Should you quit your PhD?

The Thesis Whisperer

Do you sometimes think about giving up? Should you entertain this notion seriously, or ignore it? When is it right to walk away? It’s an important issue which we haven’t really tackled much on the blog to date, which is why I was pleased when B.J. Epstein, a lecturer in literature and translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England offered to write a post on the topic.

BJ is a writer, editor, and Swedish-to-English translator. She absolutely loved her time doing her PhD and currently enjoys supervising doctoral students, but she is saddened by the number of PhD students who say how stressed and unhappy they are. Here she offers some advice for people questioning their commitment to their PhD.

You’ve been plugging away at your PhD for a while now, maybe a year, perhaps a couple of years. But you don’t seem to be making that…

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Not your typical burnout story

If you google the word burnout, you will find many articles with help on how to identify it or cope with it. The goal of this post isn’t really to give you yet another list for coping with burnout. This post contains an actual burnout story. My story.

At the beginning of the semester, I would come in to my lab seven days a week, and pull really long days, except maybe for a short Saturday or a Sunday off to do laundry. I was doing at least 3 major experiments a week, on top of teaching and sitting in on a class. I did not pretend to be having a life, nor did I intend to have one. The zeal of having a publication soon out-competed everything else in my life, so yeah, everything else in my life became secondary on my list of priorities. Now, you’ll probably think that it’s no big deal, that you’ve had to do the same and you survived at the end of the day. If this is your case, kudos to you, and please share your tips. But I am the type of person who tends to overdo everything, only to find myself overworked, exhausted and, burned out. Yes, I did burn out. Miserably so.

Now, I had experienced a glimpse of burnout last year. That only lasted about a week and I was able to return to normal life, write a research proposal, do research, take and pass my comps. But somehow I had managed to survive and stay moderately sane in the process. This time it was different. This time it wasn’t just dragging my sorry self out of bed and putting on a grumpy face about how much work I had to do. This time it wasn’t just about trying to talk myself into how I soon would have my first publication in a prestigious journal and everybody would finally know who I am and how awesome my science is. This time it hit hard. I couldn’t bring myself to do experiments… for weeks, until I could no longer hide it from my PI and everyone else in the lab.

When I finally found the courage to talk to my PI (more like, when she asked to meet with me to get an update of my progress), I could no longer prolong the agony I had been in for the last couple of weeks. I could not conceal my misery to her anymore. “I’m burned out” I said. And we both attempted to find reasons why I was burned out or how it all happened. Now, I do have to warn you that my PI is not your typical PI. She didn’t give me a pep talk about how great the science we’re doing is, how important my experiments are, or how having that high-impact paper out would mean a lot to both of us. She didn’t press on any of my bleeding wounds. Her first response was “what can I do to help you.”

I hope that with that last sentence you are starting to understand why my PI is not your typical PI. I’m not too surprised about her response, because she has continually shown me her support, and I know that she genuinely cares about the people in her lab. She cares about the people, she makes me and the other people in the lab feel like we are humans. I know, right?

I didn’t want to make the whole post about myself and about how miserable I’ve been in the last month. The response of my PI deserves all the attention in the world and I honestly believe that academia would be a much better place if we had more PIs like mine. She is the kind of person that inspires, not pushes, others to be better, with her love and enthusiasm about science. And for someone like me, she helps me believe in myself.

The conversation went on about the pressure I’ve been feeling lately, and what I could to decrease my stress levels and to bring myself back to being normal. I did mention that I have been proactive about my situation, and I have been actively seeking support from my family and friends, and also counseling. “Most importantly”, she said, “this is about yourself”. And she’s right. Nobody can force me to stay in a program I don’t like, or to pretend to be someone I’m not. In all honesty, I’ve been entertaining the idea of quitting for quite a while. I don’t know if quitting will be the answer to my frustrations. I don’t know if I want this bad enough to put myself through so much emotional strain and isolation. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. But I do know that there is still good people in the world (of academia) and that gives me hope.

