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?