Winter of My Discontent


Picture this:

Sitting in the lab contemplating the six experiments on the docket for the week, you take a moment to assess your current predicament. The two papers you had submitted last fall have been returned by their respective journals, casually brutalized by the reviewers, who nonchalantly suggest several backbreaking experiments and something about "animal models." Your boss seems to forget the fact that this wonderful graduate experience eventually needs to conclude, instead focusing breathlessly on the possible extensions of your project and how connecting your piece of esoterica to the latest notion-du-jour will transform your next paper--which currently is destined for the journal WeDidSomeStuff--into something worthy of a cover on Science.

Meanwhile, you're occupied defending the novelty and significance of your 5-year effort while new publications in fancy journals that utilize dubious techniques to reach shaky conclusions only serve to damage the viability of several of your most cherished theories. And don't forget that the little matter of final, official approval from your thesis committee still looms or that the job market, as luck would have it, is in the tank. The brief respite provided by the holiday break, although welcome, has only served to increase your anxiety by compressing the time available, after all the above have been dealt with, to actually write.


Yes, it's true. Your humble author has had a tough time maintaining his normally bubbly, optimistic personage. It's not just the stress--I'm a graduate student, so I can handle workloads that would bring ordinary mortals to their knees. It's the anxiety that comes from the feeling that I'm being swept along in a great tidal wave of work and formal requirements without the security of knowing everything will work out in the end. Will my committee toss me another pitch I can't handle? Will I be able to satisfy the reviewers and get my papers published? Will any of the theories that I've nurtured and refined through numerous successful experiments over the past 3 years withstand the onslaught of contradictory data? Will I ever get out of here and into the real world?

Clearly, I've been doing this way too long. Friends and family have embarked on successful careers, while I've been spinning my wheels trying to find the answers to questions that are of interest to a sum total of three guys in California. And they (friends, family, and--most likely--those guys in California) all have things like houses, cars that don't belch smoke, and retirement accounts, and they seem to remember what a vacation is.

Temporary stress and anxiety are manageable, but for the graduate student on the 6-year-plus plan, they are chronic. Combine this with the loneliness of lab work and frankly dismal job prospects and it's easy to see how the whole experience can challenge even the best-prepared psyche. Not only is anxiety understandable, as another Next Wave columnist recently pointed out, it is also startlingly common, so there's no shame in admitting it has temporarily gotten the best of you. Fortunately, I've worked through the most difficult time, and the light at the end of the tunnel is becoming brighter and clearer each week. That means that I can draw breath and share some of what I've learned over the past month or so in hopes that it might actually help a few fellow dragged-out, stressed-out students.

Step one: Breathe. No, really. Get some rest. Go for a jog. Play with the dog. Eat something other than the daily fried mystery meat at the hospital cafeteria. Often ignored, taking reasonable care of your body is the easiest and most effective way to reduce stress and anxiety.

Step two: Take pride. Your work will be judged, for better or worse, and this will have an impact on your progress, but be sure to take pride in your effort as well as the judgements themselves. Your boss, committee, and reviewers will undoubtedly find flaws and problems with your data and conclusions. It's important to learn from these mistakes, but resist the temptation to take them to heart.

Step three: Ignore factors beyond your control. There is nothing you can do about what is published and how it challenges your favorite hypotheses. Worrying about the job market does little to actually improve the situation and will only create more anxiety in your life. Unfortunately, scientists are often held hostage by the "need" to produce certain results consistent with their hypothesis, and suffer when things don't work out the way they hope. Although there is no way to avoid the difficulties posed by problematic results when it comes time to present your data, the ability to detach yourself from the notion that somehow you can control the outcome will serve to alleviate the anticipatory anxiety we all experience as we await the outcome of the latest experiment.

Step four: Take control of your project. This is your boat, and only you can sail it. Divide the enormous undertaking facing you into manageable tasks, prioritize appropriately, and set about accomplishing each in turn. The critical element is to be able to essentially separate the wheat from the chaff. When your boss proposes a series of new experiments in a system you've never dealt with, find a way to diplomatically defer until the critical tasks are completed. Not always easy, but absolutely essential. End-game anxiety derives from feeling overwhelmed, and the only way to avoid being swept up is by making tough triage decisions.

Sounds easy enough, but until I took a sober look at my situation, affirmed my graduate effort to date, and took charge of its completion, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being swept away. Now, with a "green light" from my committee, I'm well on my way to finishing my dissertation and confidently facing the job market.

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