Do I belong in grad school?
The above question is impossible for me to answer. But here are a few musings about anxiety in university that I hope may help grad students pondering their future.
- Academia is increasingly an engine that runs on the fuel of anxiety. Mostly, the anxiety of the precariat -- undergrads who don't know if they will pass their courses, grad students who don't know if their Ph.D. thesis will measure up, graduating Ph.D.s and postdocs worried sick about finding their next temporary contract, and tenure-track faculty giving themselves ulcers working to earn tenure. Academia in 2017 is far from a nonviolent place.
- Methods of containing anxiety differ between individuals. The basic principle I use in helping students is this: in order to get from where you are now to where you want to go, the key is to engineer a series of small, feasible, steps leading up to that grander goal. A ten metre high vertical wall is a far more dispiriting to face – and requires more training and technical equipment to climb – than a staircase composed of forty steps each a quarter-metre high.
It is part of the PhD advisor's job to help a student engineer the right series of feasible small steps, whether that process involves sharing expert technical knowledge or providing sage advice about how to manage your workflow. The other profs on your PhD committee also have responsibility for your academic well-being, as does the entire department in a general sense. If you are stuck, seek assistance. Don't stay stuck down a black hole of despair because you're too proud to ask for a helping hand when you need it. Later on, if/when you are able, you can take your turn extending a helping hand to someone else.
Whatever a person's temperament, research will always be an emotionally risky enterprise. There is a lot of hard slog involved, and we don't know for sure how it will turn out – if we did know the answer already, then it wouldn't be research! So it is strategic for an early career researcher to find support mechanisms to reduce the emotional peril, such as likeable peers, hobby buddies, physical activity, mindfulness/CBT techniques, whatever works for you. Teaching can be a nice foil, in the sense that when we feel stuck on a research problem, focusing on doing a good job of teaching for awhile often helps unstick the brain.
- Researchers need to be able to cope effectively and efficiently with failure. The first step in relating to failure as a PhD student is to recognize that failing happens quite often in research. As we progress through the PhD program (and later on), we get better at avoiding it. Fearing failure is not adaptive: it is the surest way I know of to slow down our progress towards a desired goal (like the PhD itself). I prefer to focus on how we pick ourselves up off the floor after a failure happens. Having good intellectual and emotional support from other humans at our university helps a lot.
- PhD students who end up
successful all one thing in common: they aim to complete milestones early. Procrastination on major goals is a maladaptive strategy in any competitive business. The faster you complete milestones, the more likely you are to have an upward trajectory and be marketable (ugh).
- Impostor Syndrome, and the need to corral stress, has an analog in any field of work that is highly competitive, like law firms. It is not unique to academia. The big question I think is worth focusing on is this:
Can I keep my integrity and health intact while doing what is needed to succeed in this work?. If your answer is yes, then you are in the right place. If you decide however that the price of being in academia is just too high, I deeply respect your choice and wish you all the best as you explore other options. (Also: academic capitalism can go to hell.)
Let me end with a mountaineering metaphor. Knowing yourself well enough to leave peaks beyond your technical limits unclimbed is not a mark of failure. It is the hallmark of a mountaineer who will live to climb other mountains.