Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tip #2 - Work it out

Working out has possibly been the most important factor in me keeping my last shreds of sanity over the past two years. I had never been a big sports person, nor a fan of sitting in a room doing repetitive motions to sculpt a perfect body - my daily exercise through college consisted mostly of walking around the city.

But sitting at a desk all day began to take its toll on my body, and the back pain and migraines had to be addressed. I've tried a little of everything since then - from the slow and contemplative to the fast and exhilarating. Personally, I have found that while slower things like yoga can help perk me up for an hour or so afterwards, the hard and fast sports can change my whole mental state for days.

In fact, working out is so tied to my mental well being that, thinking back on the last few months and my plunge into PhD Depression, one obvious thing that is missing is a consistent workout regimen. As I mentioned before, there have been some recent shake-ups in my life which have pushed me off of my usual schedule. Unfortunately, one of the first things to go was my commitment to all things good for me like working out and eating right. It has been a slow downward progression for me of slacking off on exercise, followed by lethargy that makes me want to exercise less, leading all the way down to lack of motivation and energy for anything in my life - my work, extracurricular activities, even friends. Laying in bed or vegging out in front of the computer/tv start to be the only things appealing to me.

With this realization, I choose to get myself out of this hole I've dug and start taking care of myself. It is as important to my PhD as publishing because I don't think I could muster the energy or enthusiasm to publish without a well-taken care of body.

So here are the rules I have found worked for me in the past and will try to follow as I restart my regimen, maybe they can help you. If you have any techniques that I left off that help you get to the gym, please post them! :
  1. Make some social or monetary commitment
    • It's just too easy to say "not today" when you have no commitment to anyone.

    • Exercising with a friend is good, just make sure it's not a flakey one - it's best if you can find an uptight one that will be furious if you flake.

    • Sign up for something - the gym, a class, etc - the more specifically you can see your money wasted when you don't go, the more motivated you will be. A gym membership is too abstract for me - once I've paid it, the money is gone and out of my head. What works best for me is signing up for classes offered through the school that meet on a regular day and time. When I've paid $100 for the 10-session class offered, I can calculate that every session I miss adds at least a dollar to how much the other sessions are "costing" me (even if it's prepaid). Maybe it's convoluted thinking, but I almost never miss a session in a structure like this.

  2. Schedule it like any other meeting
    • It's non negotiable and you cannot choose to skip it because you are right in the middle of something or you're hungry or a friend just called. There is nothing more important than your health and it has to be one of, if not the, top priority.

    • If it helps, refer in all cases to it as a "commitment" instead of "going to work out". If someone wants something that conflicts, simply say "I have a previous commitment". I find this helps me feel less guilty about keeping this date with myself when I think and refer to it as a commitment as important as any other in my life.

  3. Remove all potential deterrents
    • Find someplace close by (especially if you're walking), even better if it's on your way home from the University so you can drop in on the way home.

    • Wear your gym clothes as much as possible. If you're already dressed, that's one less lazy excuse.

    • Keep an extra set of gym clothes nearby - in your backpack, at your desk, wherever - that way you can go on a whim if you need some stress relief or just feel like it

  4. Pay attention to how you feel
    • If you can really focus on how good you feel, then motivating yourself next time will be that much easier. It will become less of an obligation and more of an addiction

    • See how the aggravation over the reviewer's comments melts away

    • Notice that adrenaline rush after

    • Pay attention to the longer lasting physical and mental benefits (how do you feel the day after? Two days after? If you exercise for a week, track your optimism levels for the week)

    • If you aren't noticing these benefits, and even if you are, try something new. You're trying to get away from the monotony of PhD life, so don't let your sports life get dull!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is the opportunity cost we're missing out on by getting our PhDs?

I want to discuss the opportunity cost of staying in a PhD program that you're unhappy with.

It's something I never really thought about until now, as I begin to think about where I could go from here if I just quit tomorrow. What would I be doing if I weren't doing my PhD? I'm not even thinking of the money I could be making (not much to think about, it would obviously be more than I'm making now). What I've been wondering is...have I cost myself half of my 20's doing something that makes me somewhat happy (and often miserable), when I could have been discovering what makes me really happy?

