It’s that time of the year again - my third year of graduate school will officially begin in a few days, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to reflect on the last year and pass this wisdom onto future me. But first, I decided to take a look at what I wrote down for Year 1, and boy was there ever some golden nuggets of wisdom that I completely ignored after writing them down. This blurb, though, summarizes very nicely what appears to be extremely clever foresight but, in hindsight, something I would’ve never kept in mind until it actually happened:
… having reflected on the year, is that when the two forces - passion and competitiveness - join hands, it’s very easy to spiral into a thoughtless routine and reach a burn-out stage with little warning. In other words, if we enforce the notion that what we are doing is what we are passionate in, mixed with the (Asian? North American?) culture of “always-be-doing”, then we tend to ignore our own bodies and the natural signals to relax and refocus. Eventually, some threshold is exceeded and fear overcomes passion, curiosity, and joy of exploring, at which point work becomes a burden and all I can do is youtube/imgur, possibly leading to existential crises and the conclusion that science is a pointless circle-jerk. Short of that, I had to squeeze every possible moment I had out of life and into work, which meant exercising less, both mind and body, and resort to things like Soylent (still love my goop though).
More subtly, there is a problem of not prioritizing. Essentially, all work related things are deemed to be more important than personal things, based on some notion that “I have to”, and all those things are weighted equally so I need to DO ALL THE THINGS.
Sounds pretty ominous. Thinking back to first year, I don’t recall going through a terribly bad phase of burn-out. Tired, for sure, but not intrinsically unmotivated, which leads me to wonder how I had been able to foresee the subsequent issues without changing my behavior to prevent it - and I had to think for a total of 10 seconds to realize why. But to properly tell the story, we have to pick up where we left off - the beginning of Year 2.
The beginning of year 2 started after a nice west coast road trip with Mei, stopping along the way to see some natural Murican beauty and old friends. That was a great way to rest my brain for a bit and refocus before the start of the new academic year. I got right back into my projects, one of which was steadily picking up steam and getting positive results. On top of that, I had just gotten a short commentary published, proposing a computational (mathematical) model for a set of new empirical results, which counts for nothing in terms of academic currency but helped me feel like I could at least write “academic” enough to pretend to be one. All of these factors got me zooming through life once again, working and reading non-stop. As I write this now, I realized that, even as I had concerns about burning out and losing interest, there was no reason to change anything I was doing. Why would I? Everything was going great. I thought, or rather, I knew that as long as I keep up with reading everything I could find, and thinking about the problems 24/7, it would eventually all pay off and I’d be outta here (PhD) in no time. Plus, I felt like I had a good enough handle on my personal relationships, namely, making friends here and figuring out bit by bit how to tend to an ultra-long-distance relationship. Life was fast, but good.
Then in the fall, I attended my first Society for Neuroscience conference, which is THE neuroscience conference to be (sort of), where 20-some-thousand people gather for a week to nerd out about all aspects of the brain. It was 8 am to 6 pm days, followed by socials and what-have-you well into the night. It was probably the most intense 5 days of graduate school so far, trying to catch every poster and talk that interested me. But at the same time, it was an exhilarating experience because I felt like I was in the hub of discovery and everyone else was interested in the same things! I presented my own work there as well, and had a great time with the lab, further strengthening my feeling of being integrated into the scientific community - of feeling like I knew what I’m doing. The start of 2016 would prove to be even more extraordinarily lucky. With some willing collaborators and clever insights, we were able to find new pieces of evidence that really improved the state of my project. Even more fortunately, that project landed me a spot at one of the more specialized and competitive conferences, where I enjoyed some truly great talks and discussions with experts in computational neuroscience, as well as getting a chance to learn snowboarding in a great resort in Utah. After returning from that trip, the project was just about done and so we quickly hammered out a draft that was about 3 days from being submitted, and entertained the idea of several top journals because we all believed that the work was just that solid and impactful. And how I would stumble onto something that cool in my second year of PhD, who the hell knows?
