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?
Little Boy currently has a small bruise on his cheekbone, the result of face-planting on a wooden puzzle piece while trying to reach for another toy. At eleven months old, he remains steadfastly opposed to any tummy-down activities, but has begun to notice that there are interesting things just out of his reach. His approach to acquiring these objects from a sitting position is to lean as far forward as he possibly can, which, it turns out, is pretty far. He’s started to realize that he can stretch a little bit farther if he tucks his legs around rather than leaving them stuck out in front. Eventually—hopefully—these efforts will put him on his hands and knees.
However, he hasn’t quite figured that last part out yet. Sometimes, when he reaches extra hard for that toy, he loses his balance and tips forward onto his head, whereupon he promptly rolls onto his back and starts loudly complaining about the indignity of it all.
I can’t stop him from falling, much as I want to. I can make sure he’s falling on carpet and mostly avoiding wooden puzzle pieces, and I can offer tickles and hugs as needed after he falls. But I can’t teach him to crawl perfectly. I can encourage and demonstrate, but in the end it’s something he has to figure out for himself, falls and all.
I need to keep this point in mind for my adult life. I’m used to staying on safe ground, keeping in balance, reading all the rules before I start—generally wearing metaphorical padded cushions.
But sometimes, the only way to learn is to try repeatedly, fail repeatedly, and keep trying.
Sometimes, you have to fall on your face.
- Getting stuff done! The Paper From Hell might actually be almost complete. I’m starting to feel a bit less like Hercules fighting the Hydra and a bit more like an ordinary person stamping out sparks from a campfire.
- Positive feedback loop. Productivity → motivation → more productivity.
- Not hating work, at least temporarily. I still don’t love my field of study – I don’t think it’s cool or fun or anything like some of my fellow graduate students – but I can ma-a-a-y-be think about my little tiny sliver of it without cringing.
- Increased caffeine consumption. This is relative: my vices of choice are tea and Diet Coke, so my daily caffeine intake remains less than your average cup of coffee. Still, I don’t like the feeling of becoming more and more dependent.
- Less time to blog. Self-explanatory.
- More stuff running through my head. There’s a fine line between motivation and obsession and I’ve never been very good at staying on the right side. I pay the price in troubled dreams and bouts of morning anxiety.
Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
— P. D. James, author
Write what you want to write and not what you think you ought to write or what other people think you should write.
— Joanne Harris, author
(Thanks to Roxical Thinking for introducing me to these quotes.)
The act of blogging, for me, requires constant reaffirmation of why I’m writing. Mine is a new little blog with a weird little niche in the vast expanse of catchy headlines and bad grammar that is the internet. This means that some days (like today), I’ll get a measly two page views. And I’ll be honest, that makes me a little sad. Humility has never been my strong suit. Because yes, I’m jealous when I see another new blogger who’s already got 1000 followers and pieces in The Huffington Post. I start thinking, What makes her so special? (Answer: She’s willing to publish non-anonymously and Tweet and do all that publicity stuff I’m completely uninterested in undertaking.)
At the same time, however – because the workings of my mind are remarkably paradoxical – each new follower gives me a little jolt of anxiety. What if they don’t like what I write next? Are they going to be disappointed that this blog isn’t all wry parenting posts? Or all academic stuff? Or all <insert latest post subject here>?
That’s why the above quotations struck me so forcefully. It’s good to be reminded that, fundamentally, I should be blogging for me. I should be writing what I need to write. I started this blog because I have Things To Say, and I needed an outlet in which to say them. Writing is cathartic. If others read my thoughts here, I should consider that a bonus. If others actually like reading them, that’s a double bonus.
It’s an ongoing struggle to separate myself from external validation. I know my husband reads my posts shortly after they go up; if he hasn’t mentioned it by the end of the day, it takes great concentration to avoid asking, “Did you see my blog post? Did you like it?” (I of course get great happiness when he does enjoy a post – just I as am enormously pleased to welcome new followers and commenters. I just need to make sure that I’m not relying on their – or his – approval.)
Dear readers (and I know there are at least two of you!), why do you write? Is it for fame and fortune or personal satisfaction? Or a little bit of both?
It’s one of those days. Everything is in place for a pleasant, enjoyable afternoon – the sun is shining, the weather is delightful, the baby is relatively happy, and there’s nothing so urgent to be done that it cannot wait a little longer. I should be really, really grateful for that last part: the state of having nothing that must be done is so very rare as a parent. And yet, I’m just not feeling it.
I just don’t have the energy to take advantage of this day. I’d like to write, but my mind is blank on what to say. It would be a good day for gardening, but that would require getting up and moving around and actually doing something. I would rather lay here on the couch and deal with the guilt of wasting the day.
This condition is familiar. I have been here before. I have spent my whole adult life trying to give myself permission to be “lazy” and rest, but it still feels like I ought to be doing something more with this time. Something actively fun rather than passively bored.
Ever have one of those days?
One of the reasons that the Paper From Hell was abandoned on a shelf for two years is that it was a Hydra. The Hydra is a creature of Greek mythology, a many-headed reptilian monster; every time a head is chopped off, multiple new heads grow to replace it. (If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules, you’ll know what I mean – although please do not ever use that movie as an actual source of Greek mythology.)
Possessing an equally poisonous (if metaphorical) venom, the to-do list for Paper From Hell could not be conquered by ordinary mortals. Any attempt to check off an item on that list would inevitably result in at least three more. And not little fiddly tasks, either (although those were certainly not lacking). Big, time-consuming, your-results-might-be-meaningless-without-it items.
Eventually, I decided that the toxicity of the Paper From Hell was negatively affecting my research productivity. Hence the banishment to the shelf. But I never fully gave up on the idea of finishing it, if only to prove to myself that I could.
Last week, with a renewed burst of mental energy, I took up the Paper From Hell again. I’ve managed to consistently work on it for a few hours each weekday without falling into the pit of despair, which is a remarkable achievement in and of itself. Abandoning the old to-do list completely, I read through the paper with a fresh eye, determined to do just the barest minimum necessary to finish it off for journal submission.
But then the Hydra reared its heads again.
Something that should be incredibly straightforward is not. Something that the research literature treats as a settled problem has glaring flaws. Numbers that other scientists quote without much thought are incompatible with other numbers quoted by at least as many others. These numbers are not the topic of the paper; they are the basis of a tool far beyond the scope of my research.
This means more time. More plots. More reading, and yet another revision of what my results really mean. I have to tell myself I am capable of chopping this head off, too, though my sword grows heavy and I am tired.
Because if I can do this – if I can drag this monster of a paper kicking and screaming to publication – then maybe, just maybe, I am capable of finishing my PhD.