27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » How much do you want that PhD? Part Deux

How much do you want that PhD? Part Deux

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.


November 2010
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The other day  I talked about a grad student I know (Grad Student X, or GSX) and how, for some unknown reason, and even though his data is all collected and analised and he’s got no funding, he still  hasn’t defended, let alone handed his thesis to his supervisor.

Today I want to go deeper into possible reasons for why this is happening, what GSX could do to be in the good graces of his boss, and get out soon … and offer my opinion on people who seem to hit the grad school wall and, in a way, avoid writing the thesis and getting out sooner rather than later.

So, yesterday I had a few questions about GSX’s situation. I’ll restate them so this enty flows more evenly:

  • If most of your data has been collected, and you should, in theory, be working on the write up, which on average takes his labmates 3 months to complete, shouldn’t most of the thesis be written by now?
  • Shouldn’t you be scheduling your defense already? The way the thesis is written up here is that any papers you have submitted and are accepted can be added as print-outs, no re-writting necessary, which shaves the time of reformatting or re-writing things so that they comply with the grad school’s format/rules. Therefore, if your thesis includes an intro, a brief materials and methods section for the computing part, and a conclusions chapter, in theory … shouldn’t that be in the final stages?
  • GSX is still a student, which means he has access to computer centres on campus, and free internet in the library, so, even if he didn’t have hydro (power) in his house (due to the loss of funding), he could potentially take the bus (which is still being covered by the grad school fees) and write up a bit every day. If these things have not happened, then, what else is going on?
  • Or why has this process taking so long? I know this sounds terrible, but it just blows my mind when I think that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t that willing to get out with your degree ASAP. I mean, come on man, we all go through rough times when it’s time to write the thesis. We have at some point or another dragged our feet when writing. If (God-forbid) something else is going on (say, a family problem or illness), why not talk to the boss and see if funding can be reinstated pending good progress on your writing? Say, a chapter every month or something similar.

All these can be summarized as follows, there is a roadblock, or mindblock, and GSX needs to get in charge of the situation so that he can a) jump start his writing and b) finish the dang thing in order to get out, get on with life and possibly make-up for the time lost with his boss.

I honestly have no clue what’s going on in this guy’s mind. I am baffled. Then again, I do not posess all the facts. I’m simply an outsider. But from experience I can tell you this: when I hit my 5th year in grad school I was SO ready for it to be over and done. I’d had it with the salary, health insurance, city, boss, labmates … everyone. It’s what I tell the grad students in my lab as having the “OMG I hate my life, why on Earth did I decide to go through grad school”-moment. Once you’ve hit that point, you know it’s time to get out. So, it baffles me to think that someone who has all the ingredients to make the thesis work, all the parts are in place, doesn’t want to or can’t do it. I mean, for heaven’s sake! you have performed every single experiment required. You’ve been to every seminar and meeting you needed to be, the boss paid you for 1 extra year to see if you could get your act together and write … and you have nothing to show? What’s the issue here? Like I said, maybe there’s something deeper that can’t be seen or understood. Maybe this guy’s depressed or has fears of being in the real world. Big secret revealed! WE ALL DO! I mean, sure, we’re pissed at the school, boss, lab, labmates,  and ourselves. But we are ready to grab life by the horns and get our stuff together and make something happen. What worries me is that if this student is in a persistent state of funk, he may not get ahead. Or like me, maybe he doesn’t know what to do with his life or career once all the brain work is done.

