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.

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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?

Art is therapeutic (my story)

The other day one of my friends was really surprised to see my pictures on Facebook, since he didn’t really know that I was into creative photography. He asked me about what made me get interested in this type of photography. And then I thought about it for a while, and I knew the answer was not that simple. I started giving it a little more thought, how in the world did I decide to start taking pictures? I knew I had been doing it for fun, because it gave me pleasure and it made me happy, but there had to be a better reason to explain how I got into photography.

In the summer of 2010, I graduated from college with a science degree. What was supposed to happen next? A job, graduate school, medical school, get married and have a family? Well, none of these things followed after graduation. Not a single one. I became part of the statistics, an addition to the unemployment list of this country. As someone who has always planned out every single detail and who was always in control of the situation, at that point, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Not a clue. Wow, that was a bold statement that I never thought I would share publicly.

A little before my college graduation, my grandmother, my best friend, my confidant, my role model, passed away. Her passing will always have a major significance in my life, not only because of what she represented in my life, but also because of when she passed away. She left me right before my college graduation, on the day of my birthday. How was I supposed to take that? Why on earth did she have to die on my birthday? Needless to say, this carried over with my inability to move forward in life. I didn’t know how to get out of the bottomless pit. Now that almost three years have passed, I can look back at it with more clarity, and understand that this is a sign that she never left me, and will be forever with me.

I was given a fancy point-and-shoot camera as a graduation present, and since I had nothing better to do with my time then, I started shooting some pictures and learned how to use editing programs. I eventually found a job, but I kept going back to taking pictures and trying to learn more and improve my skills.

Things did get better. In fact, thanks to all of my not-so-pleasant experiences, I’m a now a firm believer that things always get better. I slowly started redefining my goals in life and somehow I patiently climbed out of my rabbit hole. I applied and got accepted to graduate school, something that I had not completely envisioned before. I was very excited to start, yet I was still the naive, inexperienced girl in many aspects of life. I still had a long way to go, and way too many things to learn.

And then my graduate school journey began. To make the story short, graduate school was not at all what my naive self was expecting, and that took a tremendous toll on my physical and emotional health. Without going too much into details, I saw myself in front of a huge mountain that I thought I could never climb, but instead, a mountain that would fall on me like an avalanche, and get the best of me. I was back again in that endless pit. But this time I really did think it was the end. I felt like I had hit rock bottom in every single aspect of my life, and I could not even see the dimmest ray of light at the end of the tunnel.

The living room in my apartment faces west, so when I get home in the early evening, I can see the beautiful sunshine before the sun goes down. That magnificent light inspired me one afternoon to snap some pictures, after a really long time of not even looking at my camera. And once again, I found myself gradually crawling out of my desperation. This time I needed a little more than just my own pep talks, but thankfully I reached out for help in time

Where am I going with this long blurb about my life? I would like to let you know, yes, you, who is reading this post that there is always light, but you have to look for it. My photography has helped me to heal a lot of aspects in my life that were broken, and I now find myself often looking for the best angle of things. This mindset forces me to always look at the pretty side of things, my eyes are frequently in search of the best lighting, the best angles, and the prettiest sights. This reflects in my personal life, and I try to do the same when the weather is looking kind of cloudy.

Folks, art can heal broken hearts. Art is therapeutic. It forces you to take your deepest emotions and transform them into the most beautiful forms of art. I encourage you to look at your life as a masterpiece in progress. Write a song or a poem when you are sad, sing your heart out when things are not going well, paint a beautiful work of art from what is hurting you deep inside. Take the ugly, painful and unpleasant things,and transform your feelings into art. Be an artist.

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How poor is poor?

As a graduate student, the salary one makes is not outrageously high, but is decent enough to have our heads under a roof, food on our tables and an occasional splurge on clothes/tech devices/alcohol, you name it. This post came to mind the other day, when I was talking with my brother about grad student income and what not (note: my brother is also a grad student in a related area). I usually complain about how poor I am after I pay my bills, but the conversation we had about poverty levels took the idea to another level. You see, in a given department you will find a variety of graduate students; the ones that come from wealthy backgrounds and have never had to experience not having hot water to shower, and the ones who, on the other hand, have been living the struggle ever since they can remember. My younger brother and I come from middle class backgrounds, but we’ve had some pretty rough times in our lives. However, when talking about poor, I don’t think we’ve ever been that poor.

“Poor is when you don’t have any money to buy bread, and you have to sell drinks made out of dirty water to tourists while making a fool of yourself. Now, that is poor.”

Every now and then I forget that things could be worse, and that there are people who are not having a great time. I am one of the lucky ones.