I did it. I faced my fears, admitted my limitations, and had a serious conversation with my research advisor about my progress in graduate school. And it went well. There was none of the criticism I dreaded; he was encouraging and straightforward and altogether non-judgmental. There were some tears on my part, as I knew there would be, but I’d brought along a box of tissues and said up-front that I was probably going to cry and not to worry. Relieving myself of the struggle to not cry (a struggle I always lose anyway) was beneficial.
It wasn’t a tidy back-and-forth conversation. I basically just blurted all the important stuff out at the beginning, and we went from there.
Here’s what we talked about:
I’m painfully aware of how long it’s taking me to produce results. It’s embarrassing and it makes me want to avoid talking to anyone about my research. It feels like everything takes so long to get done.
My advisor really didn’t seem worried about my progress. He didn’t try to make me feel better by offering excuses as to why I was slow – and I likewise didn’t try to make excuses. He was simply unperturbed. We discussed how to keep moving forward, including how to get some short papers written to build momentum. He seemed to think that once I had some results to talk about, it would get better.
We also considered how to touch base more frequently, with me gently pointing out that he’s terrible at responding to email.
I feel like I’ve had to pretend that everything is fine in order to prove that I was worth taking on as a student.
He never outright contradicted my fear that I wasn’t living up to his expectations, but he did something better: he just kept advising me. There were a few compliments on my potential, but they were not said in a way that me feel like I was fishing for compliments, nor (thank goodness) in a way that put more pressure on me.
But I have a confession: I don’t love [this subject]. I also don’t want to move around multiple times and not have a permanent job for a decade, so I don’t think academic jobs are for me. I do want to finish this thesis project, because I’m committed to it, and, well, I want to, but …
This was especially scary because my advisor is somewhat of a big name in his subfield, and, like most professors, he tends to assume that a postdoc position is the default next step for a PhD candidate. But it was OK. Maybe he was a little taken aback, but he was very understanding; professors, he said, don’t really talk about other jobs because they don’t really know about them. He’s under the belief that there are lower-profile permanent jobs still available in this discipline, which I somewhat doubt is the case nowadays – but it was still reassuring to hear that such jobs wouldn’t be considered a failure.
Rather surprisingly to me, he admitted that he wouldn’t really want to be a professor at an even-bigger-name-than-ours university; while he loves the work here, he’s busier than he’d like to be. (This coming from a person who appears to never need to sleep.)
He encouraged me to finish the PhD, mentioning that it would be a sign to any employer that I can apply knowledge to new problems and complete independent projects. While I’m aware that overqualification can be an issue, I think that “spent N years in graduate school with no degree” probably looks worse on a resume.
I have to have a thesis committee meeting soon and I don’t know what I’m going to tell them about my progress.
I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, but we commiserated about how thesis committee meetings are kind of useless (and the faculty as a whole send very mixed messages about their importance and function), and he gave me permission to keep it short.
I’m worried that folks are going to expect me to apply for postdoc jobs in the fall (when the academic job cycle begins anew) and I don’t want to take the time to do that.
“There’s no point in applying for jobs with no papers out,” he said. Stated the wrong way, this could come across as quite harsh. However, it was stated the right way, and was a huge relief – he’s not expecting me to spend a month writing applications. Apparently a previous student received the same advice, applied anyway, didn’t get any offers, and was quite discouraged; the next year, with more publications, she was awarded a fellowship at a great school.
Moreover, my advisor told me that it was OK to take N+2 or even N+3 years to finish (where N is the number of years I’ve been in grad school, and N+1 is the number of years most students in the department require to graduate). Turns out that a visiting speaker this week was someone who’d taken N+5 years. That was a bit long, but it hadn’t hampered this person’s career. My advisor himself spent a relatively long time as a postdoc before finding a job as a professor, and he sympathized with the feeling of watching other people advance more quickly.
I’ve made as much of a decision as I need to, for now. I’ve decided not to quit grad school. I haven’t quite decided to leave academia afterward, but I’ve put my feelings about that out in the open, and the world didn’t come crashing down. There is still a never-ending pile of work to be done (free-writing is helping), but maybe I can put the angst aside for a while.
For those of you who’ve been reading along: thank you.