Six years. 72 months. 2,190 days. 52,560 hours. 3,153,600 minutes. I began graduate school as an early 20-something in September 2011. I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted a Ph.D. I knew it would not be easy; I could not fully understand what the experience would truly mean.
There are many types of students at OHSU: Medical students, dental students, nursing students, master’s students, certificate students, and then there are the Ph.D. students. We were the kids in elementary school out playing in the dirt looking for bugs, getting lost in the natural history museums and begging to stay overnight in museums of science and industry. In college, we were the kids who volunteered in labs, who took pride in running experiments at all hours of the night, who dreamed of having our own labs, and we needed a Ph.D. – the ticket to our intellectual freedom.
First year, you are taking care of classes and finding a lab. You trust that faculty know what they are doing, and quickly learn they are human, too. Your cohort forms study groups and you bond over exams and insecurities. Second year, you are in the lab, preparing for your qualifying exam (not the most pleasant of experiences). It’s fun – you are in lab, you are doing things that will tangibly lead to your graduation. Third year you are a candidate, and you should be working on your project. If you work on cancer, you will get a fellowship. If you work on an incurable disease using an invertebrate system, you will not get a fellowship. If you get lucky in third year, you will graduate in fourth or fifth year with a couple of papers, maybe one really top-tier paper. If you do not get lucky, the years blend and before you know it, you are in sixth year, trying to convince your committee to let you defend, be done, and get on with your career.
If graduate school had a soundtrack, it would be the soundtrack from Inception– Hans Zimmer’s thundering, pummeling BWANG, BWANG, BWANG. If it was a movie title, it would be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. If it was a piece of art, I would say Picasso could probably capture it. Or Rothko.
Is it really that bad? Well, no, there are worse experiences to which you can subject yourself. Rush-hour traffic. Child birth, maybe. I’ve been told hernias can be painful. I mean, your living expenses are barely covered by a stipend disproportionate to the amount of otherwise free data you generate. You are not an employee; if you are unemployed when you graduate, or you decide to leave school, you do not qualify for unemployment. While performing your research as a student, you are not protected by federal labor laws.
Are there even positives? Yes, and ultimately they outweigh the negatives in long-term gain. You are protected by being a student – you will always receive your stipend while registered and you will always have health insurance and access to JBT. Most importantly, you are given free access to a plethora of faculty who genuinely want you to succeed. Scientists beget scientists and given the opportunities to collaborate and learn from local researchers is essential to the training experience. And, assuming everything goes well, you will be a doctor, a real life Ph.D. in the flesh, by the end of it.
I ended graduate school as a late 20-something. The day I defended my dissertation was one of the best days of my life. My friends, classmates and family came to watch my seminar. And though I did not cry when I got to the obligatory thank you slides, it was only because I had spent my tears during practices in the days prior.
One hour. 60 minutes. Sitting in my oral exam, I wondered at how marvelous it felt to be discussing my work with my committee members. Like a good massage, it was slightly uncomfortable, but left me feeling satiated, almost euphoric. While my committee conferred, I sat in a side room on the fifth floor of BRB. I knew I would pass, but when my mentor came to give me a hug and congratulate me, I felt strangely numb. Walking to find my family, I was still numb. My mom screamed, and I screamed, and we hugged. But it was not until we were in the car that I started crying. It was over. Something I had hated, had cursed to heaven, had caused me such anguish and angst and anxiety, was over. And I was crying.
Beyond all the nuts and bolts of day-to-day life, a community of peers is the most important thing you gain in graduate school. Most of my classmates have defended now, though some are still here. Some of my friends have left, but others will be here for a little bit longer. Some are off at post-docs, and others are figuring out what they are doing. I will miss the BBQ’s, the Curling Nights, the Bowling Nights; the coffee hours and journal clubs; hearing off-color jokes at holiday parties, and witnessing group bonding at retreats; meeting friends at Sam’s and laughing over situations only graduate students could find funny. I will miss the camaraderie.
Fifty-eight days. 1,392 hours. 83,520 minutes.”How does it feel?” gets asked a lot in the immediate days and weeks after defending your dissertation. It feels exhilarating, and liberating, and weird. You are different, and yet not a lot immediately changes. I have been introduced now, several times, as Dr. Lembke at various social events; at first, it felt odd, but now I feel nothing but pride. I did that, and I will never discount it. My classmate Kevin once asked me at GSO coffee hour whether, if I ever left science, if I would not use doctor or not indicate my Ph.D. My answer was emphatically NO. The Ph.D. does not solely represent the work and training I did, the blood, sweat, and tears I put into it. No, more importantly, it acknowledges six years of my life that radically changed and transformed my person. I will truly miss graduate school, something I never imagined I would think or feel. I will take the memories of the good times, with my mentors, friends, and classmates, with me forever, wherever I go.