The longer I am in graduate school, the more I feel that you need to be extremely comfortable with high levels of uncertainty in order to be happy in this life. Research itself is, after all, an attempt to move from a place of uncertainty into a place of more and different uncertainties. Contrary to popular belief (and much undergraduate coursework), science is not really about collecting and expanding a body of facts, but expanding the number of things we can ask questions about. In Stuart Firestein’s recent book, “Ignorance” (reviewed here and recommended reading for scientist and non-scientist alike), the author suggests that doing science is a lot like looking for a black cat in a dark room, where there often turns out to be no cat at all. Although you might have a good idea of the outcome of an experiment, you don’t know what the end result will be. And of course, unexpected results can lead you to new questions that you didn’t even think you were asking.
Beyond the regular levels of uncertainty that one would expect in research, are the uncertainties that arise from questions about what happens once you have a PhD. One of the most common questions I hear from friends who are gainfully employed and are not doing a doctorate is: what are you going to do once you finish? It’s a fair enough question. I have goals after finishing my thesis – post-doctoral work, teaching, research, publications, the Nobel Prize… But the fact remains that even if I knew where I would like to be working, and what I would like to be doing, much of my future depends on outside forces: funding, supervisors, institutions, and life in general often get in the way of the best laid plans. Which isn’t to say that I have no control over the direction of my life. It just feels that way sometimes!
Uncertainty doesn’t apply only to professional concerns. The life of a student is an itinerant one, and it can be destabilizing to always be moving around. And since everyone else you work with is doing the same thing it can be challenging to continue to open yourself up to new people, when you know that at some point, you will no longer be sharing the same office/ lab/ house/ department/ time zone/ etc. This is a huge strain on relationships, and not only for the obvious reason that the further away you are from someone, the harder it is to maintain a relationship. More insidiously, it can also feel like too much of an effort to get to know someone when you know that they will only be in your life for a short time.
Does this mean you should throw up your hands in despair? Certainly not! Excitement about exploring the unknown is generally why one chooses the path of scientific research. Bringing light into those darkened rooms is one of the goals of science. Outside of the laboratory (or the field site), unexpected opportunities bring us closer to our goals, or may show us that we have goals we had never considered. The people we meet along the way are not gone forever, and shared interests can lead to interesting collaborations. That being said, it never gets easier saying goodbye to people you have grown close to. But at the very least, getting to know new people is a great way to increase the number of places you have a couch to crash on!