The Alternative?

This is a “reprint” of a post I wrote for an in-class, private blog as an assignment last term, slightly edited. It is a response to articles about mental health challenges in graduate school; something like this one.

I was inspired to fetch and post this publicly by a conversation I had with some more senior (and one former) graduate student today about whether and how we were prepared for the intellectual and emotional work of grad school.

I post this with gratitude to my friends whom I mention here, all now PhDs in their own rights :) 

I feel lucky to be here.

I am aware————————–de=erd   [<– this is the contribution of my cat, Mandelbrot! I’ll use this occasion to try that sentence again]

I was convinced for most of my life that I was only possessed of aptitudes for which I could not be paid: drawing, painting, poetry, the verbal sections of standardized tests, and getting things down from high shelves. This would have been fine– that’s what hobbies and short roommates are for!– except it also turned out that I was pretty bad at doing things that did pay, and pretty miserable doing them, too. I thought I was just not very clever, and rewarding work wasn’t in my future, until I met some grad students.

I had this impression that in order to pursue a PhD, you needed to be some kind of savant– that if I were to meet people who were doing so I’d have so little in common with them that we couldn’t even communicate. But I was way off.

The graduate students I met were sharp, of course, but also friendly and fun! They had meaningful conversations thoughtfully, and, surprisingly, they cared about *my* thoughts, too. They wanted to know what I was curious about, what my ideas were. They even thought some of my ideas and questions were good, and I felt like I was a real, equal partner in our discussions. Meanwhile, at work, I would be asked for my opinion, ignored or over-ridden by someone senior to me, required to execute and stand behind something obviously stupid, and then told to clean up after those ideas went wrong.

And the more I got to know my academic friends, I noticed something really amazing. More than anyone I knew, they sincerely loved their work. People say, “don’t ask a grad student about their thesis topic,” and I can’t think of worse advice. I mean, yeah, don’t ask when it will be done, but if you like to learn,  the person to ask is someone who taken on huge opportunity costs to become an expert in a topic that they care about. So they were experts, they worked hard, and they loved their work. I quickly grew to love graduate student parties, because I could go around and ask, “so what do you study?” It might take a few follow-up questions to convince them I was actually interested, but eventually, I could learn a ton about something from someone who knows all about it, and gave up what is often considerable income potential because they care about it so much.

The value surplus of my friends’ work expand the human knowledge by pin pricks, and I worked to– what exactly? prevent a start-up from failing? Make some board members (marginally more) wealthy?

So if there’s a checklist, my friends had autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I had none of the above.

After being told by a senior executive that I was here to be “something nice to look at,” being spied on, and finally asked to do something unethical, I quit my last start-up job, and I promised myself I wouldn’t find another until I took those GRE books out of my trunk and put them to use.

I spent the next year gathering research and teaching experience to give this an honest shot. By the time I got into this, I had seen my friends go through comps, prospectus defenses, dissertation defenses, and the job market. It looked terrifying, though they all handled it with grace. They confessed it was brutal, and it was totally worth it.

The choice was perhaps easier for me than them, even with open eyes to the difficulties, because the payoff–rewarding work– was a unicorn I never dared believe existed (and frankly my alternative was pretty shitty.)

My partner, Brandon, persuaded me to write a plan (in GTD style) for how I’d get in to graduate school. I went back to check it out (had to go look in the “Completed” section by the way– what a trip!)  Here are the purposes and principles for my “get into graduate school” project:

  • Enjoy learning and researching for 4-7 years, and expand human knowledge by a pin prick at a time
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to enjoy learning and research (in academia or industry)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to expand human knowledge (pin pricks at a time)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can spread enthusiasm for science among people like me, who initially were intimidated or uninterested
  • Qualify as a expert in something, about which I can write
  • Qualify for a career in which I could feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Have an income for 4-7 years
  • Expand my social network with more thoughtful, invested, ambitious people
  • Publish a first-author paper
  • Don’t idolize R1, TT jobs
  • Don’t put your name on half-assed work

Fortunately, all of these things can be accomplished if I end up working in industry. So as as intimidating as the pressures created by the structure of academia are, and as much as I want to fix the issues that plague the academy for the sake of current professors and undergraduates, I am walking in with open eyes and and a back up plan.

It’s fun to end with a photo, so here is Mandelbrot gloating about her astute blog contribution.

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So far, this is going quite well. I found a few things I was dreading doing and putting off because they were unclear, or complicated, or something I had minorly screwed up in the past and was afraid of.

But avoiding the task doesn’t solve any of those problems (in fact, it exacerbates the latter!) so, once I got my head clear and recovered some of my confidence yesterday, I clarified them, broke them down into next actions, and tackled them this morning.

And you know what?

I didn’t fail or die or anything! My cat even still likes me.

Now, it’s time to go grocery shopping and make a whole bunch of burritos so I don’t have to cook next week 😉

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Winter Break 1.0

Long time, no see! I just got back from winter break. You’d think that I’d have had time to write something, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s sort of what this post is about.

Before winter break started, I was really excited about all the work I’d be able to get done. It was a simple formula:

No class = more time

Right? Not exactly

During the last lab meeting before winter break, we went around the table and talked about what we would do before we met next. I talked with my cohort about what winter break would be like. I planned my trip. I knew it was a norm to joke about how difficult it will be to get work done, but I knew I had bitten off less than I could chew. I look back on my confidence with amusement.

Now I see that having no structure in my time is, for me, a disaster. I did get the main priorities for the break completed, and I’m happy with what I’ve done, but let’s just say that if I didn’t return 5 days ahead of time just before a huge snowstorm that gave me an excuse to not leave the apartment for days on end, I would be significantly less happy.

And those few days were like pulling teeth to get anything done, even though I clearly had the time. Like the total cliche I am, I found other things to do. I cleaned, I cooked– I even baked a loaf of bread! (That part was worth it. delicious.)

It’s important to me to learn from this experience for a few reasons:

First, I will have other breaks, including summer, when I will have to get work done.

Second, and hugely, assuming all goes well, I will have a lot of unstructured time during which to write my dissertation. During that time, I need to write my dissertation, not worry about writing my dissertation and then write it all at once at the last possible moment.

Thirdly, I need to have practice imposing and conforming to structure on my time to be a researcher who succeeds in accomplishing her own priorities, rather than what happens to be urgent at that moment.

After a year or two of arranging my life pretty haphazardly and years of historic failure to handle long term projects for school, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with my productive response to the structure of last semester. What that tells me is that, just like studies suggest, I am capable of improving and building new skills. Now it’s time to extend that to productive use of unstructured time. And I’ll have several, but not unlimited opportunities to practice and refine those habits before dissertation time.

I’ll report on my plans and progress in this area, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions for being productive with unstructured time in the comments!

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