“So… how much longer do you have?”

I knew she’d ask, knew it from the moment I introduced myself as a student, knew (with a sense of resigned inevitability) that her inquiry followed logically from the pleasantries that preceded it. Were she a graduate student herself, she might recognize the gauntlet she has thrown down at my feet – but she is not, and so she asks the question, asks that question, a question that, according to the unspoken etiquette of pre-doctoral candidates, ought never to be asked. In that instant, I am examined; I am measured; and all potential conversations resolve into this one well-intended and cheerful inquiry. “I don’t know,” I hedge, “It depends on [x] and on [y] and on perverse luck above all else…”

I’ve heard it said that the fourth year of graduate school is the most difficult; thus far, I’m inclined to agree. In fourth year, most of us no longer take classes; we no longer teach; we are just in the lab. Our certainties are stripped from us; we cannot measure ourselves by our good grades, or by our students’ achievements, for these prior metrics no longer apply. This is not to say that all objective standards lose meaning: there is the promise of breathless moments, when the data may yield brave new insights. There will eventually be published papers: not always groundbreaking, but published nonetheless. And someday, there will come the long-awaited job offer, when years of work finally bear fruit, when mere heartbeats separate us from the next stage of our science.

But these milestones are not the currency of a fourth-year graduate student. At this stage, that brilliant datum likely remains elusive, that first-author paper is often still “coming together,” and that desirable position is still a ways out. In many respects, we are unfinished. We are midway through our story; we have met the cast of characters, the proteins and the assays and the capricious organelles that will define our coming years, but the ending remains unwritten. Indeed, we live in a state of perpetual uncertainty, poised between past success and the nebulous but inevitable future reality of what lies beyond: far enough away to exist mostly in the imagination, yet still close enough to cast an ill-defined shadow.

Some revel in this uncertainty, delight in flux. I do not. I relish the possibility of knowing: knowing what comes next, knowing where I’ll be in three years’ time. But should such answers be too concrete for my present, where can I, or any of us, find comfort, drifting as we do between what is and what may be?

The truth is that we are all bright, we are all capable, and above all, we can adapt: where no anchors hold us steady, we forge our own; where no tangibles exist, we create them. We learn to mark time in moments, to carve out small victories in the quiet space between breaths. Our definitions of success become more flexible – our day-to-day achievements, praiseworthy. At times, achievement is an elegant, even significant, finding, taped proudly into our notebooks. Other days, we scrawl with leaky ballpoint pens across professional development columns, reminding ourselves that we have the tools to pursue many possible careers – that our futures need not be fixed. Even in the most trying times, in the hours when favorable outcomes seem little more than a pipe dream, we can take comfort in more mundane triumphs: eggplant parmesan in the fridge, massing out reagent to four decimal places, a cool breeze on an overdue bike ride home.

And when all else fails, we rely on this, our absolute certainty: that we have unshakable passion for science, for learning and doing and teaching and writing about this discipline that is wonderful and wonderfully frustrating by turns, and that this passion will ultimately see us through.

How much longer do I have? I don’t know, I don’t know, a thousand times I don’t know – but I’m learning to enjoy that answer.