Saturday, October 7
A week or two ago, I was going to post the secret that things are not as bad as I sometimes make them out to be. I complain a lot about not doing any work and letting my advisor down and so on. Lately, people have been responding to my complaints by encouraging me to think about what I would do if I dropped out of grad school (or got kicked out). At first, this took me aback. For all my whining, I hadn't seriously considered quitting, and my suprise and indignation that people actually believed that I might be at risk of being forced out suggested that I might have been exaggerating for effect. Or at least, I thought I was exaggerating. I always assumed that at some point I would stop being lazy and unmotivated and be the relatively productive student I like to think of my "real" self as (never mind the fact that that "real" me has never existed outside my head).

When I was thinking about writing that post, I was having a couple of productive days and it seemed like the problem was my representation of my situation. I decided I should stop misleading people about being on the edge of dropping out, since everything really was going to be all right in the end. Unfortunately, that confidence didn't last long and now I'm feeling worse than before, because I'm taking people's reactions to my complaints more seriously. If everyone I talk to gets the impression I should be looking for alternative careers, maybe there's some truth to that view.

I wish I had a better sense of perspective. It would be good if I knew whether to believe my own Chicken Little-esque views, or my more optimistic moments, the post-doc who claims I have good data, or the well-meaning people who assure me that there is life outside academia.
I hesitate to include this, because I don't want to be making excuses for my lack of productivity, but I wonder as well how much of my pessimism and apathy is due to depression. I'm nowhere near as depressed as I was a year or six months ago, but my motivation is still gone. Is it just laziness at this point, or genuine loss of interest, or will it come back?

I started writing this post as a comment to Orange Ina's post about students who constantly let their advisors down. The posts about writing recommendation letters for mediocre students made me feel similarly guilty. This is the downside to reading academic blogs. It's all too easy to imagine the snarky posts my advisor would write about me, if she had a blog, and weren't as loath to badmouth anyone as she is. Perhaps the disappointed and concerned posts I can imagine her writing would be worse.

Do the students their advisors complain about ever manage to become productive and get decent jobs? I'm starting to imagine the half-hearted recommendation letters I might get (if I even ever make it far enough to graduate) and wondering if I should just give up now.


strawberries said...

no worries, dandelion! it all depends on you. grad school is hard and it sucks sometimes. sometimes a lot of the times. but if its where you want to be, and what you want to do, you can do it. and you can try to change the things that you feel you are not doing as you'd like. in the same vein, if you are in grad school but you don't want to be there, there is no reason to torture yourself if you don't have to. so don't listen to what others are saying, listen to what you are saying, to what you want to do. good luck!

Apricot said...

Strawberries speaks the truth. In my experience, the most successful people in academia aren't the smartest, the craftiest, the hardest working, the nicest, the coolest, the funnest... the anything-est. Grad school unfortunately sets up a situation where the opinions of other people matter a lot more than they should. Our advisors, our colleagues, family. Sometimes it seems like the only opinion that doesn't matter is our own.

But here's what I think: You should be doing what you really want to do, period. There is no shame in being "good." We don't always have to be great in every moment.

Whenever I think my advisor's disappointed in me, I always think to myself, "You know, I'm a human being, and this is my life. I intend to enjoy my life. So, your opinion means a lot to me, Advisor, but if it's between feeling anguished because I'll never measure up to your standards, or hanging out with my family and being a normal person, it's really no contest. Sorry." Just my opinion...

Dandelion said...

Thanks for the encouragement.

Apricot, I think you're being too kind, though. Your attitude sounds great, but I'm not feeling bad for merely being good. At the moment, mediocre is something to aspire to.

I guess I'm wondering how reversible my situation is. Have I already lost any goodwill my advisor and committee might have towards me, thanks to my current disorganised, incompetent state?

Orange Ina said...

First, sorry to hear about all this.

Second, are you seeing a therapist? I think it's really important in grad school and hopefully your health care provides it. It is totally possible that some (all?) of this may be depression related and it's going to be hard for you to tackle that on your own. Even if it's not depression related, you may still well benefit from a professional outlet.

Third, when students disappoint, that doesn't always mean that they are not being productive at all. As I tried to point out in my last post, it's often about really trivial things like a prompt email reply (that doesn't require any reporting on anything deep, I'm seriously talking trivialities like when are you free next week?). So don't take the comments in that post too seriously upon yourself.

