I needed that today

I started the day feeling discouraged and wrung out.  Both physically—I’ve been fighting a cold—and mentally—I’m always fighting to stave off the thought that I’m never going to finish my PhD.  My one significant accomplishment of late (the Paper From Hell was accepted for publication!!!) had been deflated by the realization that there were small errors in two of the figures.  Very tiny errors, really; little points in the middle of a bunch of other points on a plot.  They have no effect on our interpretation of the data or the paper’s conclusions.  Still, they are real mistakes and will need to be fixed before the official version of the paper is published.

Fixing the mistakes means sending updated figures to the journal when I check the page proofs.  I think you can do that, but I felt so embarrassed about having to do it.  How could I have missed these details?  What is the editor going to think about having to sign off on the changes?

I was feeling completely un-confident about my ability to do anything right.

In a perfect coincidence, that’s when the hashtag #FailingInSTEM appeared in my Twitter feed.  Scientists were sharing their stories about screwing up in ways big and small.  It was such a relief to be reassured that everybody makes mistakes sometimes, even folks who go on to be very successful in academia and in life.

I learned that someone I deeply respect once had to issue an erratum to correct some misplaced points in a published plot.  Suddenly catching a similar issue at the proofs stage didn’t seem so bad.  This is the stage when I’m supposed to double-check everything one last time, right?

Sometime, when I’m feeling a bit more coherent, I’ll write a longer post on how academia promotes a culture of You Should Be The Best Perfect Best Amazing Perfect Researcher and how that’s fed the hungry brain monster of my perfectionism.  For now, let me just say that I wish we talked more about our mistakes.  It helps those of us who feel terrible about ourselves.  It really does.

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.

Defense mechanism

Over on Tenure, She Wrote today, Rotem Ben-Shachar writes,

I wondered if her description of her lack of passion is a defense mechanism she uses as a reason to leave academia. […] The more we have at stake, the harder and more personally we take failure.

She is referring to her friend, a fellow PhD student who expresses like but not love for her (the friend’s) research.  The story is in the context of a broader message about implicit gender biases and how the stereotypes about men and women affect the ways that each group responds to setbacks.  She goes on:

So do we try to convince ourselves we are less invested in our work to protect ourselves from future disappointment? Is it easier to believe that we are simply not as passionate in our work rather than confront that fixed mindset of ours, that we simply don’t have the innate ability to do the work? And how do we truly decipher to what extent passion and to what extent self-defense mechanisms characterize our feelings toward our work?

THIS.  This is why the question of whether or not I might like my field of study again poses such an obstacle to deciding whether or not to leave academia.  I don’t like my research now, but have I really lost interest or have I simply spent years constructing a defense mechanism to protect myself against future failure?  After all, if I don’t like it, then won’t hurt so much to see the other students in my year graduate before me.  It won’t hurt so much if my committee tells me I haven’t made enough progress.  And it won’t hurt so much if I decide that I need a job where full-time means 40 hours a week instead of one where it means twice that.

This is why when a therapist says to me, “Are you listening to yourself?  You seem really unhappy in grad school,” I immediately start backing away from the suggestion to leave that I know is coming.  It’s not that simple.

Saying no to Pinterest-perfect parenting

Pinterest and I are not friends.  I wouldn’t say we’re enemies either; it’s just not my thing.  I’ve never been the kind of person who compiles pictures of clothing ensembles (except for when I was planning my wedding), and I already have way more tasty-looking recipes torn out of Martha Stewart Living than anyone in my household will ever cook – we certainly don’t need to add to that collection.  There’s also the dubious legality of pinning copyrighted work, and my own concern with the quantity of images glorifying skinny bodies and over-healthy eating.

But I don’t mean to hate on Pinterest.  It’s just one facet of the “make everything magical” culture, a culture that is fueled in part (but only in part) by social media.  There’s nothing wrong with gathering ideas for inspiration, especially if you have the time and energy for that sort of thing.  But it can put an awful lot of pressure on the rest of us.

In the second half of my pregnancy, a number of family and friends started asking for pictures of Little-Boy-to-be’s nursery.  I had seen on Facebook many photos of friends’ nurseries, with their artfully-arranged matching furniture and baby-name-themed wall hangings.  And I really wanted Little Boy to have a nice, functional room, even if it included an IKEA crib and his mother’s childhood dresser rather than a fancy new furniture set.  However, this meant cleaning out a room that had endured only vague attempts at organization since we moved in.  My husband and I were already busy and depressed, and my high standards for sorting all of our stuff only made those conditions worse.  I don’t regret the organizing we did – it’s nice to have all my craft supplies in one place again and to be able to find the envelopes and stamps without conducting a house-wide search – but I do regret the intense anxiety that went along with it.

I was putting some of the pressure on myself, for sure.  My desire for perfection often gets in the way of just getting stuff done.  Other people’s photos of stylish nurseries fueled that internal pressure, and repeated “I want to see your nursery!” requests made it impossible to convince myself that it didn’t really matter.

We “finished” the essentials of the nursery about a week before Little Boy was born.  The final touch was a sampling of baby books purchased the night before we went to the hospital.  And do you know what?  Little Boy didn’t care that his space had only existed for a few days – it was ready for him when it was needed, and that was all that mattered.  (He probably still doesn’t care what it looks like, to be honest, but I do appreciate having a clean and pleasant space.)

The most recent push for a “magical moment” came from my mother-in-law, who persistently asked for pictures and video of Little Boy meeting his cousin for the first time.  The cousin is two years old.  Little Boy is one-quarter that.  We want them to interact a bit – hence the visit – but it wasn’t like they were going to lay eyes on each other and instantly become best friends for life.  Trying to force it would just stress out the adults.

A while back, I came across this post by Thea at Supermom?, who says,

When I was growing up I don’t remember my parents planning many things for us to do, or trying to make crafting fun for us. I just remember playing and having fun!

Her post in turn lead me to an older Huffington Post article titled, “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical.”  In it, Bunmi Laditan writes,

It is not our responsibility to manufacture contrived memories on a daily basis.

They’re right.  My childhood memories exist against a background of pleasant family togetherness: having dinner together, going on hikes, playing board games, and driving cross-country to Grandma’s.  My parents incorporated us into their regular activities, and it was wonderful.  We did fancy themed crafts at preschool; at home, my mother taught me how to cross-stitch and knit.  (I still can’t believe she entrusted a five-year-old with a needle!)

Some of my most beloved childhood activities, however, sprang solely from my (and my brother’s) imagination.  We created a tabletop city of Popsicle-stick people, complete with background stories and a full genealogy.  We spent a week building and defending a rock fort outside my grandparents’ cabin.  We dreamed up complete cultures – language, history, and all.

The real magic happens when children are left to their own devices to discover their world and create new ones.  Parents are responsible for ensuring that their children’s world is one of love and trust, but also freedom.  We build the backdrop for those special memories; we can’t construct the memories ourselves.

So I’m not going to stress out about planning perfect “learning activities” for my son.  We will simply read together and talk together and play together instead.  We won’t be inviting 50 people to a themed first birthday party, because what child remembers their first birthday anyway?  And no matter how many of my husband’s friends insist that we’ll change our mind, we won’t be buying an Elf on the Shelf for Christmas.

Oh, and that special first meeting between Little Boy and his cousin?  It will be remembered far longer than any staged photograph, because it went something like this:

Uncle, to Two-Year-Old Cousin: “Want to come meet your cousin?”

Two-Year-Old Cousin: “No.”