Thoughts of a grad student – I

“I feel stupid”
“I am not smart enough”
“My IQ dropped once I started grad school”
“These results are garbage”
“I am not doing scavenger hunt, my research is enough”
These represent statements I have heard and used over and over again in the past two+ years.

A frequent topic of discussion among me and my fellow students is that we were smart in undergrad, what happened to us? Why am I not motivated anymore? God, when will I get publishable results, I hate this degree.

We conclude it’s because there was a direct relation between hard work and grades in undergrad. In grad school that equation has more variables. Just because I spend 15 hours in the lab today does not imply I will get desirable results that will give me a pretty graph and fit in nicely with my hypothesis. Actually, chances are the first trial will throw my hypothesis out the window (from experience.) I will do a second trial (which also will fail). After that I’ll change one parameter (still no success), a second one (no difference), a third one (am I the only one with a project from hell?). In retrospect, I probably would have conducted all my experiments in less than half the time, had I been a robot and not a human, that is. In reality, after preliminary analysis, I will spend half the day staring blankly at my computer screen wailing in self-pity and self-loathing because I can’t seem to do anything right, from making lunch to scientific research. I will procrastinate for two days by reading papers wondering why I can’t be as awesome as people with all this meaningful research, and finally I will half-heartedly drag myself to the lab to have something to show to my supervisor.

Grad school should be called something else, something that will not make it sound like a continuation of undergrad, something that will force us to abandon trying to draw parallels between the two. In undergrad, it was natural to assume bad grades are due to lack of effort. In grad school, I have (yet to learn) not to take bad results so personally, and not to let them affect my willingness to work. Maybe the terminology has to be revised. In the first case the aim is to get good grades. The aim in grad school should not be to get good results; the aim should be to conduct ‘intelligent research’. That means extensive analysis on runs which gave ‘bad’ results should not be considered a waste of time or reminder of ‘how bad I am at research.’ Only complete analysis can pave the way towards better design of future experiments. I should hold myself accountable for making educated guesses based on the available information, and not what those educated guesses yield. Failure should be taken as an opportunity, not a personal attack. The emphasis should be on developing an appreciation for the research process, which we can only get better at by constantly trying.

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