Curb Your Doctoral Enthusiasm

In early 2007, my secondary school Biology teacher predicted I’d “drop out of my PhD, go into stand-up, and have my own reality TV show.”

Now in December 2017 I can finally – definitively – say that he was totally wrong.

(Part of me wishes he wasn’t. My reality TV show would’ve been a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Big Bang Theory. It would have been excellent.)

Anyway. I defended my PhD this week and was met with approval. I still need to submit my paperwork to the Graduate School – forms, money, photocopies of everything – but the highest energy barrier has been vaulted.

For the rest of the week I’ve been working through the excess refreshments I brought to my defense, namely croissants and non-alcoholic eggnog. I took a day off to go into Manhattan and lounge around Aire Ancient Baths, which was the most decadent thing I could think of doing (Aire Ancient Baths actually featured in ‘John Wick Ch1’ as part of the ‘ultra-decadent nightclub’ scene, which raised my opinion of the locale). Then I returned to business as usual. Having drunk several gallons of eggnog, I still don’t understand its appeal…but I feel closer to understanding America in general.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after defending my PhD. Would I be disillusioned and depressed? Would I be indifferent? I ended up feeling happier than I expected. It definitely felt like I’d achieved something.

It’s been a weird academic year. Around this time last year my PhD timeline shifted forward by 6-12 months, and I had to adjust to a new reality. I’d be staying on the Eastern Seaboard while the rest of my lab moved South. I got the unusual privilege of a calm, research-lite Fall semester to focus on writing up my thesis. Most people finish their PhDs in a flurry of advancing deadlines and semi-realistic expectations. For the first time in several years I felt an acute absence of stress as I worked through my thesis chapters. It meant the ending was slightly anticlimactic.

With time I’ll reflect upon the PhD and my choices during grad school. Over the Christmas break, however, I’ll simply enjoy the sensation of being finished.

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Demons Below The Skin

This blog post belongs to the “Mental Health In Grad School” genre.

Probably. 

Well, see what you think.

Winter 2015 I broke out in hives. It was a confusing experience: I’ve never suffered from hives before, and there’s no history of it in my immediate family. It just seemed like one day my skin turned red and itched like Hell.

They appeared at pressure points/joints, but covered my whole body. Raised welts popped then simmered down – here one hour, faded to a red mark the next. I have pretty good self-control when it comes to scratching, but they still hurt.

It took a while for me to link the symptoms to “hives”, at which point I Googled “anti-histamines” and went hunting in Rite Aid for bottles of pills. In the interim I had trouble sleeping because of the pain. As my bodies natural anti-histamines cycled down for the evening I had to rush out the lab, before my neck and face started to turn reddish purple.

I was given the option of prescription-grade anti-histamines, but settled on 2 brands of over the counter pills (Zyrtec in the daytime, Benadryl overnight). I figured out that really hot baths just before bed got rid of the pain, as did sleeping on the cool wooden floor if I was unlucky enough to wake at 2am. The hives went away in the summer…then came back a little while later. Going off the Zyrtec led to bad flare-ups, but eventually my body’s natural anti-histamines took control.

When first I went to the university health centre they asked me about any lifestyle changes that could have triggered my full-on allergic reaction (diet, laundry detergent, etc). I could only shake my head and smile faintly.

Stress was the blatant cause of my hives.

If I was allergic to anything, it was grad school.

***

I can handle deadlines, criticism and failed experiments. I managed 2 years of my PhD without a major auto-immune malfunction. When stress got too much for my body to handle was when a series of insidious, small problems piled up.

I moved into a new apartment off campus. I needed to live by myself, but the place I chose sucked up huge quantities of my salary. When home-to-lab was no longer a 5 min stroll but required a car journey or 20 minute bike ride, I had to change how I conducted research and structured my day.

