Decision roadblock #1: the familiar is comfortable

As I discussed ad nauseum in 1500 words of grad school angst, I’m at a bit of a sticking point when it comes to deciding my post-graduate-school future.  I’m not really sure where I want to go from here, only that it doesn’t seem to be where everyone else I know wants to go.

For the past few weeks, I’ve employed my top strategy for dealing with my difficulties; namely, I’ve ignored them.  This is actually a fairly reasonable strategy when it comes to surviving day-to-day, because it honestly isn’t healthy for me to be constantly obsessing about my (non-)academic future.  But as useful as blocking it out might be, it doesn’t resolve the issue – and so when something makes me remember it, the associated anxiety hits me with a wave of tension and fear.

The only path to resolution, in the long term, is to just. make. a. decision. and move on from there.  I’ve identified several “decision roadblocks,” things that are holding me back from choosing any particular future, and I want to tackle them individually in an attempt to climb over each one.

The way I see it, I have three options.

Option 1:  Quit grad school now (well, at the end of the spring semester) and find another option for paid work.

Option 2:  Put the effort into completing my PhD, but leave academia immediately thereafter.  Do not apply for postdoctoral positions or fellowships.

Option 3:  Complete my PhD and apply for postdoctoral positions with the intention of taking one if I receive a reasonable job offer.

The first obstacle to choosing between these three options (not necessarily the most important roadblock, just the first one I’d like to approach), is that life is mostly OK right now, and change and unfamiliarity are frightening.

For the past two nights in a row, I’ve had a dream about moving.  In both dreams, we’d chosen to leave a house that was, at least in the weird world of the dream mind, similar to the house we currently inhabit.  In both cases, the house we were moving to was supposedly better, bigger, or a step up in some way – in last night’s dream, we were literally going from a guest house to the main mansion on a property.  But then I’d realize that I didn’t want to leave.  Something about the new house wasn’t as good as it seemed, and appeal of the old house (airy, bright, spacious) suddenly loomed large.  I’d start arguing against the move, trying to stop it somehow – and then I’d wake up.

I don’t put much stock in complicated theories of dream symbolism.  Sometimes, however, there’s clearly something going on in my subconscious, and I think this is one of those times.  To some extent, it’s literally about the house – I really, really like our current house, and the thought of having to pack up and move somewhere with a higher cost of living (and thus a less-agreeable abode) is unpleasant.  And we did recently go through a move and all the decision-making that involved, so I can see where that would come from.

On a deeper level, these dreams are my fear of change.  My fear that a decision I make will be turn out to be the wrong decision, but irreversible, and so I will lose the good parts of the life I’m currently living.  The high-powered academic career path is a step-off-and-you’re-out-for-good situation.

A further component of this mental obstacle is that my husband is, if anything, more afraid of change than I am.  Putting off my own decision allows me to avoid upsetting him and dealing with the fallout of his own anxiety about future and career.

Well then, how do I move past this roadblock?

First, I need to recognize that change is inevitable.  There is no way to stay in grad school forever.  Either I leave now, leave with my PhD later, or stretch it out so long that someone eventually catches on and kicks me out.  Pretending that I’m headed for option 3 (staying in academia) has allowed me to postpone a decision as long as possible, but come next fall, folks are going to be prodding me to submit those postdoc applications.  We don’t own this beautiful house (although I suppose we could decide to buy it when the owners put it up for sale in a few years), so I should focus on enjoying it now rather than preemptively mourning that I won’t be able to enjoy it forever.  And I am not to blame for forcing a decision on my husband: time and life are at fault here, not me.

Second, leaving the familiar isn’t always as bad as it seems.  When we made the decision to move, I was all for it – until we actually officially decided, at which point I was overcome with nostalgia for our crappy apartment.  The same thing happened when I was forced to move offices at school: I was greatly upset at having to leave the office I knew and liked, but have now realized that the new office has some serious benefits.  I might lose the comforts of my current life by changing, but I might not. There might be new advantages that I hadn’t even considered.

Third, I need to use these feelings to inform my decision rather than postpone it.  The enjoyable parts of my current situation suggest that option 1 (quit grad school now) is perhaps not for me.  Wouldn’t “I like this” be an argument in favor of option 3 (staying in academia)?  Maybe – except I like the life I’m living precisely because I refuse to buy into the work-non-stop, life-encompassing culture that is the hallmark of postdoctoral and professorial success.  I’m OK because I don’t think about my research.

