This is the beginning of my fourth year of graduate school, that membranous transition period between the eager expectation of third year and the panicked frenzy of fifth year. Many of my older classmates have told me that fourth year was unequivocally their most challenging, the one brimming with more knee-weakening moments of despair, self-doubt and raw frustration than any other.
(I know—what an auspicious start to the year. It’s the post-bac equivalent of your older brother telling you about the horrors of first grade. “Say goodbye to naptime, kiddo—you’re never gonna see it again.”)
Given this information, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’m not looking forward to those inevitable moments lying in bed, thinking about alternative careers—does the Discovery Channel hire grad students as writers?—and attempting to fall asleep by counting failed experiments like sheep.
But I’m not completely afraid, either. Right now, there’s a mélange of fear, apprehension and…weird excitement. I’m excited not because I’m masochistic, although I did enroll in graduate school so perhaps that’s not entirely untrue.
No, I’m excited for the challenge.
There’s an important distinction between masochism and challenge. Masochism is peering into the abyss and laughing maddeningly at the intriguing absurdity of it. Challenge is taking a measuring tape to that abyss and wondering just how far down it goes.
Let me be clear: The challenge I’m speaking about here is entirely scientific. I’m not talking about overcoming personal issues or struggling against onerous advisors and school bureaucracy. I’m talking about the process of the graduate school itself: the manic repetition of experiments, the day-to-day dealings with Imposter Syndrome, the endless seesawing between failure and success.
I’m not breaking new ground by saying that graduate school is difficult. But because good scientists are forged in the fires of professional hardship, we shouldn’t be afraid of getting burned. We are tempered and hardened over years by this process, emerging from it full of knowledge and experience and the ability to withstand criticism and setbacks and withering self-doubt.
I’m reminded of Jane Kenyon’s poem Let Evening Come. Sure, she’s writing about experiencing hope and fearlessness in the face of impending death, but the principle’s the same, trust me. I’ll end with a slightly rewritten (and blasphemous?) excerpt from that poem:
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. The Science Gods do not leave us
comfortless, so let the evening come.
My advice? Let the evening come.
Welcome the challenge, allow it to descend around you, pooling like black cloth. Because sooner or later, that black cloth will be transformed into a curtain, and pulling the drawstrings will reveal a stage, one you discover you’ve been standing on the whole time, and, with your lines rehearsed, you’ll look confidently into the shadows of the audience, prepared for what’s to come.