Modern Diseases of the Will: Developmental Diseases of the Graduate Student

Author’s note: This piece was prepared for a science writing workshop with Stephen Hall in October, 2011. The prompt was to read the chapter from Cajal’s “Advice for a Young Investigator” on Diseases of the Will, and invent our own modern diseases of the will.

At a Friday happy hour on the Lower East Side, Jack, in his fifth year of graduate studies, buys a round of drinks for his colleagues in celebration of his first and freshly minted publication in the highly reputable journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The conversation at the scene follows.

“Jack, you might as well just start applying for faculty positions,” says first year graduate student Lois Graff, a bright shooter from the University of Texas, not at all ironically.

“You can probably get some good government funding for that cancer project now,” says classmate Yoshi, a fifth year graduate student at CUNY, in all seriousness.

“You won’t have a problem getting a good post-doc,” says terminal post-doc Alan, whose age and nationality span the baffling range of late 20s and German to 40s and Caribbean, depending.

Jack, graduate of Tufts and now spangled student of molecular biology at the CUNY Medical Center, grins and winks, saying “I’ll save the big cancer project for when I have tenure.” Lois gleams in admiration, Yoshi is terribly jealous, and Alan1 visibly vomits everywhere.

What just happened?

Lois, a just-got-the-plastic-off-of-her, naive graduate student, idolizes the academy. She sees the success of a colleague not much older and dreams of following the path that he has projected: one of certain success. The statistics hold that only one in ten first-year graduate students goes on to achieve a tenured faculty position. Lois has heard this before, but the message does not register. She envisions decorations on future walls. She refuses to accept all evidence that the odds are heavily against her. Sure, she might be the one out of the ten that succeeds. But nine out of ten times, Lois, our aspiring young graduate student, suffers from a developmental disease of the will: denial.

Yoshi, a hard-working but less fortunate classmate of Jack’s, envies his colleague. He has worked harder than Jack at every stage and put in countless more hours, but loses hope when his work fails to gain such recognition. Yoshi might be the most successful of the bunch if he had semblances of foresight and reality. That Jack’s finding was both novel and vogue requires a non-negligible amount of luck. Yet Yoshi fails to realize that Jack’s cerebral balloon from interim success to certain grandeur is set to burst. Yoshi suffers from the same disease as every other losing kid on the sixth grade track team who simply lacks perspective and cannot predict his victor’s early-career (we’re talking high school) bad knee and perhaps later-in-life indulgent obesity and — while we’re at it — cardiac, that if only Yoshi knew this turn of fate would he never have cried on the track after placing a lousy second to the kid who seriously had to be in like seventh or even eighth grade: jealousy.

Without much context we have to hope that any real Jack was just kidding. But our Jack unfortunately pronounced himself the champion of a marathon for which he has only begun training. His pretension is superseded only by his presumptuousness. Maybe Jack never got the motivational proverbs on hard work and humility. Maybe he did, but long ago dismissed the platitudes. As the necessity of accepting trite (or any) advice in order to succeed can only be seen in retrospect, we know only where Jack goes wrong if he does. We cannot dismiss Jack’s immediate success altogether, for he may make a great hot head in his field. Nevertheless, Jack has disease akin to Alzheimer’s2, where the best diagnosis can only be made post-mortem: overconfidence.

1 I’ll be outright: Alan doesn’t appear again in this story. It’s not for any personal or forgotten reasons, but more that his developmental disease seems extraclassical with regards to the diseases of the graduate students at hand, and, in order to treat properly, seems like it deserves not just a whole bout of comparisons to other diseases at his stage and such but at least another round of cocktails if he has to put up with Jack’s shit.

2 Physicians typically diagnose people who exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s with dementia. Dementia is easily characterized at the behavioral level, as I’m sure is imaginable. But people with all kinds of dementia are often incorrectly stamped with Alzheimer’s, which itself is actually a much more specific disease than dementia, and can only be diagnosed after a bunch of invasive tests that can only be done on cadavers.

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