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A novel look at graduate school

Some years ago, a Ph.D. holder with a successful nonacademic career told me how her postdoc supervisor gave her permission to leave the lab. After watching the trainee become more and more dispirited by repetitive experiments, the lab chief gently told her, “You know, my dear, there’s more to life than this”—words that liberated the young scientist to pursue totally different, and ultimately very satisfying, endeavors.

Sadly, no such compassionate mentor comes to the rescue of the increasingly distraught graduate student who is the main character of the striking new novel Chemistry. When we meet this young woman, who never tells us her name, she is a third-year graduate student in synthetic organic chemistry at a very competitive Boston-area university. Given that author Weike Wang has two degrees—a bachelor’s in chemistry and a doctorate in public health—from Harvard University, it’s not hard to guess where her heroine is probably pursuing her grueling program. (Wang, who also has an MFA, appears to be pursuing quite an original career path of her own.)

Though Wang doubtlessly does not intend her debut novel as a treatise on the ills and failings of scientific training at high-powered research universities, she poignantly highlights many of the issues that make that process so trying for so many ambitious and earnest young people. Among them is the “common knowledge … that graduate students make close to nothing and that there are more PhD scientists in this country than there are jobs for them,” Wang writes. In addition, there’s the lab member who “strongly believes that women do not belong in science because [they] lack the balls to actually do science.” And these aren’t even close to the most serious of the protagonist’s challenges.

In a voice both laconic and ironic, the protagonist explains the various factors that complicate her life. For one, she is the child of Chinese immigrants who hold their own demons at bay by relentlessly demanding the highest academic achievement from their daughter. She, in turn, came to graduate school believing, on the basis of the awards she had won in high school, that she had the makings of an outstanding chemist. She soon learned, however, that everyone else had also won similar awards. And she learned an additional “fact” that she says all scientists come to know: “Ninety percent of all experiments fail.” Even so, she can’t help wondering “if this high rate of failure is also you. It can’t be the chemicals’ fault, you think. They have no souls.” Nor can she let go of what she calls “the wisdom of many chemists before her. You must love chemistry even when it is not working. You must love chemistry unconditionally.”

Synthesizing a self

courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

The protagonist’s namelessness seems to suit her increasingly tentative sense of self as she wrestles with the stresses of trying to conduct high-level science in an intensely pressured environment. While she struggles to fulfill the expectations and demands surrounding her, she also labors, often futilely, to carve out a stable personal identity for herself—a constellation of efforts that I expect will resonate with many young scientists.

“I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it,” she reports in the unemotional, sparsely punctuated, and deceptively bland first person present tense that Wang uses throughout the book, as if the protagonist were recording her life as a series of observations in a lab notebook. “The purpose of this kind of chemistry,” the protagonist continues, “is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. … For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, No, it is still at large.”

“In time,” she continues, “you find yourself no longer mesmerized.”

Eventually her supervisor asks, “Where do you see your project going in five years?” This question shocks her. She had, she tells him, assumed that by then she would have her degree and a job in the “real world.”

“Perhaps then,” the professor muses, “it is time to start a new project, one that is more within your capabilities.”

Along with the recalcitrant molecule, there is also the increasingly pressing question of Eric—the only character in the book whose name we know. A somewhat more advanced student in the lab, he is, more to the point, the man she has lived with for several years and who has, as the book opens, proposed marriage. He is finishing his degree and is in the running for a faculty job at an undergraduate college in Ohio—his first-choice career—which he ultimately secures. This somewhat rebellious triumph—rebellious because he is leaving the world of prestige university research—only crystalizes additional questions for the protagonist. Should she follow him, as he desires? Can she tie her destiny to his, she wonders, before she has comparable achievements of her own? Can she love him enough to tie her destiny to his at all?

Ultimately, this all builds to the day “when I break the beakers,” and that in turn leads to a medical leave and a series of appointments with a “shrink.” Over months away from the lab, the protagonist tries to sort out the meaning of her upbringing and education, of the values she has absorbed, and of chemistry—as a discipline and potential profession and in the vernacular sense of attraction to other people.

Wang clearly wrote this book as a character study, not as an academic analysis of the grad school experience. Still, I suspect that reading it could prove useful to academic officials interested in improving grad students’ often difficult lot. The protagonist appears to receive essentially no meaningful help or guidance in her travails from anyone associated with her university, and officials might do well to consider why this is so and what services could have proved useful. 

Watching the protagonist’s slow and often painful progress toward some resolution might very well also offer comfort to others wrestling with similar issues, and may even help them come to resolutions of their own. In any case, just making the acquaintance of Wang’s memorable character could assure some similarly troubled souls that their doubts and demons are not unique. Like any good researcher, the protagonist encounters more questions than she answers. But simply knowing her may well help some nonfictional aspiring scientists deal with questions of their own.

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