Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who doesn't have PhD Depression?

When I was in high school, I was surrounded by people who thought learning was stupid and being interested in learning was even stupider.

I was thrilled to discover, upon my arrival at college, that I was in a new group of people. These people were excited to learn. They were disciplined and motivated. They would say things like "I'm going to the library" or "I can't, I have reading to do", without a hint of disappointment (stress maybe, but excited, happy stress) and off they'd march proudly, to do what they were born to do - excel at learning.

Going to college was like going home to me. It felt like the place I was meant to be. I was finally with people just like me, and they weren't the "nerds" or the "losers", they were (for the most part) well-adjusted, well-spoken, well-studied, semi-adults. They thrived in an academic environment where they could OCD to their hearts content, discuss interesting topics, and generally nerd-out without judgement.

I assumed that as I moved up in the academic world, I would find even more of this. But, as I discussed a few days ago, for me grad school is nothing like college.

It feels like I'm back in high school.

Everyone around me refers to their work with an shrug and and eyeroll. We complain about the talks we have to attend, or the papers we have to read. Showing some genuine enthusiasm for something other than extracurricular activities most commonly results in a snarky comment about whatever you're excited about - "Great talk!" "Yeah, except the middle 30 minutess, where I fell asleep, or the end where he mispronounced something, haha, what an idiot" - which can seriously grate on a person's enthusiasm.

I'm not saying I'm always the exception to the rule. I have my own long-standing pet peeves with academia (like why so many crappy papers get published), and I also admit to going through bouts of PhD Depression.

But what's everyone else's excuse?

Does everyone have PhD Depression?

My personal answer is yes.

Ok ok, not everyone, but I'm going to go with a majority. There's always exceptions to this rule, but as I've argued before, the attrition rates show a huge number of us are unhappy enough to leave the programs we're in, and who knows how many of us are unhappy and finish anyway - though I'm beginning to get an idea.

So is it the chicken or the egg here? How much of our unhappiness is amplified by the negative attitude of those around us?

You might be surprised to know, given my running of this blog, that a few weeks ago a fellow PhD student told me that I inspired him. After giving a presentation of my work, he said "that sounds so interesting, this is the first time I've been excited for my work" (his work will be similar to mine).

Yup me. P.D. inspiring others by the work I spend hours fretting and blogging over.

So what does this mean?

1) It means I'm a damn good presenter. I don't believe in lying, but I do believe a presentation is about selling your product. It is my job to go up there and say why this should be interesting to you, and I guess I got a convert. Pat myself on the back.

2) It means that maybe a little positivity around the office might help us all. It's not that I want to be around show-offs all day, but just some people noting how interesting a topic is...like the good ole days of college

3) It means that you should be the one to start this change, since you're reading this right now. The next time you find something interesting in a paper, share it. Share the tiny flickers of enthusiasm you get, instead of hiding it away and covering it with the oh so cool PhD student cynicism.

4) It also means I could just be a complete idiot and totally wrong. Do you notice what I'm talking about at all?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Crusin' 'round the 'sphere

Food for thought:

The funnier version of my learn to be grateful tip

The metaphorical version of my just start tip

This has nothing to do with any of my tips, but is just funny. Watch what you say on facebook!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Decision to Commit Academic Suicide...

On this lazy Sunday, I was catching up on some of my blog reading and stumbled across a moving piece about the type of motivation that comes from making things work because you JUST HAVE TO. I don't think that one line summary does the post justice, so just go read it to see what I mean.

Wow, did it hit home.

So now, even though I try my hardest to keep my identity private so that I don't compromise my job or cause pain to any of those around me such as my advisor (whom I totally respect) or my school (which I totally love), I'm going tell you a little about myself and the last 4 months since I started this blog.

When I decided to become a PhD student, I can't say I did it for the "right" reasons. I didn't know at the time they were the wrong reasons, but I've come to realize it. The reasons were:
  1. I was good at school
  2. I loved listening to lectures and doing homework
  3. I didn't know what else to do with my life
  4. It made my parents, friends and myself proud.
I wasn't totally enthralled by my subject. I had actually considered going for a PhD in a different subject, but see reason #4 for why I went this direction. That was probably the biggest mistake I made.

Another problem with my logic was that getting a PhD has almost nothing to do with previous school experiences, i.e. #1 and #2, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's unstructured and lacking clear direction other than the self-directed goals you set.

I don't think I need to explain why #3 is a bad reason. But if I do, then I'll just say it's because something so consuming and frustrating and poor-paying should not be entered into lightly. If I was floundering at least I could have done it in a 9-5 that paid me 6 figures, like the thousands of obviously smarter college grads who enter the real world workforce each year.

