Derailed But Undeterred

I am a Ph.D. student,
and I’m a survivor

Aditi S. Iyengar
By Aditi S. Iyengar
April 01, 2013

Why would anyone want to be withdrawn from the real world, overworked, underpaid, chronically stressed and painfully uncertain about his or her life? That, in a nut shell, is the life of a graduate student. So why am I doing this? Believe me, I have had I-just-made-a-huge-mistake moments, and I often ask myself why I didn’t simply get a job. But looking back, I realize that though this has been a singularly difficult path for me, there’s nothing else I would be better at. I am now in the final year of my Ph.D., and sitting in my lab, having spent all day troubleshooting, I reminisce about the past few years and chronicle the experiences that almost beat me down — but not quite.

Year 1

I felt like Bambi. A shy international student taking my first steps into the esoteric world of research, I was green but willing to learn, intimidated but highly motivated. Also, I had chosen to study in New Orleans — the Crescent city, the jazz capital and the land of Mardi Gras. This was perfect. I was going to work hard but party harder. I was going to be a rock-star scientist.

Two months into Year 1

My father passed away. I don’t remember much of rushing back to India, dealing with family and friends. Sometimes I wonder how I got through that particularly tough time. It was a nasty jolt. I considered quitting my program and remaining in India, partly to be there for my family but also because I didn’t think I had it in me to go back and do justice to what I had set out to do. I did not want to deal with being alone and isolated. My mother, on the other hand, was made of sterner stuff. Family drama ensued, and after a barrage of tears and lamentations, my mother said, “Do not give up. Finish what you started. Make your dad proud.” And so I found myself back in school two weeks after the funeral. I got busy with classes, learning how to culture cells without massive contamination and making reagents without Wikipedia’s help. Losing myself to the mayhem of academic science rescued my sanity and saved my soul. Polymerase chain reaction consumed my life, pain passed and I healed.

Year 2

The second year of graduate school is, by far, the best time a student has in his or her graduate career. Classes are dwindling down, and you have had the what-is-my-project-I-can’t-wait-to-get-started-I-might-cure-cancer conversation with your mentor. Your weekends are still relatively free, and you might still have a social life. And if your experiments don’t work, you smile and reassure yourself that you have three more years to figure all this out. Or so I thought.

Year 3

Science just got real. After whiling away my previous year testing protocols and attending seminars for free lunches, I realized that I needed to get with the program. In my zest to prove my scientific worth, I decided to start a project from scratch in an area never explored by my lab. I was going to take our research in another direction. I was going to conduct fantastic experiments and obtain jaw-dropping data. I was going to be the best thing that happened to my field.

Three months later, I found myself in my mentor’s office, weeping into a Kleenex. Nothing was working. I am not good enough. I will disappoint the lab. I’m stupid. After allowing 30 minutes of self-loathing, my mentor said to me something that later became my mantra: “This is biological research. Ninety-five percent of the next few years will be a failure; the remaining 5 will be serendipity, luck and chance. The pursuit of that 5 percent is what will get you through graduate school. I know you can do this. I believe in you.”

I am eternally grateful to my mentor for putting up with my hysteria. He is one of the reasons I didn’t take the next flight back to India.

Year 4

The year of restrained frustration. Put plainly, a previous student messed up. We got stuck cleaning up the mess. This was a massive setback. All my data might have been wrong, and I had to start all over again. As I felt the months inch by, a panic settled in the pit of my stomach and refused to leave. When will I ever stop troubleshooting? When will I actually do real work? Why am I even here? As I questioned the meaning of life, the universe and everything over cups of cheap wine shared with my immensely more sensible roommate, I started to grow up. I was waking up from the slumber of muted complacency. I learned to prioritize, to focus. I learned that whining wasn’t getting me anywhere. And so I cleaned up the mess and lost valuable time, but I’m a better scientist for it.

Year 5

Final year! It’s been quite a journey. I started graduate school thinking I knew what I wanted; I walk away now acutely aware of what I do not want. Cloning taught me self-discipline, Western blotting taught me creativity, and tissue culture taught me patience. More importantly, I learned that this is not just my story. So many graduate students go through more and worse. I have met students who were set back by many years because of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction it left behind. I am acquainted with people who suffer at the hands of mean bosses and obnoxious lab mates. A lot of these people made it through with flying colors, owing to their implicit desire to succeed and further their research. So if you think you got a raw hand, do not be discouraged. To quote my favorite fortune cookie: “Every wrong attempt discarded is a step forward.” Do not despair! If you love what you do, you’ll find a way.

Aditi S. Iyengar
Aditi S. Iyengar

Aditi Iyengar earned her Ph.D. in cancer biology from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at New Orleans and completed her postdoctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

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