Lab mates moved on. The individuals I’d been closest to – who in fact I’d relied on socially –  had to exit the picture; as the group social dynamics shifted they seemed to cut me out. I was now in charge of several big group responsibilities that had once been split across 3 people. It felt like I was doing 95% of the work of keeping the group functioning…but getting no “social rewards” for my effort. A piece of equipment was malfunctioning, the person designated responsible for maintenance pretended it wasn’t. It seemed I was the only person who cared enough to get it fixed. I became angry and resentful.

My project stalled. I’d been lucky to kick off my PhD with a short project that led to a 1st author paper quickly, and had made good progress with tricky projects after that. But when I finally got within the parameters of “publishable data” once more, I was told to go away and make the data even better. I couldn’t. Months passed.

From what friends have told me about their own experiences, when grad school goes wrong it is because of this kind of pile-up. It’s never just that you have a tough project, or are struggling with your home life, or have lab problems. It’s never one big disaster that throws you into misery. You probably don’t even realise how bad things have got for you until the demons force their way out.

***

For what it’s worth, I went for a session with the university’s counselling services shortly after the hives broke out. For me it didn’t work out: I never scheduled any follow-ups. Partly because recognising I could use counselling was simultaneous to (finally) recognising I had a serious problem I needed to address. I also didn’t connect with the counsellor I was assigned to: I wanted to get away from feeling upset and angry, not talk for 60 minutes about it.

[My “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” advice would be to try a second or third counsellor if the first one doesn’t work for you. And you probably aren’t going to solve everything (or even anything) in your first appointment.]

Things got better. I’m not sure I was super-proactive, more that I adjusted to the new circumstances and they stopped stressing me as much. Maybe it’s bad to write a “Mental health in grad school” post that argues “well, y’know, the best way to deal with problems is wait til they fade of their own accord”. But that’s sometimes just what happens.

…Well, a better way of saying that could be: “It’s not the circumstances, but how you react to them that matters”. I could focus on doing my group jobs as professionally as I could and decide that others dereliction of duty wasn’t my problem. When I fixed that piece of equipment I made it clear to my boss that I’d used my initiative to solve the problem, so got credit for that. Understanding that circumstantial set-backs weren’t permanent or a reflection of my personal qualities helped too.

Quitting is a valid choice if you experience this kind of mental/physical health misery. The friends who told me their stories left grad school (all of them, I believe) and were telling me about it 5-10 years down the line. They’re all successful adults whose professional trajectories and lives I admire. A PhD is never worth wrecking yourself over.

***

My hives are still there. They haven’t erupted in a long time, but they remain under my skin, waiting for the opportunity to flare back up. Next time though I’ll be ready.

Mental Gymnastics

It took a long time to line up post-PhD employment. The advice I enacted is to start looking for postdoctoral positions 12 months before you are due to defend. I learned that could be a conservative estimate.

Damn, so much rejection and failure.

I’m not a perfect applicant. Some of my flaws I’ve tried to erase or conceal. Others I feel resigned to. I tried to evolve over the search – not taking anything for granted. Oh, I thought I’d got a good CV final draft? Maybe look at it again next month, compare it to the one that hotshot Assistant Professor uploaded. See if I can emulate their crisp format.

I tried to be aspirational. Wherever the line between aspirational and delusional is…I must have swerved across it multiple times. Some of the professors I assumed would never read a postdoc app from the likes of me came back with a profession of interest. Some of the professors who I thought I had a good shot with apologised for the lack of funding and space. You don’t know until you try. And you don’t always know what these competitive labs are looking for in terms of skills/personal qualities with their postdocs.

Some top groups were booked up with postdocs for the next 2-3 years. If you want to network my way into a Top 10 Chemistry lab at a Top 10 University, you probably have to start in your first year of grad school. I found myself annoyed that I hadn’t attended a Gordon Conference during my PhD – it would have helped.

