Thanks for reminding me why I’m leaving academia

Well, the post-defense high was nice while it lasted.

I submitted my final research paper to a suitable journal about a month ago.  Last week, they sent me back the referee report, i.e., the comments from the anonymous reviewer.  I got what people in other fields call a “revise and resubmit”: they tell me what I need to fix, and then I return it to the journal for further review.  Very standard for this journal.  What’s not standard is that the reviewer—if you’ll pardon my language—was an asshole.

I don’t mean that he was critical, because reviewers are always critical, and it sucks and you feel bad and then you make the revisions and the paper is probably better for it in the end.  And I don’t mean that he didn’t read carefully or was oddly picky about some little thing, because that happens all the time too and you roll your eyes and grumble about it and move on.

No, I mean that he was actively nasty.  The whole review is full of snide, condescending commentary.  It borders on direct insults in places.  I’m not going to go back into it and try to find shareable excerpts right now, so you’re going to have to take my word for it, but this isn’t my first experience with peer review, and this one is different.

I’ll be honest: this has really knocked me back mentally.  With the passage of a few days, my response has settled from the initial “BURN IT ALL DOWN” to a slightly calmer “ugh, I really don’t want to deal with this.”  I’ve been able to reread the review and make a list of actionable items.  But I’m still, more than anything, really angry.

I’m angry that being a straight-up asshole is allowed.  (Yes, such people are everywhere, alas, and life is not fair.  Doesn’t make it less frustrating.)  I’m angry that I’ll have to take the high road and write a response that at least kind of sounds polite, when what I really want to do is yell at him to fuck off.  I’m angry that this paper is going to take so much longer than I’d (perhaps naïvely) hoped.  I’m angry that I’ll have to deal with this guy again in the next round of review, because he’ll undoubtedly come up with new jibes regardless of how thoroughly and professionally we answer in this round.

In addition to all that, I’m angry about the culture (both inside and outside of academia) that tells me to suck it up and deal with it.  Be strong.  Don’t let the bullies get under your skin.  Don’t let the bullies win.

Screw that.  Sometimes the bullies really are just assholes, and pretending otherwise doesn’t take away their power.

On the plus(?) side, I’ve had a lot of conflicting feelings in recent months about whether leaving academia is the right decision, and I think those feelings are sorted now.  I do not love science enough to put up with this kind of shit.

Caught between too many words and too few

I made myself a promise, when I first started blogging, that I wouldn’t let myself get stressed if I didn’t write anything for a while.  Nevertheless, when days go by with posting, thoughts of the blog turn into a constant background process in my mind.  Do I have anything to say?

Life has been a stretch of ups and downs lately, with the downs hitting harder than the ups.  I tried a new brain med, which was great, then my psychiatrist upped the dose, which did not go swimmingly, so we backed off, which walloped my mood with the darkness of withdrawal.  Self-care has been the order of the day these last few weeks.

It doesn’t feel like I have much to say right now, no grand blog topics on which to opine.  I can speak of sofas and knitting needles, of novels and Netflix, and of the fluffy ball of purr currently sprawled on the desk next to my computer.  My powers of thought are worn out by the end of the day.  Nothing to say.

And yet somewhere beyond words, tucked away behind a wall of exhaustion, are a mess of thoughts and feelings, so many and so muddled that they can’t find their way to a coherent sentence on my tongue.  Things I want to say.  Things I’m afraid to say.  Things that I just don’t know.

Like how I’ve managed to fall into a side project at school, and it’s totally frustrating and aggravating and I don’t think I can live up to their expectations.  But I can’t back out now—they’re counting on me for the last pieces of a grant proposal that’s due in two weeks.

Like how I just sent my co-authors another draft of a paper for a much better project, but my mind was so numb by the end of the day that I’m worried I missed something important.

Like how the darkness tells me I will never finish my PhD, that I am too slow, that everything takes just far too long.

Like how staying at home with a toddler is so incredibly boring—there, I said it—but I feel like a terrible parent for just browsing social media while he plays with his blocks.  The “bad mother” thoughts are back in force (if they ever really went away); I think they hit hardest when he’s changing the fastest.  Do I talk to him enough?  Should we be singing more songs, playing more games?  Look at how much fun he has with his father.  What if I’m the lesser parent?

Like how the lunches need making, the kid needs bathed, and the clothes need putting away.  And how tomorrow I’ll have to get up and do it all over again.

Deep down in the PhD blues

I was trying to explain to someone today the feeling of impossibility that surrounds finishing this PhD.

