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.

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Dr. Crazy Mama

My dissertation defense was on Tuesday … and … I passed!

(It’s taken me a few days to sit down and blog about it, because my parents are visiting and Family Time is fun but exhausting.)

It was not surprising to pass—it’s extremely unusual in any PhD program for someone to fail after being allowed to defend—but I am so very happy and relieved to feel like I deserved it.  That was my greatest fear over the last year: that I would be passed out of kindness or pity or just to get me out of there.  I am comfortable that that’s not what happened.

Defenses in my department are a short (30-minute) public talk, followed by an hour or two of private questioning by the committee.  My extreme social anxiety doesn’t transfer into prepared public speaking situations; as long as I’ve practiced (which I definitely did here), it only takes a few sentences for me to get comfortable.  So that part went quite well.

The questions from my committee were generally relevant and reasonable.  It was all big-picture knowledge stuff, plus some questions about possible follow-up work.  No one asked me to justify any of my methodology or even any of my conclusions.  I had to write on the board a few times, but didn’t need to pull up any plots or refer to anything specific in my written dissertation.

My answers were awkward and clunky at times.  Someone once told me that the point of a PhD defense is to find out the limits of your knowledge (and decide if it’s enough)—and so to expect people to keep asking questions until they ran into those limits.  I think not all of the clunky answers were my fault, though.  Some of my committee members were just not very good at articulating what they were looking for, and it took a few rounds of clarification to get there.

There was only one point when I felt really nervous, and that was when they sent me out of the room after an hour of questions, to decide if they were done or if they needed to ask me more.  I began the wait feeling confident, but after about five minutes started to worry that it was taking too long, even though rationally I knew that it wasn’t.  (And it wasn’t: they called me in after about ten minutes to congratulate me and sign the passing paperwork.)

I passed with no revisions, meaning that I don’t have to rewrite anything or add components to my dissertation.  Each committee member pointed out a few typos and suggested a clarifying sentence here or there in my introduction, but that’s all.  This is fairly common in my department, nothing extraordinary, but it still feels good.

Officially, I will receive my PhD in mid-August, when my university confers degrees that were completed during the summer semester.  I do still have to fix those typos and formally submit my dissertation to the university.  (Submissions are electronic these days, with much less stringent margin and formatting requirements than they used to require for paper copies.)  I’m also waiting to hear back from the referee on my latest paper, and I won’t feel mentally totally done until I’ve taken care of revisions on that.

To be honest, it still feels pretty unreal.  Did this actually happen?  Am I actually (almost) done?  My brain doesn’t quite know what to do with it, I think.  But it does feel good.

The final countdown… to my PhD defense

After many years—so many it seemed like they would never end—and an enormous amount of stress, I am almost done.  In one week, I will be defending my dissertation, the final significant hurdle to being granted my PhD.

After working myself to my absolute limit to get the writing done, I now have a brief period to breathe.  My dissertation has been sent around to my committee.  I just need to prepare my slides for the formal talk part, and practice the talk, and remind myself of a couple of little details that I think might come up in questioning.

I waver between serene confidence and absolute terror—so, completely normal for someone at this stage.  In the last few months alone, I have had multiple panicky crises about whether I would ever get the research and the writing finished, but having reached this point, there is no real doubt that I will pass the defense.  My work is solid; my advisor had some extremely complimentary things to say about my last research chapter.  But the question remains: how hard will the committee make it, and how foolish will I feel by the end?

Wish me luck, readers!  I will let you know when it is over.

Trying not to scare away potential PhDs

Earlier this week, a friend drew my attention to this article on Times Higher Education, addressing the question of when to give up on an academic career.  When do you decide that the sacrifices are too much, and the chances of successfully landing a tenure-track professorship too small?

The article takes a particularly interesting tack: it imagines academia as a boyfriend who “does not want to commit himself,” insisting his partner give everything to the relationship while refusing to make any firm plans.  Basically, the kind of guy that makes advice-givers want to say, “Dump him now!

I think this analogy is really interesting, if imperfect.  Confession time: sometimes, when I’m in the car singing cheesy country break-up songs to myself, I think of them as break-up messages to grad school.  You know, stuff like “You stole my happy, you made me cry…”  (What can I say, my marriage is happy and stable, so I don’t really have any feeling-wronged emotions to express in that direction.)

As I do, I shared the article on Twitter:

(In retrospect I think this was maybe a bit glib toward people who have had to deal with real abusive partners, and for that I apologize.)

One of my followers, PB (@fuckyascience), reacted:

And I felt sort of bad, because PB is a neuroscience student who’s really interested in pursuing a PhD.  We’ve had chats about the grad school admissions process, and now here I was saying that an academic career was all kinds of awful.