I loved the first two years of my program because it was basically a harder version of college - exactly what I was looking for. I completed my required courses all while avoiding taking on too much research (mistake number 4).

During years 2 and 3 I taught a lot. Part of this was because I was required to, part was that I found that I really enjoyed teaching and part of it was that I wasn't finding a good research topic and being busy teaching was an easy way to not acknowledge that while being useful to my department.

The bouts of PhD Depression began during year 3 when I would question "why am I here?" (grad school, not life...or maybe both). But at that point I brushed it off as something that would get better once I identified my dissertation topic.

But I was wrong.

During year 4 I finally nailed down a good topic. One that actually interested me and seemed relatively unexamined in the field. I felt good and motivated and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And then I saw how much digging and swimming and climbing it was going to take me to get to the end of that tunnel.

And that sent me into the lowest low of my PhD Depression.

It was in the depths of my PhD Depression that I felt so desperate that I was moved to action. First, I started this blog to find others out there like me, and then I began to plan my escape from academia.

But then a great/horrible/mysterious thing happened....I started to feel good, really good, about my PhD.

Have you ever heard that one of the warning signs of suicide is when a really depressed person just suddenly and inexplicably stops being depressed? Sometimes that's because going on medication, ironically and tragically, gives them enough of an energy boost to do the deed and since they've decided to end it now they're just enjoying the last moments of life, feeling better having made the decision. Well, that's sort of how I felt.

Having decided to commit Academic Suicide (not PhD Suicide, I still plan on finishing my degree because I'm so close, but I decided not to continue my career in academia afterwards), I began to feel really good. And this good feeling was magnified by my concerted efforts to incorporate the tips into my life.

Why is feeling good so bad?

It's bad because I began to put the plans I had been developing for my future academic-break on the back burner. The things I was preparing started to seem less important than my research.

That's the catch 22 and why the article hit so home with me. It's great that I'm getting interested in my research, and I'm going to need this momentum to finish. But it is also a symptom of something important in my personality. As long as I'm doing anything else, I won't be able to totally disconnect and focus on doing what I want to do (i.e. my own business).

So how does this story end?

When I told my parents that I have no intention to continue on to becoming a professor, they responded by saying I should just apply for positions and take them in the meantime until my business takes off. It sounds like my parents have a lot of say in my life, but the truth is that they are just the external representation of that nagging voice inside my own head. They're saying the things that I know are true - I shouldn't be irresponsible about this decision.

Of course I should get a job and health insurance, and I shouldn't burn my academic bridges...just in case. But there has been another nagging voice in my head saying...

"If you take the safe route again, this is never going to happen. You're going to get stuck there, just like you've gotten stuck in your PhD. You're going to put all of your time and energy into it, because that's what you do, and you'll never quit because you don't quit things."

And that's it I think.

I have to start drowning before I have the time, energy or focus to learn how to swim.

Is that crazy? Probably. But right now, what seems crazier is swimming only in the shallow end and then drowning anyway, but so slow that I don't even realize I'm drowning, and being too stubborn to get out because I think this is the safer water.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Weekend Wisdom

For those of us in the business of thinking, we sometimes like to spend our free time not doing that. And I can hardly argue. Not thinking has long been a pastime of mine.

A great non-thinking activity is TV watching. TV and I have a serious love/hate relationship. Every time I sit down to watch some TV, I feel like I'm wasting time. However, I also feel like wasting time is not always a bad thing, and sometimes it's a really good thing.

Some shows render that debate irrelevant. By watching them, you are not only not wasting time, you're actually gaining something. A show like "the Wire" makes you realize that you can make a TV show AND be a genius at the same time. Everything about it connects, it makes you think, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's incredible stuff.

This weekend, I urge you to test the durability of your eyeballs and watch every episode of the first season of "the Wire". Ask a friend to borrow his copy, put them all in your netflix queue, get them from iTunes or Amazon (see below), or see if there's a rental store that has them near you (I would really really urge you not to download them illegally, but I'm not your mom).

We spend a lot of time with a lot of smart people, but usually it exists in our very narrow research universe. Every now and then, it's refreshing to appreciate genius in something completely unrelated to what you're doing. Maybe it can even help you think differently about your work. Enjoy your TV binge this weekend!

The Wire - The Wire, Season 1

The Wire - The Complete First Season

Or if you really want to go crazy, here's a link to the ENTIRE series!