I wish I could say that just writing down those three things is all it took to move past this roadblock, that I’m now driving down the metaphorical road of life with a tipped-over construction cone in my rear-view mirror.  It’s not, and I’m not – but I’ve put my shoulder to a giant concrete barrier and I think I’ve maybe felt it move an inch.

And that’s progress.

“Because it’s good for you”

I’ve always been a big fan of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.  So much so that at one point in my childhood, my parents decided that my brother and I needed to read something else for a while, and they put all the Calvin and Hobbes collections on top of a high bookshelf in their room.  That didn’t last long.  Anyway, in the strip, Calvin’s dad is always telling him that he needs to take out the trash (or shovel the driveway, or go camping with the family, or basically anything Calvin doesn’t want to do) because “it builds character.”

I was reminded of Calvin’s dad this week when the grad students in my department received an email from the enthusiastic new faculty member in charge of Journal Club.  Evidently I’m not the only grad student who has been staying away: just three students were in attendance this week, and that is apparently an unacceptably low number.

In addition to singing the praises of the talks that we all chose to miss, the email finished by telling us that we should come to Journal Club because it,

will help you learn how to be successful as a postdoc.

This irritated me.  (In a roll-your-eyes kind of way; I’m not upset about it and I certainly don’t feel guilty about my lack of attendance.)

For one, it’s extremely condescending, albeit unintentionally.  With the possible exception of the first-years, the grad students aren’t avoiding Journal Club because we don’t know what it’s about, or because we haven’t realized that speaking and listening and presenting are valuable skills for us to have.  We’re not attending Journal Club because we’ve tried it, been unimpressed, and have decided that there are far more productive ways to use our time.

So it doesn’t actually solve the issue.  Productive ways to increase attendance might include making Journal Club more interactive, spending more time on topics of interest to students, and encouraging speakers to start preparing their presentations sooner than the night before.  Or perhaps trimming down all of the other seminar-like events students are also expected to attend.

Finally, it illustrates the deeply-ingrained assumption that there could not possibly be any other reason to get a PhD other than to prepare for a career in academia.  Is it really that inconceivable that you wouldn’t want to follow that track?

To be fair, if my time in grad school is any indication, learning how to sit through boring talks without falling asleep is a valuable skill for a career in academia.  Perhaps that’s what she meant.

1500 words of grad school angst

I don’t think this round of therapy is going to work out.  This is my third attempt in as many years to find a therapist who can help me deal with grad school and my future (or lack thereof) in academia.  I’ll be going back for at least a fifth appointment, which is further than I’ve gotten in the past, but it doesn’t seem like we’re making any real progress.

I get the sense that he thinks my problems are much simpler than they really are (and that I’m just confusing him when I try to explain further).  It’s not just a matter of finding strategies to deal with a certain type of anxiety, and it isn’t that I’m stuck with a bad thesis topic.  In fact, there are so many pieces that I barely know how to sort it out myself.

This post is an attempt to do that – start sorting it out – and it’s taken several revisions to turn it into something that’s not a complete rambling mess.  (Maybe still a rambling mess, but not a complete one.)

For starters, there’s the issue of whether I like what I’m doing right now.  I think the answer to that is yeah, for the most part.  The problem-solving and the code-writing and the data analysis – I’m good at that stuff, and it’s an engaging intellectual challenge.  Plus life overall right now is pretty good, and that’s partially because of the flexibility grad school offers me.  I believe that’s why I haven’t left grad school already: I can’t easily thing of what I’d rather be doing on a day-to-day basis.  I’m also able, for reasonable periods of time, to block out all the career-related anxiety and just do stuff.  That works for a while.

But then there’s everything I don’t like.  It’s so hard to be interested in the scientific motivation behind all that fun problem-solving.  Every time I attend a conference, I hold out hope that maybe this time I’ll find someone to talk to who has interesting insights about my thesis topic and that will inspire me to really care about it again.  This never happens; everyone else is much too involved in their own tiny little nitpicky topics to offer useful commentary on mine, and I’m much too nervous about sounding like an idiot to talk to as many people as I should.

