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Fierce Science: The Weary Scientist


A blogumn by Tabitha Esther

Let me tell you about the day I knew I didn’t want a life in academia. This is a sad story. If you are not a cold hearted scientist, you might want to sit down and grab a teddy bear.

Earlier this year I had my first and last PhD committee meeting. One of the least pleasant parts about graduate work is the formation and presentation of your PhD project to a committee of 5 faculty members. This is a project you’ve toiled over and spun together with your own hard work and imagination. It has to be something innovative, but practical. And cheap – the cheaper the better.

The song and dance of forming a committee is a treat in and of itself. Just think back to 7th grade: “Ummm…ahhhh…(nervous tick….) AAAwwwwhhhhuuummmmmmm… I really like you and I really liked your class and thought it was pretty cool and I read all your papers and saw your presentation at AGU and I want to be just like you…annnddd…..aaannnddd…”


“Will you be on my committee? “

The faculty member typically says yes. This means they now control your success for the next 4 to 8 years.
I had my committee assembled. I was ready for my meeting.  I had Xeroxed handouts. I had diagrams and equations and was not afraid to use them. I was going to storm into my meeting and rip my committee’s faces off with my AWSOME PREPARATION and ACCOMPANYING POWER POINT PRESENTATIONS! I was cool. I was confident.  I actually was kinda sleepy. Delirious from a night spent romancing Power Point, I knew if I could just survive my 11am meeting I’d be golden for an early afternoon escape and a long, restorative weekend.

The meeting starts. Typical pleasantries. Yes, yes – it’s good to hear that your cruise to the Sargasso was productive! Did your grant get funded? No. That’s too bad. TABITHA! What do you have to tell us today!?…


(Going very well.)

Let me draw that figure on the board.


I…I don’t know.

I’ll look it up and get back to you.

I’m sorry, I haven’t read that paper.

I’m sure this research could benefit the geochemical community.

I’m not sure how iron uptake would influence this system.

But…according to Treuger, et al…

That’s something we hope to find out.

It would resolve the global budget of…

What difference does it make?

I believe this would adjust the global source budgets by as much as 10%.

I realize 10% may seem trivial, but…

I think something could be said for…


I don’t know.

I haven’t read that paper.

Who cares?


Who cares.

It happened as I was drawing a cross section of silica concentration in the deep sea. My heart sank. They were right: who cares? My research was loosely tied into problems with climate change so that I *might* be able to make my work sound fundable, but really the two topics were about as related as a pig and a moustache. It was just convenient bandwagon to hitch a ride on. Nope, what I was working on had absolutely NO applications to anyone’s lives other than my own, my advisor’s, and 3 other researchers in France. So who cares, you ask? You’re looking at it.

What’s more: how could I be enthusiastic about a project I didn’t like? This was supposed to be my LIFE, my Passion with a capital P!! P!! I felt like I was defending the behavior of a crappy acquaintance that insulted my real friends and then puked in a stranger’s handbag. I said to myself, “This project is not my friend! I don’t want to defend its crappy behavior! I don’t want to do this at all anymore. I’m out.” I had my Master’s. I knew it at that exact moment. I. Was. Done.

I held it together until all my committee members left and it was just me and my advisor. Then I lost it. Big, heaving sobs with tears and snot and bright red eyes…the whole bit. I cried for all my hard work that had been stomped on, but more for the explosion of discontent that I’d been holding in my stomach for months. I didn’t want to be a researcher. I didn’t care about getting my PhD. I didn’t want a life in academia. I just wanted a fucking job.

My advisor awkwardly patted me on the back and told me to take the rest of the day off.

That was the last Friday in May.

I officially received my Master’s Degree in August.

I started a new job last week.

I am a happy worker bee.

For now.


Photo Credit: Karyn Sig