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November 13, 2005
I haven't worked in a US academic chemistry lab since 1988, so you'll have to take that into account as you read today's post. But I don't think that things have changed enough to invalidate this observation: many grad-school science labs are so depressing as to defy belief. This isn't universal, but I've seen enough examples to convince me. The atmosphere doesn't correlate well with the amount of money around, either, because I've seen some lower-level departments that weren't so bad, and a couple of Ivy League lab corridors that would pull the serotonin right out of your brain just to walk down them.
Many of the students and post-docs working at these places don't realize this, though, which is surely to their benefit. It's only after you've gone out into the Real World for a while and come back for a visit that it hits you. That's certainly how it dawned on me. I believe it says over there to the left that I went to Duke: maybe someone there could tell me if that second-floor "graduate student lounge" in the chemistry building is still there? I sure hope not.
This was one of the most cheerless rooms I've ever seen; it made laundromats seem warm and inviting. There was no ceiling as such, just the fluorescent lights hanging down from the industrial clutter above. Some scuffed paneling on the walls surrounded an assortment of worn, stained, mismatched thrift-store furniture. A small damaged table in the middle of a couple of sprung couches held an assortment of torn, dogeared cycling magazines, some of which had been there when I arrived and were still sitting there when I defended my PhD. A scarred counter held a 1970s-vintage microwave, which might as well have had "X-1 Prototype" stenciled on it. A bike frame without wheels, furry with dust, was chained to a rack in one corner. That was still there when I left, too.
You feel bad enough at 3 AM on a Sunday morning up in the lab, running a reaction for the twenty-third time. Taking a break by wandering down to a dingy room full of junk is not the recommended antidote. Why more people didn't just decide to end it all after a session in there is a real mystery.
Update: Reader LNT, in the comments to this post, passes on this news:
"I graduated from Duke in 2001 and the graduate student lounge hadn't changed from what you described. I don't know why university chemistry departments can't budget a couple thousand bucks a year to keep a decent communal area for their slave labor pool..."
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