A Letter to a Grad Student

Sci was racing through the corridors of her MRU the other day, taking piles of papers hither and yon, and generally taking care of business. She was on her way out when she saw a girl (she was young and tiny, though probably over 21) come flying out of the bathroom and take up a position in a corner near the stairwell, where it can look like you’re just looking out of the window in an idle way. She had a tissue in her hand, and was steadfastly NOT looking at Sci, in fact looking the other way as hard as she knew how.
She was a grad student. And I think (ok, I know) she was crying. I wanted to stop, and I wanted to ask what was wrong, but she was turned away so violently I don’t think she wanted anyone to ask. So I did the antisocial thing and tried to salvage some of the girl’s pride by not looking.
But little grad student, I did see, and I did want to ask what was wrong. And this is for you.


Don’t cry. Ok, never mind. DO cry. You SHOULD be allowed to cry. I know you were probably hidden in the bathroom, and then hidden in the stairwell, in the hope that someone wouldn’t see you cry, and tell you sack the heck up and get back to work. But I know something happened. I know it probably sucked a nut. And you should be allowed to cry here, because probably you’re in the middle of something important, and can’t go home and cry there.
But I understand. I know how it is. Grad school is full of more huge moments, hours, and days worth of fail than anyone ever deserves to suffer. Maybe someone told you your data was terrible (or maybe it’s not terrible, but it doesn’t fit with their hypothesis). Maybe your PI yelled and screamed and ranted, maybe he/she even threw something at your head (it happens, it really shouldn’t EVER happen, but it happens). Maybe you just had something horrible happen personally, but can’t go home and deal with it, because duty calls, and you have to stay in the lab and suffer in silence as best you can. Maybe your computer/high piece of equipment just died and you lost a TON of data. Any one of these things is enough to make a good grad student cry, feel stupid, and wish they had never come to grad school. Who knows, maybe you had more than one in the same day.
Grad Student, you SHOULD have come to grad school. You are a smart cookie, no matter what anyone says. Stupid people don’t get in to grad school, or if they do, they don’t make it as far as you have. You love science, or you wouldn’t be here. You are a hard worker, or you wouldn’t be here, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You are young, maybe you made a mistake. Mistakes happen, when you’re young and even when you’re not. You’ll learn from them, and you’ll move on. Personal stuff happens, and makes you want to give up. But don’t give up. You are smart and you are strong. You want to change the world, you want to do science, and you can’t let other people stop you from learning and doing the best you can. And when you need some time, Sci has an office filled with chocolate, caffeine, and a box of tissues. And then we can get a beer. I’m sorry I didn’t ask what was wrong, and I wish I had. You’re not alone. We’re all in grad school together, and some day, we’ll all get out.
Don’t let the bastards get you down,
Scicurious
And to other grad students (and post-docs, this also applies to post-docs):
We’ve all been there, haven’t we. And when we have, we should be that grad student with the chocolate, the tissues and the beer, the one who will listen and who knows that there IS crying in science sometimes. Sometimes you see these people, and you think “stop whining! Get over it!”. But try and remember when that was you. Because we all go through it, and and some point, that crying grad student (or drinking grad student, or otherwise miserable grad student) was you. And even though in science these days it seems like it can be nothing but backstabbing and scooping and gossiping, we’re all looking for knowledge, we’re all looking for a cure. And we’re all slaving away through grad school together, and we’re all hoping to graduate. And everyone could use some chocolate, a listening ear, and some tissues.

30 Responses

  1. I like this. Thanks for sharing your compassion.

  2. *cheers*
    Excellent letter. Sci, you rock.

  3. I am so glad I don’t have to do it anymore, but even happier that I did,and very thankful that you guys are still at it; there is nothing more important.
    Thank you.

  4. Been there. I was booted out of my lab when i was a grad student because my advisor was essentially psychotic. (Several years later he was forcibly detained at UCLA’s NPI due to threats of death against his grad students). Thank the flying spaghetti monster that other compassionate investigators in our grad program let me cry, be angry, and ultimately took me in to finish my dissertation. I am a chairperson now at an MRU, and I hope to continue that legacy of compassion.
    Thanks for reminding me how shitty it can be!
    Doc F

  5. Been there. I was booted out of my lab when i was a grad student because my advisor was essentially psychotic. (Several years later he was forcibly detained at UCLA’s NPI due to threats of death against his grad students). Thank the flying spaghetti monster that other compassionate investigators in our grad program let me cry, be angry, and ultimately took me in to finish my dissertation. I am a chairperson now at an MRU, and I hope to continue that legacy of compassion.
    Thanks for reminding me how shitty it can be!
    Doc F

  6. There is crying in Science, and it’s okay. Throughout my 8 years of graduate school, I had a great spot in this abandoned lab space to cry and be alone. There isn’t such a spot in my post-doctoral lab, but I’m finding, as time goes on, I cry less often. Great post Sci.

