Oct 4, 2020 | me in real life

Post PhD Thoughts

...?

Well this has taken me over a year to write. I guess I needed the time to gather my thoughts... process my feelings... feel my thoughts? Honestly, I can't say that I've really done any of that. Perhaps that's reason I decided to write it down. Maybe, subconciously, I felt that putting words down would be cathartic or enlightening or at least help me understand. Understand what? If I figure it out by the end of this post, I promise I won't leave you hanging.

Honestly, my graduate years were not my best. I attribute that to a combination of personality, lack of support and either not enough sleep or not enough coffee ☕️. During these years, I developed high anxiety and an utter sense of inadequacy. I couldn't help but compare my research to that of both my peers (shit, why isn't my research that cool?) and my superiors (shit, my research will never be that cool!). At times, it felt like I was one rejection / poor analysis / bad Chipotle order away from careening towards oblivion. Without a doubt, I asked myself, "what the hell am I doing?" at least 5 times daily and to this day I still wonder why my committee actually thought my work was worthy of a PhD. Needless to say, I picked up several bad habbits along the way.

But this post really isn't a what went wrong but instead a how I'm working to undo and reframe. Let's break this down into some key topics...

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I'm the type of person who feels guilty if there is work to be done and I'm not doing it. Unfortunately, academia is one of those fields in which the more work you do the more work you have to do. You probably see why this is problematic. What's even worse to think is that science is slow moving and often making any steps forward is first greeted by turning completely around. It sort of feels like a combination of the plights of Sisyphus and Prometheus; I have to push this boulder up the mountain, which will inevitably roll back down before it ever gets to the top, but I'm also chained to the mountain and a vulture is eating my liver everday. The boulder is the all the analyses, papers I want to publish, code I have to write. The chains are my current projects I am struggling to manage. The vulture is the vulture (jk, self-loathing is the vulture). Clearly, this is unsustainable.

My solution?

Work less.

Groundbreaking.

You know how they say that to quit a bad habbit that you have to replace it with some other sort of habbit. I guess you can say that I took a similar approach to building in the "life" back into a work-life balance. Not being productive always sort of eats away at me, so I started to tap into my previous self, searching for the activities that I enjoy doing that also make me feel like I am using my time wisely. I can't say for certain whether this is a healthy approach but it is one that I have found helps me. Before graduate school, I used to read quite a bit of literature. Fun fact about me, I actually wanted to pursue literature as an academic discipline until I discovered that Anthropology was essentially glorified people watching. Reading for pleasure dropped off substantially as I started my Masters and almost completely as I transitioned into my PhD. So in order to trick my brain into feeling productive during my newly developed "off-time", I decided to give myself an ambitious reading (for fun) goal. And now, here I sit at the beginning of October and my reading goal is well on track to be the only goal that I actually accomplished this year, and you know what, I'm okay with that. 2020 has been a rough year and saying that I got to read some of the most interesting pieces of literature of my life feels like a victory.

Take a weekend

I find that in academic and tech circles, we put a lot of emphasis on being busy as if busyness is the measure of a human being. We all have that one colleague, generally named Jeremy but they come in many flavors, who can't help but constantly remind everyone that he works 90 hours a week. It comes off as a complaint but that stupid, judgey smile and the way he furrows his brow make you realize that Jeremy is just guilting you as he asks how your week was. We've all had Jeremys in our lives. We've probably even been a Jeremy. Hell, I've even been a Jeremy to myself.

It's not that I think that being busy is inherently "bad", it's more that the things we boast about being busy with aren't all that fulfilling, at least in my opinion. If work is what you love, makes you happy and isn't interfering with the important relationships in your life, them by all means, push that paper. But if you are just soliciting the number of hours you spend away from your home, away from your loved ones and dogs, not doing the things you actually enjoy, then can it really be considered an accomplishment?

Move to Canada

I think this one goes without saying so I won't spend a long time here but I will say that moving to Canada has drastically improved mine and my partner's mental health.

plus...

maple butter is life changing.

Learn things that are interesting

One of the things that I really appreciate about academia is the ability to focus on new things as you desire. It's one of the reasons I gravitated to the current role that I am holding right now (well, that and the bullet point above). I was a little bit intimidated by a full transition into industry simply because I enjoyed being able to explore the new things that interested me. I'm not entirely sure if I'd have to give this up if/when I do make a transition to industry, but I certainly knew that taking a postdoc would be more like an extension of a life that I already knew catered to an aspect of my career that I really enjoyed.

Prior to my postdoc, my programming was more of the data science flavor. If you're down with the lingo of software development, then you can say that most of the things that I did would serve a "backend" purpose... database, running models, etc. Before stumbling upon ad for this position, did I imagine that I would be in a 'semi'-web-development role in an academic institution? No, I did not, but for the longest time I had been wanting to get my feet wet with frontend development so that I could expand the reach of my research. I feel very strongly that knowledge should be shared and easily accessible and building web-applications makes that more feasible. Essentially, I became jazzed to be a part of something that allowed me to learn some skills that I don't know if I would have ever gotten around to otherwise.

Reflect on the good things that came out of my PhD

I think that an appropriate wrap up for this post is to return to reflecting on my time as a PhD student. For all of the times that I felt down about myself during this time, I also had some of the greatest experiences of my life. For one, I learned some pretty neat shit and had the opportunity to learn from some very bright minds. I sometimes find myself missing being in Columbia, where so many very intelligent people are working on some groundingbreaking things. Anyone who has called a college town home I am sure can relate to this feeling. More importantly, we met some of the best friends that we will ever have during this period. A group of friends that will always keep in touch and play games with and speak to one another as if there has been no distance between us at all even though we live in a different country now. For all of the things that made my time during my PhD miserable, this made it all worth it. If I had to redo my PhD in order to remake these friends, I would.