Soul-soothing pics from a science retreat

I was away at a science retreat this weekend, which consisted mostly of biomedical research and a few hard-core genomics labs. My department is mostly chemistry and a few biochemistry labs, so we partnered up with the bio departments to share our research. As you may imagine, there were numerous talks, including a few that really stood out. I’m not a traditional learner, so I usually get terribly bored in regular classroom settings where I’m being lectured all the time. When I go to seminars or talks, I really like when speakers involve the audience , whether that is via great visual aids, allowing the audience to ask questions in the middle of the talk (I’ve noticed that chemists are a little more uptight about this) or just by passionately sharing their awesome research. Passion. Enthusiasm. That gets me all the time. And since I always hope for those things in talks, I try to do the same with mine. Besides sharing my (awesome) research, I like to have great visuals, movies if possible (I study cell migration), and try to modulate my voice and explain things as best as I can. You can leave a comment below on the things that make a great talk, while I leave you with a little bit of eye candy from this weekend. The views were stunning, and my pictures just don’t enough justice to so much beauty.









The short end of the stick

We’ve all had days when the pressure is too much and even the smallest thing makes us feel like we’re about to explode or burst in tears. Say for example, you mess up the last step of your protocol of three days and all work goes to waste. Okay, you tell yourself, I’ll do it again next time. You’ve had that happened too many times, so you sit down to check your email, only to find out that the paper you submitted six months ago got rejected. You read word by word in despair, thinking you will never graduate. Then your best friend calls you to cancel dinner/drinks that night, because she has a test the following day, and to top it all off, your boss needs gives you an extra project to take on because the postdoc is leaving.

What do you do on those instances? Do you go hide in the restroom and cry your eyes out like a little girl? Do you go to the bar to get yourself so drunk that people have to drag go out of there? Do you get yourself a gallon of ice cream and spoonful by spoonful, slowly start to drown your sorrows? Or do you hate the whole world and drive home so enraged that your hands shake as you steer the wheel?

On those days, you question if life is giving you the short end of the stick, if you deserve what’s happening to you, or maybe you should be doing something else with your life.

I don’t know about you, but there are days where I wish I could just mute my feelings and move on. Days where I wish I could just cold-headedly make executive decisions, without my emotions getting in the way. Days where reason would win over every other hormonally-created argument.

When you continuously get the short end of the stick (in any aspect of life), are you motivated by rage or do you feel underestimated? What do you do?

Pseudonymity and the internet, Breaking Bad edition

Your twitter avatar is not a picture of yourself. You have many things to say, but if you say them using your own identity, your uni might fire you or your students might make fun of you during lecture. The only way you find to express your thoughts freely (so as to keep your sanity and protect your privacy) is through pseudonymity or anonymity*. Oh, and don’t you forget, the NSA is watching.

This post came to my mind because I’ve bit by tongue too many times in public, when I say one thing but I really mean something completely different, or worse yet, I don’t say anything at all. On the internet though, being behind a computer monitor gives us an unusual freedom to say the things we wouldn’t say otherwise. However, regardless of whether I am under a pseudonym or not, I  still think twice about what I’m going to post, because what I say ultimately reflects who I am and can potentially influence the opinions of many.

Here are some of the pro’s of using a pseudonym:

  • Public figure status: if you’re a professor, supervisor, teaching assistant, or have any position related to supervising and managing other people, you might need a pseudonym when you’re online. Here’s a good way to tell if you’re a celebrity or not: you walk into a bar and if you see your students there, you have to leave for the sake of preserving the last bits of good reputation. Congratulations, you’ve reached celebrity status.
  • Sensitivity: If you are posting about sensitive issues, or things that affect, say, the graduate community, and you wouldn’t necessarily want your PI or your committee members to know. Don’t give them another reason to not like you.
  • The case of the creeper: worst case scenario, one of your students is completely head over heels for you, and wants to know every single detail of your online life (Yikes,  I hope that never happens to you).

The cons:

  • Mark Twain published under a pseudonym, as did Emily Bronte, and J.K. Rowling. You want people to know your work, even if it’s not necessarily using your own persona. Many other tweeps/bloggers also use pseudonyms, but it’s hard not to show your true identity if you want to share the awesomeness of your science (i.e. when you want to share the paper you just published in a high impact journal).
  • Trolls. There are many trolls out there that use their pseudonym as a shield and therefore attack others on the internet. Beware of these folks!
  • Mystery. There is always some mystery associated with these mystic personalities. I’m always curious to know what these awesome people look like in real life. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

There’s something about being able to express ourselves freely and for people to know who we are that makes us feel powerful. It’s our innermost desire to be social and to be liked, to know that we are not alone. As long as we don’t feel like expressing ourselves like we do at the bar, after we’ve had a couple beers.