Close to 50% of my rejections were implicit. An email application was fired off…and nothing ever came back. I know one colleague who got a response after maybe 3 months (“Hey sorry for the delay, are you still interested in my lab? Want to come for an interview?”), long after hope must have died. Kinda wish I hadn’t heard that story. Many professors replied to my email and explained that they’d love to take me on…if only they had funding. It’s the most diplomatic way to reject an applicant – nothing personal, only financial – although with NIH grant proposals simmering around the 10% acceptance rate it is often true.

Good timing helps. If your application is near the top of the pile when a grant is approved/re-approved you have a good chance of a callback. But since federal funding is an endless gnashing cycle of submissions and proposal review dates you might never get a formal rejection when a PI is chasing cash. “The grant I was hoping for didn’t come through last week…but if you’re willing to wait there’s another one I’m trying for in a couple of months.” And you’ve no idea how likely it is the grant will come through. Maybe you’ll still be on top of the pile if it does…maybe a better applicant will have come along.

I have sympathy for the professors. They get a lot of postdoc applications. Many of them took the time to reply to my cold call with a couple of apologetic sentences. I could cross them off my list – thick red lines of ink – and move on.

I have very little sympathy for the post-interview ghosters. After a Skype (or even one campus) interview…nothing. That stings. My suspicion is that it’s an American cultural-linguistic thing. British academics are cagey and stick to formulaic script: “If I were to make you an offer, when would you be able to start?” You know everything is provisional, nothing is guaranteed, and they can email you later to say they’ve decided not to make you an offer and you don’t feel blindsided.

In several instances, American academics don’t seem to know about this useful qualifying language. They talk to you like they’re seriously wanting to make you an offer but just need a few days to mull and double-check. They go as far as to tell you “Let’s email early next week and take it from there.” And like a chump I emailed them when I thought they wanted me to email…and never received a reply. They got a polite follow-up ~7 days later…but at that point I’d taken the hint.

American academics: don’t ghost people you’ve interviewed. It’s cowardly and unhelpful.   By the interview stage I’m already performing mental gymnastics to see if I could imagine myself in this new lab, in this new city. Could I make this work? I start taking the prospect of joining a lab seriously, planning ahead so I know what questions to ask and what signs to look for. A simple lie about “research interests not aligning” would be acceptable. I hate being stressed out in a post-interview limbo. I hate realising I misread major social cues and chased after a PI who didn’t want to be chased. Why did you invite me to email you back?!

Anyway. I’m sorted.

I’m happy and relieved that I’m sorted.

I don’t feel like I “settled for something less” or was forced into a postdoctoral position out of desperation. An application aligned with funding and availability.

I got something I really wanted. A postdoc position in a big city. I admit it wasn’t a big city on my initial list of Big Cities I Want to Live In…but if anything it could be a better fit than my earlier choices.

My PhD defence date is in early December. I start the postdoc in late January. Stay tuned.

Freedom Isn’t Free

There’s a Radiolab episode concerned with the physics of falling cats. If a cat falls out of a high-rise apartment it reconfigures itself mid-flight into a “flying squirrel/parachute” pose to, allowing it to land on its feet with minimal injuries. Cats have been known to survive falling from 30-storey buildings; however, a fall between 5-9 storeys can kill them, because they’re in the process of acceleration & reconfiguration during that time window.

This is a metaphor. I’ll be leaving university with a PhD by December, and right now I feel like a falling cat. I’m hurtling towards the defense date trying to reconfigure myself in mid-air, hoping I can manage before impact.

I’ve had interviews. I’ve had rejections. I’ve had interviews followed by rejections. On the horizon it looks like more of the same. Keeping my own spirits up is hard. I have to balance relentless optimism (don’t worry about the rejections – just keep trying!) with reflection (well, something is going wrong here and you need to fix it). I have to acknowledge my flaws without succumbing to despair about ’em. I have to be flexible in the kinds of opportunities I apply for…but not set myself up for years of misery because I walked into something I knew would be a bad fit.