  7. There is crying in Science, and it’s okay. Throughout my 8 years of graduate school, I had a great spot in this abandoned lab space to cry and be alone. There isn’t such a spot in my post-doctoral lab, but I’m finding, as time goes on, I cry less often. Great post Sci.

  8. Thank you sci.
    Today is not (particularly) the day I needed this letter, but oh have I ever been there. My dean of grad studies just forwarded on a survey to our grad student email list. Apparently one of our master in public health students (who I think is already an MD) is looking at depression in college students, including grad students. It struck me as a very strange thing to send out the survey. I’m glad somebody’s sending it out, and I’m very glad somebody put it together and is studying this, but I wish there was more actual help. At the same time, other than having a bunch of colleagues like sci, I’m not sure what I could wish for.
    Oh internet oracles, is there anything that comes to mind for interventions that actually help with this issue? I bet there are a lot of grad students who have been depressed. What helps most? What interferes with getting better?
    P.S. Dear Science is Not a Muppethugging Carebear Teaparty devotees who may be lurking out there: read this letter. Read it again. Print it out. Hang it on your wall. Buy yourself a chocolate bar, print a label for it: “compassion”. Eat as necessary. Repeat when cranky. Repeat when the bastards are getting *you* down, when your grant doesn’t get funded, when you have *another* stupid meeting. Ask for help, even though you are no longer a trainee. Even if all your grad students can do is bring in a funny hat and work till 3am- we’ll do it. Well, on the nights we don’t have the infant we will (though we’ll still wear the funny hat). We want to help. But in return, the next time a grad student is crying, bring out the chocolate bar. With the label. Just don’t *require* any smiles.

  9. Thank you sci.
    Today is not (particularly) the day I needed this letter, but oh have I ever been there. My dean of grad studies just forwarded on a survey to our grad student email list. Apparently one of our master in public health students (who I think is already an MD) is looking at depression in college students, including grad students. It struck me as a very strange thing to send out the survey. I’m glad somebody’s sending it out, and I’m very glad somebody put it together and is studying this, but I wish there was more actual help. At the same time, other than having a bunch of colleagues like sci, I’m not sure what I could wish for.
    Oh internet oracles, is there anything that comes to mind for interventions that actually help with this issue? I bet there are a lot of grad students who have been depressed. What helps most? What interferes with getting better?
    P.S. Dear Science is Not a Muppethugging Carebear Teaparty devotees who may be lurking out there: read this letter. Read it again. Print it out. Hang it on your wall. Buy yourself a chocolate bar, print a label for it: “compassion”. Eat as necessary. Repeat when cranky. Repeat when the bastards are getting *you* down, when your grant doesn’t get funded, when you have *another* stupid meeting. Ask for help, even though you are no longer a trainee. Even if all your grad students can do is bring in a funny hat and work till 3am- we’ll do it. Well, on the nights we don’t have the infant we will (though we’ll still wear the funny hat). We want to help. But in return, the next time a grad student is crying, bring out the chocolate bar. With the label. Just don’t *require* any smiles.

  10. Lovely letter. And one I probably could have used a few times in the last four years, and probably will need again. I kind of want to print it out and put it in all the grad student mailboxes.
    But on a slightly different point– you say we’re all in it together, and I don’t always think we are. I think there are a number of us (possibly the majority, but who can be sure) who are in it for the science, for the knowledge. But I still think there are those who relish in the backstabbing, scooping, and gossiping, or at least try their damnedest to make it look like they are. And those are the ones that make the rest of us feel like we really need to hide on those crying days. Or maybe it’s just me.

  11. Lovely letter. And one I probably could have used a few times in the last four years, and probably will need again. I kind of want to print it out and put it in all the grad student mailboxes.
    But on a slightly different point– you say we’re all in it together, and I don’t always think we are. I think there are a number of us (possibly the majority, but who can be sure) who are in it for the science, for the knowledge. But I still think there are those who relish in the backstabbing, scooping, and gossiping, or at least try their damnedest to make it look like they are. And those are the ones that make the rest of us feel like we really need to hide on those crying days. Or maybe it’s just me.

  12. You are a pretty rad lady. Thanks for posting this.

  13. You are a pretty rad lady. Thanks for posting this.

  14. Thank you for posting this.

  15. Thank you for posting this.

  16. #4
    Uh… I’m a grad student at UCLA. Is this person still around? Should I carry pepper spray?

  17. #4
    Uh… I’m a grad student at UCLA. Is this person still around? Should I carry pepper spray?

  18. #4
    Uh… I’m a grad student at UCLA. Is this person still around? Should I carry pepper spray?

  19. Don’t let the bastards get you down,

    Illegitimus non carborundum est!
    not really proper latin, but still a very useful motto.

  20. Don’t let the bastards get you down,

    Illegitimus non carborundum est!
    not really proper latin, but still a very useful motto.

  21. Crying all over postdocs/PIs/Profs may seem at the time to be a horrible, shameful thing, but nobody gives a damn a week later.
    This has both good and bad aspects – you have to deal with your own stressors, but there is no stigma about being stressed.

