Grad school is unlike any other job. Half school, half work, it is a concept that evades many. I don’t know about you, but for me it is a subject that comes up at every family reunion or at gatherings with non-grad-student friends. A combination of questions are often asked, with my responses usually unsuccessful in providing comprehension to my friends and family. Is it school? Is it work? When will you be done “school” ? Are you paid? Why are you doing it? How? These questions are undoubtedly all valid interrogations, but they are sometimes hard to answer and explain, on my part at least. So what do I end up telling family and friends? I tell them that it is both school and work. It is school in the sense that I still have “school-type” obligations, such as completing one or two classes, attending mandatory seminars and conferences, preparing seminars and presentations, and so on.
However, grad school is also work (hard work at that!), as can be testified by any worthy grad student. Within the boundaries defined by our research projects, we have to design experiments, optimize protocols, perform said experiments, analyze data, consider the implications of our results and inevitably ponder the meaning of life in general. All that is hard work. We have a supervisor, sometimes even two, to which we are essentially working for. Sure, most graduate students, especially at the doctorate level, are pretty independent in the experiments they choose to do, but we nonetheless have to stay within the confines of our thesis topics. Something I am still getting used to is that sometimes your supervisor will want you to go in a specific direction for your project, but your judgements regarding your results make you doubt that this is the ideal route to take. In other words, you might want to go one way when you supervisor wants you to go the other. As graduate students, do we maintain our position or are we somewhat obligated to follow their lead since they are, after all, our bosses? I think the best answer is that it depends on the supervisor. All these internal dilemmas are also endeavors in themselves. I sometimes, probably after a long extenuating day at work, feel that PIs see us not as students, but as little minions necessary to complete projects, publish papers and submit grants. But I am deviating from the topic of interest: research vis-à-vis family and friends. Trying to explain the complexities of the “school versus work” concept and other similar inquiries can be challenging. The most important thing, for me at least, is to convey to my loved ones that what I am doing makes me happy and is highly motivating for me, and that yes, I am getting paid, so I am able to make a living for myself. That should be enough to alleviate their worries. The why and how I have just answered. I do research in grad school because I am passionate about it, I find it ultimately stimulating and motivating, and want to further pursue my knowledge and education. The how… well, with courage, time and patience.
Another quirk with my family with regards to the pursuit of my doctorate degree is that several of my family members are relentlessly convinced that I will become a medical doctor (M.D.) as opposed to a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). Not to state the obvious, but for them, a doctor is a doctor. In other words, a person whose job is to treat the problems of others and save lives. In my opinion, Ph.D’s do just that, but at a different and fundamental level. I have attempted for years to convince them otherwise, but some do not (or do not want to) understand. No matter. I am content in what I am doing and that alone should enable them to support me in my pursuit of knowledge.
The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. – Thomas H. Huxley