What I really have in spades is freedom. Honestly, I’m back to early-2013 levels of freedom when I was a “coffeeshop hobo” who lived in an apartment where mushrooms grew in the shower. Back when I had the freedom to waste hours in a coffeeshop writing freelance articles (8am weekdays, whenever), but didn’t necessarily have the freedom to eat more than £2 worth of bread rolls for lunch. Freedom can be a brutal thing.

My finances will be better for the rest of this semester, but oversight and regulation have vanished from my professional life. I’ve basically finished my research (goodbye weekends in lab! I can get home every day in time to hear Marketplace!), there’s isn’t an equivalent timesink to replace it. Nor is there a crazy rush to finish my thesis writing. I have time and income.

I don’t know if it’s too late to add anything meaningful to my CV that could help me change my career trajectory. I have a whole semester of university, and that’s the best place you can go get random snippets of “experience” in new things. I have ideas, and will force myself to act upon them in the next week or two.

The worst-case scenario would be that I’m forced to return to Scotland, unemployed. Visions of the future see me stuck in minimum wage non-science jobs for decades to come, stuck in the small towns I thought I’d grown out of. I feel like I have to accept that as an option, and think about ways I could mitigate that. I’m not just thinking about firing off job applications right now…but how I can prepare myself for returning to the UK with nothing.

Time keeps moving. I keep twisting in the air.

Capricious Gods

It was the week before Christmas when I had to deal with an academic bombshell. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit (as I’ll explain), but it had many of the hallmarks of a bombshell: unsuspecting normality, followed by a metaphorical BOOM! and then a flood of emotions and reactions came roaring in for the aftermath.

All sorts of random shit can happen to an unlucky grad student. Projects fail, successful projects get scooped (sometimes maliciously, sometimes not). Your professional relationships can go tits-up. In this instance, my advisor emailed the group to let us know that they’d accepted a new position in [University of State-at-geographically -the -opposite-end -of -the-country], migrating the lab in Summer ’17. And if we had any questions feel free to come chat.

The BOOM! could have been more unexpected, I admit. I thought they might be on the market – past history and present behaviour (there are only so many reasons a successful faculty member disappears for odd days at a time during the Fall semester without giving specifics). I guess I was expecting an offer – if it were to come – to appear in Spring. But maybe that’s more for assistant professors, not senior poaches.

It took barely 3 minutes for me to compute and triage all the implications. And to be frank, make a decision. This sort of thing happens all the time – professors hop institutions and the stepping stones deal with either those that move or those that stay. As a grad student, you always have a free choice in the matter. Admittedly, sometimes you have to choose of your own free will to leave with a Masters or start over again in a new lab at your current university…but it’s still a choice. My own personal choice equation went something like this:

[Prestige of (prospective) – (current) university] + [Extra time/hassle to get PhD in prospective university] – [Extra time/hassle to get PhD if I stay behind at current university] + [General desirability of (current location) / (prospective location)] =>

==> Stay at current university.

Christmas was decidedly lacking in chill. Although I wasn’t in lab, I was still struggling to get a hold on my new trajectory. I’d been assuming that I would defend my PhD in Summer 2018. Now it could be as early as Summer 2017 (though most likely Fall ’17). If I wanted to aim for a postdoc this academic year I was already behind. There wasn’t an issue of whether I could defend early. I’d hit the bare minimum to defend (in terms of 1st author publications) and my publication pipeline was already in a healthy state. However, I’d need to wrap up several projects in a shorter space of time, and squeeze in another completely new project (which is using well-established chemistry, but still has to be built from scratch) that I’d publish and convert into my final PhD thesis chapter.

Yeah, sure it’s do-able. Whether I can do it without wrecking myself is a separate issue.

A lot of the finer details have not been clarified. Will I have to be fostered in another lab for a semester? Can I really get all these papers out in time? I made lists, sent out long emails, created skeleton Word Document drafts and began to fill them in. I felt the stress lift off me as soon as I created a special Microsoft OneNote file that pulled all my tasks into one e-document (that wasn’t as monstrous as I feared).

