It’s a curious thing, the boundary between water and air. From above, peaks and valleys roll reliably with the wind, and sunlight reflects off the waves like a disco ball, calling attention to the dance floor and away from the ball itself. Tell me: who knows what exists inside a disco ball? From below, the boundary is violent: waves fold and spiral, and tiny whirlpools spring off the barrels like the crack of a whip. From below, those peaks and valleys drag you with them, and sunlight streams through in a haze of froth and miasma.
That boundary between water and air, for most graduate students, is like graduate school.
Above the boundary, air flows quietly into waiting lungs: delicate, addicting. Air is freedom, the ability to go on vacation whenever you want to, and to go to sleep unburdened by the worries that you won’t get data, won’t progress, won’t graduate. Air is the world outside graduate school. Water, on the other hand, is dangerously substantial. It grips and squeezes like a straightjacket, and for those who are unprepared, it can smother without a second thought. To exist in water, you have to push the boundaries of your limitations, to embrace the discomfort and to jump in anyway. Beginning graduate school, for me, was like jumping into the sea.
The life of a PhD student is a challenging one. We are expected to work long hours under little pay for as long as it takes to ask a question (or series of questions), and then to gather enough data (the evidence) to claim that you found an answer. For some people, the whole process takes 4 years; for others, it takes 8, but most of us finish in about 5.
It’s hard to generalize the experience of a PhD student, because in reality, everyone’s experience is different: between their mentor, their project, their funding and a million other factors, we all lead working lives as different as a pediatrician or a dentist. Similar tools… very different parts of the body. But most graduate students I know have experienced the same fears, suffered at the hands of unrealized expectations, and still perceive ourselves to be imposters in our world. And yet, day in and day out, we dive in.
Grad school is like a 5 year-long freedive. If you’re going to make it, you need air.
Last Thursday I spent the day extracting DNA from bacteria. Physically, I spent most of my time pipetting, but mentally, my mind roiled. I carried too much on my shoulders, and the threat of failure in most of my projects threatened my progress and my sanity.
I remember standing there thinking hard, and in the ocean of my responsibility I saw my own reflection, clear and convex in the bubbles that made their way to the surface, saw my own frenzied eyes in a backdrop of blue. In that moment, I found myself craving what was inside those bubbles: the air that was both sustaining and familiar, that life outside grad school. I looked up, saw sunlight refracting through the rolling waves, casting dancing rays of light onto my face and reminding me of what I was missing.
I could have quit right there. I could have walked away, back into a world led by freedom and my own personal satisfaction. I could have bought a plane ticket to Southeast Asia, fulfilled a dream of diving on the Great Barrier Reef, or gone back to dive instructing in southern Spain. In that moment, I could think of about 500 things I could do with 5 years’ worth of time, and none of them involved “discarding the supernatant and washing the DNA with ethanol.” I think about quitting most days. Usually it only lasts a moment.
In the next moment, I dive deeper. I begin another scholarship application, I start another experiment, I open the physics textbook and try to make sense of math.
Every day I am challenged: forced to dive to deeper, darker depths to find answers to questions I don’t know how to answer and solutions to problems I can’t begin to comprehend. Sometimes I lose sight of the surface, of the freedom, of the way the boundary between air and water glints in perpetual motion. Sometimes I have to fight my way to the surface, to breathe in gulps, to turn my back to the ocean and sleep, or run, or drink in the name of self-preservation. In those moments, I feel like an imposter. Who do I think I am, thinking I could survive in the sea?
But I wake up every morning and I get in; even if sometimes it’s a belly flop – my coral aquarium drained overnight, another experiment failed, or I end up spending the day solving someone else’s problem. On more days than I’d like to admit, nothing on my list gets done. But the sting fades, and the pull of the ocean floor somewhere far in the distance – the pull of a PhD – drags me down again. I can hold my breath longer now than I ever could.
Chances are, most of the graduate students you know have felt the same. Many probably do right now. So why go to grad school? Why take on such a challenge? And maybe most importantly, why do we keep going back?
We continue to dive in because there’s an intrigue about the depths, an allure about the unknown that, to be honest, can’t be accessed without discomfort. Ignorance is uncomfortable. When you start graduate school, you are put in a position of complete and total ignorance, and you are asked to learn your way out of it. More than that, when you’ve learned enough, you are expected to start thinking, to make new conclusions about your field, to contribute. In reality, we are in graduate school to learn how to think. It’s called a Doctor of Philosophy for a reason.
We continue to dive in because water is beautiful, because the challenges do make us stronger, and because we can hold our breath a little longer with each dive. The harder parts of grad school aside, most PhDs will tell you that the process was an extremely satisfying one, and that they are more innovative, independent and creative for it. The hope is that the person you find yourself becoming on the other side of a PhD is a more capable version of yourself. That, for me, is enough to justify the means.
Ultimately, the gulps of air are what keep us moving forward. Every graduate student has something: an activity, a hobby, a routine, that gives them the break they need from the challenges of the deep. For some, it’s visiting family, and for others, it’s a daily routine: working out, writing, meditating. Amid the stress graduate students are put under, most of us find something that gives us a taste of air, of freedom, and allows us to get our heart rates back down, and dive deeper again. For me, that freedom comes from traveling. This weekend, I’m in northern California.
In Big Sur, the mist presses down on the trees like a baker kneading dough, promising a masterpiece with the arrival of the sun. Here, the ocean is violent, and most of the blue of the water is obscured by foam, born from its fury. But we surfed despite the cold and churning sea -- my hands still slid through the boundary like a knife through butter. Tonight I’ll sleep on the ground, watch the forest drip down rocky cliffs into the sea as if heeding a call, and try not to think about anything with the word “data” in it.
For now, the ocean crashes against the cliffs below my tent, and I think about going home. I don’t feel the same hesitation facing that border between air and water, between the outside world and grad school, between freedom and what I like to call ‘constructive restraint’. Now, I slip from one to the other as easily as my hands paddling me out past the waves.
Getting out of San Diego, physically and mentally, always provides good perspective. I return home aware of an important fact: grad school isn’t my life, it’s a part of my life. A taste of freedom gives me something to look forward to. I recognize now that I am better for the work I’ve done, and that makes the work I have to do tomorrow a little easier to stomach.
You never really know how much the struggle strengthens you until you jump in, you look up at that boundary, and you see the vortices fracturing sunlight into thousands of rainbow-colored pieces.
Don’t forget to look up.