Chemistry: The Science Ph.D.’s Soliloquy

“I have only one paper out. The tables are in fact very beautiful, all clear and double-spaced line borders. All succinct and informative titles.

Somewhere I read that the average number of readers for a scientific paper is 0.6.”

-Weike Wang, Chemistry

Reading this line, I laughed so hard I almost shed tears. 0.6 is like what… not even a single person? This is a true struggle that every science Ph.D. student has faced. Without counting the months, if not years it takes to get the experimental data, Ph.D. students work away for months on end refining sentences and fine-tuning every single figure for the purpose of publication. From re-generating scatterplots with different colored dots to relabeling the x and y axes painstakingly, you name it, we’ve done it! Yet, we, aspiring future scientists, all secretly wonder who reads our published works in an academic journal.

I first found Weike Wang’s debut novel, Chemistry, because she is also a PEN/Hemingway winner, much like Tommy Orange (read my post on Orange’s debut novel, There, There). Wang, a chemistry undergraduate and public health doctoral graduate from Harvard University, is also a MFA graduate from Boston University. Her debut novel, which follows an unnamed narrator who is struggling to complete her PhD, is neither an autobiography nor a memoir. Amidst the wry humor of the nameless narrator, the book also explores Asian stereotypes, encounters a tumultuous mother and daughter relationship, and confronts the issues faced by women of color in academia.

Within reading just a few pages, I was hooked. And although I enjoyed the different themes present in the book, what I really loved most about Chemistry is how it hits home the science Ph.D. experience. As I followed the nameless narrator through her bumbling, downward spiraling personal story, I re-lived much of my Ph.D. experience. Except this time, I got to sit on the sidelines—I reflected, reminisced, and laughed about the pains and pangs of getting a doctoral degree in the sciences.

Fail Often = Fail Forward?

“Ninety percent of all experiments fail. This is a fact. Every scientist has proven it. But you eventually start to wonder if this high rate of failure is also you.” 

Every science Ph.D. student has failed an experiment. Even if you follow a protocol to a precise T, results can nonetheless elude you. I still remember the mantra that was taught to first-year graduate students: “Don’t expect an experiment to work the first time. If it works, something went wrong!” But jokes aside, this feeling of failure gets worse as you move up the ranks and become a more senior graduate student. There are days or weeks when you can’t help but wonder if the high rate of failure is simply science being finicky or if it is, actually you.

Consider the following typical conversation between two students while analyzing experimental data:

Ph.D. Student #1 (S1): Why does this batch of cells secrete such high inflammatory proteins?

Ph.D. Student #2 (S2): Do you think the cells got contaminated?

S1: No, I don’t think so.

S2: Did you dose the cells correctly?

S1: Uh, yaaah.

S2: Well, if you can’t explain it, it might just be biology.

S1: UGHHHHHHH!

I Just Want To Graduate

“The goal of a science PhD is to have an original idea. Those who cannot are often called technicians. A technician is able to follow a protocol but not able to think beyond it. The best PhD students make the jump from technician to scientist in less than a few years. The worst never make that jump. Some advisors realize this early on and advise these students to leave science soon. Other advisors allow them to reach that point themselves.” 

This paragraph had me chuckling but secretly crying on the inside. Mastering out is not uncommon in a Ph.D. program—instead of graduating with a doctorate in hand, a student can choose to leave with a master’s degree (typically after being unable to pass one’s qualification exams). One of the toughest things in graduate school is seeing your friends mastering out. On the one hand, you are happy for them because they have come to a decision that a Ph.D. isn’t for them and are moving onto things that make them happier in life. Yet, on the other hand, you also can’t help but wonder what would happen if the student stuck around for a little bit longer. And you also wonder if the advisor or the graduate student community could have done something more.

What = Expectations?

“An equation.

Happiness = reality – expectations

If reality > expectations, then you are happy. If reality < expectations, then you are not.” 

Most of my grad school cohort, like myself, came to graduate school with expectations. And despite how happiness should encompass much more than happiness = reality – expectations, Ph.D. students can get locked up in the granular details. To us, expectations = getting published in high impact journals +receiving podium presentations at national conferences + winning prestigious fellowships + so on and so forth.

Don’t get me wrong, I did in fact enjoy getting a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering but it was by no means easy. The five year endeavor was hard. And I don’t think I managed to figure out what = expectations. As a child, I had aspired to be Marie Curie. By the time I was Dr. Hsieh, I don’t think I came anywhere close to the two-time Nobel Laureate (granted, I was also not a chemist). But I am very okay with that.

And thinking about Weike Wang’s description of an atom helps. Despite not knowing the solution, an atom, like some things or situations, has a way of working itself out:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow it persists.

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