Today was a rough day for me. Not just because of specific events that transpired, but because what happened provoked me to do some deep introspective thinking, and led me to realize that my current attitude and habits may not be compatible with the kind of future I have in mind – not that I’ve got it all figured out, but allow me to explain what I mean.
This semester I decided to enroll in a graduate chemistry course – CHEM 6650 Advanced Organic Chemistry, a first-year grad student course on physical organic chemistry. The professor, Yimon Aye, happens to be my research PI (primary investigator) as well, and I knew the course would be extremely difficult and demanding, yet I wanted to take it for two reasons: 1) because I am genuinely interested in the subject, and 2) I thought that the course would give me a taste of what chemistry graduate study is like – if I could survive the course then it would serve almost as affirmation that I was making the right decision in choosing to go to graduate school.
Last Friday I took the first of two prelims (preliminary exams) for the course, a monstrous 3-hour, 12-page test (best Friday evening ever, right…?). I spent the greater part of the last week alternating between preparing for the chemistry subject GRE exam and this organic chemistry exam. When it came to the exam, there were parts I didn’t know how to do at all, but for most of the exam, I worked at each problem, at least drawing out the relevant structures when I couldn’t do much more.
This afternoon, I was sitting at my desk in the lab office, playing a puzzle game on my laptop as I had a 20-minute break in my experiment. Because I had my headphones in, I didn’t notice Yimon approaching until she was standing right beside me. She handed me my graded exam. I immediately looked to see my score and my heart dropped through my chest. My performance had been pretty dismal. And no, I probably didn’t get the lowest grade, but that’s really not much comfort. It took me a second to realize that she was still standing there and was speaking to me. She was disappointed in my performance; among the undergraduate students in the class, my score was very much on the low end. She knew I was concurrently studying for another major exam, but that was no excuse and she had expected better from me. Perhaps I should spend less time on puzzles so I could focus more on my studies.
The puzzles. She must have noticed that sometimes I sit at my lab desk and do them. The daily sudoku and crossword in the paper. But not just that. I also have the fashion blogs and shopping sites. The TV shows. The YouTube channels. And it doesn’t stop there. All the unnecessary vending machine and coffee trips. The number of times I change my nail polish every week. When I decide to have just ‘one more drink.’ Baking the late-night batches of cookies – most of which I end up giving away. I know, I know, I can’t work 24/7; even the most studious need to take breaks. But I think it’s more than that. 20 minutes alone isn’t much time, but 20 mins + 15 mins + 30 mins + 20 mins + 45 mins adds up quickly.
But what I found most disconcerting was not that I was taking breaks, but why I felt the need to take these breaks and so many of them. It all came down to a need for instant gratification. Every completed sudoku, every pair of new jeans purchased, or episode of Homeland watched feels like a small victory. 20 minutes with a guaranteed reward, a small parcel of satisfaction however unproductive or shallow and meaningless the ‘accomplishment’. It’s so easy to make excuses – it’s only 20 minutes, I have a 40 minute break which is not long enough to get in ‘the zone’ to do work, my laptop is right there in front of me, etc. I’ve become accustomed to taking these breaks – so much that I need them. It’s like a drug – just a little bit more, ok? Then I swear I’m done. (For now).
Being a student is not immediately rewarding. To confidently do well on exams requires starting to study even weeks in advance, and who’s willing to think that far ahead? Hours, days, weeks, months of work are invested in a course so that at the end of the semester (which sometimes feels like a million years away), you can look at your GPA and hope that it’s gone up rather than down. Seriously, this is probably one of the most important numbers in your academic career, but sometimes that’s all it seems to be – a number. And it’s impossibly hard to care about “3.510” or to truly put it in perspective. And then you take all of these courses so after four years, you finally receive your diploma.
And forget being a student, scientific research is even less immediately rewarding. Experiments fail more often that not. The whole point is that you’re trying something that has never been tried before, and there’s no guarantee that anything will work. Questions lead to more questions, not definite answers. Years can go by between breakthroughs. There is no immediate gratification. None. People who need immediate gratification shouldn’t go into science. A good scientist must have incredible patience and perseverance. The rewards are great – amazing even – but they are long term. So what am I doing then? Sometimes I feel like I’m doing work more to avoid the shame of failure or disappointment of others, than to accomplish something lofty – furthering my education, or contributing to science. But I don’t think I was always this way.
Things in general weren’t always ‘this way.’ 15 years ago, I doubt anyone browsed Facebook in the library or spent an entire lecture playing Angry Birds on their smartphone. There are simply more distractions, more quick-fixes for boredom.
I recently had a conversation with a good friend and fellow chemistry major about the sense of disillusionment with chemistry and even science in general, that had seemed to spread to everyone in our major. We came to Cornell as wide-eyed freshmen, all ready to learn with the hopes of one day making our own personal contributions to scientific progress. Now we’re more concerned with finding out who has the answer keys to last year’s problem sets so that we can pass Inorganic Chemistry…
I feel like I’ve been losing sight of my goals and forgetting what’s really important. And I know that, no, it’s not necessarily getting an A. Or even getting a PhD. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I do know that at least part of it is contributing to something greater than myself. About trusting that some things may be hard, but are still ultimately worth it. It’s about being one of those few, but absolutely essential people in the world who do the work that most people aren’t interested in or willing to do.
Maybe I’m not exactly where I want to be right now, but at least I realize it. It doesn’t undo my terrible grades or fix my shitty day. In fact, I’m terrified of how hard it’s going to be to break old habits, and also terrified that I might not have the strength to. So if you see me watching New Girl with an orgo textbook open on my lap, hit me. If I have four empty bags of chips but only a half-finished inorganic problem set, whack me with something hard. But if you can tell that I’m having a bad day and that I’m really struggling, I could always do with a sympathetic smile or a hug.