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about how to respond.  I’ve written about this dilemma in various forms before, puzzling about how to talk to prospective grad students and sorting out my advice to incoming grads.  But neither of those quite captures what I want to say today, which is this:

Yes, the job market in higher education is crap.  If you want to do a PhD, you should know that.  Don’t go to grad school because you want to be a professor, go to grad school because you think something is really cool and you want to study it for 4, 5, 6+ years.

Yes, the academic employment system is pretty exploitative of early-career researchers.  You get paid very little as a grad student, and then a mediocre salary as a postdoc, and then nothing fantastic money-wise as a professor.  You should be aware of this going in.

Yes, at some point, grad school is going to suck.  There’s a reason why PhD Comics is so popular.

But I can’t in good conscience actively discourage anyone from pursuing a PhD, and I don’t want to.  Plenty of people are very happy in academia and can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.  You, dear reader, could be one of those people!

Go to grad school, with your eyes open to its problems and the difficulties that people face.  Know that at every stage, there are people who’ve been there, done that, and can offer support.  If at any point you find that the cons of academia are outweighing the pros, give yourself permission to re-evaluate your plans.

And if you ever need to, know that it’s OK to sing cheesy country break-up songs about your career.

Dissertation status: my caffeine intake is up

June turns into July, and—as hesitant as I am to say this—I am making progress.  A little.  With extra tea.*

I submitted a paper a few weeks ago, and it came back rather rapidly with comments from the reviewer.  I have mixed feelings about this review: it’s not nearly as foolish as the referee report on my first paper,** but this referee clearly has An Idea that he*** wants us to explore, and the quantity of work required will be non-trivial.

A second paper exists in complete draft form and has been through an iteration of feedback with my advisor.  It’s back with him for more, and then we’ll send it out to co-authors for comments.  Still plenty of work left, but I’ve at least produced something concrete.

I’m currently working on the data visualization for a third paper, which is the first step in my writing-up process.  Once all the figures are made, I’ll write text describing what each one shows, and then write about what we did to get those data, and there’s half the first draft done.  This paper was originally going to be two papers, but they’ve merged into one large-ish paper as the results have come together.

And then there’s a final paper that’s kind of a stretch goal, and that one has had some data analysis issues and is otherwise just kind of waiting while I work on the rest.

I can see the end.  I don’t necessarily feel that I can make it to that end, and I feel stupid a lot, and anxious and generally incompetent, but the fact that I can actually believe there is an end is huge, and I will take what I can get.

 

*Three cups a day.  In the past I have found that this much tea eventually upsets my stomach, so I will have to cut back at some point.  In the meantime, I am enjoying the rare experience of feeling awake and semi-human during daylight hours.

**Fun fact: that post attracts spam comments more than any other.  I have no idea why.

***For subfield-specific reasons, the reviewer is almost certainly a he.

Shh, I’m writing

Self-congratulation time: I’m getting some writing done!  Writing for my dissertation, that is.  I’m writing up the second of three or four papers that will come together to make my thesis.  This one so far has an introduction, a methods section, a results section, and a couple of paragraphs (plus a bunch of notes) of discussion.  (Unlike some people, I don’t write the introduction last.  I like to get the first draft of the intro down once I have an outline of how the “story” of the paper is going to go.)

It’s hard mental work, but I’ve been coping with it better than usual.  I’ve been working really really really hard to turn off the part of my brain that says, “This writing sucks.  This project sucks.  This paper is terrible.”  That’s the biggest thing that holds me back, I think: the writing anxiety.

So what’s helping?

•  Approaching the first draft as a “vomit draft.”  (I stole that term from author Catherine Ryan Howard.)  The idea is that you dump all your thoughts onto the page, and in the true spirit of a terrible first draft, don’t do any editing as you go.  Turn off the little voice in your head that says what you’re writing is bad.  Just get words on the page, is my mantra here.  You can’t fix what isn’t there.  No one’s going to see this draft but me.

•  Pomodoro-style time management.  I’m using the free online Tomato Timer to force myself to work for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a short break.  Sometimes I’m actively writing during those 25 minutes, sometimes I’m reading or looking up numbers or references, but it’s always related to writing.  Technically you get a 5-minute break at the end of each, but I sometimes cheat and rest slightly longer depending on how worn out I’m feeling.

•  Treating paper-writing as a marathon, not a sprint.  Academia teaches—and even valorizes—putting tasks off to the last minute.  I often jokingly point out that the freshman-comp essays on which I scored the highest were the ones that I wrote the night before.  My research advisor, a widely respected tenured professor, almost always writes stuff a few hours before the deadline.  (I know this based on when he sends me proposal drafts.)  So getting out of that habit is hard.  But it takes away anxiety to say, I’ll do a chunk today, and then another chunk tomorrow.

