Choices

My advisor offered me an unexpected choice this week: stay another year as a PhD student.  To clarify, I’m already planning to graduate in a year or so; he means stay another year after that.  “Don’t worry about funding,” he said.  “And don’t worry about whether your committee thinks you ought to graduate by some arbitrary deadline.”

He made the offer because, in following an offshoot branch away from my main thesis topic, we’ve discovered something really cool.  Cool enough to generate interest from local press, and cool enough to keep me motivated through the hard times.  There’s more we could do here, but it would take more than one year.

I am torn.  On the one hand, this is a wonderfully kind offer.  I have always appreciated that my advisor—my current advisor, not the awful one with whom I started out—has never put pressure on me to go faster, and has always seemed genuinely excited by the science I could do.  In his offer, I heard, “You are doing good work and I’d like you to keep doing it.”

And the science is really very cool indeed.  Significantly more interesting, frankly, than the analysis remaining on my primary dissertation topic.  I care about it, and letting it go seems a terrible shame.

But.

But I’m ready to be finished with the PhD.  With a bit over a year to go and some writing progress being made, I can see the end.  Putting my completion date off another year feels a bit like pushing it out of reach.  The farther away that date gets, the harder it is to believe I can actually get there.

And despite my advisor’s reassurances, another year would make me a very slow finisher.  This is my Nth year as a PhD student, where N is a number between 5 and 10 and is also the typical time it takes for students to finish.  I am on track now to finish in N+1 years, which is not uncommon.  Half the students who started at the same time as me are staying for that (N+1)th year.  Another year would mean N+2.  Not unprecedented, but rare.  I’m not sure my ego can take that.

There are also many personal matters at play.  My closest friends are already starting to graduate and depart.  My husband is not terribly enthused about staying in this town for additional years, although he supports my choices either way.   The house we rent may not be available to us for that long, and I very much don’t want to move and then move again shortly after.

Finally, there’s the question of a second kid.  I can’t let the idea go—and I know that the best time for us would be shortly after finishing my PhD.  We’d like Little Boy and his hypothetical sibling to be no more than about 3 years apart, though; another year after next would be too long.  It’s not impossible that I could take a few-month hiatus from research to give birth and then come back for another year, but that would mean paying for two small children in daycare, and that’s not really affordable on my grad student salary.

I know which way the decision is going on this—no—but not without a little bit of heartache.

Which is worse for your PhD, a baby or a bad advisor?

From my perspective, the answer to the title question is clear-cut: the bad advisor.  But people like to blame the baby.

“Blame” is maybe an overly hostile word.  It almost always comes out as encouragement, as in, “You shouldn’t worry that it’s going to take you longer than average.  You had a baby!”  And I certainly don’t want to downplay the exhaustion of pregnancy and the even greater exhaustion of recovering from birth while caring for a newborn.  That does cut down on one’s productivity for a while.

But parenting also brought with it a surprising productivity boost: time management.  I am much better now at Getting Stuff Done while in the office.  My work days are much more goal-oriented.  I don’t allow myself to procrastinate anymore, because I can’t afford the time, and that’s made a huge difference.  I’d estimate my net productivity was really only down for about four months, plus some time lost here and there from low energy levels during pregnancy.

The bad advisor, on the other hand?  She cost me two-and-a-half years.  Leaving meant starting an entirely new project for my dissertation.  One could argue that I gained some skills during those two-and-a-half years, so they weren’t a total wash, but one could also argue I lost even more time combating the subsequent lack of motivation.

So the baby comment makes me feel sort of weird, and the bad ex-advisor still makes me rage-y and bitter sometimes.

Referring PhD students to counseling is treating the symptoms, not the disease

I went off on a bit of rant on Twitter yesterday, starting with the sentence above.  Around about the 7th or 8th tweet, I realized that I needed to work this up into a full-fledged blog post.  So here we go.

Two things set off this rant.  The first was reading the latest in a long line of articles about the mental health problem in grad school.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine article, and the more people talk about this, the better.  However, like many of its predecessors, it focuses on access to counseling and other mental health care as the solution.  That’s absolutely important, and so is emphasizing the message that it’s OK to seek treatment.

But offering counseling and antidepressants is just treating the symptoms.  If my toddler woke up with a dangerously high fever, I would give him Tylenol to bring it down, but I’d also take him to the doctor, where the cause of his fever would be evaluated and treated.  If all the kids at his daycare came down with the same serious illness, the staff would give us all information about how to get them treatment, but they’d also clean the heck out of everything and assess whether their hygiene policies needed changing.

