My advice to new PhD students: do what you love

Dear new PhD students:

It’s the end of September, and you’ve been in the thick of things for about a month now.  Chances are, the graduate school experience is feeling pretty intense at this point.  You’ve got homework.  Research.  Umpteen seminars and discussions.  Maybe teaching on top of that.  Some of you are thriving on the chaos, and some of you are worried you’re about to drown.

It’s right about this time that the senior PhD students in my department traditionally host a grad-to-grad advice lunch.  I missed it this year, which is probably better for everyone.  I am cranky and bitter and bad at small talk.

However, I do have one piece of non-cranky advice that I’d like to share with you, which is the following:

Do what you love.

Find the things in grad school that make you happy, and do them.  Pursue your interests.  Follow your curiosity.

You’re going to hear a lot of advice on what you “need” to do to be successful in academia.  Ignore it.  Or maybe don’t ignore it completely, but put it away in a mental filing cabinet, to be reviewed only periodically.

Because if you spend your time in graduate school worrying about how many papers you’ve written, or how many potential reference-letter-writers you’ve cultivated, or how many lines you have on your CV, you’re going to be miserable.

The best way to write papers is to care enough about your results that you want to tell everyone about them.

The best way to develop collaborations is have ideas you think are cool and skills you want to share.

If you’re working on something you love, the rest will follow.  It might not necessarily follow easily—you might, like me, dislike writing in general, or it just might not be your strong suit.  Maybe presenting at conferences will require getting over a fear of public speaking, or maybe your interests are so far-flung that they’ll take a little wrangling to shape into a coherent thesis.  But writing and public speaking are skills that can be learned.  They’re steps to an end goal (sharing your cool research with others), not the goal itself.

Somewhere along the line, you might discover that the things you love doing are not the things that academia thinks you should love doing.  That’s OK.  That’s something you need to know about yourself.

Do what you love.

Because if you don’t, you’ll end up like me: cranky and bitter and not totally sure why you’re still here.

All the best,

Me

I needed that today

I started the day feeling discouraged and wrung out.  Both physically—I’ve been fighting a cold—and mentally—I’m always fighting to stave off the thought that I’m never going to finish my PhD.  My one significant accomplishment of late (the Paper From Hell was accepted for publication!!!) had been deflated by the realization that there were small errors in two of the figures.  Very tiny errors, really; little points in the middle of a bunch of other points on a plot.  They have no effect on our interpretation of the data or the paper’s conclusions.  Still, they are real mistakes and will need to be fixed before the official version of the paper is published.

Fixing the mistakes means sending updated figures to the journal when I check the page proofs.  I think you can do that, but I felt so embarrassed about having to do it.  How could I have missed these details?  What is the editor going to think about having to sign off on the changes?

I was feeling completely un-confident about my ability to do anything right.

In a perfect coincidence, that’s when the hashtag #FailingInSTEM appeared in my Twitter feed.  Scientists were sharing their stories about screwing up in ways big and small.  It was such a relief to be reassured that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even folks who go on to be very successful in academia and in life.

I learned that someone I deeply respect once had to issue an erratum to correct some misplaced points in a published plot.  Suddenly catching a similar issue at the proofs stage didn’t seem so bad.  This is the stage when I’m supposed to double-check everything one last time, right?

Sometime, when I’m feeling a bit more coherent, I’ll write a longer post on how academia promotes a culture of You Should Be The Best Perfect Best Amazing Perfect Researcher and how that’s fed the hungry brain monster of my perfectionism.  For now, let me just say that I wish we talked more about our mistakes.  It helps those of us who feel terrible about ourselves.  It really does.

Referee report ridiculousness

Research has been a huge, tedious drag this week—even more than usual, I mean.  At least I still feel like I’m inching ever-so-slowly forward.  I’m responding to the referee’s report on the Paper From Hell.

For my non-academic readers, when you submit a paper to a scholarly journal, your paper gets sent out to one or more reviewers.  These reviewers, or referees, decide whether the paper is worth publishing.  This system is called peer review, although grad students don’t typically do the reviewing, so the referee isn’t really my “peer” right now.  Anyway, if the referee thinks your paper is OK-ish, he or she writes a bunch of comments on how to make it better.