The biggest source of stress was “coming out” as staying behind and defending early – both professionally and to my family. I worried that I’d be bombarded with “what are you thinking?!” questions. Such questions if there are being asked, aren’t being asked to my face. As I said, it’s not an outlandish choice (I suspect most grad students in their 4th/5th year would prefer to stay put rather than move so late in the game).

The topic of how I’m going to push my research agenda forward is another, imminent post. It does feel that I’m on the right side of the research gods. I got an unexpected positive result from a reaction I thought was hopeless, which could lead to another paper separate from the ones my advisor predicted for me. My latest paper has been conditionally accepted into a high-ranking journal, subject to some minor edits. I remain guarded about that paper until final confirmation comes through.

2017 will be an interesting, though hopefully productive year.

The Newest Normal

Today was full-on domestic wench business. It’s a Sunday, you see. Sunday is the one day per week where I don’t set my alarm (not that it matters, I’m rolling awake before 7am anyway) and don’t have to kick off my morning with a migration to the lab, or thoughts about a migration to the lab (“C’mon bitch, the sooner you get in and do stuff, the sooner you get to leave”). [1] No. Sunday mornings I can crouch on my balcony with a mug of Nespresso coffee and enjoy a bit of sunlight-through-trees-light, which is one of my favourite kinds of light.

Sunday is the day that I can do my laundry, load my moderately grimy eating things into the dishwasher (the dishwasher!) and clean the place up a bit, perhaps with some music on. I finally got around to boxing my fresh herbs – they were a gift from a friend straight from their garden, I dried them myself using an improvised system of pencils jammed in to window locks. This afternoon I’ll be sweeping the expanse of hardwood flooring, maybe doing some dusting if I remain in the domestic wench kinda mood.

It helps that I think of grad school as a job. In this mindset I’m no longer a student, but a working professional [2]. The fact that I’m no longer in university housing cements that. I’m a professional scientist with my own car and an airy apartment. So I may as well do adult stuff like clean up after myself and make the place look tidy. The responsibility feels nice, and I think it helps me on other levels too. As an introvert, the personal & private sphere is a really important thing – I think that if I take good care of my private sphere it helps me to do well in the public one.

The downside of this domestic surge is that I’m losing the time when I can escape to the big cities. It’s been a while since I was last in Philly or Manhattan. I need to schedule my chores onto the Saturday (once I’m done with the lab) so that I can have a completely free Sunday.

***

Actually, this week was a really good one as far as research was concerned. I finally hit the jackpot known as Publishable Data. In my sub-sub-field, Publishable Data occurs when I get 90 %ee or above. For those not in my sub-sub-field: imagine that you have a scale of 0 to 100 %ee, and any reaction can give you a value somewhere between the two. Most of the struggle, sweat and late nights in my sub-sub-field revolves around improving this %ee value until it reaches this cut-off value of 90. Of course that isn’t the only variable you need to worry about (oh ho ho, there’s plenty of variables to worry about), but ‘d argue that this %ee variable is the one that’s hardest to control. Either you have it or you don’t.

The inside of my brain has been a very boring place this past year. The only thing I’ve been thinking about has been those damn %ee values. When I’ve had a spare moment of down-time? Only 11 %ee to go! Or else Well, when I change X I gain 3 %ee, and when I changed Y I got 2 %ee…so maybe if I change X AND Y I can get a total of 5 %ee. And then it will only be 6% ee to go. This is what graduate-level research does to your brain, by the way. I’ve had a dull year of tinkering with rather minor changes to my reaction conditions and not really getting anywhere. I’ve not lost sleep over it – I tried to leave the stress in the lab office – but the thoughts nonetheless go everywhere.

