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?

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.

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging

• Sorting family photos and making gift calendars out of the best pictures of Little Boy.  His grandparents love these, and I love that they make my “what to get people for Christmas” decision-making that much shorter.

• Doing the rest of my Christmas shopping.  I have actually managed to complete this task with two whole weeks left ’til Christmas.  It helped that my family came to visit for Thanksgiving and we did most of the gift exchange on that side then.

• Thinking about getting back into knitting.  Not actually doing it, just thinking about it.

• Crossword puzzles.

• Preparing food for Little Boy’s lunches.  I made peas and beans and pumpkin and pears this weekend and thought we were all set for the week.  Mix and match with yogurt and applesauce and crackers and raisin bread and the nightly lunch-making would be easy-peasy.  But no—Little Boy decided that this was the week he was going to completely refuse to eat anything from a spoon, and so I had to scramble to find additional finger foods to pack for daycare.

• Reading Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.  I’m only halfway through the first chapter, but my reaction so far is SO MUCH YES.

• Watching TV because I actually want to, not because I can’t think of anything better to do.

• Mentally gearing up for my vaguely semi-annual thesis committee meeting, which was today.  It went… well, it was an almost-indescribable combination of “look at these super-cool results” and “I feel totally incapable of finishing this thesis.”  It was not terrible.

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.

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.

Reflections on Writing 101

For the past four weeks, I’ve been taking part in Writing 101, a free mini-course offered by WordPress.  Every weekday, I got an email with a topic prompt and suggestions for stretching my writing style.  All participants had access to a forum where we could share posts, explore others’ writing, and request and give feedback.

(If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can keep an eye out here for upcoming repeats of the course.  In the meantime, all of the daily prompts are archived here for use whenever you like.)

I was a little hesitant about signing up for this.  Would it take too much of my time or add an unnecessary level of stress?  Would participating in a WordPress course be like adding a flashing red “n00b blogger” sign to the top of my page?  Now that the course is drawing to a close, I can say that the answer to the last question is, “Probably not much more than anything else I do.”

Fortunately, the other worries, the ones about time and stress, turned out to be unfounded.  Of course, I skipped a lot (more than half) of the assignments.  Some days were too busy, some of my personal topics were too pressing, and some of the prompts required writing fiction, which isn’t the right genre for this blog.  But that’s the beauty of an open course: nobody’s keeping track of what you get done.  It’s all about what you get out of it.

What did I get out of it?  Good reads, new blogs to follow, a bit of thoughtful feedback, and a bit of writing inspiration.  However, the #1 benefit for me was the push to make a commitment to free writing.  Not on my blog, but on my PhD thesis.  Here’s what my office whiteboard has to say about that:

crazygradmama_day12_cropped

Pushing myself to just write something is proving to be a good plan of attack against the toddler in my head whining, “I don’t wanna write I don’t wanna write!”  There are days when my output is mostly meandering junk, or when I seem to be repeating thoughts that I’ve already covered – but words on the page are a step beyond words in my head, so it’s progress.  Some of that progress is real and measurable and awesome: I just sent a complete version of the Paper From Hell out to collaborators for feedback.

Here’s to reading and writing and moving forward!

A major commitment

Part of the Writing 101 assignment for today is to “commit to a writing practice.”  Specifically, they recommend taking at least 15 minutes every day for free writing.  No editing as you go, no stopping to re-read what you’ve written, just writing what comes to mind.  If you want to polish it up for a wider audience, you do that later.

This sounds like a really good idea.  When forced to do academic writing, I have found that the most important step is to just get something – anything – out on the page.  Large chunks of that rough draft will be crossed out and completely rewritten, but it’s somehow easier to write out a new paragraph when I have the old one physically in front of me.

At the moment, I’m not really interested in adopting a daily habit of pure free writing.  When it comes to just getting thoughts out of my head and into words, blogging has helped a lot, but I want to keep blogging as a fun hobby for now.  If I don’t have anything to say on a particular day, I don’t want to force it.

However, I do have something very big and very overwhelming that needs to be written: my PhD thesis.  What if I were to commit to 15 minutes of thesis writing every day, following the rules of free writing?  (Wait, isn’t there a book about this?)

No second-guessing my sentences, or worrying that a phrase is too cliché.