Fourth, when people start encouraging you to think about alternatives, they may be doing so because they truly believe from everything YOU have told them that grad school may not be the thing for you and they want to be supportive of that. So don't see it as a hint, necessarily.

So what to do? Think about whether you enjoy this life. If it's only what may be ahead that is keeping you going, that may not be enough. Do you look forward to coming up with research questions? Do you enjoy designing projects? Do you like the data collection/analysis/write-up (or insert appropriate types of work in your field)? Do you enjoy teaching and interacting with students? Do you enjoy aspects of academia? If the answers are mostly no then perhaps this isn't for you. But if the answers are yes then it may be too early to change track.

You haven't given us enough information about your situation to know the extent to which you may have already disappointed people. For example, if you're in your fifth year and still barely starting your dissertation, that may be a concern. But even then it's hard to know in the abstract without the types of specifics that a.secret doesn't really allow.

If you're really ready to make some changes, you may consider talking to your advisor about all that. However, I'd first start by making some actual changes. IF you have a history of promising things in the past and not following up on them ( and by "history" I mean at least 3-4 times) then simply having a meeting about your desire to make things better may not be convincing. However, if you really do start to make some changes and then ask to talk to your advisor to see what suggestions s/he has for you to continue improving the situation, that could be helpful.

Again, we don't know enough details about your situation here to consider all the factors involved so be sure not to take some of these comments too seriously. They may not really apply.

cerulean said...

Wow, this sounds a lot like my story, although I'm much further down the track to dropping out than you are. I've just started the third year of what should be a four-year phd, but I feel like I haven't actually made any progress for a long time anyway.

I've been diagnosed with clinical depression, but I think that's caused in part by my refusal to admit that research (or at least, this phd) isn't for me. So the plan at this point is to leave the phd program, with my fiance, but leave the door open to taking it up again if the depression lifts and I decide that I want to make it work. So we'll see how I feel after a few months off and hopefully some therapy.

strawberries said...

i am sorry again that this is so hard. I forgot to repsond to the depression part. it takes awhile to get the motivation back, and sometimes, you fear/feel like its on you again. it is very hard to be in academia when you are depressed. and i echo orangina, are you seeing someone? and i agree with her advice. even if you're not as depressed as before, it doesn't mean it still isn't effecting you.

also, you may want to meet with a disability coordinator or academic counselor at your inst. to work out a managable plan of what you can and can't do, and try sticking to accomplishing small things at first instead of the big picture, which is always much scarier.

good luck and take care!

The Boss said...

Dear Dandelion
me here. I have been reading this blog for months now but this story grabbed my attention.

I think this is when SHADES OF GREY thinking needs to happen. One can achieve great things BREAK DOWN its ok achievements 'kept'Or as in my case enjoy GREAT ACHIEVEMENTS (my Research into a new area unwittingly would give qaulitative data to the Sociology of Religion PLANNED) without breaking down. As it is I have broken down (nice thing NO 1 now a good suggestion that needs SUPPORTED following up) and recent challenging assignment/s which have exposed brokenness and weakness to point of not coping (2 Academics in my life I dare to pray for them I dare to care and dare to get involved and find myself in Research land [I am in Supported Housing. am unemployed, chances of being where you are 1 in 20 or worse plus persistanct disadvantage, agesim, sexism, the life-affecting disadvantages just pile on] in Uk outside looking into Academia and Academic Secret is one of two sites i read regularly as to the woes and potential insane blessing of Academia) I also have family who are Academics on both sides so you could say the A*******profession is just slightly close to my heart.
Why not go to Chaplaincy for Prayer?? At my local Uni we have Confidential prayer support for Academics and Students ( the woes go both ways you know) and the Christians aim to work together for the cause of the Kingdom.
With every blessing and much love and hope that despite of this horrible depression things begin to work out for you
me aka The Boss.
nb try every other religion or not but God answers prayer and I have seen it too often to doubt it. And I am as academic as hell and am reading 31 book out of first 80 this year and now have a couple or Theories !!!!!

fraud, in denim said...

I'm sorry that you're struggling through this, Dandelion. It's not easy to be in a position like your own, wondering where you belong.

That said, I think that grad school is all about either making it because you love it (because you're likely going to have to want to do this for the rest of your life) or deciding to drop out because it might not be for you.

Grad school not being for you is not an act of cowardess or a sign of failure. I could never work in sales because it's just not my style. Some of the smartest - and even most driven - people I knew didn't make it through grad school because they figured out that whatever they were pursuing wasn't their style and they let that be okay.

