The First Time I went to Graduate School

Posted on July 26, 2010

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When I was growing up I really wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to discover amazing new things and change the world around me.  I would fill up buckets with muddy water and catch water skippers as test subjects for experiments. Of course, I didn’t really understand what an experiment was, save that it involved looking at things very intensely to see if they changed. The only change that ever happened with my water skippers was that eventually they would stop moving. For christmas one year I got a “science” kit that contained all the makings for growing crystals out of sugar (which, coincidentally, were also CANDY!).

 It didn’t help that my chemistry class in high school finished the semester by making ice cream in class! I think maybe somewhere along the line the idea of conducting science experiments became confused with eating sweets. Maybe that’s where it all went wrong?

 This impulse toward “science” followed me to college, where I was torn between pursuing a degree in theater and following my love of science. It would be helpful here to point out that in addition to having a long love affair with science, I was also a bit of a theater nerd. After some serious consideration, and a realization that I could probably make a lot more money as a scientist than as an actor, I decided it would be best to declare my major in chemistry.

I should have probably been cued in to the fact that I wasn’t cut out for a life in the laboratory by the fact that I got A’s in all of my humanities classes and B’s (and *gasp* even a C) in my chemistry classes. I justified this by telling myself that chemistry was just a lot harder than writing 101. It really had nothing to do with the fact that I just got bored halfway through my chemistry homework. Really, it was just a lot harder. I swear.

My delusion was further fueled by another weird obsession : serial killers. Um, that came out wrong. What I mean to say was that I had always been interested in crime. No. That’s not it. I mean, solving crime. Lets start over. I kind of wanted to use science to solve crime. The coolest career I could think of would be as a crime scene investigator. Now please give me a little credit here. This was back before the show CSI came out. Just before, in fact. That show came out around my senior year of college and that was the beginning of the end.

I knew that after that, everyone would want to go into forensics and it just wouldn’t be so cool anymore. I wanted to be different and interesting, not just another person who saw something on TV and decided to do it. So I scratched that idea. But, while we are on the subject, I’d like to burst a bubble or two. Here’s what they make science look like on TV:

Image from CSI Miami (Copyright CBS Broadcasting)

 Here’s what it actually looks like: (See…they even had to enhance it with a blue boarder to make it seem cooler because it’s SOOOOO boring.)

Denver Police Lab (Copyright Denver 8 TV)

Anyway. I graduated from college with a degree in chemistry and no idea what I would do with it. So I decided that the best place to figure out what to do with my life was graduate school, obviously. What I failed to realize at that time was that grad school is for people who are really really dedicated to studying something. It isn’t the best place to find meaning and direction. As evidence of this fact, I’ll ask you to picture a dedicated graduate student. Now picture that graduate student ten years later. What are they doing? Oh! They are still in school! But I hand’t figured this out yet.

I was just excited to be doing science! Because college was just practicing science. Graduate school would be DOING it. Yay! I’d be discovering amazing new facts about life. I’d be finding the cure for cancer! I’d find the key to cold fusion! I wish. Here’s what actually happened:

What happens when dreams die.

Turns out the science we did in graduate school was just as boring as the science we did in undergraduate school, except more boring because it wasn’t new any more. We would literally do the same experiment over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over. It was a big deal if we managed to tweak the results by one micron, or get one milligram  more of something. We weren’t discovering gravity or anything remotely as awesome as that. It was exceedingly boring and meaningless for me. Coupled with classes that were REALLY HARD, the whole experience was just disconcerting and awful. I met some cool people along the way, but it just wasn’t my bag.  Here’s a picture of the blackboard at the end of one class. Trust me, even if it were in focus, it wouldn’t make any more sense:

If this is Greek, then I'd like my hummus now please.

So I dropped out. I spent a few months feeling like a loser and then I decided the best thing to do was to…you guessed it. Go back to graduate school. This time though I actually paid attention to what I was vaguely good at and decided I should go back and study something I actually liked doing, which turned out to be writing. (well, technical communication to be precise). Go figure. Three years later I’m still sticking with it, and in another few months, I’ll be graduating. Yay!

So the lesson here is this: if it seems boring, it probably is. If you feel bored, you probably are. If you think something will become less boring by doing it more, you’d be wrong.

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