What can be the most terrifying thing for a graduate student? Weekly lab progress reports to your thesis promoter? Preparing for your first parallel session in a conference abroad? Breaking an important piece of lab equipment?
All those (real) hypothetical situations are terrifying indeed, but the most gut-wrenching, mind-blowing horror is:
You facing a blank sheet of paper in a word-processor.
This is not just in the context of writing your dissertation–this particular kind of terror first arises when your promoter finally says to you: “Write your first-author manuscript now (and I expect the first draft by the end of the week).” It’s not the fact of a really-short deadline that scares the living daylights out of you, it is simply the fact that you have to put all your results together in a story coherent not just for you and your boss/adviser/promoter, but to everyone in the world who belongs to your field of expertise.
This flavor of metaphysical unease does not solely belong to writers of literary prose (and poetry), but to us scientists and researchers, too.
Data are data, results are results, but implications and public impact depend on the way these data are presented as a story. Scientists are storytellers in our own fashion, not mere scribes or archivists. It is simply not enough to explain that compound A is a partial agonist to receptor B, inhibiting cascade C in your selected animal model. It is not enough to say that the property of material X depends on the faults in its crystalline structure as element Y is included. It is the jump from the data to the implications that is terrifying, even if you have reams of numbers with acceptible standard deviations as determined by Fischer’s Exact or two-way ANOVA.
It is a fight of yourself against yourself. It is “crippling self-doubt”, as described by Henri Le Chat Noir in his recent video.
The blank page taunts you, makes you second-guess yourself–did you do enough experiments? is your experimental model robust enough?…is it relevant to the common man?
And, as with other writers, you simply take the plunge and start threading words and jargon together as best as you can. You did assay A because of considerations B and C, which corresponds to real world situation D. You fight yourself constantly, whether to add detail F because of its implications, or to leave it unsaid until asked for by your boss or journal reviewer.
After some time (overnight, a few days or weeks), you see the result of your constant battle against the terror–a manuscript. It still remains imperfect–stray typos, misplaced prepositions, a wrong verb tense or two, some missing citations to support your inferences–but it is there right in front of you. Your work of a few years of your life–new information, new discoveries–which belong to you. You who have slaved over the lab bench, sweating the data statistics over weeks…you who did the final alchemy of translating numbers into words, into prose.
Of course the author line will be long (your promoter’s name and your collaborators from other universities are included, and are likely the oomph-factor in getting the attention of your target journal editors), but your name is mentioned first. There is, of course, the anxiety of submitting it to a journal and revising it a thousand times, but the decisive battle inside you is over.
The manuscript draft is proof of your battle against this almost-unspeakable terror of the blank page, of how you won in the fight. You won yourself from your fear…and the whole world benefits from this sacrifice.