember what it was about science that was so exciting. And if we all remember what was excited, and get excited again, maybe grad school won’t look quite so awful.
Filed under: Academia |