The good news is that the Paper From Hell was not rejected.  It’s likely to be published with maybe one more round of edits after this.  The really good news is that the referee (there’s only one in my case) made almost zero comments on my interpretation and conclusions, which I frankly think are the shakiest sections of the paper.  Nearly all of her/his feedback has to do with the technical stuff.  That stuff is solid; apparently I just have to make sure I explain it re-e-e-e-e-e-ally clearly.

The bad news is that my referee clearly doesn’t work in my (fairly broad) subfield, and has asked a bunch of rather dumb questions as a result.  There’s always a fair point to be made that if your reviewer didn’t understand something, other readers might also not understand it, and therefore you should make it clearer even if it already seems obvious.  And so I do, but not without rolling my eyes.

One part of the Paper From Hell, roughly two paragraphs long, says (and I’m paraphrasing here, obviously), “To accomplish Z, we did X, and then we did Y.”  The referee asks:

1) “To accomplish Z, did you do Y?”

2) “When you did Y, did you do Extremely Common Technique, or did you do Thing That Doesn’t Actually Work For Y?”

3) “Where you say that you did X, you should say that you did Y instead.”

These really are three separate comments in a 23-point list.

Item #15 was easy.  “You should show some figures of Q.  See item #21.”  Item #21 turned out to be a repetition of this request, along with more specific suggestions on what she/he wanted to see in these figures.  It remains unclear to me why it was necessary to list these as two distinct points.

The general cluelessness of the comments has left us debating whether our referee is a young, inexperienced person or a cranky old guy.  I’m leaning toward the latter.  The phrasing of the comments gives off a subtle vibe—it could just be in my head, but it’s persistent—of implying that we didn’t have a clue what we were doing.  Let this be a warning: beware of adopting that tone, lest it turn out that it is in fact you who are the ignorant one in the situation.

Still, in the end, it could be a lot worse.  I’ve tidied up some paragraphs, added a couple of new figures, and written some stuff about how “we thank the referee for a constructive report.”  I’ve tracked down some fiddly details from my co-authors (which involved some truly absurd conversations, but that’s a story for another day).  The referee will hopefully be happy with our response, and I in turn will be happy that I never have to work on this paper again.

Annotated letter to a collaborator

Dear <Person who did none of the data processing, analysis, or writing for this project, and only the bare minimum of data collection, but who is listed as the second author on this paper because she threw a hissy fit about it>,

Thank you for finding the time to look over the paper while on vacation.

[If you’d returned your last round of comments to me on time, this wouldn’t be an issue.]

[Also, you seem to be under the impression that I am requesting another round of extensive feedback.  This is not the case.  I neither need nor want additional “help” from you.  All of our other collaborators agree that this paper is ready to be submitted to a journal.  I just need to know if you have any remaining major objections – it should not take that long to figure out, especially since I carefully listed the changes made since the last draft in my earlier email.]

I put a lot of consideration into your comments on the abstract

[I actually did take your comments into careful consideration.  I think you will find that some points are explained more clearly now.  But you keep asking me to add more sentences about the “goal” of the project, and I am not convinced that you actually know what that is.  In fact, that is why is has taken this paper so long to come to fruition – because I had to come up with some kind of context in which these data were actually relevant.  In any case, you have grudgingly admitted that you “respect my way” of writing an abstract, so I’m just going to move on.]

While your suggestion of comparing to a published <PQR> data set is a good one, I don’t believe any such data have been published, except for a small subset in <Researcher> et al. 2007.  I will take a look at their results.

[Know why <PQR> data haven’t been published?  BECAUSE THEY ARE YOUR DATA.  THAT ARE SUPPOSEDLY FOUND IN THE COMPANION PAPER YOU KEEP PROMISING “WILL BE SUBMITTED SOON.”  Although you have been saying that for years, so perhaps I should not be surprised that you have completely forgotten its contents.]

I’ve made my <useful data analysis computer program> available online at my GitHub site, complete with extensive instructions for installation and use.

[And yes, before you ask, I did acknowledge your funding agency, so you can pretend that you did something with their money when you apply for your next grant.  It would probably help your case more if you, you know, did some actual work yourself.]