My thesis topic isn’t the problem, though.  It remains one of the least-uninteresting topics available – and in any case, I’m sure as heck not changing my thesis topic now!

Conference talks are mostly boring, colloquium speakers are mostly boring, and I gave up on journal club years ago.  (My lack of interest is a factor here, but frankly, most academics are terrible presenters.)  The literature is full of papers that don’t get to the point or (and this happens unfortunately often) don’t seem to have a point at all.

At the same time, I’ve been so … traumatized by grad school that I can’t watch popular documentaries about my field or read about it in the news.  Seeing a “hey, this is cool” article in my Facebook feed produces a burst of anxiety, even though I am by nature incredibly curious about everything else.  Sometimes I wonder if my “this is totally boring” reaction at school is actually a coping mechanism to avoid this anxiety.

Then there’s the issue of hope.  When I do have a string of good, productive days, you’d think I’d get somewhere, right?  Wrong.  My effort seems to fall into an abyss of nothingness.  I’m trying to dig a tunnel through stone with a plastic spoon.  It’s hard to sustain the hope that I can do this when the end never. seems. to. get. any. closer.

Is there anything else I like about where I’m at right now, besides the fact that it’s comfortable and familiar?  Yes: my fellow grad students.  They are more like me than any other group I’ve ever been a part of, and that is a very valuable thing.  And yet they seem so very much unlike me – they seem ready to jump through the hoops of an academic career because of course that’s what they want.  The things that bother me so very much about our program and the culture of our field just don’t bother them that much.  Am I too sensitive?

I will lose these friends anyway, soon, as we all start to graduate and they begin hopping across the globe to postdoctoral positions.  I am done hopping; more than the physical upheaval of repeated moves, I am done giving my whole life just to make it to the next step, where I will have to give even more to make it to the next step after that, and so on and so on.

At present, the cost of childcare and the needs of my own sanity, I am working 4-hour days, enough to fulfill my contractual 20 hours a week.  Increased efficiency and reduced time-wasting allow me to get nearly as much done in those 4 hours as I did in 7-8 hours per day pre-baby.  But even working 8 hours a day felt like getting away with something; the expectation is 12-14.  And I can understand the urge to spend more and more and more time on research.  Perhaps if I did, I would feel like I was getting somewhere.  Perhaps not.  Undoubtedly I would lose my current fragile hold on sanity.  I have been to that place of perpetual work before, and it is not a happy place.

I do very much feel like I’m acting the part of the good, productive grad student, and I live in fear of the day someone finally realizes that I’m not.  I can’t use the regular tips for combating this “imposter syndrome;” that advice all seems to assume that you really are productive and achieving but just don’t see it.  Me, I’ve yet to publish a single first-author paper in a program where three or four are required to graduate and six(!) give you a shot at a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship.

The fact of the matter is that there was a significant stretch of time when I really was just pretending to work.  I was so burnt out by my first project (the one that birthed the Paper From Hell) that I spent months appearing to work in my office but actually browsing the internet and reading blogs.  In retrospect, taking proper time off might have been a better idea, but I was terrified that if I stopped coming in to the office on a regular basis, I would never come back.

My pride tells me that I have to finish this PhD.  My fear tells me that I will likely be one of the last of my classmates to do so, that I will take a year longer to finish than the “good” grad students, pushing me into “it’s hard to find funding for you” territory.  I have always been the one in life who gets things done first and best, so this is a very hard situation to accept.  I already feel a wee bit like a charity case with my advisor, who took me on after my first advisor turned out to be hopelessly incompetent at research.  I know I’ll be a disappointment if/when I say that I don’t want to apply for postdoctoral positions, to him and to the department that thought I was promising enough for a fellowship in my first year.

“I want to do a good job at this thesis, but it stops there” – how are they going to react?  A little part of me is afraid to make my future departure from academia official because of the tiny chance that maybe if I can just really get back into it again, I’ll realize that I still like it.  The atmosphere is so competitive that to admit you’re not 100% into it essentially kills your opportunity to proceed.  You have to be fully ready to actually walk away when you admit you’re thinking about it.  Moreover, I’m not sure that I ever can really get back into it, so strong is the fear of sacrificing my sanity.  I very deliberately don’t think about research outside of work right now.

