Up a Wall Without a Paddle… Or Something Like That

I’m not crazy, but people have given me looks that suggest otherwise. These situations usually occur after I’ve mentioned I’m a graduate student. The probability of receiving the “look” increases when I say I’m in the Behavioral Neuroscience program, and it increases further when I explain that it will take 5-7 years to graduate. When I explain a post-doctoral fellowship is routine, the look is a near certainty.

“Well, you’ll be able to help diagnose my migraines then” was one well-intentioned response.

Cue head banging against the wall.

Sometimes though, I think they might be on to something. Or prolonged periods spent in a dark room talking to rodents is doing funny things to me. Because why else am I still excited to be on this career path? It’s not the promise of riches, I can tell you that much. Mention the current funding situation in a room filled with graduate students, and you’ll wonder how a collective sigh could contain so much angst.

During my last break, I completed a 10 mile long obstacle course (Note: This has been another occasion for which my sanity has been questioned.) One of the hardest obstacles for me during the course was a curved wall participants run up. Think Ninja Warrior if you’re familiar with it. The first time I tried running up it, I wasn’t even close. It eventually took me 4 tries, 1 pep talk from a kind stranger, and 2 fellow participants pulling me up to get me on the top of that thing, after which I enjoyed a brief moment of pride. Then, I realized I needed to get down quickly because heights aren’t my thing.

Thus, I present to you my metaphor for this post:  Graduate school is a 10 mile obstacle course.

I don’t think it takes much imagination to get my point. Both endeavors are long and some of it can be absolutely miserable or even kind of embarrassing (like realizing the experiment I had worked on for weeks resulted in inconclusive data or sliding down a rocky hill on my bottom), but I decided to do both for a reason. Obstacles are expected. For me the challenge today was learning I was not awarded a fellowship I had applied for. It would have been incredible to know someone other than my mentor thinks the idea is worth investing in, and I felt pretty dejected. Rejection just never feels good  (I also don’t think it helped that the topic of class that afternoon was clinical depression).

Applications, and consequently rejection, is part of a career in academics though, since unlike careers that begin with a job application and hopefully lead you to start working, we’re always applying for fellowships and grants to keep funding our research. It’s not as fun as learning how to program a high-tech treat dispenser (known formally as an operant chamber) for experiments, but it is a large part of the grad school process.

So I didn’t surmount the wall today. At least not yet. Time to shake it off, take a deep breath, and try again.


Running up a wall: what I did over spring break and what grad school often feels like.


3 responses to “Up a Wall Without a Paddle… Or Something Like That

  1. Eileen
    We have all been there- not running up a real wall- but grappling with disappointment. Fortunately it only takes one great experiment, one accepted paper or one funded grant to restore the optimism and those thrills can way outlast the discouraging reviews. Scientists sustain their careers with resilience as much as with imagination, insight and intellect.
    Great photo of the curved wall- and kudos for getting over it!

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