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.

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.

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

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.