Could I apply for postdoc jobs just to keep up the front of interest?  Even my father tells me I should think about applying for academic positions, just in case (although he also tells me not to apply for any job I would never take).  I know how long those applications take – we’re talking weeks and months! – and is that really a good use of my time, time that I could be using instead to just finish the damn PhD?

Am I really ready to completely let go of the idea of an academic career?  I am supposed to love my research, love it so much that I just can’t help working on it for 14 hours a day, and I definitely, definitely don’t.  But I don’t know what else to do.  The judgement of others looms large in my mind – there will be those who think I left because I wasn’t smart enough, those who think it was some kind of stereotypically-female decision after having a baby (they are wrong: I felt this way long before Little Boy came along).

Whew.  I’ve temporarily exhausted the well of anxiety on this subject.  If you’ve stuck with me through this post – thanks for reading.  This is the great unsolved problem in my life, and I could use the support in figuring it out.

Even more quotes from the miscellaneous notebook

I’m working on a post about grad school and life choices that’s turning out to be rather long.  So in the meantime, enjoy another sampling of the commentary (and drawings) that happens when I get tired of taking real notes during colloquia and other events.  Earlier posts in the series are here and here.

On the quality of the food provided:

Fake Oreos taste kind of gross.  But lemon tea is good.

I’m not a biologist but…


(I just read this in my head to the tune of “Everything is Awesome!” from The Lego Movie.)

Giving myself a pep talk:

Half of the big things for this month are out of the way; you can now focus on the other half without interruption.  Be glad for that.  I know you hate [specific research task] because it’s such a crapshoot, but it has to be done, and the sooner you start, the sooner it’ll be done too, and/or the more time you’ll have to make it slightly better.

The rest of the page suggests this was written while sitting in on a class as the TA:

Déjà vu… I swear we already went over these exact slides.

You know it’s bad when I pull out the French:

Est-ce que je peux partir maintenant?  S’il vous plaît? 

I’m really not a biologist, I promise.  I just doodle like one.


More quotes from the miscellaneous notebook

Another selection of things written when my attention was perhaps not as focused on the colloquium speaker as it should have been.  For more, see last week’s post.

Evidently this doesn’t happen very often:

AND he finished on time – WOAH

Usually it’s more like this:

I should check the “schedule” to see just how far behind we are now.

And this:

It’s 5:01 and you “just want to take a few slides here to…” ?!

Observing the audience as a teaching assistant:

Zombie kid is sleeping again today.  Can’t say I blame him.  You’d think he’d sit further back, though.

I do appreciate a job well done:

His plots in particular are quite nice; indeed, they are everything one could ever want in presentation plots.

I also appreciate giant alien bees:


Quotes from the miscellaneous notebook

I still keep paper research notes.  There’s something about the flow of physical writing that pulls the parts of my mind together in a way that typing never could.  My primary research record therefore consists of a collection of vaguely color-coordinated composition books.  In addition to “Thesis II” and its predecessor, there is a notebook labeled “Miscellaneous” that comes with me to colloquia, group meetings, career advice talks, and all other forms of academic gathering that involve sitting and listening to someone of dubious public-speaking ability.  I take some real notes, but they usually devolve into general observations and personal reflection, liberally sprinkled with doodles.  On review, I find some of these notes rather entertaining. 


A thought during a discussion on the workings of fellowship review committees:

So what you’re telling me is, do something obscure but cool-sounding and write a very convincing and well-written proposal, so that committee is wowed but really has no idea whether you’re right.

On the need for caffeine during colloquium:

That Diet Coke wasn’t nearly as helpful as I would have liked.

Noticing irrelevant things:

What’s the history of typefaces?  Why do some letters look so different from handwritten?

An existential poem:

Why am I here?

Do I want to be the person this is making me into?

Sometimes I think yes.

Sometimes I feel confident, capable, growing.

Sometimes I am proud of myself.

But those times are rare.

Am I selfish to want a multifaceted life?

Maybe I am.

At the end of a particularly boring lecture:

10 more minutes.  10 more minutes.  That’s more than a mile’s worth of running.  I could be a mile away from here if I started running now.