This is the third in a series about the issues that have been preventing me from making a decision about what to do with my life. My alternatives are: (1) quit grad school now, which I’m leaning against doing, (2) finish my PhD but look for jobs in industry, or (3) finish my PhD and apply for academic jobs. Roadblock #1 was fundamentally about my fear of change. Roadblock #2 was the concern that my dislike of academia is really a defense mechanism (see also this post). Roadblock #3 is about talking to other people – and about admitting some things to myself.
I have always been a golden child when it comes to academics. Great grades, positive feedback, and the kind of reference letters that get you in to any graduate school you choose. The department where I chose to pursue my PhD helped me out in several ways that made it clear they really wanted me to attend. They clearly had high expectations for me.
I have let them down.
There is a thing often spoken of in academia called “imposter syndrome,” in which a person who is in fact very accomplished believes that he or she is secretly a fraud. I have seen it in others, including a friend who became quite unhappy after reading a year’s worth of grad school applications – she couldn’t understand how she could possibly have been considered good enough for admission compared to those people. That’s not me. I do believe I deserved admission; vain as it may sound, I had a pretty glowing resume then, and I am a smart and capable individual.
But my resume is faded and dusty. I have managed to publish exactly zero peer-reviewed publications by a point when most of my peers have several, and publications are one of the primary ways your worth is measured in academia. There are no more scholarships or fellowships or grants. Every year, I have to fill out a survey for the department that asks for my accomplishments; every year, I grow more surprised that no one scolds me for having nothing to list.
As long as I hold any thought that I might consider an academic career path – i.e., taking some postdoctoral positions and eventually trying to find a professor job – then I have to maintain the facade that I have everything under control. To admit otherwise would be to reveal that I’m maybe not very good at this, and that could sink my chances. Even just admitting that I’m considering alternative career options could cut off my academic future. It’s a very competitive field. We used to have an annual career advice lunch for grad students in which the speaker’s advice could be summed up as, “Be awesome, and you will be awesome.” I’m not awesome. I’m not sure what I want to do next, and I can’t let anybody know.
Even worse than limiting my career choices, though, is how painful I know it will be to admit that I fell behind. I can’t imagine how that conversation with my research advisor will go, except that I know I’ll burst into tears the minute I start trying to speak. Surely he must be displeased with how slow I am; perhaps he regrets taking me on as a student. Maybe he will give me ultimatums and deadlines that will make me stressed and terrified.
I have never (at least not with academic subjects) been in this place before, a place where despite all of my best efforts, I’m coming in last. I suppose it has to happen to someone. My first year running cross-country races in middle school, I was the third-from-last kid to cross the finish line. It hurt my pride, but I was pretty realistic about my running abilities at the time, and so I quickly got over it. Here, now, in graduate school – I know I could do this. Except… I guess I can’t.
I have to do something. I can’t continue acting like everything is coming along just fine. For one, my thesis committee is bound to chastise me the next time we meet. A year ago, I could already feel that I was skating on thin ice with no papers published. I still don’t even have a reasonable draft of anything for them to read (not that they would have any useful advice, but that’s another story).
Today, one of the professors on my thesis committee asked how things were going. I couldn’t muster up a perky “good!” or even a jaded “they’re going.” And I am good at perky lies of that sort. I have been practicing them since I was ten, when I needed to hide my real feelings from the adults because their intervention would only make the bullying worse. Answer with enough positive enthusiasm and they’ll believe you.
I need to just do it. Rip the Band-Aid off. Tell my research advisor that I know he’s probably not happy with my progress. Tell him that I feel responsible for finishing my dissertation to the best of my ability, but that I don’t know where I want to go from there. It is going to be incredibly painful, but maybe there will be some relief in being able to stop pretending.
I am afraid.