Thursday, September 15, 2016

Grad School Doldrums

I wrote this earlier this year, and I have debated whether or not to publish it. 

What lesson is there to learn here, for application to science or to life? That occasionally, you do indeed hit periods where you need to reevaluate how things are going? That grad school is, unsurprisingly, difficult (though sometimes for surprising reasons)? That in the end, the hard work is the day-to-day drudge to get where you need to be?

I am not sure. Make of it what you will. Consider it an honest appraisal of a late-term grad experience, if nothing else.

In any case, it turns out that a significant effort on my part turned a potential failure of a project into a result (more on that soon, I hope). And that was after writing this post. So I still function as a grad student, even when hitting a low point in motivation.

The aches and pains are still around. But I am moving onto the next stage in my thesis, and keeping in mind that the best thing I can get out of a PhD is a better understanding of the world around me and how to communicate this understanding.

Original Post, written sometime in early 2016:

Today I learned what "nadir" means: the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization.

It was oddly fitting, because right about now my grad experience feels like it has hit a nadir. Which, when I think about it, hardly seems reasonable. In the latter half of 2015, I was not blogging very much because I was busy:

- Presenting at the CERF conference in Portland, OR (which was such an awesome place to visit)
- Resubmitting and finally publishing a paper (only three more to go! ...whee?)
- Getting through my third committee meeting (phew!)
- Organizing a bunch of seminars, program budgets, and undergrad research opportunities (relevant? Not really, but it did take time)

You see? There is much there to feel bad about. And yet, near the end of 2015 I was ready for a break. I took about a week off for the holidays, and then came back in 2016 to discover that I was still tired of my daily work routine.

People told me grad school would be hard, but no one mentioned that the person I would have to fight the most would be myself. I mean, I had a timeline which takes me from now to the end of my grad program. I had the steps as clearly defined as possible (each one contingent on something going right, of course). I felt confident in my ability to invent a "Plan B" when the need arose.

But honestly, something was still off. It was hard to conceptualize those bigger picture goals into daily tasks. It was even harder to convince myself that the bigger goals were worthwhile, in the end. To my surprise, I was fighting to remain interested in my own project, especially since so many cool things were happening in the world around me and by the nature of my work habits I was cut off from getting involved.

The stress began showing in odd ways. I'm a pretty active person, and most of my activity would not generally fall under "gentle" exercise. So when I get aches and pains, it's usually just because I've been running a bit too much. But prior to the holidays, the aches and pains were much more frequent and intense than usual. Nothing was "wrong" per se -- nothing broken, nothing torn, nothing identifiable -- everything just hurt a lot more than I was used to. And things kept hurting in different ways, even though I was not running any more than normal, or doing anything else particularly debilitating.

I was also clearly unhappy at work. I would avoid talking to people (I'm pretty quiet on a normal day anyway), I would judge myself for taking breaks for tea or to stretch my legs, I would wonder why it was so hard to focus on the task at hand, or so hard to dream up a task to focus on. I would look forward to leaving for the day and just forgetting everything, then judge myself for not being dedicated enough to continue working late into the night.

And that is where I ended it. Motivational, eh?

It turns out. It turns out. I have a pretty awesome lab group a couple of hours away. I enjoy talking science with the people around me. And a robust scientific community is critical to any sort of success in research.

I think my personal struggle was balancing my natural desire to do everything on my own with the realization that science does not ever happen in a vacuum. My most recent result was owing to several consultations with labmates and people outside of my lab but elsewhere in my field. These people make the days in grad school worth doing. They make my projects interesting again, and they make coming to work an enjoyable experience.

I just needed to remember to interact with them. 

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