Here are my recommendations: reach out to your friends. GSX appears to be in a perpetual state of funk. He’s had friends drop by and check on him. But he closes the door in their faces. So, suck it up and reach out. There are peple interested in helping you. All you need to do is ask. Reach out to your boss, or some other faculty person you may be close to. We might think that bosses are out of this world creatures who’ve lost all contact with reality. Sometimes it is like that. But bosses are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends too. Appeal to their human side, with all honesty. Say how you’re feeling. Your worries about finding a job, or switching fields. Just be honest. Your boss holds a very important card in his/her hands. That is he or she can make or break you career by making a phone call, or writing an email or letter to recommend you. Maybe you will shift careers and get away from science. But if you aren’t  then chances are you will need a letter of recommendation or two to get ahead. In this perpetual state of funk you may be burning bridges faster than you can re-build them. Hence reach out to your boss, or to someone who knows him. He/she is bound to be close to another prof who you might know and that may be a way to reach in and get your boss’s attention. If you reach out and are honest, chances are the boss will want to engage in some sort of action/plan to get you on your feet and working again. But unless you say the word … little can be done. Reach out and use the sources you have. Like I did a few weeks ago, go to the psychological centre or career service place and reach out and try to get your head and thoughts straight. What are your fears? Are they grounded? What do you think is holding you back? Talking to professionals who understand might help in developing a strategy to get you back in place and working on what your thesis. Or maybe, they’ll help you find out you may not need that PhD after all. You may want to pursue a different career and writing and defending are not in your cards. But whatever it is, reach out and talk to people. Don’t keep it bottled up. It is toxic and nasty. The sooner you overcome these feelings or funk, the sooner you can focus on your next stage.

Once you have a plan in mind, if you decide to go through with writing and defending, get on with it. Maybe you want the document to be the best thesis ever. We all want that (some may want it more than others, depending on how soon you want or need to get it done). So, try to look for a job, or set a goal, whatever it is. Find something to motivate you, have a concrete plan. Talk to the boss about it and deliver. Whether it is a new chapter a month or every two weeks. Find something that fits and stick to it. Right now you may want/need structure, so try to make a list of immediate goals to jump-start your writting. Nothing is stopping you. And since you have the example of previous students, try to aim for the same. The mind can play a ton of tricks (mine did, making me think I couldn’t possibly finish before the end of my 5th-going-into-6th year of school). Chances are, the more you talk to people, the more you’ll see the different hurdles they faced, and how they confronted them and moved on.

Find out what’s blocking you. Be honest with yourself and your boss. If this is something you want to have done by the end of the year, open the lines of communication with the boss, or chairperson and establish a plan. Go for it and trust me, it will be less painful once you’re going trough it than you envisioned.

I wonder what’s the cause of your delay. Is it family problem? Are you in need of guidance your boss can’t give you? There are postdocs and other PIs in the department who probably know you enough to lend a helping hand. What are you waiting for? Are you afraid or is it just laziness? Figure out what it is. Talk to a shrink, your family doctor, a trusted friend. Maybe you need a pep talk or someone to sit down and tell you straight to your face that the more you prolong this, the worse it looks on your resume. If you aren’t working, or consulting, or volunteering, then how are you going to explain the obvious gap in your timeline? If you want to stay in the field and go for a job with one of your boss’s collaborators, then you need to open those lines of communcation  fast. Chances are they know the turnover for peeps in your lab and when the see a gap in it there might be questions.

Finally … it maybe be that you are depressed altogether. We’ve all experienced it at some point, be it the seasonal blues, or something more serious. You’d be surprised how many people (including profs) are in some sort of medication, therapy or both. This is very important and it shouldn’t be neglected. I was very skeptic about using medication. Not that I don’t believe that they work, there’s a good body of work out there supporting some of these medications. I sought advice and got on sertraline. And OMG it did wonders. I thought it was just a behavioural problem, but it was that and much more. You may need to visit a few doctors until you find someone who listens and understands. It took me only 2 tries until I found a guy who really knew his stuff and was also into listening to me, how I felt and how serious it was. Some peeps out there are just into writing prescriptions and not listening to you. But someone who truly cares and shows concern about you and your individual situation can help steer you in the right direction. I did try several meds until I found one that was good for me. It takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. Seek guidance, visit your student health facility and ask for a referral to a psychiatrist or physician. It will more than likely change your life for the best, or at least, get you out of the funk.

Ultimately, whatever issue or hurdle GSX is working through, it will only be resolved when he takes the first step. I can offer insight and even offer to edit his thesis before the PI sees it … but he needs to make a decision to get out of the funk, in whichever one of the ways I’ve mentioned before, and get out. If/when I learn how GSX is coping and/or defending I’ll do another entry. I hope this serves to get some of you peeps motivated and moving toward a goal, whether it is the defense or an alternate career.


1 Comment

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Josy Siebra, 28 and a PhD. 28 and a PhD said: How much do you want that PhD? Part Deux: http://t.co/4gGATIS […]

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