This time of year is hard in academia, no matter where you are in your journey. For graduate students who are struggling, it’s definitely hard. There are SO many happy and celebratory posts about defenses and graduations that trigger SO many thoughts of
“why have I not defended”
“why am I here”
“what am I doing with my life”
“what’s wrong with me”
I Feel You
It took me 9 years to finish my Ph. D. Our group was notorious for an average of 5-7 years even coming in with an earned Master’s degree. But, even for us and especially in engineering, 9 years is an eternity. There are many reasons for this, and I will share them in another post. My point is this: as the years dragged on, this time of year triggered depressive thoughts, self-doubt, and anger. To survive, I insulated myself. I avoided campus on graduation day claiming I didn’t want to deal with traffic. Knowing how hard it was, a very close friend and labmate (who started after me) was afraid to tell me his committee allowed him to set a defense date. It was hard to be around so much happiness and festivity when I was struggling, dare I say raging, on the inside to find my way through it.
Gain some perspective
If you cringe at every departmental announcement of the next defense or seethe at the latest Twitter celebration photo, how you can get out of this destructive mind trap? We step outside of ourselves to gain perspective. It sounds like I’m asking you to have an out of body experience. But, maybe that’s not a bad idea (stay sober though, because you’ll need to think clearly during this experience).
In Amy Poehler’s book Yes Please (I highly recommend this book if you can tolerate reading the word vagina and reading about drug use. No, I do not receive any affiliate income from this recommendation.), she brings up this idea “Good for her! Not for me!”. She actually uses this phrase to describe her decision not to have children “Little House on the Prairie” style, at home au natural. She transforms this idea to “the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me!” to remove the continual comparison women put themselves through as they go through life. I want to take this further and say it applies to anyone, at any time, whether you’re on Facebook seeing your friend’s glorious party for their 8-year old that involved individualized gift bags and pony rides or sitting at your labmates defense trying to look happy.
Let me tell you a secret
Your path is your own. You can march down it, crawl down it, and even teleport off of it at your own choosing. Who cares if it takes you longer than the guy in the cubicle next to you? Despite conventional wisdom, there are no set rules on getting through life. That whole industry around “by the time you’re 30 you should” just makes me want to scream: “Stop with the measurement already”. The only thing you should accomplish by the time you’re 30 is that you should be ok with who you are. (Actually, I recommend that number be a lot lower, but I digress.)
But it’ll look bad on my CV/resume/…? What will my friends/family say?
If you’re in this state of self-doubt, you already know what your friends/family will say such as: “When are you going to finally be done and get a job?” or the more subtle “I was going to plan a trip this May, any reason why I shouldn’t?” Reality check: many academics graduate in an academic blink, and just as many who follow more glacial time scales. It’s cliche for a reason: You really need to do what’s right for you. If you live counter to that, your mind and body will eventually rebel leaving you a hot mess of stress, depression, and anxiety.
If you need a moment to accept what I just said, take it. Take this thought into your mind and heart: your path is what is right for you.
With this newfound perspective in place, let’s step back into ourselves and figure out what’s next… for you. We’re going to take a little time now to do an exercise. Stick with me. It’s important you do all of three phases, in order.
Phase 1: Assessment
- Get a pen and paper. You can do this digitally, but you will find it more satisfying if you go old school. Find a quiet place or put in your earbuds. This is your me-time for the day.
- Finish this statement “I am not graduating this year because…” Write it all down. Every reason. This is the time to allow yourself to indulge in a tremendous dose of self-pity. If your advisor is a bigoted, narcissist a-hole that won’t read the draft of your paper, write that down. If your mother died and you’ve been cleaning up her estate, write that down. If you just birthed your first child, write that down. If you like binging Netflix instead of processing data or doing literature searches… I think you get the point. Write it all down.
- Step back (proverbially) and look at it. Now, cross out what you can’t control. I’m going to challenge you here. What can you really not control? The bigoted, narcissist a-hole advisor? You’re right, you can’t control them. BUT, you CAN control their influence on you, and you CAN control how you interact with them. It may mean finding a new advisor or co-advisor, but you control that too. Your mother’s estate? You can find help so it’s not your burden alone. The new mom, yeah. I’ve been there, and with many years of hindsight, I can tell you its possible to influence how that impacts your progress.
I am not implying that we can control everything. I am saying that we can influence more than we think at first glance.
Phase 2: Come up with a plan
What is left on your list? The next question to ask ourselves is “what changes can we make to overcome what’s stopping us from achieving our goals?” Sometimes these answers are easy (i.e., cancel Netflix and give it back to yourself as a reward for turning in the first draft of your thesis). Sometimes these answers take a while to form and you’ll need to kick around ideas. Find a friend who will listen to you say things out loud. Find a coach that can help you think it through.
On a new piece of paper, write down your plan to overcome these challenges. Put it where you can find it. I like post-its on my monitor and dry-erase markers on my mirror. If you don’t want your lab mates to know your struggles and your plan, write it in a code that only you understand. Just put it where you will see it every day to remind you that you have a plan.
Phase 3: Now, kill it
This is the most important phase. And I don’t mean: go forth and kill it. Actually, that’s not a bad idea, but first: destroy that original piece of paper with the assessment on it. And I mean, destroy it in spectacular fashion. I like fire, it’s cathartic, but please do this bit safely. Ripping it to 1000 pieces has also served me well. This is why the digital version is not as rewarding. The delete key just doesn’t have the same effect unless you slam it with a hammer and that has negative financial consequences.
While you’re destroying the assessment, say goodbye to all of the negative thoughts that it represents. Say goodbye to all of the things blocking you. There is psychological evidence that writing out hard emotions and physically destroying them helps your brain move forward. I can vouch for this from my own personal experiences in dealing with grief.
Your plan is your Google Maps
With your plan in place, you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. The beautiful thing about this analogy is that if you get off track and get lost again your plan shows you had to get back on course.
NOW, go celebrate with your friends and lab mates who are graduating. You should find that you actually mean it when you like their posts. Your path is not their path, and that’s ok.
As Amy Poehler says: “Good for them! Not for me!” – and you have a plan.