When applying to graduate schools (or any other school for that matter) an integral component of your application is the personal statement. This came up in conversation yesterday with an undergraduate student who is getting ready to apply to graduate school in the fall. Naturally the conversation led to what others had written about. Some were focused on their previous research, others were self-proclaimed boring and others reeked of naivety. In my own, I likened a life in science to a roller coaster ride. Something like “Science, like a roller coaster, has its ups and downs….but it can be the ride of your life.” Brilliant, I know, but what can I say – I was all of 22 years old. I was trying to put all of my scientific failures into perspective – that although failing magnificently*, at least I was having fun. While I was interviewing for grad school, my would-be adviser called me out on my metaphor. While appreciating the sentiment that I was going for, she thought the fatal flaw was that on a roller coaster you end exactly where you started, but at least with science, hopefully, you’ll have made some forward progress. At the time, I conceded the point, and for most of my dissertation work, it was true – a wild ride, but I think I made some pretty significant progress. It was only fitting for my adviser to send me off at my final dissertation seminar with reference to that stupid personal statement that I had written those many years ago.
Thinking back on that essay, at the grand old age of nearly 30, PhD in hand, embarking on the next phase of my career, I’m not so sure how well the metaphor holds up. It’s true that there are still ups and downs – but I am lacking the thrill of the ride. The anticipation of the next experiment doesn’t excite me. I am pretty sure that having my eyes yanked open to look at the road ahead has been snuffing out my scientific enthusiasm and it’s making me undeniably depressed. Even for projects that do get my blood pumping – I am spinning my wheels trying to learn how to be a bioinformaticist and I ultimately feel like I haven’t made any forward progress and I am back where I started out. So, the metaphor has completely fallen apart, and I am not sure now what I would say to my younger self.
Perhaps the better question to pose is: What would my younger, more idealistic self say to me now?
*Note to any budding scientists – trying to extract DNA from the marine polychaete worm, Nereis vexillosa, is no easy feat. However, it did provide a great excuse to play with worm guts in combination with liquid nitrogen and a motar and pestle. Thank you to my hippie college alma mater, The Evergreen State College for a wonderful experience that failed utterly.