Along those same lines, we need to talk about why anxiety and depression are so prevalent among PhD students.  As the links above describe, graduate school causes mental health issues in many students, and exacerbates existing issues in others.  We need to make sure that those students who are suffering feel comfortable asking for help, but we also need to fix the system that’s causing this psychological epidemic in the first place.

I’m sure there are people out there who think that this is just how a PhD has to be, and sure, pushing yourself to your intellectual limits is always going to be hard.  But don’t you think people would do better—be more productive, produce better work—if the system didn’t function in a way that made them miserable?

The second trigger to my rant was a discussion that took place at a gathering of female postdocs and PhD students in my department.  It was a meeting to chat with last week’s (female) colloquium speaker.  Based on who organized this particular meeting, I suspected that any advice might tend toward the useless kind, but I went anyway.  (There were donuts, what can I say?)

The organizer and the guest of honor were both the kind of postdoc that the department likes to bring in to tell all us PhD students “how to succeed:” people who’ve won an especially prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, the kind that will get their resumes placed at the top of the pile in faculty searches.  These people tend to be extroverted, assertive, even cocky; in grad school, they did “groundbreaking research” and somehow managed to publish a half-dozen first-author papers.  Be like these people, goes the message, and you too can be successful and awesome.

This is the mold.  This is the person the system says you have to be.  There’s an underlying assumption that it’s possible, if you just work hard enough, for everyone to become this person—and that if you don’t, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.

Which brings me back to why I’m not OK with “make counseling more available and less stigmatized” being presented as the full solution for poor mental health among PhD students.  It relieves the system of the burden of change and puts it on the individual students.  There is something wrong with you, says the system.  Go get that taken care of, and when you’re all fixed up, come back and fit yourself into our mold.  

Let me end with a personal example, in hopes of further clarifying my point.  One of the pieces of advice we always get is to talk to lots of faculty who aren’t your research advisor.  Make yourself seem more awesome.  Cultivate people who can write letters of reference for you in the future.

The problem with this advice isn’t its content.  Networking is an important skill that will serve you well in just about any occupation, and fundamentally, people won’t learn about your research unless you tell them about it.  No, the problem with this advice is that it’s universally delivered from the perspective of a confident, gregarious extrovert: “Just go talk to professors!”

I’m a shy introvert with major social anxiety—it’s incredibly difficult for me to “just go talk” to anyone, much less someone who’s presented as an evaluator and an important part of my career.  Talking to someone—taking up their time—makes me feel like I’m being a huge imposition.  These are my issues to overcome, and they do require real mental health care.

But you know what else would really help?  A system that acknowledges that this is hard for me.  A system that is just the tiniest little bit more encouraging of these kinds of interactions.  That reassured me that I’m not doing something dramatically wrong and weird and awkward when I knock on a professor’s door and ask to chat.  That doesn’t treat every discussion about research as an evaluation of me, designed to make the questioner look good.  And above all, a system that doesn’t assume that I’m a bad researcher just because I don’t fit the mold.

My favorite GIF is about saying no

One of the most wonderful parts about having seen the Paper From Hell through to publication is that the last cord has finally been cut between me and that paper’s second author, a.k.a. my Incompetent Former Research Advisor.  Let’s call her IFRA for the rest of this post.  (She very definitely does not deserve to come second on the author list, but that is a battle that I did not have the power to fight.)

I have not been actively working with IFRA for years—as soon as I passed my qualifying exams, which involve defending an initial research project, I got the heck out of there to work with someone who actually has a clue.  IFRA is aware that I am not fond of her, because once I realized that any recommendation letter from her was worthless, I cut our interactions back to the bare minimum required to avoid being outright rude.

Nevertheless, exactly one day after we received the official “your paper has been published” email, IFRA wrote me asking if I would process a whole bunch more data for her.

Nope.

Nope nope.

Nopety-nope nope nope.

NOPE NOPE NOPE

Nope, there’s nothing about that data analysis that requires me, personally, to be the one who does it.  There is one step that uses a program I wrote, but that is both publicly available and extensively documented.  I would be willing to provide troubleshooting support for that program, but only in the context of someone who’d actually tried using it and had run into problems.  Even if I was the absolutely only person who could do it, the answer would still be no.  I’m not wasting time on data that will never make it to publication (and trust me, it won’t).