It’s the feeling that no matter how much work I do, it will never be enough to check off all the boxes.  It’s the feeling that there will never be enough time—except it’s not that, exactly.  Everybody imagines that I must have so little time, as a parent, and that’s totally true, but time isn’t the limiting factor when it comes to research.  The limiting factor is my ability to cope.

I can’t pull an all-nighter writing when I don’t know what to write.  I can’t push hard for a week, because that will just leave me with another infinite pile of work inviting an infinite cycle of things I don’t want to do.

Grad school taught me not to set goals.  I lost the ability to achieve self-imposed deadlines.  My department’s deadlines have always been nonsense, unreal, the sort of thing to which people pay lip service but privately ignore.

I’ve seen the master plan with its step-by-step checklist fall apart too many times.  I don’t know which direction to think.  I don’t believe I can do it.  And that’s a hard place to be.

Sorry folks—my mind hasn’t been on a happy level of late.  Trying to cope.  Trying to face the fear.

Depression and the desire to do nothing

One of the many frustrations of depression is that it’s hard to figure out how to cope with the feeling of “I don’t want to anything.”  That feeling could mean that I’m tired, sick, and/or worn out and could use a real break, or it could be the gray fog of depression making all possible activities seem like too much effort and not enough fun.  Unfortunately, the best course of action for the first case is the exact opposite of the best treatment for the second.  When I really just need a break from life, lying around and mindlessly browsing the internet can be a much-needed, mind-soothing rest.  When it’s depression, doing nothing in large quantities only makes it worse.  I get more bored and more stuck and more bored and more stuck until I can finally muster up the willpower to do something, anything—because doing something, no matter how small, provides a little bit of endorphin feedback and reminds me that it doesn’t always suck to Do Things.  (On this note, there’s a splendid post in the Captain Awkward archives about escaping bad mood cycles.  It’s so true.  And the illustrations are the best.)

And that’s why I’m making myself write something today.

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.

A navel-gazing free write

The context here is that I’ve signed up for WordPress’s “Writing 101.”  For the next four weeks, I’ll receive daily writing prompts (it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to find the time to post every day, and of course there are also lots of un-prompted posts that I want/need to write in the next month, but it sounded like fun).  Today’s assignment was to just write whatever for 20 minutes.  The result (with a little bit of cheating to check for spelling) is below.


Day 1.  20-minute free write.  I guess what’s on my mind right now is how worried I am that this Writing 101 thing will seem silly.  That it will mark me as a newbie (although duh, I am a newbie).  That I’ll look back years from now and think, “Wow, how could I ever have been caught up in that.”  But who cares?  It’s my blog, and I can do what I like.  I don’t need to write all the preemptively defensive statements that are going through my head – like how I’m not going to get so caught up in writing every single prompt that it makes me anxious, or how I’m just doing this because it sounded like fun.  I wanted to do this, and shouldn’t that be enough?

Come to think of it, I’m preemptively defensive a LOT.  I always feel the need to completely explain my decisions or new hobbies to my husband, to the point of countering objections that he hasn’t even made.  Why is this?  He and I have talked before about my fear of judgement, which seems to be a deep and constant theme in my personality, but which hurts him because he believes he would never judge me.  But I interpret every little thing as judgement.  And I HATE being misinterpreted by anyone, and he does misinterpret me sometimes.

I’m also very guarded when it comes to expressing enthusiasm about said new hobbies.  “I can’t let myself get ‘taken in’ by that,” I think.  “I mustn’t let anyone else think that I got sucked into a new world too quickly, because that’s foolish and shows a lack of critical thinking.”  I have a naturally-obsessive personality, and so I do have to be on guard against letting anything take over my life to quickly.  Somewhere along the way, though, I decided that other people would be judging any apparent over-interest (there’s that judgement thing again).  Where did this come from?  I don’t know.  My parents were always very supportive of my interests, buying me craft supplies and flute lessons and the like.  And while I had my fair share of unfinished projects, I wasn’t flaky about my interests – I still sew from time to time, and knit, and while I no longer play the flute, I stuck with it for nearly a decade.  I did get the message that all-consuming obsession was not OK, in the form of grumpy parents telling me to hurry up and go to sleep when I just wanted to finish making my pajamas for Christmas morning.  (They were very against letting me stay up late to finish things.  Particularly my father.  They blamed it on procrastination, but I think the real culprit was perfectionism.)

Today, I worry that my husband will be the grumpy one, if I spend so much time on a hobby that I don’t have the time he wants to spend watching TV together.  He has a valid point – spouse together time is important, for sure – but my mind has taken this and twisted it around to a place where I feel like I have to defend anything I choose to do.

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.

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.

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.