naturally depressed

May 14, 2010 at 10:36 am | | everyday science, grad life, science community

The documentary video “Naturally Obsessed” follows some graduate students at Columbia through their trials and tribulations in science. Personally, I found parts quite depressing. However, it is an interesting video and I wish they would film other labs to round out the picture.

Or watch here:

Here are some of my thoughts (spoiler alert!):

The nature of their research, protein crystallization, is especially depressing: because the results are all-or-nothing, the students work very hard and may see zero reward. In other bench sciences, this can also be true. However, it is often the case that there are many small discoveries and accomplishments along the way. Protein crystallization work, on the other hand, means that if you find the structure, you publish; if the protein doesn’t crystallize well enough to get a structure, you don’t publish. Ouch.

The person I felt the worst for was the blond kid, Kil. He was so positive at the beginning of the film—almost to a fault. Near the middle, he begins complaining about the strains being a graduate student has on his life and relationship with his fianceé. At the end, we learn that Kil and his fianceé broke up (at least partially because of grad school), and he has no interest in academic science. The viewer is at least relieved to discover that Kil gets a good job after graduation!

The ending of the film reminded me of the end of The Graduate: it was bitter, but maybe only intended it to be sweet? Rob, earns his PhD, has a baby, is happy, and becomes a postdoc. But I feel bad for him trying to raise a child on a postdoc’s salary (his wife is also a graduate student). Not to mention the fact that he is already over 30 years old and has several years of a postdoc ahead of him. I’m just not sure it’s the happy ending the film-makers intended. On the other hand, Rob seems really motivated and wants to become a professor, so maybe he’s on his way!

My overall opinion is that the film is interesting, and fairly accurate. However, I think a couple more episodes could really strengthen the documentary. This episodes follows a graduate student as he “succeeds” by toiling away for years, getting a chance success, and then publishing in Science. Instead, I would like to see the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year successes of graduate work: positive interactions and collaborations with fellow students and postdocs, brainstorming in meetings, little “ah-ha!” moments while sitting over a sample, and publishing in J. Phys. Chem. B. In the end, I think this little documentary does a good job of portraying the ups and downs of grad school. However, I think another few episodes in different types of labs would reveal a more realistic overview. Moreover, I think it would be healthy to show students accomplishing smaller steps along the way to their PhD or best paper, instead of the view that students must toil away for 6 years with no rewards until the end.

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  1. I saw this last summer and also thought it was kind of depressing. You’re right that a more realistic look at graduate school would be nice but I guess it would probably also be more boring.

    As a non-traditional student starting grad school at 32 though… I don’t think you need to feel bad for us. ;) We are right where we want to be and we understand how old we will be when we’re done post-doc’ing. Often, non-traditional students come to graduate school with more helpful life experiences than traditional students and, I’ve read, are also more likely to complete their studies.

    Comment by Katie — May 15, 2010 #

  2. No, I don’t mean that Rob is unaware of what is ahead of him and to be pitied. I just mean that a naive viewer may think that he’s won. But in fact, he has another 6 years or so of a postdoc (making <$50k) before he can even try to get a professorship. That's fine if that what Rob wants. But the viewer should know that. :)

    Comment by sam — May 15, 2010 #

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