Unfinished manuscripts are life’s only constant

This morning, my advisor emailed me comments on a manuscript draft I had sent him last week (for those of you not in the science jargon loop, a manuscript is what we call our scientific papers before they’re published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal). I’ve been working on this particular paper for a long time (two years, which actually isn’t all that long in academia, but this is my first paper and it feels like FOREVER), and during those two years it’s gone through many transformations in structure and message, countless iterations of figure changes, and has been rejected by two scientific journals (although, revision and resubmission was encouraged this most recent time!).

Peer review can be a long and slow process, and rightly so. Science is a logical, evidence-driven process; before we make conclusive statements, it’s important for other scientists to check that the evidence we use to back up our conclusions, and the methods we use to obtain that evidence, are valid and sound. This meandering process of write, revise, get reviewer comments, look at my data again, revise more, do more statistics, refine the story, write more, revise more, resubmit is fascinating and disorienting as a first-time scientific author. I’ve never had a single written project that lasted longer than a year before. This more-than-two-years paper has been one of the constants of graduate school. I’ve complained about it so many times to my roommate that she now just asks me “still?” when it comes up in conversation (as in “you still haven’t finished that paper?”). I’ve shunted all of my brain power into the statistics for this paper in order to distract myself during more than one breakup. I’ve moved houses, redecorated my office, and found new favorite coffee shops to work in, and yet no matter where I am when I open my laptop, this paper remains. I visit my parents once or twice a year, and every one of my visits has seen at least one day with me spent on my laptop at my parents’ kitchen table, working on this paper. Still it remains, in revision, reviewed but unpublished, continuing in its endless ping-pong journey between my email inbox and my advisor’s. When the apocalypse finally hits us and all we hold dear has been destroyed by a raging inferno, or perhaps zombies, I imagine that this paper will still be here, like the Statue of Liberty rising up out of the ocean after the giant wave hits New York City in The Day After Tomorrow (I think that’s what happens in that movie???).

Pictured: My manuscript, still unpublished, post-climate change apocalypse. Which is a shame, because the paper actually had some pointers on predicting climate change.

This freaking paper that I cannot get rid of is a comfort of sorts when the stress and chaos of my day-to-day feel overwhelming, as they so often do right now. This spring has seen me attempt to complete my PhD lab work, face mounting existential questions about my next career steps, and deal with the resurgence of an ebbing and flowing struggle with anxiety that can take a toll on my fierce but sometimes fragile body. It’s easy to tell myself that this is the hardest life’s ever been*, but I can remember these struggles cropping up almost every year of graduate school. As I fought, worked, and questioned my way through, I was writing the seemingly endless lines of R code and sentences that shaped and clarified the scientific story I hold in my hands today. It’s continued to develop and be refined, and jeez has it taken forever, but it is reassuring that the scientific process carries on, dispassionate to my personal upheavals. When this particular scientific story settles into its final form (well, final enough to be published online, but not final enough to eliminate the need for further testing and investigation, hashtag science hashtag scientific method), it will be the product not just of my long-term academic efforts, but of some of the more tumultuous years of my 20s, of my heartbreaks and joys and disappointments and losses and growth. When I first started writing this paper, I didn’t ski or mountain bike or climb rocks, all sports I now pursue voraciously. I was a hell of a lot less sure of myself in the field, and I certainly didn’t believe that I had anything to contribute at scientific conferences. I have grown tremendously as a scientist and as a human being in the time it has taken me to write this paper. Heck, even my cat was a lot smaller when I started this paper than she is now.

I’m resubmitting the paper this week (and now I wrote about it on the internet so I have to do it), so maybe after a few more months of peer review my baby brain child will be out on its own in the world, freed from the prison of my MacBook Pro. And me, I guess I’ll start my next paper, because having an unfinished manuscript is my life’s only constant.


*Not to discount my experiences and feelings or those of any other graduate student, especially when it comes to struggles with mental health, but I should note that I have a steady income, a home, healthcare from my employer, people and animals I love deeply, and am white, heterosexual, and cis-gendered. So things are pretty good over here, all things considered.

1 Comment

  1. I can relate so hard. Thanks for sharing your experience putting together a manuscript; they really are full of blood, sweat, and tears.


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