Pursuing my PhD has given me so much - it has sent me around the world more than once, it has provided me with the opportunity to meet amazing people and it has given me a Master's free of charge.

What my PhD program has not done for me, so far, is help me discover what I really want to do with my life. Until now, the comfort of being in the same program for many years has lulled me into a sleepy acceptance of life as usual. Only after some recent shake-ups have I been jolted back into the scary reality that I don't plan on going for a research position when this is all over. If that's the case, then what do I really want to do? I'm thinking now of the cost of those sleepy years and how I could or should have been figuring these things out instead of trudging through the PhD program, scared that if I found out what I really loved I would desert this goal I had.

This bout of PhD Depression has been a really excruciating and, yet, invigorating time. As I examine my life and where I want it to go, I feel like I'm emerging from a long period of stagnation.

Back to the question of opportunity cost. Although grad school has given me great things, what I feel I have missed out on are "the first jobs". Most of my friends are on job 2 or 3 at this point and I feel like every time they quit (or get fired) they're moving towards figuring out what they really want. So if I was really brave I could just quit and start figuring things out, but I'm not that brave or ready to give up on this degree that I'm so close to obtaining. So, in lieu of that, I have decided to continue in the program but with the set intention to stop wasting my time outside the lab wallowing in or drowning my sorrows and start discovering my passions.

I know so far that:
  1. I need to talk. All of this quiet working time drives me up a wall, I need interaction.
  2. I need to move. Ditto on the quiet working time, I cannot sit in front of a computer all day long.
  3. I love to learn. Not necessarily this deep, one-subject type learning that a PhD entails - but a high-level, jack-of-all-trades type. That's what's tricky about loving college and the new-subject-every-semester system, it lures some of us into thinking "I love school, why not do more school?!" And off we go to graduate school, when it may be the worst place possible for people who thrived in that environment.
  4. I enjoy writing. Probably a subset of #1.
  5. I enjoy teaching, organizing groups, leading discussions. This is the most valuable thing grad school has taught me. All of the forced teaching helped me to discover something I would have never guessed in a million years! (I had severe public speaking anxiety before grad school)
  6. I'd like to have money. Ok I guess I was thinking a little about the monetary cost of my PhD. It's a dirty and uncouth thing to say, but I'll admit it. At first I was ok living like I did in college - always frugal, buying and selling on craigslist, running after free food events, cramped apartment...but I'm tired of living the life of a poor grad student. We are the best and brightest, living in a capitalistic society, where is the monetary reward?! I don't need a ton, and I don't intend to be totally wasteful, but I would really love to have real furniture one day.
One idea that I've been toying with is, if I introduce some of this into my life, can that help soothe the PhD depression? Maybe my problem is just that I have been so narrowly focused on one thing that I've neglected the multi-dimensional human that I am. Thus, the writing of this blog (also see Tip #1-Write it out)...

So that's my list so far. What's yours?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tip #1 - Write it out

I've already found, during my very short time writing this blog, that writing out my complaints and worries can do amazing things for my mental state.

Next time you're feeling down, take a break and try to write it out - your fears, your distractions, your insecurities...write it all out.

  • Journal.
  • Come here and discuss with others.
  • Start your own blog.
  • Write it all down then burn the paper to banish those feelings from your mind.
  • Write poetry.
  • Write a song.
  • Write an email and then delete it, or send it to someone removed from the situation (try to avoid sending it to your advisor or any peer in your academic community when you're really upset - take a day or so and review what you're trying to say and decide if it will start a productive conversation before you send anything about your Ph.D. Depression)
Writing can be a very powerful release. Try it next time. You're always welcome to write here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Are we expected to fail?

As I was writing my first post, I came across this article which attempts to paint a sunny picture of a bleak situation. What I found more interesting than the article, though, was the comment titled "The System Loves Attrition", which states that:

"The academic labor system relies on this high attrition rate. It produces a continual, renewable supply of a) cheap "student teachers" and b) persons who are unenrolled, intermittently enrolled, or enrolled on a dissertation-maintenance fee schedule, who serve as contingent faculty."

