The night before an interview for my dream job as a palaeoceanographer, I talked to my brother for the last time.
The position was one I’d sought throughout my entire career — it aligned perfectly with my research interests and was my best shot at a permanent job near my husband’s work.
But the call with my brother was like a waking nightmare. I thought I was listening to him die over the phone as he gasped for breath.
This wasn’t my first confrontation with major loss. When I was five, my mother narrowly survived a terminal-cancer diagnosis. When I was in high school, my brother developed schizophrenia and alcoholism. During my undergraduate programme, my father died unexpectedly. And, while I was in graduate school, my mother had a stroke — a magnetic resonance imaging scan showed an aggressive glioblastoma that claimed her life within a few months.
I managed each of these events as best I could without letting them derail my career in science, although I longed to quit so I could shrink the widening fracture between the demands of academia and my heart. But the question would always arise: what then? So, in the end, I tethered myself to the solid rock of science and clung on tightly.
The morning after the call with my brother, the job interview was like a continuation of a bad dream. So incoherent were my thoughts that it was as if I were watching my body from above. I felt like my dreams for a career in science were evaporating. I had skirted the black hole of grief my whole life, only to collapse at this important moment.
After the interview, I returned to the lab where I was a postdoc and told a supervisor what had happened. He suggested I contact them and say I hadn’t been performing at my best, but he cautioned me to offer no excuses.
Practical advice, yes. But I think this is one reason junior researchers leave science — the demand to partition ourselves into separate entities can fragment our psyches.
Grief is like a hurricane sweeping through our brains; it can carve a fresh scarp through our self-confidence, leaving a fog in its wake. So many young scientists are already hanging on by a tenuous thread in an environment where there is no room for faltering.
This is especially true for those most susceptible to impostor syndrome — women, people of colour, anyone who belongs to an under-represented group. For those who have fought against voices telling them that they don’t belong, this ‘brain fog’ might be perceived as proof that their dislocation in science is substantiated. Grief can be the tipping point that pushes young researchers into a false concession of their inability to hack it in science. This is echoed in a 2017 study that identifies a disproportionately high rate of mental illness among PhD students — especially those dealing with work–family conflicts (K. Levecque et al. Res. Pol. 46, 868–879; 2017).
The paradox is that many scientists are driven to improve the world for humanity, but the culture of science can be dehumanizing. We need to promote a culture that recognizes our humanity, where normal, human failure and struggle are not equated with academic ineptitude.
If you are a young scientist struggling with grief, you might need time to sit with it. You might be forced to make difficult decisions. Be clear with yourself about what you are unwilling to give up, and forgive yourself the rest. You might find your goals changing on the other side of loss, but wait to make career-altering choices in the calm after the storm, not in the heat of heartache.
My brother died a week after our call. Two days after that, I was offered the job — a bittersweet victory. Science had ferried me to more stable ground, but demanded its fare in return. I am haunted by all that I couldn’t give my family members in their final days. But this can be the bitter choice when confronting loss as an early-career scientist — escort a loved one to their death or keep your own dreams afloat. I wish it did not have to be so stark.