There is a funny Chinese tradition that your “zodiac years” - when you are 12, 24, 36, etc - are the most unlucky years, where personal injuries or unfortunate disasters were more likely to happen to you, something about your zodiac animal offending the gods. Well, 8 months into being 24 and I felt lucky as ever.
Too lucky, in fact.
Amidst the daily push towards completing my first real research project and publishing a paper, there was always a nagging thought that plagued me - the better everything was, the louder that voice got. In hindsight, this would prove to be the biggest case of imposter syndrome : the conception of my successful project was, more than anything, a lucky insight that stemmed from lab bantering, and so the bigger it grew, the more worried I was that I would not be able to replicate, both the actual discovery itself and my apparent stroke of genius. What if I turned out to be a one-hit-wonder? Worse yet, what if I turn out to be a fraud of a scientist?? I started graduate school feeling like I was in a blind race against every other graduate student on the planet, simply because I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about neuroscience. At this point, however, I stopped racing against other people, which is good, and started racing against my own shadow that began to run ahead of me, which is not good. I can’t tell you when, but at some point the work became less important than the perception of myself I was actively trying to maintain, or at least, putting more thought into. I am now, of course, both embarrassed and ashamed to admit that that had been the case, but in the moment, it was, like, a REALLY big deal for some reason, and I’m sure it’s not an uncommon feeling for people. They named it a syndrome because enough people had it, obviously.
Well, as it turns out, I had one more lucky draw, and that prevented this whole fear from ever materializing.
Long story short, somebody (thankfully) was able to find a pretty crucial mistake I made in my analysis. It wasn’t a programming error, but a stupid decision in the analysis routine that I made quickly on the first pass that, to this day, haunts my conscience - because I can’t say for certain whether I completely overlooked it, or if I rolled with it so happily and hastily because it produced results consistent with my hypothesis. In any case, that was about the only unexpected “bad” thing that had happened, which, objectively speaking, really shouldn’t have had too big of an impact. It was simply a matter of re-running the analysis and seeing what the new results produced, but instead, it kickstarted a cascade of uncertainty in my work and myself.
To start, that particular analysis, when done correctly, did not support the hypothesis. The good news is that it did not contradict the ongoing hypothesis, thank the sweet lord, but it was inconclusive. That meant a splashy piece of evidence was suddenly yanked from what could’ve been a splashy paper, which now, in addition to it being a less splashy paper, meant no paper at all for at least a few more weeks as I reorganize. At the time, I tried my best to give it the “shit happens bro” attitude, and Mei had been here for that particular week so at least we got fried chicken together, but I think I only realized afterwards how big of a punch in the face that was. It was something I had worked very hard on, and had gotten that close to submitting a real research paper to a real journal, then all of a sudden, poof. I was disappointed and felt stupid, and it was the first confirmation that “yup, I just got way too lucky.” On top of that, I felt like I had wasted everyone else’s time for the last 2 months or so. From that point on, I made a choice to be more thorough and critical with my own work, which is, of course, good in principle and for the long term, but that just meant further delaying what was supposed to be a done deal while I left no stone unturned in a quest to at least prevent the preventable stupidity. Obviously there was never a guarantee that the paper would have been accepted or even reviewed, but I think I was sufficiently prepared for the peer-review process being a long pain in the ass that I would’ve been okay - at least I did all that I could do to get to that point. But to get so close and be turned away was, at the lack of a better phrase, a big fucking downer.
Like I said, one unfortunate thing happening shouldn’t have been that devastating. But if my whole foundation of self-worth and values were based on work, then, of course, anything getting in the way of that meant I had nothing else to fall back on. As a side note, I finally understood why people were just so appalled with the idea of Soylent - it’s a fundamental difference in value systems. I love eating and making great food for personal joy, but when I make it my mission to devote every living minute I possibly can to further my work, then it makes perfect sense that I’d want to make my meals as efficiently as possible, and I’m convinced that Soylent is TRULY the most efficient way of consuming life-sustaining nutrients, just not the most enjoyable. Other people, though, had different value systems, in which personal joy in the short term, and in tangible ways, was very important. Soylent appeared to be simply fuel for somebody who has become a robot, which was actually not too far from the reality. It was, in hindsight, a cry for help, or for somebody to take me out for lunch haha. The best part of that whole fiasco was that my Soylent binge had apparently inspired a friend in the lab to purchase such a big order that he couldn’t finish drinking it before a big chunk of the remainder expired. Sorry Simon.