No pausing to look up citations.  No falling down the rabbit hole of reference after reference.

No messing about with formatting.

I could do all that later, once I’ve broken down the start-writing barrier.  Sources will have to be checked, graphs made, sections rearranged, and chances are that very few of my free-written words will make it into the final thesis.  But I have to start somewhere.

It’s a scary thing, making that kind of commitment.  I think I could maybe do 15 minutes a day – just sit down right when I arrive at the office and write – but officially declaring it a goal opens me to the possibility of failure.  If I don’t try, I can’t fail.  If I don’t try, I don’t have to face the guilt and stress and anxiety that comes with attempting to succeed.

But if I don’t try, I’ll never finish.  Maybe I’ll never finish anyway – although I’m leaning towards not quitting the program before graduating, I’m still undecided – but this is as good a time as any to try something new.

And so, as extraordinarily anxiety-inducing as it is, I make this commitment to myself before the entirety of the internet:

I will spend 15 minutes every weekday writing my thesis.  Just writing, no stopping to edit or thinking too hard about my words before they get to the page. 

To make this practical and feasible, I will allow myself exemptions on days with unusual circumstances.  If I have to stay home and take my son to the doctor, for instance, it’s OK that writing doesn’t get done.  Or if it’s the day before a major deadline and I’m feeling so stressed that I can’t concentrate on anything but the deadline – that’s OK too.  The key for me is to be consistent, not perfect.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Crap, that means I have to go do this today.  Ugh.  Wish me luck!

1500 words of grad school angst

I don’t think this round of therapy is going to work out.  This is my third attempt in as many years to find a therapist who can help me deal with grad school and my future (or lack thereof) in academia.  I’ll be going back for at least a fifth appointment, which is further than I’ve gotten in the past, but it doesn’t seem like we’re making any real progress.

I get the sense that he thinks my problems are much simpler than they really are (and that I’m just confusing him when I try to explain further).  It’s not just a matter of finding strategies to deal with a certain type of anxiety, and it isn’t that I’m stuck with a bad thesis topic.  In fact, there are so many pieces that I barely know how to sort it out myself.

This post is an attempt to do that – start sorting it out – and it’s taken several revisions to turn it into something that’s not a complete rambling mess.  (Maybe still a rambling mess, but not a complete one.)

For starters, there’s the issue of whether I like what I’m doing right now.  I think the answer to that is yeah, for the most part.  The problem-solving and the code-writing and the data analysis – I’m good at that stuff, and it’s an engaging intellectual challenge.  Plus life overall right now is pretty good, and that’s partially because of the flexibility grad school offers me.  I believe that’s why I haven’t left grad school already: I can’t easily thing of what I’d rather be doing on a day-to-day basis.  I’m also able, for reasonable periods of time, to block out all the career-related anxiety and just do stuff.  That works for a while.

But then there’s everything I don’t like.  It’s so hard to be interested in the scientific motivation behind all that fun problem-solving.  Every time I attend a conference, I hold out hope that maybe this time I’ll find someone to talk to who has interesting insights about my thesis topic and that will inspire me to really care about it again.  This never happens; everyone else is much too involved in their own tiny little nitpicky topics to offer useful commentary on mine, and I’m much too nervous about sounding like an idiot to talk to as many people as I should.

My thesis topic isn’t the problem, though.  It remains one of the least-uninteresting topics available – and in any case, I’m sure as heck not changing my thesis topic now!

Conference talks are mostly boring, colloquium speakers are mostly boring, and I gave up on journal club years ago.  (My lack of interest is a factor here, but frankly, most academics are terrible presenters.)  The literature is full of papers that don’t get to the point or (and this happens unfortunately often) don’t seem to have a point at all.

At the same time, I’ve been so … traumatized by grad school that I can’t watch popular documentaries about my field or read about it in the news.  Seeing a “hey, this is cool” article in my Facebook feed produces a burst of anxiety, even though I am by nature incredibly curious about everything else.  Sometimes I wonder if my “this is totally boring” reaction at school is actually a coping mechanism to avoid this anxiety.