All the best,

<Crazy Grad Mama>

Handling criticism

I struggle with taking feedback, especially feedback of a critical nature (which is the only kind you ever really get in academia).  I always take it personally.  As an über-perfectionist, I hate receiving any indication that my work deviates from 100% excellence, even though I know logically that (a) no one is perfect, and (b) definitely not me.

As a result, I’ve tried to develop a series of coping techniques for responding to criticism productively and professionally.

STEP 1:  Remind yourself that feedback is good.

Repeat after me: Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves my work.  Feedback helps me get better.  Feedback improves me work. 

Not all pieces of feedback are good, of course – some are useless and aggravating and completely unhelpful.  But “feedback” as a concept is good.

STEP 2:  Read it (or listen to it) all at once.

Rip off the Band-Aid, so to speak.  It’s probably not as bad as you’re imagining (and if it is, at least you’ll have something concrete to get angry about).

STEP 3:  Resist the urge to get defensive.

Yesterday, one of my co-authors on the Paper From Hell sent me some feedback (as I’d requested).  Along with some general comments, she included a list of some two dozen typos.  My first instinct was to write back apologizing for my sloppiness, explaining that I hadn’t wanted to spend the time doing a final fine-tooth-comb proofread while we were still at the “ask for general comments” stage and that some of the typos existed because I’d done so much rewriting over the years.

Fortunately, I was able to remind myself that such a response was unnecessary.  I didn’t have anything to prove here.  Everybody makes typos.  That’s why copy editors exist.  Plus, she was doing exactly what I’d asked: providing me with information with which to improve the paper.

I experienced this from the other side recently while participating in WordPress’s Writing 101 mini-course.  Bloggers would write on the course discussion board, asking for feedback on their latest post.  But if I left a comment that contained any constructive criticism (think along the lines of “this is a great message but I think it might be easier to read with paragraph breaks”), they’d respond with an apology or a “well, writing is just my hobby.”  It was… awkward.  And uncomfortable.  It made me feel bad that I’d said anything.

Sometimes, when particularly self-conscious about and/or enraged by criticism I’ve received, I open a text file and type out all of my angry/worried/but-I’m-so-perfect responses.  When I’ve completed that first anxiety-inducing read-through and gotten all my emotions out, I delete the file.

STEP 4:  Take each point of criticism one at a time.

After I’ve read through, felt terrible, and calmed down again, I go back to the feedback I’ve received and start addressing it one part at a time.  Broken down into bits, things are rarely as awful as they seemed on first approach.  I ask myself:

Is this a valid criticism?

Is it worth addressing in full or in part?

Just because someone makes a suggestion doesn’t mean that suggestion is automatically right, or that it should be done in exactly the way they suggested – even if the person making the suggestion is someone whose opinion you value.  Their relative experience/knowledge/authority will carry some weight (maybe a lot of weight, if they’re your boss), but it’s still your final decision on how to address their feedback.

If it’s worth addressing, what steps do I need to take to address it?

Do I need more information?

Make a plan!  Take action!  Fix your typos, follow up on something you hadn’t thought of, or develop concrete steps to prevent similar issues in the future.

STEP 5:  Decide how to reply.

Not all criticism requires a response, and sometimes all that’s needed is a short “thanks for the feedback.”  In the case of the list of typos from my paper’s co-author, no long explanation was necessary.  After all, I corrected all of the typos, as she will see when I send around the next draft.

For more substantial feedback, it’s often important to let the criticizer know that you respect his or her opinion.  If you think their ideas have merit, give them a short summary of what you’re doing to fix the issue.  If you’ve decided not to adopt their suggestion, explain why.

 

That’s my current strategy – it’s a work in progress.  Usually my biggest hold-up is trying to avoid Step 2, on the entirely incorrect theory that avoiding something will make it go away.  Readers, I’m sure none of you are particularly fond of criticism.  What’s your approach to making it a productive experience?

Processing a conversation with my advisor

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.

So.

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.

Decision roadblock #3: admitting it

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.

Deep breaths.

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.

Defense mechanism

Over on Tenure, She Wrote today, Rotem Ben-Shachar writes,

I wondered if her description of her lack of passion is a defense mechanism she uses as a reason to leave academia. […] The more we have at stake, the harder and more personally we take failure.

