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.