Of course, one does not reply to professional emails with reaction GIFs, so I wrote something short about needing to focus on my thesis and left it at that.

Freedom!

(I’d love to be able to give credit to the originator of the nopetopus, but it’s been floating—or running—around the internet for too long.)

Published

It’s official: my first peer-reviewed article has been published.  I’ve been a middle-of-the-list author on a handful of papers already, so the “Publications” section of my CV wasn’t completely blank, but as every academic knows, first-author papers are the only ones that really count.

Yes, the Paper From Hell is absolutely, positively, 100% done.  Forever.  A very small part of me is sad that no one’s going to keep going on the project—my results raised more questions than they answered, and there’s a lot more to be learned from that data set.  That is, if one is willing to wade through all the unusable data, duplicate data, and what-is-the-purpose-of-this? data, and deal with the shocking incompetence and patronizing approach of my former research advisor.  (Pro tip: if you’re going to be patronizing, be right.)

I should be utterly elated to have finally dragged this toxic thing through to the end.  Publication, however, is really quite anticlimactic.  My real sense of achievement came when I submitted it, five months ago.  Once I’d made it that far, I knew I could do the rest.  And most of the rest was waiting.  For all my venting about the referee’s comments, making revisions was essentially just working my way down a list.

So I’m writing this post to help myself feel a bit more accomplished.  To remind myself, as I struggle with the anxiety of working on a new paper (on a project that is way more fun), that I can do this.  I can do this.  I did this.  Hopefully I can do it a little faster this time, though.

Anybody else accomplished anything cool lately?

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

Grad student introductions can be awkward

Scene: Crazy Grad Mama meets a newly-arrived postdoc.  We’ve established that I am a grad student.

New postdoc: “So, how many years have you been here?”

Me: “More years than I care to admit.” [laughs]

[New postdoc laughs along.]  “Almost done, then?  Finishing soon?”

“Well, soon-ish.  Another year, maybe two.”

“How do you like it here?”

“I… I think I’m going to have to get to know you a little better before I can honestly answer that.”

I know, I know.  I’m bad at small talk. 

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.

Jumbled bits and pieces

Today has been a struggle to pull my mind back together after a family vacation (pros: family, lack of work; cons: four days in the car with a ten-month-old).  I forgot to put on makeup this morning, for goodness’ sake.  So for tonight’s post, enjoy a sampling of the things that have been bouncing around my brain.

  • The house was not invaded by insects while we were away.  I am relieved.
  • Obnoxious ex-advisor continues to be obnoxious, now with more unprompted and condescending reprimands about how the culture of our field operates.  If it weren’t so aggravating, it would be hilarious: 90% of the times she’s done this, she’s been wrong.  (The other 10% of the time, she gets it right — but she misses that I was already well aware of cultural conventions and chose to work around them for a very deliberate reason.)
  • The long days in the car with a ten-month-old were exhausting, but they weren’t really that bad.  As on our first, shorter road trip, Little Boy generally napped well, ate well, and handled the new places and people with aplomb.
  • Rest areas without changing tables make me grumpy.  Really, I’d like to see changing tables everywhere, but a facility that is built specifically for highway travelers to use the bathroom doesn’t have any good excuse to leave them out.
  • I’ve been strongly tempted to join the Dark Side open a Twitter account under my blog name, even though that I’ve rolled my eyes at Twitter for years and am a huge Luddite with a flip phone.  I am currently stymied by the need to come up with The Perfect Profile Picture.
  • Despite arriving to pick Little Boy up from daycare at 5:15 p.m., we’re consistently some of the last parents in his age group to do so.  This doesn’t bother me, but I do find it rather odd.  Where do these other parents work?

Have a random thought to share?  Leave it in the comments below.

SUBMITTED!

I did it.  I just sent the Paper From Hell off to a journal for peer review and, hopefully, publication.

It was a struggle to the very end.  After all of the fiddly little formatting details were complete, I had to convince my obnoxiously stupid collaborator to stop stalling and just let me know if she had any objections (she didn’t).  Then the internet connection on my office computer stopped working.  Goodness only knows what the IT staff in our department are doing to the network this time.

But in spite of all of that, and the many years of crap that came before it, the paper is submitted.  There were times when I thought this day would never come, but it finally, finally did.

This day also turns out to be National Donut Day, so I think I’m going to celebrate by eating donuts (yes, plural).  And drinking wine.  I hope we have some wine.