I’m in a lab where publications matter. There are plenty of PIs who don’t mind if you spend 5 years doing decent research that doesn’t lead to any publications (at least before you defend). But there are also plenty of PIs who will say “You need [number] first-author publications before I let you graduate.” Both I’d consider valid approaches, and I can list the advantages & disadvantages of both. Regardless, I’m in a lab where I need papers, and the thought that I might reach my 5th year without enough papers to graduate isn’t a nice one.

There’s a lot of work to go before I get that paper I want. But to have finally crawled to the Publishable Data benchmark is a nice morale booster, and fills me with a bit more self-confidence (I AM a good scientist, I CAN get Publishable Data). It will make the rest of my graduate school career a bit more straightforward, too.

The celebration was muted. I went home and ate a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream for dinner, along with a partially-eaten red velvet muffin that I warmed up in the microwave. There will be some more treats before too long, I think I owe it to myself.

[1] Friends who read my Facebook and blog posts tend to react to my descriptions of grad school life with “OMG – that sounds so awful/intense/crazy” or sentiments to that effect. Working on the weekends attracts a certain amount of horror even from people within the scientific grad school zone. At this point I don’t think that working on weekends even bothers me. I stopped noticing the week/weekend partition when I was in hospitality and had to work nearly every weekend and take my days off during the middle of the week instead.

[2] There is plenty of debate and differing opinions about just what a graduate student is. At our university the TA/GAs are unionised and in the same union alongside the academics & adjuncts. Coursework is close to non-existent after year 2: we are either occupied with teaching or our research, and we get paid for both. I once drove a visiting faculty member to lunch, and made a comment about how it’s great that the grad students get access to Faculty/Staff parking here. They admitted a bit of surprise that grad students could be considered as staff. Well hon, I sure as Hell ain’t a volunteer. 

Dreams of Never-ending Summer

aEverything has contracted. My life, my whole existence can barely get more compact. A pleasurable respite is when I sit in the car for an extra 30 minutes, listening to the radio. Or perhaps it is the American rain – warmer, heavier and more satisfying than the cold, biting kind you get back in the UK. The kind of rain that soaks you to the skin within seconds of stepping out into it. There isn’t enough rain at the moment – I’m waiting patiently for the thunderstorms.

Right now my challenge is to become a better person. Not a perfect person – there’s no way I can ever achieve that, and I’d rather not waste my energy beating myself up about the impossibility of it – just one that’s kinda better in some ways. There was a recent moment where I was forced to examine myself and my dredged up feelings of guilt. One of those times where sure I could just blame somebody else for their mistakes (100% non-self-blame)…but realistically I knew that there was some portion of blame that could be attributed to me and my behaviour. No excuse. If I can fix my behaviour, then I should. I’m focussing on one relationship right now – putting my energy into getting it right. If the small-scale project works then I need to incorporate more of my positive actions into the rest of my life.

As an introvert I try to conserve my energy. Interacting with people can be draining: if I don’t want interaction time then everybody within a 10 metre radius tends to be aware of that. If I’ve been in a high-interaction setting (such as teaching) for several hours then I will need to decompress for the best part of an hour before I feel socially-functional once more. Fighting against my default settings takes up most of my “personal development”. In an ideal world I think I’d be able to act like a charming extrovert for all of my working hours, then crash and decompress in the comfort of my own apartment in the evenings. Man, that will take some work.

***

In other news: my research project continues to go well. After a year of disappointment and circles it now looks as if I can wind it up soon. The disappointments and frustrating lack of progress has worn me down – I’m almost scared to run several key reactions, for fear that they won’t work and I’ll end up within another dead-end cycle of incremental improvements (that don’t ever become cumulative). However, I’m now at the point where I only need a handful of incremental improvements to pass over the finishing line. I feel excited at the thought of another publication to my name: the academic unit of currency is the publication, with it all our careers and sense of self-worth are tied up.

I’m hoping for a speedy breakthrough.