Their Research is Sexier than Yours

It seems that over the course of a graduate degree, not only the grad student, but also his or her environment changes opinion about the decision to go to grad school more often than Madonna reinvents herself. It is hard enough struggling with the question of “what am I doing here” while we watch our friends from undergrad buy homes, cars, travel the world and perhaps even have kids. In the mean time, we live in our sweats and continue to eat Kraft dinner.

A few days ago I was on the phone with my mother. She had already sent me ten emails by the time I rolled out of bed (there is a time zone difference between us), and one of them was some very exciting news she had seen on TV. Apparently, at a university close to my home-town, some young researchers made a stem cell research breakthrough that became big news. As soon as I saw the email I saw it coming, and not even five minutes into the conversation the dreaded commentary surfaced:

“Did you see my email about the pig stem cells?” She asked

“Yes mother”

“Isn’t it interesting? They are very young, younger than you, the researchers. You know, J. was right, you could have gone to University closer by.” She rattled off. “Universities here are very good too,” she added to it.

“Yes. I know” I long ago, around the time I started grad school, gave up arguing over whether or not my University was good enough. I am at a world leading institution, at least that is what they would like to make us, and potential future students, believe. Nonetheless, pretty exciting stuff gets done here too. Nevertheless, when it comes to my education my mother has a “the grass is greener on the other side” look on things.

“This is groundbreaking stuff that will help patients in the future. Is it too bad you just didn’t stay here for school. They also said that Biotechnology is really the future.”

I didn’t really know what else to say than to try and convince her again that our university is top notch in research as well.

“Yes, maybe the university isn’t so bad, but you just play around a little bit with fish,” she said. “You’re not doing anything really helpful, practically speaking.”

I remember a time when my parents were in awe of people who had PhD degrees. It seemed like something difficult, distant, and unattainable. Somehow, now that I am working towards a PhD degree, it is no longer that special. It seems unfair how opinions change, particularly when we work towards a goal for years, and then feel like it was pretty much a bad idea. I only know a lucky few who never questioned their decision to go to grad school. Those are, in my mind, the true academics for whom there is no other job more perfectly suited. The rest of us go to bed in doubt, and wake up wondering if we will ever finish our project/write our thesis/be gainfully employed. When environmental factors (parents/siblings/significant others) start to put down our work as well, it doesn’t help the sleepless nights.

When I went back to playing with my fish later that day, I realized I hadn’t even pointed out you can do stem cell research with zebrafish as well.


Danie is a senior graduate student in neuroscience at a large North American university. Over the years, Danie has lived through the perils of the dissertation process, and takes you behind the scenes to witness the real daily struggles (and celebrations) of today’s graduate students. If any of Danie’s experiences read like they are plagiarized from your own life, take solace: you’re not alone!


6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. psi*psi

    wrote on March 16, 2010 at 4:16 am

    Your mother sounds awful (in that regard)! Mine never shut up about wanting me to go biomedical and cure cancer…until my undergrad advisor's research ended up in the local paper. Then she conceded that plastic solar cells and printable electronics were really pretty cool.

    (Zebrafish are also pretty cool.)

  2. DNLee

    wrote on March 16, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I feel you. They just don't understand. I got the "you smart enough, why didn't you become a 'real doctor'"
    hang in there.

  3. 13columns

    wrote on March 26, 2010 at 3:58 am

    that's the tough part about basic research- it's often too far removed from what the average non-scientist cares about for them to see the importance. as @scwai put it- you've got about 10 seconds to drop a few words that interest people- family included- or they're gone.

  4. 3prime

    wrote on April 15, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    My Mom just said "So, you aren't a real doctor?"

  5. Grad Students Get No Rest: Working When Sick | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on May 19, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    […] Their Research is Sexier than Yours […]

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    wrote on November 30, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    […] Their Research is Sexier than Yours – we’ve all had some form of this phone call with friends or family at some point […]

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