It's Not Just About the Science

I had a vision. I was going to be a great scientist. My research would transform lives. I modestly hoped for the Nobel Prize. To turn this vision into reality, I marched off to graduate school to study biochemistry and biophysics. I was, in a word, naïve.

The first year of graduate school was intensive but straightforward. During my second year, after I was told to retake the genetics section of the qualifying exam, my confidence tumbled. In retrospect it wasn?t such a big deal, but at that time it seemed I was too stupid for science. Even after retaking and passing the qualifying exam, I continued to doubt my abilities. Noticing that I was struggling in the lab, my thesis adviser came to my rescue and spent hours teaching me techniques and scientific thought processes. With his close attention and help, I grimly hung on to my fantasy.

My fantasy had deep roots in the stories I had read as a child. Marie Curie?s life gripped my imagination. Her dedication to science, even after the death of her husband Pierre, inspired me to strive for something I truly loved. I didn?t know what it was, but whatever it was going to be, I was ready to have the same selfless commitment as Marie Curie. After a biology teacher showed us a lively BBC film on Watson and Crick?s discovery of the DNA double helix, I was captivated by the idea of joining the league of people who forgot to eat, drink, and sleep in their quest for an understanding of our existence and the universe around us. So I sought a career in science. My childhood vision sustained me through my undergraduate classes. It wasn?t until graduate school that I began to question my dream.

Months passed and my struggle in the lab continued. It was becoming obvious that something just wasn?t right. I seemed to lack the "hands" and the patience needed for research. And it was hard to admit to myself that scientific research didn?t make me tick.

So why was I in graduate school? Why was I studying biophysics and biochemistry?

I hadn?t anticipated this turn of events and spent hours agonizing over these questions. Was I wasting my time, my adviser?s efforts and lab resources? I hated to think that graduate school was a mistake. But the thought that I might not be doing the right thing with my life nagged at me. I spoke with fellow graduate students who felt the same way. We exchanged woeful stories of lab disasters, tossed around ideas of what to do after graduation, and were there for each other to offer a needed shoulder.

Two years later, I forced myself to figure out why I was sticking to graduate school. Finding the question too daunting to tackle, I turned it around: What drove me into the lab at 7:30 a.m. every day? The answer came easily: I love the challenge. It was not the quest for knowledge so much that spurred me on. Rather, it was the viewing of each day in the lab as a demanding triathlon. I craved accomplishment and success enough to push myself through the hurdles to reach the finish line. This realization cleared the fog in my head, and it became startlingly clear why I had not thrown in the towel 2 years ago. Graduate school was serving a different purpose for me.

Graduate school had become for me more than a scientific training station--it was better viewed from my perspective as an experience in personal growth. Personal growth comes through successfully meeting the bewildering challenges, be it getting the thesis project off the ground, organizing a department?s seminar series, or writing the first research paper. The growth also comes through failures and finding the maturity to keep moving. I have tested my strengths, pinpointed my weaknesses, and learned to push my limits. Graduate school has become a place for me to develop my ability to think critically and logically, acquire new skills, and learn to work with people. Classes, seminars, and journal clubs have all given me a broader appreciation of science.

I have done some memorable things, such as organizing a prominent seminar and coordinating graduate program recruiting weekends. Through these activities, I have discovered several things about myself: I love to organize events, I enjoy interacting with people, and I work best with set deadlines and definitive goals.

With the encouragement of mentors and friends, I have returned to a former passion, writing. I had neglected my creative side through college and the early years of graduate school. The turning point came last spring when I enrolled in a creative writing class and started writing more seriously. Many people have been supportive of my renewed interest in writing. The head of the Professional Development Office has been helping me learn more about suitable career possibilities. The chair of the department put me in touch with an editor and fellow writers, who in turn have become mentors. I have now changed my routine. Every day after lab I write for an hour. On the weekends I write fiction or tackle a short science article. This new routine has given me a different set of goals, and I now find it easier to deal with the uncertainties of lab work.

So I now know why graduate school is important to me. It has given me a unique opportunity to discover myself. It?s been a drawn-out process filled with doubt and insecurity, but I no longer have regrets that I won?t be joining Watson and Crick?s league. I have discovered that I would prefer to devote my "Marie Curie" commitment toward something like writing. Graduate school hasn?t just been about the science. I now better know who I am and what makes me tick.

Raj is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. She welcomes e-mail at

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