Am I naive for believing in the purity of academia? Sure there are some impure traditions - publishing solely to prevent perishing, networking to enhance one's career, tenure and some of the actions that come with it - but I also believe that there are not wholly dark motives behind these. People are in academia to contribute by publishing, there just happens to be a little bit of pressure to prevent laziness. Networking is just a dirty way to say "making friends", and who wouldn't want to be friends with their peers? Tenure is meant to protect freedom of speech and thought...there are just a few black sheep who abuse it.

But this statement about using us as student teachers with the hope that we'll drop out after providing that service (the comment continues by pointing out that if we all stayed there wouldn't be nearly enough full-time positions for us) - I can't accept my beloved academia would do this to me.

I have been wondering, though, how attrition rates could be so enormous and why schools aren't trying harder to lower them. Why is no one more worried about this? Why are there not more safeguards put in place to weed out those who are ill-suited for pursuing a doctorate prior to admitting us? Or, once admitted, why are there not more programs in place to help us get through the process without such pain and agony? I'm really not one for conspiracy theories, but it does seem strange that year-after-year PhD students leave their programs in huge quantities and it's not considered the top priority for schools who often display with pride their graduation rate for the undergraduate program

Do you think this could be true? Are our schools really hoping we'll leave after a few years of cheap service?

Or are these just the paranoid words of a man selling a book on the topic?



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ph.D. Depression

Ph.D. depression = ???

Yesterday I googled the phrase "when to quit your Ph.D." I am at a low point in my feelings about my own research and commitment to the Ph.D. program and was looking for some "objective" advice from a blogger or columnist to tell me what the breaking point should be - what is the rule for when to throw in the Ph.D. towel?

I didn't find the answer to that question, but I found a lot of desperate PhDs struggling with the same question as me and searching for each other by posting on forums and blogs. Just finding them - and realizing that there are a lot of us out there struggling - made me feel so much better and picked me up out of my own self pity long enough to inspire me to take a proactive approach to making my decision...and hopefully help some people out on the way. That's why I'm starting this blog.

The thing is, even though a huge percentage of us feel this way (according to the data collected in the Ph.D. Completion Project 31% of us will leave our programs by year 10 and only 57% will have graduated), we're not talking about it with each other. Since no one wants to talk about it publicly, I'm starting this site as a community for us to discuss privately...and also as a journal for me to work out my own decision. I'll post my thoughts on my journey through this prestigious and frustrating process of obtaining a Ph.D., any useful information I come across and maybe some polls to see if I can get some quantitative evidence of our situation to prove or disprove my theories on it (still a researcher at heart). I hope you'll share your stories, talk to each other and help me create a supportive community for our fellow PhDs. We don't have to go through this alone.

So what is Ph.D. Depression? That's to be decided here as we go, but here's a working definition I've come up with for now:

A series of symptoms that resemble the symptoms of a Major Depressive Episode but are constrained to aspects of one's life that are directly affected by the Ph.D.

Some examples of how the symptoms for a Major Depressive Episode could be constrained exclusively to the aspects of life directly affected by the Ph.D. are:

-A depressed mood when thinking about research, but not in other aspects of one's life

-Diminished interest or pleasure in learning and research but not extracurricular hobbies (maybe even an excessive increase in extracurricular hobbies)

-Increase/decrease in appetite or weight gain during deadlines and other work-related stresses

-Insomnia/hypersomnia during the week, with regular sleeping during the weekend or holidays

-Psychomotor agitation/retardation, fatigue/loss of energy only while working

-Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt in relation to one's own intelligence or lack of productive research

(I think this is an especially important feature because the defining characteristic for most of us pursing a Ph.D. has been our exceptional intelligence and/or work ethic...which just doesn't seem to be that exceptional any more)

-Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness when relating to work - with possibly an over abundance of these resources relating to games, non-work related websites or hobbies

-Recurrent thoughts of Ph.D. death (being let go by one's advisor) or Ph.D. suicide (leaving the program)

If you want to check out the symptoms I've based this on, see the DSM IV definition of a Major Depressive Episode. BTW, this blog is meant to establish a supportive community to help combat the loneliness associated with both obtaining a Ph.D. and/or deciding to stop pursing the Ph.D. It is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical help. If you think you're experiencing a Major Depressive Episode, please contact a mental health professional.