Anyway, back to the main point. What I’ve realized is that life is like marathons - not a single marathon, but multiple simultaneous ones. You’re running one in getting to your career goals, but also one in maintaining good health, one for keeping up with hobbies, and one for fostering relationships with important people in your life. Sometimes we can dedicate all of our efforts to make a sprint in one particular race for a small amount of time, but in the long term, balance is crucial, lest you fall on your face in one race and look back to see how well you’re doing in the other aspects of your life, only to have the other versions of you stare back from the starting line looking very confused. The worst part in all of this was that even when good things happened, they only served as further reminders that I had no clue what I was doing. For example, as a degree requirement to move onto the third year, we all had to give a talk summarizing the first 2 years of research progress to the entire department. Mine went really well and people seemed to have enjoyed it, but my first thought? Maybe I should just become a science journalist instead because sure, I can tell a science story, but CAN I ACTUALLY SCIENCE?!? I’ve been familiar enough with the concept of impostor syndrome ever since undergrad, but I never thought that I’d ever be afflicted by it. A big part of it, I think, is due to my hyper awareness of the harsh realities of academia, which brings me to …
Root Causes & Takeaways
So, after that long-winded story, what can I (and hopefully, you) take away from all of this? Having gone through this, I know that even if I had known what would’ve happened a year ago, I doubt I would’ve changed a damn thing, especially in terms of my life style and mindset. Such is being young. Although, there are things that would’ve given me comfort had I known about it beforehand. I’m not that much older now but I can certainly tell you that work is not everything there is to life, and there are much smarter ways of getting things done without spending ALL of your time on it. Laziness is the mother of all inventions, I think that firmly applies here - I only learned how to skim for crucial information in papers when I told myself there is no fucking way I’m spending an hour to read every single word of every paper. If there was one thing I regret, it’s probably not dedicating enough time to my personal relationships, both in terms of nurturing old ones and growing new ones. It doesn’t help that I lived on campus, which meant I literally can live in my work if I wanted to, but thankfully that’s changing. So yeah, first thing is balance in all things that make me happy. I don’t regret drinking Soylent though - NEVER!!!
The second thing gets at one of the root causes of my specific situation, which is the systematic issues in academia (or any high-pressure environment) leading to a lack of confidence in myself. In particular, the bleak picture that is presented as life in academia. Even though my immediate surroundings (lab, advisor, department) never gave me any pressure to produce in order to survive through graduate school and academia, one cannot help but be exposed to the harsh realities that everyone falls victim to, from graduate student to distinguished faculty alike: the mantra of publish or perish, the emphasis on “good” or “glam” journals, tiny percentages of PhDs getting research jobs, how long professors nowadays need to wait till their first major grant, the list goes on. Part of that message is genuinely good advice to give young scientists a realistic view of what life might be like in science, but the inadvertent effect is that some of us get swept up into the whirlwind of result-driven work, of doing whatever it takes to get to these checkpoints, without necessarily enjoying the process, all the while feeling dirty about how I’ve lost sight of the real goal of science. Funny enough, I came across a quote on Twitter of someone else’s blog speaking to this exact issue:
For a while, I was just so tired of working on the same damn thing every single day, to the point that I forgot what the point of any of that science is, other than to publish a paper so I can be on my way towards a PhD. “Intellectual cul-de-sac” is one way to put it, running through a pool of cornstarch is another way - why the fuck am I even doing this?