She is referring to her friend, a fellow PhD student who expresses like but not love for her (the friend’s) research.  The story is in the context of a broader message about implicit gender biases and how the stereotypes about men and women affect the ways that each group responds to setbacks.  She goes on:

So do we try to convince ourselves we are less invested in our work to protect ourselves from future disappointment? Is it easier to believe that we are simply not as passionate in our work rather than confront that fixed mindset of ours, that we simply don’t have the innate ability to do the work? And how do we truly decipher to what extent passion and to what extent self-defense mechanisms characterize our feelings toward our work?

THIS.  This is why the question of whether or not I might like my field of study again poses such an obstacle to deciding whether or not to leave academia.  I don’t like my research now, but have I really lost interest or have I simply spent years constructing a defense mechanism to protect myself against future failure?  After all, if I don’t like it, then won’t hurt so much to see the other students in my year graduate before me.  It won’t hurt so much if my committee tells me I haven’t made enough progress.  And it won’t hurt so much if I decide that I need a job where full-time means 40 hours a week instead of one where it means twice that.

This is why when a therapist says to me, “Are you listening to yourself?  You seem really unhappy in grad school,” I immediately start backing away from the suggestion to leave that I know is coming.  It’s not that simple.

Decision roadblock #2: what if I like it again?

This is the second in a series tackling my “decision roadblocks,” the obstacles standing in the way of resolving my paralyzing issues with graduate school and beyond.  I’m faced with three options: (1) quit grad school now, (2) finish my PhD but don’t apply for academic jobs, or (3) finish my PhD and do apply for academic jobs.  Roadblock #1 could be summed up as “life’s OK right now, so why rock the boat?”  Roadblock #2 is about the fear of closing doors.


I am supposed to be head-over-heels in love with my field of study.  This is not a case of me projecting something based on my own anxieties – it is an idea endlessly repeated by nearly everyone around me.  I have heard it spoken, seen it written, and observed it in action.  I have friends who post excitedly on Facebook about new discoveries and interesting research papers.  I am supposed to be able to think of nothing else, with the promise that it will make all the unpleasant aspects of the job completely worth it.

I don’t love it.

Most of the time, I don’t even like it.

I deliberately don’t think about my research outside of work hours.

I find 98% of research papers to be deadly dull, and I hide those posts on Facebook because they trigger nothing but anxiety and disappointment in myself.

Then why don’t you just quit?  Why subject yourself to more years of low pay, minimal feedback, and a subject you have to actively force your brain to think about?

That would make sense, right?  But even aside from the logistical and pride concerns dissuading me from quitting right now, I’m afraid to commit to quitting academia in the future, because what if I like it again?

You see, I constructed this mental block.  I have been to that place where I think about my research all the time, and down that road lies madness.  On the surface of it, this would seem to be another point in favor of quitting.  Perhaps my personality just can’t handle the weird world of academic research.

However, there were other factors that made life difficult back when I used to want to think about my work.  There were classes with snooze-worthy instructors and time-consuming yet poorly-conceived homework assignments.  There was an idiot of an ex-advisor, whose research incompetence really got me off on the wrong foot when it comes to research productivity.  There was improperly-treated depression, and a new world of adulthood to which I was trying to adapt.

And so I think, maybe if I could just fix all those things, I would like it again.  If I could just finally publish a paper, if I could overcome my perfectionism, if I could see that I could do it, if I could find someone with which to have interesting conversations about the subject… I don’t want to give up while there are still factors that I might fix.  What if I commit to quitting, but then finally figure it out, start to care about the subject again, and am sad to let it go?

It occurred to me as I was writing the above paragraphs (and hey, that’s why I write these posts) that that’s not how it’s supposed to work.  Love for the subject is supposed to carry me through the hard times, not be something I search for in vain.  If I can only enjoy research when everything is going well, then the stress of being a professor is probably not for me.

At what point can I give myself permission to say, well, you gave this a fair shot, but it didn’t work out?  I didn’t give up when things first got really tough – if anything, I hung on with Dr. Incompetent for at least a year too long.  But then I found a new advisor and a new project, which helped… but not enough.

