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A virtual lament for grad school

The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at a newly opened indoor amusement park in northern Delaware. The year was 1997, and the park’s greatest attraction was so futuristic that guests clambered over one another for just a few minutes of it: virtual reality.

They’d don a heavy VR helmet that covered their eyes and ears, then try not to tangle the wires as they turned their heads to marvel at a surrounding technicolor dreamscape of floating polygons. They couldn’t go anywhere or do anything in this fantasy world, but the mere existence of the virtual polygons thrilled northern Delawareans to no end. (It remains unclear to me how, or if, we kept the helmets sanitary.)

I remember thinking, as I scanned the barcodes on eager guests’ wristbands, that someday VR would be more than an almost-amusing diversion. I imagined that sometime, years in the future, we’d strap on our visors in the morning and spend each day in a virtual utopia so clear and vibrant it might have come from a laser disc.

Today, like it or not (spoiler: not), we’re living in the virtual world—but it’s hardly the Enterprise holodeck. Heck, it’s not even the Net from Johnny Mnemonic.

Since this column is about scientific training and careers, I thought I would write about all the ways the pandemic has changed grad school: virtual classes, virtual lab meetings, virtual seminars, virtual exams. But after chatting with a student starting her Ph.D., I realized there were no different ways things have changed—they were all variations on the same way. Virtual classes are on Zoom. Virtual lab meetings are on Zoom. Virtual seminars are on Zoom.

Virtual grad school, it turns out, is the same as virtual anything else. It’s a flat, lackluster arrangement of rectangles with your colleagues’ faces and maybe a bookshelf or kitchen window in the background where the most exciting occurrence is that someone’s cat might wander by. You can’t even make jokes anymore about wearing sweatpants while on the webcam—those jokes were so April.

I’ve often derided grad school as a stodgy rite of passage, ripe for an overhaul. You could even say I’ve made a career of it. And although this may be true, our new distance-everything world has made me nostalgic for parts of grad school I never realized I loved.

It’s been *cough cough* years since I was a grad student myself. But in the intervening time, I’ve enjoyed revisiting that first-starting-out, anything-can-happen, hey-look-free-sandwiches feeling when I’ve visited campuses to speak to grad students. These days, speaking to grad students instead on—hey, surprise—Zoom has surprisingly sparked sentimental feelings for an institution that I once wrote would be “exactly like purgatory, if it weren’t so much like hell.”

I miss hands-on lab work. I miss the vibrant feeling of a campus. I miss chatting over midafternoon coffee. I miss knocking on someone’s door with a quick question. I miss teaching students who share my space. Heck, I even miss grading exams. Sitting with my classmates, a stack of papers, and department-provided pizza was—dare I say it—fun.

It is easy, and sometimes necessary, to complain about the difficulties and annoyances of grad school. And in the horrible cases of bullying, harassment, and mistreatment that can make Ph.D. programs a true nightmare for some, more than complaining is warranted.  

But amid grad students’ everyday grumbles, there’s a sense of camaraderie. Staying late to finish an experiment, traveling to a conference, taping your first poster to the wall outside your lab, shaking hands with your thesis committee after a successful defense—all these experiences are sources of solidarity and pride that can never fit in a Zoom rectangle.

That’s because in its best version, grad school is a cool, unique experience. (I promise you won’t see me express that sentiment again for a long time, at least not until COVID-28.)

Grad school gives you the opportunity to try things out, to mess around, to accumulate the sort of wisdom that only comes from trial-and-error. Attempting to replicate this experience remotely just isn’t the same. As far as I understand it, research from afar typically means telling your adviser that you’re writing papers, then hoping quarantine ends before they realize that you’ve actually been scrolling through Twitter and playing with your dog.

Then there’s the sense of forward motion, that you’re progressing toward a degree and a career. Though grad school infamously stalls sometime around the third-to-eighth year, what grad students are experiencing now is stagnation within stagnation.

But perhaps most importantly, there’s the ineffable grad-school-ness of grad school. It’s a time of promise, of nerdiness, of victories and losses, of striving and bonding and becoming. I don’t know how best to explain it—which I guess is what makes it, by definition, ineffable. Which is saying a lot for an institution that is usually truly effed.

It’s naive to assume that, when this is all over (whatever that means), everything will go back to the way it was. Maybe we can make the best of a bad situation and learn a few lessons from our involuntary plunge into online learning. Maybe we can resurrect the worthiest parts of postbaccalaureate education and jettison the parts that shouldn’t come back. Maybe this is an opportunity to reassess and improve the way we train scientists.

Now that we have a new appreciation for time spent performing experiments, let’s respect that time by treating grad students more like scientists and less like helper monkeys. Now that we know the pain of online learning, let’s make classes and seminars as vibrant and informative as they can possibly be. Now that we’ve been reminded how nice it is simply to interact with other humans, let’s treat each other with more humanity.

Let’s keep the parts of the struggle that teach us and lose the parts of the struggle that don’t. Then maybe, during COVID-28, we won’t be surprised by what we’ve lost.

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