In case you haven’t been following the TV series Breaking Bad (which you should), Walter White, the main character, uses a pseudonym which he likes to be associated with in the world of drug cartels. He likes to be called “Heisenberg,” and under this name, he goes from being an inoffensive chemistry high school teacher (with a PhD from CalTech), to being one of the most powerful meth dealers (and cooks)  in the New Mexico area and neighboring territories.

So I find it very appropriate to post a fraction of one of my favorite episodes. “Say my name,” and at the command of these words, it was understood that everybody knew who the great Heisenberg was.

*Nieves, like ice cream or snow in Spanish, is my real life name. Yes.

When you fall for the glam and glitz in graduate school

You know those kinds of blog posts or tweets where you ask for help for a friend? Well, I wish I could say that this post is to help a friend, but in reality, I’m shamelessly asking for help for myself. If you don’t want to read through the entire blurb, skip to the very last paragraph.

After working long hours and weekends, I am burning out, and I feel that I am not as passionate about science as I used to be. The idea of being a smart, academic woman is something that attracted me; in other words, I fell for the glam and glitz. However, this phd thing has been the complete opposite. There is nothing glamorous about being a science phd student (except maybe, that some students call you professor when you’re a TA).

All my respect goes to my professors, advisors and people who genuinely care about advancing science. I have nothing against being passionate about something that is so dear to people’s hearts. Quite contrary, I am inspired by people’s passion toward something. And after all, I will always be a science nerd. It’s the process of getting there that I am not so sure about anymore.

Some people have compared the process of getting tenured (I originally thought I wanted to be a PI) to a marathon, and another one I heard recently, to climbing the Everest. The things is, I’m not thrilled about making it to the finish line, or getting to the top of the highest mountain, or being called professor. Ironically, I’m not interested in that kind of glam and glitz. With the proper training, planning, and motivation, many people have done it and continue to do it. Kudos for them. But in wanting to climb the Everest, there’s a reason behind it. I’m not interested in doing it just to prove that I can do it.

Yesterday I had an epiphany. Okay, it was more like a “duh, you’ve known this for a long time” moment, but regardless, it made me re-think about where I’m headed with my life. It’s kind of like when you fall out of love with someone you weren’t even in love with in the first place.  You try to convince yourself that this person/thing is what’s best for you for many reasons, but you know deep inside that it is not. That, my friends, is exactly how I felt yesterday (with all the due regrets).

But hold your horses. It was sad to realize it, but at the same time it opened a world of possibilities in front of me. What would I do if this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? What wouldn’t I do? I would be free. And I wouldn’t have to depend on the opinions of others to believe that I’m worth something.

The thing is, I’m not sure I need a PhD anymore. Or maybe you think I’m burned out and I just need a break. What I do know, though, is that I want to stay in a university setting, but I want to work with people (not necessarily teaching). Tweeps, blogging academic community, I want to hear from you. I want to hear from those of you who stayed and are making great careers in academia, those of you who left academia but not science, and those of you for whom the process was so painful that looking back was not an option.

I’ll be happy to hear what you have to say!

Breakdowns are not fun

I will be starting my third year of graduate school in a couple of weeks. Time sure has flown by, but at times, it has seemed like an eternity. Like that moment when you cry your heart out and things don’t change. Or when you lay in bed curled up in a ball, mentally unable to get up and carry on with your life. Approximately a year ago, I had the most terrible breakdown I’ve ever had in my entire life. Even though today I can say I’ve survived the worst thing that’s happened to me, I’m still afraid that it will happen again. And it’s not fun.

A year ago, I was completely depleted of any reserves of self-confidence that a human being can have. I didn’t think very highly of myself, I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and I didn’t know what life wanted out of me. I wasn’t sure that I could get through it all alive.

Part of the issue was personal struggles; the other half was probably low self-esteem and not knowing in which direction to go. The personal struggle is not something I talk about when I meet people. In fact, very few people know about it, not because it’s something you don’t talk about, but because I didn’t want people to see me with sympathy or pity. I wanted people to know me for my work and scientific performance, not for my personal issues. I wanted to keep my personal life out of this, but it was affecting every other aspect of my life.