  22. Crying all over postdocs/PIs/Profs may seem at the time to be a horrible, shameful thing, but nobody gives a damn a week later.
    This has both good and bad aspects – you have to deal with your own stressors, but there is no stigma about being stressed.

  23. Crying all over postdocs/PIs/Profs may seem at the time to be a horrible, shameful thing, but nobody gives a damn a week later.
    This has both good and bad aspects – you have to deal with your own stressors, but there is no stigma about being stressed.

  24. I reminded of a friend who rotated in three labs our first year of graduate school. Said friend cried in front of all three rotation supervising PIs. The first was not very understanding. The 2nd and 3rd were. Having the opportunity to be human enabled my friend to stay in graduate school after a tough first year.
    The latter two were tenured faculty members, one a nobel prize winner. The nobel prize winner actively recruited my friend to join his/her lab at the end of the first year. The first faculty member was recently not granted tenure partially due to the inability to properly mentor graduate students. And my friend, well multiple high impact publications later in nobel prize winning lab went on to post-doc in a the lab of another nobel prize winner. That nobel prize winner also actively recruited my friend. Moral of the story, showing your humanity does not impede doing great science, in fact it may facilitate a great mind to blossom.

  25. I reminded of a friend who rotated in three labs our first year of graduate school. Said friend cried in front of all three rotation supervising PIs. The first was not very understanding. The 2nd and 3rd were. Having the opportunity to be human enabled my friend to stay in graduate school after a tough first year.
    The latter two were tenured faculty members, one a nobel prize winner. The nobel prize winner actively recruited my friend to join his/her lab at the end of the first year. The first faculty member was recently not granted tenure partially due to the inability to properly mentor graduate students. And my friend, well multiple high impact publications later in nobel prize winning lab went on to post-doc in a the lab of another nobel prize winner. That nobel prize winner also actively recruited my friend. Moral of the story, showing your humanity does not impede doing great science, in fact it may facilitate a great mind to blossom.

  26. I wasn’t the little grad student in your story, but then again I sort of am.
    I’m a grad student, and I’ve found myself hiding in an office or bathroom to have a cry on more than one occasion. The last couple years of my thesis work have been particularly horrible, and signs point to continued horribleness until I either defend my dissertation or drop out. Worse, the horribleness of my thesis work has me so demoralized that I can’t get very far in looking for post-grad-school jobs, because I find myself thinking: Don’t even bother applying, you haven’t got enough publications, you’ve taken too long in grad school, your thesis work isn’t even that good, why bother when they’re not even going to consider somebody like you?
    And then I stumbled on this page and I read this post. “Grad Student, you SHOULD have come to grad school. You are a smart cookie, no matter what anyone says. Stupid people don’t get in to grad school, or if they do, they don’t make it as far as you have. You love science, or you wouldn’t be here. You are a hard worker, or you wouldn’t be here, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
    I teared up reading that. And then teared up again when I read it again. Thank you. Nobody says those things, at least not to me. I really appreciate it.

  27. I wasn’t the little grad student in your story, but then again I sort of am.
    I’m a grad student, and I’ve found myself hiding in an office or bathroom to have a cry on more than one occasion. The last couple years of my thesis work have been particularly horrible, and signs point to continued horribleness until I either defend my dissertation or drop out. Worse, the horribleness of my thesis work has me so demoralized that I can’t get very far in looking for post-grad-school jobs, because I find myself thinking: Don’t even bother applying, you haven’t got enough publications, you’ve taken too long in grad school, your thesis work isn’t even that good, why bother when they’re not even going to consider somebody like you?
    And then I stumbled on this page and I read this post. “Grad Student, you SHOULD have come to grad school. You are a smart cookie, no matter what anyone says. Stupid people don’t get in to grad school, or if they do, they don’t make it as far as you have. You love science, or you wouldn’t be here. You are a hard worker, or you wouldn’t be here, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
    I teared up reading that. And then teared up again when I read it again. Thank you. Nobody says those things, at least not to me. I really appreciate it.

  28. acgdavis: Don’t give up, kid. You’re almost there. And everyone goes through those demoralized periods, but you’ll be amazed, once you start applying at how many people will think you’re cool and will want to work with you. And you’ve made it this far, you can keep going. Don’t let the bad data and the bastards get you down.

  29. acgdavis: Don’t give up, kid. You’re almost there. And everyone goes through those demoralized periods, but you’ll be amazed, once you start applying at how many people will think you’re cool and will want to work with you. And you’ve made it this far, you can keep going. Don’t let the bad data and the bastards get you down.

  30. acgdavis: Don’t give up, kid. You’re almost there. And everyone goes through those demoralized periods, but you’ll be amazed, once you start applying at how many people will think you’re cool and will want to work with you. And you’ve made it this far, you can keep going. Don’t let the bad data and the bastards get you down.

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