Then there’s the issue of hope.  When I do have a string of good, productive days, you’d think I’d get somewhere, right?  Wrong.  My effort seems to fall into an abyss of nothingness.  I’m trying to dig a tunnel through stone with a plastic spoon.  It’s hard to sustain the hope that I can do this when the end never. seems. to. get. any. closer.

Is there anything else I like about where I’m at right now, besides the fact that it’s comfortable and familiar?  Yes: my fellow grad students.  They are more like me than any other group I’ve ever been a part of, and that is a very valuable thing.  And yet they seem so very much unlike me – they seem ready to jump through the hoops of an academic career because of course that’s what they want.  The things that bother me so very much about our program and the culture of our field just don’t bother them that much.  Am I too sensitive?

I will lose these friends anyway, soon, as we all start to graduate and they begin hopping across the globe to postdoctoral positions.  I am done hopping; more than the physical upheaval of repeated moves, I am done giving my whole life just to make it to the next step, where I will have to give even more to make it to the next step after that, and so on and so on.

At present, the cost of childcare and the needs of my own sanity, I am working 4-hour days, enough to fulfill my contractual 20 hours a week.  Increased efficiency and reduced time-wasting allow me to get nearly as much done in those 4 hours as I did in 7-8 hours per day pre-baby.  But even working 8 hours a day felt like getting away with something; the expectation is 12-14.  And I can understand the urge to spend more and more and more time on research.  Perhaps if I did, I would feel like I was getting somewhere.  Perhaps not.  Undoubtedly I would lose my current fragile hold on sanity.  I have been to that place of perpetual work before, and it is not a happy place.

I do very much feel like I’m acting the part of the good, productive grad student, and I live in fear of the day someone finally realizes that I’m not.  I can’t use the regular tips for combating this “imposter syndrome;” that advice all seems to assume that you really are productive and achieving but just don’t see it.  Me, I’ve yet to publish a single first-author paper in a program where three or four are required to graduate and six(!) give you a shot at a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship.

The fact of the matter is that there was a significant stretch of time when I really was just pretending to work.  I was so burnt out by my first project (the one that birthed the Paper From Hell) that I spent months appearing to work in my office but actually browsing the internet and reading blogs.  In retrospect, taking proper time off might have been a better idea, but I was terrified that if I stopped coming in to the office on a regular basis, I would never come back.

My pride tells me that I have to finish this PhD.  My fear tells me that I will likely be one of the last of my classmates to do so, that I will take a year longer to finish than the “good” grad students, pushing me into “it’s hard to find funding for you” territory.  I have always been the one in life who gets things done first and best, so this is a very hard situation to accept.  I already feel a wee bit like a charity case with my advisor, who took me on after my first advisor turned out to be hopelessly incompetent at research.  I know I’ll be a disappointment if/when I say that I don’t want to apply for postdoctoral positions, to him and to the department that thought I was promising enough for a fellowship in my first year.

“I want to do a good job at this thesis, but it stops there” – how are they going to react?  A little part of me is afraid to make my future departure from academia official because of the tiny chance that maybe if I can just really get back into it again, I’ll realize that I still like it.  The atmosphere is so competitive that to admit you’re not 100% into it essentially kills your opportunity to proceed.  You have to be fully ready to actually walk away when you admit you’re thinking about it.  Moreover, I’m not sure that I ever can really get back into it, so strong is the fear of sacrificing my sanity.  I very deliberately don’t think about research outside of work right now.

Could I apply for postdoc jobs just to keep up the front of interest?  Even my father tells me I should think about applying for academic positions, just in case (although he also tells me not to apply for any job I would never take).  I know how long those applications take – we’re talking weeks and months! – and is that really a good use of my time, time that I could be using instead to just finish the damn PhD?

Am I really ready to completely let go of the idea of an academic career?  I am supposed to love my research, love it so much that I just can’t help working on it for 14 hours a day, and I definitely, definitely don’t.  But I don’t know what else to do.  The judgement of others looms large in my mind – there will be those who think I left because I wasn’t smart enough, those who think it was some kind of stereotypically-female decision after having a baby (they are wrong: I felt this way long before Little Boy came along).

Whew.  I’ve temporarily exhausted the well of anxiety on this subject.  If you’ve stuck with me through this post – thanks for reading.  This is the great unsolved problem in my life, and I could use the support in figuring it out.

Return of the Hydra

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.