I’m writing this blog post at my internship. I’m probably not supposed to, but I’ve decided to take a lunch break and write anyways, because the more time there is in between posts, the more anxiety I have.
Also, I’m bored and there’s really no work for me to do. But I signed a contract saying I’d show up for forty hours a week, so here we are. What a conundrum. I spent all last semester writing an undergraduate research grant to study social isolation in the schizophrenia spectrum at the lab I work at during the school year. Long story short, I got the grant, now it’s summer and week three of my internship, and today, I have absolutely nothing to do. This is not how my day usually goes. Not that my typical day is exciting or remotely glamorous. I mean, I don’t even get to wear a white lab coat. Apparently they’re not necessary when all you do all day is use an Excel spreadsheet.
Which brings me to the boring part. A big part of undergraduate research is tedious work that makes the intellectual work possible. And the grad students and professors are above doing the monotonous, so that’s where I come into play. Apparently I have to do my penance before I can move up the academic ladder, so to speak. So I spend my day coding data and crying. Of course, the other part of undergraduate research is intellectual work: it’s creating databases and running statistical tests and writing about them and making a poster. When you do undergrad research, you’re essentially a stressed out, eager-to-please ping-pong ball that knocks back and forth between tedium and IBS-inducing anxiety.
Did I mention that the ping-pong ball is also sleep deprived and on fire?
But today, I’m experiencing a new mode of my meager, ping-pong experience that I like to think of as the “lost-beneath-the-couch-and-temporarily-forgotten-about” phase, because there’s really no work on either end of the table for me to do. I finished my tedious work. I don’t have all the resources from my mentor yet to adequately start working on anything that requires brain power. But I still have five more hours on the clock.
I’m not entirely sure what to do with myself. Should I work on the other equally tedious project my mentor said I could look at if I finished the first, even though four other people are working on it and they had to ask one of them to “slow down and leave some work for the rest”? Is this really a good investment in my time?
I’ve tried other strategies for getting through this day. I’ve twiddled my thumbs, I’ve refreshed my email at least eight times within the last ten minutes, I’ve stared at my phone, I’ve thrown my head back and sighed dramatically, and I’ve started snacking on my lunch an hour too early. What can I say? It’s lonely down here, beneath the couch. The dust bunnies aren’t great company, and once I stopped rolling about, the inertia disappeared and now I’m stuck here.
And I assure you, this 40-hour work week is uninspiring. It’s dull. It’s long, and I end up counting down the hours until I can leave. But it makes me want to be a researcher more than ever. Some parts of research are dull; I can attest to that. They’re unexciting. They require little brain power and lots of patience. But another part of research is reading the literature, reviewing it, designing studies, writing grants, and most of all, asking questions you care about. And one day, I want to be doing those things. More than ever, I reject a future career that I cannot direct towards my own interests, that requires the same things, day in and day out. I want to delegate my tedious work to undergraduates. And I want to use my head to solve problems. The fact that sitting alone at a desk all day for three weeks now has not deterred me from this path shows, I hope, the depth of my interest. It’s a privilege to conduct my own research. And it’s okay to get stuck under the couch sometimes. This day will end soon enough. And before long, I will be back to my usual ping-pong routine. I’m in no rush, because I don’t have to be. At this rate, I’m old enough to know that all you have to do to go forward is blink. And when you open your eyes, everything will have changed.