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.