Monday, February 4, 2019

Career barriers, part 6: Beef soup and solitude

By Patrick Diep

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

I started graduate school at the University of Toronto (UofT) in September 2017. I have since co-hosted two big house parties where I invited over many friends that I had made since high school. The second party in July 2018 was attended by about a hundred people, which included the grad school friends I had made in the chemical engineering department. A few days prior to this party I finished Solitude, a book by Michael Harris that describes the anti-social nature of social media. It left me in a deep contemplation. The party was, to me, an ode to change. I stopped using Quora and Tumblr the next day. I also deactivated Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I deleted Snapchat. I didn’t want to learn about the lives of others anymore.

To make a difference, I believe that I need to be different and think differently. My co-supervisors gave me a lot of freedom when I started my Masters degree, so it placed me in a position where I needed to reflect on what I was going to do differently in my field to make an impact. There are a number of philosophies about what motivations a grad student should have when embarking on a research project. Mine was to apply fundamental science to an industrial scenario – something less philosophical and more practical. This made me confront an existential question: I had been trained in fundamental science, but I wanted to be an applied scientist. What am I doing?

In the midst of this dissonance, I started learning how to design experiments to obtain publication-quality results. This required equipment that no one in the department had used before. I reached out to other departments to find this equipment, and scheduled time for training on my own. This was overwhelming because of the troubleshooting time. Hours could be spent preparing my samples the “right” way, only to yield incoherent results. I overcame a number of these issues, but I involuntarily and repeatedly asked myself “what am I doing?” as I breathed.

This inward criticism did not stop when I was with others. My parents and a large majority of my extended family work in factories, so they did not understand that the job I desire so much may not even exist yet. A few of my friends attended grad school for a Masters, but seldom for a PhD. “The economics don’t make sense,” some would say. While those related through blood and marriage asked me what I was going to do in the future, those related by chance made me ask myself why I had chosen this path.

Dark thoughts eventually came. Why am I living? I hate this constant self-questioning and I hate myself. Should I kill myself?

I had suggested this to myself one night in grade six when I was being bullied for being “too nerdy” and unable to fit in. That night, I remember my mom walking into my bedroom, unaware of my adolescent angst, with an aged porcelain bowl of warm rice covered in Campbell’s Chunky beef soup. A pair of chopsticks stuck out from the mountain of food with threads of steam you could see rising from under the potato chunks. While the air around me felt frigid, the warmness of every swallow reminded me of when I had been served this same dish on my first day camping with the 6th Meadowvale Scouting group, hosted by the Buddhist temple my mom frequented. That night, I laid in my bed alone cherishing old memories of playing soccer with neighborhood friends, hiking on Algonquin Provincial Park trails with my cousins, and that time I (accidentally) knocked the Christmas tree down onto my younger brother.

What I realize now is that our lives are filled with little moments that compound in significance over time. My memories are saturated with these moments that return me to a period where the future was uncertain – where I did not know what I was doing and why I chose what I did. So, is what I am feeling right now so unfamiliar? Why had I forgotten what it felt like to be twelve years old?

I think part of the answer ties back to the anti-social aspects of social media. I had been electronically immersed in the lives of other people for over a decade, so an increasingly larger portion of my cognitive capacity was occupied and distracted by endless scrolling through the random thoughts and snippets of my friends’ lives. My aspirations to be different from others were juxtaposed with my needlessly excessive concern about their existence. What I needed was solitude.

Simply put, solitude is when you are by yourself, meaning that you are physically and electronically disconnected from others. While the former can be a frequent experience throughout grad school, the latter is not and was what I personally needed to improve my mental health. I think there is stigma associated with being alone because it is assumed that loneliness will ensue, but anyone who is comfortable with their own thoughts knows this is not quite true. Loneliness is a function of how much social interactions you have relative to what you need. You are lonely if there is an unmatched discrepancy here. Everyone needs different levels of social interactions just as much as everyone needs different levels of no social interactions. 

After the second house party, when I unplugged the metaphorical Ethernet cable, I had space to respire and cherish the little moments that lead me to grad school. Without words, they captured why I chose this path. Current obstacles, failures, and successes, no matter how small, constitute little moments that will remind my future-self how much I have grown. I transformed my Masters work into a PhD project in October 2018, and somewhat transformed parts of myself in the process. I want to learn more about other people again, and I want to tell my friends and family about what my PhD experience is like. Whether it’s twenty failed PCR attempts in a row or earning a scholarship, this is who I am and where I am and if I don’t embrace it, others won’t.

Now finishing this post, I must confess that I have a new Twitter account. I do not abhor social media or think that it is evil; I think it has the potential for good, like this series of blog posts that capture so many different voices and perspectives from our scientific community. Hence, those I have followed tend to have more meaningful and insightful content that helps me think about my graduate experience and the world in funny, smart, and different ways. Moderation and balance are key.