•  Downplaying the importance of the paper in my mind.  I’ve written countless “research papers” for classes and internships over the years, so why do I find writing up my own research to be so hard?  It’s because academic culture has deified first-author research papers as The Ultimate Achievement On Which You Will Be Judged, and that freaks me out!  But freaking out means writing doesn’t get done, so I’ve started telling myself that this is just another class paper.  Just another school assignment.  You can do this.

•  Managing my depression and anxiety.  Of course.  All of the above techniques don’t work when your brain decides that it’s simply too overwhelmed to do anything today.  When you hide in the office and stare at your screen and think, I should write something, anything, but you can’t muster the willpower to lift your fingers.  I’ve been having some swings lately but the last week or so has been OK, and I’m hoping to keep it that way for a while.  I don’t work in the evenings.  I take those Pomodoro breaks.  I celebrate each small achievement.  (My husband gets a lot of “I wrote a paragraph!” messages throughout the day.)

In many ways, much of this is similar to the “write for 15 minutes a day” approach I tried last year.  That proved to have some flaws, though: it didn’t push me to do any of the other hard work of writing (e.g., reading references, making plots, making tables) and thus I found myself not having anything to say in my 15 minutes.  My current approach is more holistic, I think.

I’ll keep you updated on how this goes.  The current goal is still to have a readable (i.e., non-vomit) draft of this paper in to my advisor my the end of the month, and I feel on track for that.

What works for you when it comes to sustainable writing?

Going public with my decision to leave academia

Today I officially announced my plans to leave academia after the PhD.

By “officially announced,” I mean “told my thesis committee as a group and not in a wishy-washy I’m thinking of leaving academia way but a definitive I’m never applying for postdocs way.”

“Academia is not a healthy place for me to be,” I told them.  “And I’ve learned that I’d much rather mess about with code than come up with big-picture science questions.”

So I’m kind of freaking out a bit about that now.  Not as much as I was freaking out about it last year, when I was afraid to tell anyone that I was even thinking about exiting academia.  But a little.  Because it feels kind of permanent now, you know?

Still, I’ve made my decision, and academia is not for me.

Last year, I was worried that I might fall back in love with my field of study if I somehow figured out how to overcome the depression and anxiety that had become closely linked with it.  This year, I know I won’t.  Maybe someday, from a distance, I will learn to be excited again about cool related science in the news.  Here, though, in the daily grind of writing and stressing and making plots—no, I won’t love it.  This year I was fortunate enough to produce some really interesting results, and it helped, but it didn’t help enough.

I’ve come to properly realize that although anxiety and depression are parts of me that will follow me everywhere, they are made enormously worse by the environment of academia.  Isolation, lack of help, intense career pressure, an almost total lack of positive feedback: those things all feed the brain monsters and send me into places I cannot control.  I don’t expect that another career path will be all sunshine and roses, but it will be different and it will be outside the cult-like insularity of the ivory tower.

Of course, I still have to finish my PhD, which is freaking me out A LOT on a daily basis.  My thesis committee was divided between those who thought I was making good progress and those who didn’t believe I could do it in a year.  Not exactly the most encouraging of situations.  Still, I think if I can force myself to bang out the text of another paper by the end of the month, I might be able to convince myself that I can do it.  So that’s the current goal.  Expect to hear lots of complaints about writing.

Dissertation status: slow

…said every PhD student ever.

I’ve come a long way since I first blogged about my grad school angst last year.  The Paper From Hell made it completely out the door and published, and I finally produced some results worth presenting on topics related to my thesis.  Currently I have:

  • One paper in polished draft form that is ready for more revisions after a second round of comments from my advisor.
  • One paper at the “figures + title” stage, where the results are basically done and now it’s a matter of filling in the text.
  • Data for two more papers midway through analysis.  The first of these two is going to be relatively quick and easy to write up; the second will involve a lot of “huh, what does this mean?”
  • More data that could be analyzed for another paper.

Which kind of sounds like a lot, now that I write it out, doesn’t it?  I certainly hope my thesis committee thinks so, when they meet in a few weeks.  It’s never that simple, though.

The almost-done paper is pretty cool, if I do say so myself, but the partway-done one is much more quotidian.  So of course I have a bunch of emotions about that:  Is the second paper good enough?  Will people be disappointed in me after the first one?  (Why do I care about that?!)  Plus, I only have a year left.  How am I going to finish all that in a year?!?!???

Oh, and only the very last bullet point, the one that’s farthest from being done, closely relates to what I said I was going to do for my dissertation.  I think my advisor’s not super thrilled about that, but he’d rather I be publishing the other stuff than not publishing at all.

All I can do is keep putting in the effort, day after day, and try to stay focused.  I’m trying really hard not to hit the freak-out point—that’s not good for my productivity!—and just take it one task at a time.

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.