It all depends on how much longer you have - I mean you can be an overqualified salesperson - but if you're early in your program, and seriously thinking this might not be for you - there's no shame in moving on to something different.

Also, if you don't want to leave, I recommend use the (perceived/real) questioning of others to fuel your desire to prove them wrong! It's worked well for amny before you.

Just know that whatever you decide is okay.

Navy Blue Blob said...

Following up on Fraud's note, it is absolutely true that staying or leaving academia has little to nothing to do with one's smarts. There are very very able and super smart people who've left academia.. and sometimes I wonder if it's precisely b/c they were smart enough to realize this was not for them.

It is important to approach the question as not one of failure or quitting, but one about what is it that you would enjoy doing? That's the key!

thistle said...

quoting Apricot:
Whenever I think my advisor's disappointed in me, I always think to myself, "You know, I'm a human being, and this is my life. I intend to enjoy my life. So, your opinion means a lot to me, Advisor, but if it's between feeling anguished because I'll never measure up to your standards, or hanging out with my family and being a normal person, it's really no contest. Sorry." Just my opinion...

First of all, thank you Apricot for that comment- I totally needed to hear that myself tonight.

Second of all, Dandelion, one way to think about your situation is not so much whether or not you should be in grad school but how you can do grad school 'your way'. Leaving grad school is a pretty big decision, and a lot of people seem to spend a lot of time and energy agonizing over it. Can you think of staying in grad school on your own terms? My terms include not trying to be 100% productive 24 hours a day, like my advisor wants me to think she is. Some of my friends have kids, and their terms inlcude spending quality and quantity time with the little ones. All I'm trying to say is that you have more options (and control) than just staying or leaving.

Apricot said...

Awww, Thistle. Happy to help. Your comment actually says what I was coming back to say, so I'll just agree.

Academia's weird. It's one of those professions that becomes an identity. Like medical doctor, teacher, model, actor, senator. For some this is fine. But I've had to make the concerted decision that it's my job, not my identity. And sometimes, I'm going to straight-up suck at my job. And sometimes, I'm totally fine with that.

fraud, in denim said...

I agree whole-heartedly, Apricot and Thistle. I live with someone who believes that science is a vocation (in the sense of a calling). While I feel drawn to what I do and love it dearly, it is not my life and I can't let it be my life. I learned long ago to be okay with the fact that I am less productive academically than the person I love, and many around me. It's okay with me because I am not only an academic. I am a mother, and an individual, and I am going to enjoy my life and ensure that my child does too, and if that means that I have a shorter vita, so be it. I chose this path for the flexibility it offered and I'm not going to give that up for anyone.

Dandelion said...

Thanks for all your great comments!
I'm having a slightly more productive week, so I'm feeling a bit better.
I do keep wondering if I really want to be here, but it's hard to tell under all the guilt about not being productive. I have no idea what I'd do outside of grad school, anyway.
It doesn't help that the people around me are mostly the "science as a vocation" type, either.
Now that I've started reading again, I am seeing a little bit of my enthusiasm reappear, I think. I guess I'll keep working on the baby steps and see if it stays around.

david carlton said...

I was in academia for a while (through a postdoc), then I left. I'd been getting signals (from myself, from others) for a while that suggested that perhaps it wasn't the best choice for me; I ignored them for years. But I'm happier now than I was while in academia, and my current job is a much much better fit for my psyche.

Having said that, I don't think I was an awful match for academia; things didn't work out for me, but they would have worked out for people not too different from me, and I have no idea what your situation is like. So my point isn't to say that, if you're wondering, then you should get out.

What I will say is that academia is very good at putting people in a situation where they can't really imagine doing anything else, where their primary loyalty isn't to themselves, their families, or even their schools, but rather their discipline. I don't think that's healthy. So it's probably a good idea to spend time thinking about what's important to you, what really makes you happy (as opposed to what you wish made you happy), and what you'd do if you were to leave academia. It's hard to figure out that stuff, but it's even harder to move across the country, end up some place where you're unhappy, and try to figure out whether or not to leave academia while, say, in the middle of a high-pressure job search hundreds or thousands of miles away from your support network.

I wouldn't spend time worrying about your advisor's and committee's goodwill right now. Root causes are much more important.

I apologize for the doubtless depressing tone of this comment.