A good analogy, I think, is something I learned in the business world. For a while, I was on the start-up bandwagon, and one of the few consistent lessons that successful entrepreneurs tell is to aim to produce value, and not revenue. If a product tries its best to improve people’s lives, then people will buy it, whereas focusing on revenue will only result in cutting corners for the sake of maximizing profit. I always thought this was a no-brainer, but I didn’t realize how applicable it was in science. In hindsight, the only thing I should’ve focused on is to produce solid and reliable research, to the best of my abilities and knowledge, something that gets us incrementally closer to the truth, instead of setting goals like getting papers and grants. It would have been extremely difficult to not give into the pressures of career and academia, but would have brought peace amidst the chaotic process of discovery. I’m not saying I did BAD science, if that’s what that sounds like, I’m just saying the pressure of “reality” can suck the fun out of a lot things. Looking back now, I think the key to wading through all that noise is integrity : a coherence between my actions and my values. This may partly diminish the effect of imposter’s syndrome as well, as the expectations and image of myself will have more closely aligned with the day to day activities, of when I do good work and bad work.
The last thing is something I realized about science, which re-invigorated my excitement in continuing my PhD. For a while, I had thought that the point of doing research is to confirm hypotheses, finding evidence for the theories we have. But through the gift of failure, I realized that the truly important discoveries are the observations that defied all logic and expectation, spectacular failures that change the landscape of how people subsequently view the field. These, of course, are far and few, because most of the time we have a fairly good theory of how something works. This is especially true in a mature field like physics and chemistry - observations should be roughly consistent with the theories we have, because we’ve spent a LONG time developing those theories. Neuroscience, as well as cognitive and psychological sciences in general, are not like that, and especially after the recent fiasco in reproducibility and shoddy stats in fMRI, it’s apparent that we don’t have as good of theories (or experimental procedures) as other sciences, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a complicated thing we’re studying here, to say the least, especially when the ethics board is insistent that we don’t implant electrodes in undergrad brains. What IS problematic is the bias for positive findings consistent with pre-existing theories, especially in cog/psych/neuro. All this is to say that, 999 out of 1000 times, a negative result may be due to mistakes or noise, but that one single time out of a thousand is the money-maker, and instead of wallowing in the disappointment of negative results, I should bask in the joy of new-found opportunity. So positive or negative, as long as we keep doing what we believe is right, there really is no bad outcomes, because science, more or less, is the business of looking for other people’s (and your own) mistakes. This may already be obvious to experienced scientists who have had the rigorous training (or osmosis) in philosophy of science, but for a newbie like me, it really is a drastic shift in perspective. A happy side effect is that I feel like I’m much more critical of things I read now, because when I first started out, I thought if you publish something, that MUST mean it’s true, and so I should just try to absorb everything I can. But after TWO YEARS, I finally, somehow, learned to critically evaluate new research, probably because a bunch of those findings contradict each other or make no sense. The challenge now is to be balanced, and not be OVER-critical or be an asshole about it.
Anyway, this is getting long so I’ll try to wrap it up. I still distinctively remember thoughts from 6 months ago, something to the likes of “wow things are really going much better than I had anticipated right now, I hope it doesn’t get there but I wonder how I will be able to deal with a major disaster.” Well, shit happens and I’m still getting paid minimum wage to throw away my golden years trying to study something that’s not even clear will ever be solved. So, life’s still good. In all seriousness, I’ve had doubts about whether I’m cut out for science, as well as whether science is a worthwhile enterprise in trying to understand the brain and cognition, but through all that, the opportunities out there in discovering the unknown and maybe improving people’s lives are just too enticing, so I’m still chugging along. As I write this today, and as bad as the story may have sounded, it was a pretty great year. I learned a TON of new things and became more comfortable with science, exercised pretty regularly, and did not lose any friends or family members. So I’m pretty grateful for how things have turned out, even the hiccups along the road.
As always, if you’ve had or are having similar struggles, whether in science school or whatever school or at an actual job (hah), I hope my experience helps you, either by avoiding the same roadblocks or providing comfort in knowing that things will be okay.
Well, until next year!