Caffeine and Feigned Optimism

As I write this, cuddled up on my couch, with Monday night football playing in the background and my cat puttering about the condo, it’s easy to think dreamily about future jobs in new places with larger salaries and reassure myself that pursing a PhD was the right choice and that it will be worth it. Other times, it isn’t so easy to dream about the future. There are nights when you’re in lab until the sun has long since gone down, when you haven’t stopped moving long enough to eat lunch, and when you’re running on caffeine and feigned optimism. Those times make it a lot harder to believe that this whole journey will be worth it.

I’ve recently referred to the current status of my thesis as a dumpster fire before presenting my research updates in lab meeting. My advisor was quick to rebut me, and explained how the physical product of a thesis is nothing more than really checking off a requirement for graduation. Reducing something I’ve now spent over two years of my life on to a check box immediately triggered my “fight” response, but thankfully I kept my mouth shut long enough to truly listen to her explanation. She said that even if our hypotheses are null, it’s the process that matters. At the end of the day, I’m not doing all this work to write a thesis; I’m doing it to help people, to contribute new knowledge to my field. I may not (and likely will not) crack the code to the syndrome I study, but hopefully I can add my small piece of meaningful information to the puzzle.

After I gave my research update in that lab meeting, my advisor brought me back to the words I opened with that morning – dumpster fire. I had just presented for two hours about all the work I’ve done these past few months and all I could see is failed experiment after failed experiment. My advisor changed my perspective by reframing the failed experiments as disproven hypotheses – that this work, though it feels messy and scattered was necessary to propel us into what questions we’ll ask next. This reassurance was all I needed to reflect on all the things I’ve learned so far in my graduate career. I came into the program with very little research experience. Now I not only plan and manage my own experiment load but actively mentor other students and staff who move through our lab, while taking the lead on collaborations with other labs.

I still have no clue what I want to be when I grow up (it honestly changes day to day), but I’m currently working on honoring my progress thus far and having a brighter outlook for the future. Potential career options I ponder include returning to my forensic science roots in a DNA lab or transitioning to an industry job at a therapeutic company. Until then I plan on embracing the PhD journey, even on the days that it feels like a dumpster fire.

Rachel is a third year PhD candidate in the Biomedical Science program at UConn Health. She studies a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, using stem cell and stem cell-derived neuron models. Outside of lab, she enjoys hiking, yoga, good food, and snuggling with her cat.

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