As an aside, part of me really wants to blame Stupid Ex-Advisor for ruining my experience in the field.  We’ll never know if I would be in a very different situation today if I’d done my initial graduate work with someone who had a clue and who’d kept me excited and motivated about the research.  However, if I really reflect on it, there were signs before she came along.  Boring course after boring, poorly-taught course in college – that wasn’t the subject’s fault though, was it?  At that point, I still cared enough to teach myself the material outside of class, and I didn’t think it was so bad.  There was an increasingly-frustrating summer internship project that went nowhere – but that was just bad luck in mentors, wasn’t it?  The previous summer’s internship had been much more productive.  There was the secret daydreaming about becoming a park ranger during my senior year – but that was just stress about the GRE and grad school applications, right?  Right?

My curiosity is nearly insatiable.  My husband lovingly teases me about knowing random facts about a huge range of topics.  Before Google, my family answered those “huh, I wonder” questions with a decade-old encyclopedia.  With near-constant internet access today, I get caught up following links about strange little topics all the time.

But I’m not curious anymore about the subject to which I have supposedly devoted my life.

I can be sometimes – “ooh, I wonder what this paper has to say” – but the reference list grows with exponential speed, and I always run out of time and brainpower before I can get to the end of the list, and so I have to move on.  Occasionally I have ideas for new research I might do, but I rapidly lose all hope of ever finding the time and resources.  Every time that happens – every time I think I might be on the verge of happily re-immersing myself in the subject, but I fail – when that happens, another little piece of my hope gets chipped away.

All right then, how can I use this roadblock to inform my decision?  I have tried to like the field again.  I really have.  I have given it many years of my life and an enormous amount of angst and effort.  And I still like lots of other topics, but not this one.  It is not wrong to commit to being done with it, not wrong to say no, I don’t want to apply for those academic jobs when I know I will not take them.

And yet… I really do want to finish the PhD, in order to prove to myself that I can.  If I actually can do it but still don’t find myself joyfully obsessed in the topic, then I will truly know that I gave it my best shot.  Saying this, I’m still quite worried that the level of intensity required to complete my thesis will inevitably lead to joyful obsession, which will make me regret having publicly declared my lack of interest in an academic career… but no! I just spent 1000 words trying to convince myself otherwise, and I’m tired of thinking in circles.  All that gets me is more depression.  Also, part of me believes that the only way to actually finish the PhD is to remove the pressure of a future career and allow me to enjoy the parts I enjoy.  Even if they’re not the “right” parts.

Maybe it’s OK to stop looking for the missing piece and reach for a new puzzle instead.

The epic tale of the conference bumblebee

Today’s post is brought to you by my husband, who spent the week at a traditional academic torture ritual conference. He shared with me his full set of notes, which I have annotated for your enjoyment. (Notes with actual useful information have been removed.)

Day 2 got off to an exciting start:

Chair mistook me for the first speaker. I look nothing like him and am not sitting anywhere near the podium.

 
But the excitement level quickly dropped.

Bored out of my mind and there is a bumblebee buzzing the light over my head. It’s dropped right next to me once. I moved my chair back and am hoping that it drops on [co-worker] instead of me.

 
Things continued in this vein for some time…

This speaker could put [Little Boy] to sleep pretty easily, I think.

 
What was going to happen next?

The bumblebee hasn’t moved.

 
OK, we could probably guess what would happen.

Speaker’s definition of “exciting” is highly debatable.

 
But it was important to pay attention.

[Same co-worker], stop looking at my computer and my phone.

 
And then, a plot twist!

Damn, bumblebee is moving. It’s walking around… trying to crawl unsuccessfully on the light. It might fall again… and it crawls on top of the light, where I can’t see it. Gggrrrr. Please, don’t fall on me.

 
The talks went on. And on.

Brevity in a title is your friend. I almost fell asleep reading his.

 
At least something was still interested.

Bumblebee iiiisssss bbbaaaack!!

 
And on. And on.

Another speaker surprised by the 5-minute warning. You do have presenter tools on your Mac, right?

 
The saga wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t understand each character’s motivation.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that the bumblebee is trying to bore itself to death using today’s talks.

 
Finally, the thrilling conclusion:

The bumblebee (or carpenter bee, as [different co-worker] said it might have been) seems to have left during lunch.