5th April, 2018

I'm Tired
Of Your
Con-
versation

Every so often, we talk about the apparent fact that graduate students have a higher rate of mental illness than the general population. The articles get shared around and everyone goes, "This is alarming and terrible! We need to talk about this!" People will write up tips for dealing with it. Maybe someone will bring in a counselor or something from the university's mental health service to give a talk. It's always the same few things:

  • Manage your time better!
  • Have hobbies!
  • Have friends!
  • See a professional!

In general, this is fine advice. Yes, there are some people out there who need to be reminded to log off and do stuff. But for graduate students? I already know that humans (and animals generally) need sunlight, fresh air, and social interaction. I know all these things I'm supposed to do, but whether I can do them is another thing entirely. Because the real issue is that life in research is not good.

Here, let me add to the pile of words about why being a grad student is miserable. (Disclaimer: not all of these issues are my own experience. Some of it is from colleagues and anonymous Reddit rants.)

I Don't
Have Time

In a lot of cases, research students have no choice but to work long hours and on the weekend. We actually cannot choose to manage our time better. A while back, there was some uproar about a guy demanding 50+ hours a week from his subordinates. If you were surprised and outraged, you're either very lucky, or not paying enough attention. This is not uncommon. There's at least one professor in my building who actually brags to their colleagues about getting their students to work that much.

Even if my supervisor doesn't explicitly demand that from me, other aspects of my circumstances will. The university wants me to get my degree in 4 years, or they'll try to give me the boot. It also doesn't help that my scholarship only lasts 3.5 years. Not to mention, I have bad luck and my experiments often fail. If I don't do the hard yards, I'm not going to finish my degree before my scholarship ends. Then I'll be working for no pay. And if the university decides that I've been here for too long, they'll revoke my student status and I'll be going to work without concession public transport fares. I'd rather go under the train.

I Can't
Relate

The stipend isn't even minimum wage, considering the hours. I can afford to live independently, but it's not terribly luxurious. Meanwhile, most of my friends from my undergraduate days now have normal, 9-5 jobs, or they're still doing undergraduate studies. They might ask me to hang out on a weekend or night when I'm working, and I won't be able to. If this happens often enough, they'll stop asking me. Whoops, there goes a few friendships.

When I actually make it to a meeting, the conversation will be about things that I perhaps should be experiencing, but can't. No, I didn't watch that show, I didn't have time. No, I've never been to that bar/restaurant/cafe, I don't have the time, money, or companions to eat out that much. No, I have no opinion on prenups, because I'm a long way away from stable employment and marriage. I haven't got anything to share, and everything I hear makes me feel like I'm failing at being a functional adult human.

Furthermore, I can't even share my troubles. The desire to vent is absolutely killing me, but that's not fun conversation. Anyway, back when I did talk about the lab and its associated dramas, they'd say, "Ha, we told you you were making a mistake. Why don't you get a real job? Why don't you buy some bitcoin?"

You Lied
To Us

Sure, I knew it wouldn't be easy. I knew I wouldn't have money, and that was fine, because I live pretty minimally anyway. As a child, I was that loser ethnic person in a white-majority school that nobody talked to, so having no friends, while unpleasant, was not new territory. I thought it would be worth it to suffer for something I genuinely cared about; this idea of finding truth and maybe using it to help people. I didn't even expect to be researching anything immediately useful, really. It just needed to be done properly.

Instead I found myself in a chase for better KPIs. It turns out that, pretty much every other industry, academia seems most interested in making some numbers go up or down. Maximum quantifiable productivity. You just have to push out papers, never mind the quality. Experiments get designed for the sake of having some asterisks above some graphs, rigor be damned. Students have to graduate fast, never mind how much of a complete work their theses are. If you don't do that, you're not going to get a job, you're not going to get promoted, you're no good at what you're doing.

I'm not lucky enough to meet those demands by simply putting my head down and doing honest work. Not everyone gets an experiment that works. Things fail a lot, and when I say fail, I don't just mean, "oops, I dropped my gel," but also finishing an experiment and having no statistically significant result. That's not going to get published. It basically doesn't exist if it doesn't get published. Look at my CV, and you'll see an unproductive, unemployable failure.

I see a lot of good, smart people who would be better off if they relaxed their standards a bit. They could be a bit less pedantic, exaggerate the importance of their research to the public for money and attention, or lie to undergrads about how research is a great career so they'll come in and provide free labour. They could talk themselves up more, they could, should be more ruthless in their deals with collaborators. I want to shake these people and tell them to be worse people because they deserve better. But that would be wrong.

My own problems are bad enough, but it's even more depressing to see other, better people put in the ridiculous hours and get nothing for it. And then seeing some less honourable people get ahead is so, so demoralizing. Why should I bother trying if the good ones fail?

Thanks For
Reading

Everyone knows about publish or perish. The other favourite science controversy is research misconduct; when someone's revealed to be dodgy, everyone goes, "Disgusting! How could they do such a thing?" And now you ask us, why are people sad?

Well, your conversation is repetitive and futile. It always goes the same way:

  1. Someone raises the alarm.
  2. The community hears and is momentarily concerned, because we like to wring our hands every so often. It's fun to feel like you're looking behind the curtain, to feel righteously outraged and morally superior. 
  3. But then everyone is in too vulnerable a position to talk the real talk, e.g. that we might work in a system where bad behaviour is a good bet, that it's actually really easy to fake data, that research would collapse without unpaid work, etc.
  4. So someone will decide there's actually no problem and we go back to business as usual.

Those who have the power to cause real change have nothing to gain from doing so. Why change the game when you're winning it? But they'll get a lot of pageviews and good reputation by pretending to care every once in a while.

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