The Wire: The Complete Series

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ten Tips for Making the Most of Your PhD Time...Even When You Feel Like There's No Hope

So for the last tip list, Ten Tips for Staying Sane While Getting Your PhD, I slowly revealed each tip once or twice a week until all ten tips were out there.

At first I did this because I had no idea that I was compiling a list. I was just giving tips as they occurred to me during my own struggle to get out of a bad case of PhD Depression. But then, after some reflection, I noticed the trend in my tips (regaining sanity in a crazy PhD world) and thought I'd round them all up and top them off to make a nice clean list of 10.

This tip list is a little more premeditated. I liked how the last one turned out, so I thought I'd try my hand at another one. Last weekend I spent some time thinking about what I'm trying to do with my life/PhD/etc, and I came up with this list, about how to make the most of your PhD. I'd like to think that this advice applies to both those who are happy in their program and those struggling.

At first I thought I'd do a slow reveal, but then I realized that I don't really care about building suspense. What I do care about is fleshing out the tips when I get time. So, for now, here's a summary of all 10 tips. Over the next few weeks I'll expand on each.

10. Hone your skills - Focus on the skills you're getting the opportunity to build and really hone them.

9. Get a Roth IRA - Might as well see the upside to making minimum wage.

8. Act like a college student - Any way that comes to mind. As long as you live on a campus, you can do it like the college kids (other than dating your students).

7. Start sucking up...knowledge - Take advantage of all the know-it-alls around you and learn something exotic.

6. Publish - Obviously you have to, but think about your name being written into the history books and your butt being flown to an exotic island location to present at a conference.

5. Get paid to read! - It's easy to forget how lucky you are to get paid to read and research and learn. Take advantage of that and set aside some time each workday to read interesting things (in and out of your field).

4. Get friendly - Make contacts/friends/whatever-you-want-to-call-them to inspire you in the short term and help you get a job or provide a reference in the long term.

3. Beef up your resume - To the extent that it doesn't hurt your research, join committees, teach, take positions of leadership. No other job offers you this many opportunities to shine (and generally without strong repercussions for failing!).

2. Take notes on your advisor - Study what he does to see what got him to where he is (there must be something). What could you learn and what would you do differently? It'll help you in any position you take.

1. Don't waste your own time - If you're going to slack off, do it productively by doing something that helps you discover your true interests.

Do you have any tips of your own to share with us?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the Desk of the TA: The Enemy from Within (Your Pants)

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

Being a TA means meeting with lots of students, each with his or her own personal motive.

Some are purely driven, and actually want your help. I like those students. They make your job worthwhile, without overwhelming you. And after talking with them, you feel genuinely useful. Such a good feeling.

Some are less purely driven. Some want to know if they're right, when they actually KNOW that they're right. So what they really want is for you to know how right they are. Awesome. I love those people. I could write an entire column about much I loathe dealing with those questions.

And amongst the myriad of other motives lies the most difficult one: the student who wants a little more.

First, lemme just assure you that getting together with one of your students is never a good idea. Never. Not even once. The only good outcome is the minute chance that you end up together with this student forever and no one else finds out. The chance that no one finds out is about 0. If someone does find out about, you're really screwed. Dating a student is against the TA protocol of just about every school. It's the most basic of conflicts of interest. In the best case, you'll be fired as a TA. And in the worst, you may face some investigation from the academic board or whatever internal committee your university has.

I don't want to be Debbie Downer here, but it's the truth. It's a bad idea. Now here's what sucks about the whole situation. In my first semester of TA'ing, I was trying to be as helpful as possible. I would spend a lot of extra time with students, and I thought it was working really well. But then I got the distinct impression that a couple of the students were flirting with me. Luckily for me, I wasn't remotely interested.

So I got very defensive and avoided answering their questions. or tried to answer as quickly as possible and then move on. I would spend less time helping them than other students. And then they felt offended, which made them upset. That cycle continued, and it ended with one of the students making snide remarks, and the other getting into a shouting match with the other TA.

As a result, I pulled away a bit. I got less involved with the personal stories of my students, and just tried to help however I could. Sometimes it sucks when I'd really like to help someone out more, but it's impossibly hard to balance that with helping too much and invading your personal time. So do as much as you can that feels appropriate, and you're doing your best.

One last thought about this whole situation. If you really feel like a person you're TA'ing is your one and only, it's not illegal to date him or her. It's just a really bad idea and against the code of conduct for pretty much any school. Try waiting until after the semester when you're not the TA, when it becomes much less messy. If you two are still madly in love, then go for it. If not, then you saved yourself a lot of aggravation, and possibly a career in your research field.