My dad was diagnosed with prostate when I was a sophomore in college. He was in stage 9 of the Gleason scale, so the tumor had to be removed immediately, followed by aggressive rounds of radiation. Now, I was living at home at the time, so it wasn’t like I could numb myself for a couple of days and pretend that everything was normal for a while. It was something that I had to deal with emotionally and socially every single day. I had to be strong for my family, because my parents were not dealing with things in the best way. So I had to remain calm and collected for the sake of keeping my family’s sanity.

The prostate cancer went away. We were all over the moon that my dad was doing better, although the side effects were pretty intense. However, we were able to have a positive outlook about life.

Two years later, while I was starting my last semester of college, things took a very unexpected twist. My grandmother, the person who raised me into the woman I am today died on the day I turned 22. My dad, who had been in remission for a while, started feeling ill again. His red blood cell count was very low; he was anemic for a couple of months and doctors could not find the reason. Now, when you’re told you need to have to a biopsy, you know things are up to no good. Not when you need a bone marrow biopsy. And that year just felt like it was raining crap from the sky.

My dad is still alive, although this last couple of years have been nothing but misery. He’s been through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and countless numbers of pills, supplements, injections, blood transplants, you name it. It is when you question everything and every form of spiritual power. It is when you ask yourself if life is worth living when you’re not really living. It is when science and everything related to reason doesn’t work. It is when all you do is suffer, sometimes quietly, and are always expecting the worse. Cancer not only affects your physical health; it damages your relationships, the people you love, and the things you do that make life seem normal.

After seeing my family go through so much pain, I needed to do something. What I needed to do, I wasn’t quite sure about. I couldn’t just go away to grad school while my family was in crisis, I couldn’t, but I did. And boy, was I miserable during my first year. I was probably the most miserable human being on earth. I cried nearly every week, and I was best friends with panic.

I didn’t move too far away from home, so I was still able to visit every once in a while. But sometimes those visits would make things worse. As a child, you never expect to see your parents in such poor health. Your dad, the one who held your hand and took you to school the first day, the one who never cries and always stays strong, was not the dad I remembered as a child. I was now in front of somebody who had been stripped away not only of his health, but also of his human dignity. He was made vulnerable to the core, to the point where questions are needless and you can see and feel everything. You can see pain in the eyes of people, feel it in a hug, and smell it in the air of a poorly ventilated room.

I am not one of those people that can separate their emotions from their work, so as a result, I was doing very poorly, academically and socially. My self-esteem was on the ground. But even though I thought I would die of the pain, I’m here writing about it, And somehow telling people about it, made the pain a little more bearable. I wanted to keep it all to myself and deal with it in silence, but that only made it worse. The pain that you feel inside burns like a sharp knife on your flesh, and leaves you out of tears to cry and air to breathe; you feel helpless and see no light, no hope, no tomorrow. I felt like I was drowning in an endless ocean or falling into a bottomless pit. I sat in a corner of my room, in fetal position and I can clearly remember wanting to disappear. I was a failure as a student, as a human being, as a daughter. I had failed in every single aspect of life and I wanted to vanish. I wanted to die.

I grew up in an environment where asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. Where you do everything you can yourself, and only if you can’t, you ask for help. So the last thing I wanted to do was to tell people that I couldn’t take this, that I was a failure, that I didn’t think I deserved to live. But doing exactly the thing I was most afraid of was what saved me. I was a zombie at work for about a week, just going through the motions and pretending that I could handle it all. Because if there was anything I was good at, I was good at trying to hide my emotions. Until the glass was overflowing and about to spill at the rim.

I survived. I am a better and stronger person. I’m getting better at asking for help and I’m trying to be less hard on myself. Now, I’m not going to say that the breakdown I had a year ago won’t happen again, but I’m doing things to avoid it. In a way, it was an awakening. It made me more aware of pain, and of the people suffering around me. I am not alone. Life is not reduced to accomplishments, where the more you do or have, the better you are. I will be thankful for the little things, for the good and the bad, because the good makes you happy and the bad makes you stronger. I will not push things anymore; I will continue to work hard, but I will let things fall into place. There are things in life that you can’t control, and it’s not your job to try to make everything better, when you yourself are not whole. I can’t change the world and solve all the problems, I can’t cure cancer and win a Nobel prize, I can’t change people’s minds to make them think the way I want. I can only love myself for who I am and be the best I can be. That is my contribution to this world.