Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mid-PhD Blues

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I was really busy and then I got less busy and more angry. I think for the first time I have actually been contemplating quitting grad school. At this point getting a PhD is not that much more work than getting a Master’s degree would be, so I’m probably not going to quit, but the number of times per day that I’ve been thinking “screw this” has been increasing. It’s a combination of bureaucracy and nonsense (and bad luck) that’s keeping me from getting access to the equipment I need, feeling like I don’t have my own project or support from the people I need to move what could be my project forward, feeling like I don’t really belong anywhere since I straddle two labs and can easily be ignored by both groups, and just plain old fashioned burn-out. On top of that, when I try to come up with a reason to keep going… I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate which means I’m not even sure that I would need a PhD to do it. I like doing experiments, writing papers, and finishing things, and when circumstances or people get in the way of me doing these things I get really depressed.

Luckily I have a short vacation coming up. I was planning on doing some writing during the vacation but maybe I will just completely take a break. Then again, if I take a break then absolutely no work gets done on my project, which will probably not make me feel better either.


  1. Oh geez, hang in there.

    I'm not sure how far you are into your program, but I can tell you that I've had a miserable time. (If you can believe it, I'm on my third advisor.) Are there other options? Could you try switching advisors or projects? Departments?

    Whatever you do, make sure that it's something you *want* to do. Don't keep doing something or switching because you don't know what else to do. If you're like me, leaving because you feel forced to is far worse than making a deliberate decision.

    If you want to talk about it more, you can email me.

  2. You sound just like me when I was in grad school.

    My advice:

    1. Take the vacation. Blank out your brain as much as you can for as long as you can. Your project can wait a few more days, it won't make ANY difference in the long run. Your brain needs the recovery time to handle the stress.

    2. Make sure you're taking at least 1 full day off a week all year long. I know that might sound crazy, but make it a rule, or you will get burned out before you finish. Also, take vacations whenever you can. Make sure you take at least one real vacation (that means a non-family, non-conference trip!) a year.

    3. Talk to your two advisors about the equipment problems. It may not help, but if you never tell anyone, they can't know there are issues. And maybe they can help lighten your load.

    4. Keep in mind, if you do a postdoc, it will just be more of the same. In my experience, all of these issues persisted, and in many ways they only got worse over time. I learned all kinds of coping mechanisms to put up with it, but I still hated it. I still think I deserve better working conditions and more respect than I got, and I could have gotten a lot more done if I had those things. I don't understand why everyone seemed to think those were ridiculous things to want.

    5. Take some time to really focus on which parts of the job you enjoy, and try to figure out how you can do more of that and less of the stuff you hate. This applies both to the short term (grad school) and long term (after). I know it sounds stupidly simple, but it's really not that easy. We all have internalized a lot of pressures about what we're "supposed" to be doing - sometimes it's hard to separate that out from what you WANT to be doing.

    I don't know what I want to do, either. Feel free to email me, too. I'm at yfsblog at gmail.

    Hang in there. Or quit. I often wonder if I should have quit halfway through grad school when I had the chance. I ended up staying for some really strange reasons. Just don't stay out of inertia.