I’ve had a chance recently to talk to some people who are heading off to chemistry grad school in the fall, which brought back memories of when I did that a mere thirty-three years ago. A lot has changed over that time, but there are some very important things that haven’t.
One of the most important – maybe the most important – will probably never change at all. That’s the transition to independent laboratory work, which is harder for some people than it is for others. This switchover, which is crucial to going on to a successful degree in the sciences, can be difficult for several reasons. Not having much lab experience in general, of course, could be one big factor. But there are other students who do know their way around the lab but who haven’t had to navigate it, as it were, on their own: they’ve always had clearly mapped-out projects where they didn’t have to strategize much. Now, that’s not a bad idea at all when someone is starting out doing research – summer undergraduate work or even beginning graduate work should be more structured and less open-ended while people gain experience. But full scale doctoral dissertation work is (or certainly should be) a different thing entirely.
It’s a bit like being in a swimming pool – even a very large one – versus being in the ocean. In the pool, there are sides to hang on to and push off from. There may even be lanes to swim in, and the depths are clearly marked. But no one’s marked the ocean: you look around and realize hmm, this is pretty huge. There are a lot of directions to go, and a lot of places that look like islands that I might be able to swim to if things go right. But which ones are worth stopping at? Is there a reasonable next destination once you make it to one of them? You have to get somewhere, not just swim around out here forever, so how do you do that? If you don’t get moving pretty soon, with some sort of direction in mind, you may not get anywhere at all. . .
It can certainly be disorienting, but if you have a chance to realize some short-range successes, you can get the idea and build up confidence. It doesn’t happen that way for everyone, though. I’ve watched people just sort of flounder during their first year in the lab, which can happen for a number of reasons. They may not have a clear goal in mind, and if so, blame for that situation also needs to attach to the professor involved. Or they may have a goal, but have very poor planning skills with which to get there. That’s more on the person themselves – you can’t expect someone to stand behind you and say “No, that starting material isn’t available in enough quantity, you shouldn’t use that one” or “No, if you do that, you’re going to go through a really polar water-soluble intermediate that’s going to be very hard to purify, so you should see if there’s something else or at least make sure you can handle the compound” and so on. Everyone has some of this in them, especially when starting out, but experience and a willingness to learn from mistakes should smooth it out as you go along.
At an even more basic level, there are people who just can’t seem to get going. They try a reaction, and maybe it works, they can’t quite tell. So they try to wash the crude solid some to clean it up, because that might help, and they save the washes because it might be in there, too – that’s the stuff dried up in the Erlenmeyer over on that side of the hood – and they took some of the remaining solid and tried to run a column on it, but nothing really seemed to come out – that’s that rack of test tubes over there – and they were going to set up the reaction again to see if it worked this time but they didn’t get to it on Thursday so it’s too late to get it going now, and if they can remember they’ll set it up tomorrow, and maybe they should just order a new bottle of the starting material? Or the reagent? Or distill some fresh solvent? Do you think that would help?
This, from what I can see, is a hard condition to cure. In order to get anywhere on a research project, you have to do things, do them in a manner that the results will mean something, and be ready to act on them to do the next thing. This is the motor; nothing happens without setting up experiment, without setting them up with enough forethought to be sure that you’re running them the right way and for the right reasons, and without knowing what you might do next once those experiments are done. Really, nothing happens. Other than filling up a hood with a sad collection of dried-out tubes and flasks with something dark in the bottom of them – that does seem to happen in these cases, but it doesn’t get you very far. Someone who’s stuck in this mode needs to have enough insight into their work to realize what’s going wrong and enough initiative (and courage) to do something about it, and the odds of those being available in sufficient amounts are relatively low.
An exacerbating factor is the experience of failure, and not necessarily failure on the larger scale of “Did I make the right decision to come to grad school?” I’m talking about just day-to-day failure, reactions not working, not doing anything, or chewing up your starting material and returning only stuff that looks like molasses, only molasses has fewer ingredients. If you’re used to teaching-lab type experiments, which are designed to work (and thus illustrate some concept), unoptimized “real” reactions may come as a shock, since a fair number of those wipe out for reasons unknown. Guess whose job it is to figure out what went wrong or to route around it? Someone who’s imagined that they’ll be moving on steadily, step by successful step, planning and thinking about the next reaction (which is going to work, too) may feel as if they’re bogged down in a swamp campaign when they find themselves running Step Number Three for the sixth (or sixteenth) slightly varied time. But that’s research – it’s a mixture of high-level problems and exasperatingly low-level ones, and you have to be ready for a rich assortment of both. This project could get us all on the cover of Science, but first it has to work, which means that we need the ratios of products on all these reactions, which means that we need to have a working HPLC over here, but it’s got a puddle of acetonitrile under it, so pass the damn wrench. Where is the damn wrench? And so on.
A trying experience, and moving into doing independent research is one, will make a person have to deal with a lot of their own shortcomings. That’s one of the things it’s designed to do. You should come out of it a better person – stronger, more resilient, more experienced – by realizing when things are going badly and doing the best you can to fix them. The culture of the lab and (especially) the relationship with the professor involved will have a lot to do with how successful the whole process is, but an awful lot of it is on you, the graduate student. Knowing about these issues, though, and being ready to recognize them, has got to help.
Update: see the comments for some interesting perspectives, including the role that anxiety disorder can play in some of the behavior mentioned above. That’s a good opportunity to link to a couple of previous posts about mental health in grad school in general.