April 16, 2018

GOROKH | What’s Eating Grad Students?

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Grad students aren’t a particularly merry crowd. A recently published study claims that they are six (!) times more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to the general population. It’s just a single online study and so I wouldn’t put too much trust into the number, but if true this statistic would not surprise me. Nearly all of my friends in graduate school went through at least a period or two of near-clinical levels of woe and worry, and for some this is more of a permanent state.

It doesn’t take a social scientist to come up with a list of explanation for this phenomenon. The impostor syndrome is to blame, or the uncaring advisors, or the publishing expectations implicitly enforced by the academia. Or maybe the kind of people who are prone to anxiety and depression are more likely to apply to grad school, thus postponing the adulthood which they dread. There are other reasons I am probably missing, and all of these do play a role, but I want to talk about something else that I think doesn’t get mentioned often enough.

Science is fucking hard.

Back in high school I thought eventually I would become a theoretical physicist and work on gravity or something. It took me a few years to appreciate just how convoluted and abstract the modern theoretical work is and how minuscule are the chances of meaningfully contributing to the quest of deciphering the universe. With this realization I pivoted into an easier, albeit less consequential field when going into grad school. A talented friend of mine decided to persist, and after spending 2 years in grad school toiling away at the problems of quantum gravity he quit his program. He was emotionally exhausted, and after all that time he was still not fully able to clearly understand just what is it that people are working on. It’s not that he wasn’t apt or hard-working (quite the opposite), the bar is just that high.

Science is hard because of the enormous amount of information you need to absorb in order to meaningfully contribute. Looking at the professors effortlessly navigating in seemingly inexhaustible and chaotic literature, you need to make a crazy leap of imagination in order to decide that, with time, you too will become this fluent.

More importantly, science is hard because all the simple problems were sorted out long before you came along. When you set out to discover insights, you are implicitly competing not just with your cohort, but with generations upon generations of the brightest human beings born before you. This can turn into an almost mystical experience: sometimes when you come up with a sufficiently natural and interesting question to ask, you instantaneously just know that someone somewhere has already found an answer, and all you can do is go find it.

I don’t mean to say that meaningful work is not possible. It’s just that, unless you are exceptionally gifted or lucky, the progress is going to be painstakingly marginal. It would come at the price of months and maybe even years of being hopelessly stuck. Sometimes during these months you would get an exciting idea only to discover it leads nowhere, or realize that the problem is unsolvable, or that you were working under the wrong assumptions; and it takes a Buddha to not let this process turn into an emotional rollercoaster.

What happens when millions of people decide they want to be scientists and then run into obstacles they cannot overcome? If you can’t figure out (or even find) a problem you want to solve, you can make up a problem you can solve instead. Others might not care very much for it, but they will politely hear you out at the seminar and, if you make it seem sufficiently rigorous and complex, would even let it though the wonky net of peer review process. You would get to go to conferences and teach calculus, and all would be fine except that deep in your heart you would know that nobody really cares about what you do, not even you.

It’s depressing to be hopelessly stuck and it’s no less soul-crushing to be working on something you know to be irrelevant. Of course reality is much more complex than these two alternatives, but my intuition is that behind every unhappy student there is some mix of the two. In contrast to the other sources of mental health problems I listed in the beginning, I see no way of fixing this one. Except for one thought that keeps creeping up on me: maybe we just don’t need as many scientists.

Artur Gorokh is a graduate student studying applied mathematics at Cornell University. He can be reached at ag2282@cornell.edu. Radically Moderate appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.