I got sucked in.

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I know I haven’t posted to this blog in a long time.  Believe it or not, I was actually dissertating for a good deal of it.  I also had surgery and was out of commission for a while, so when life got busy I unfortunately stopped doing the whole point of this, which was chronicling my dissertation year!

Several things happened between December and now, though.  I know where I’ll be next year (I will be a postdoctoral fellow at a research university); I finished a draft of another chapter (RESULTS!  YES!) and I’m about halfway done with a draft of my literature review chapter.  No defense date yet, but I anticipate defending at the end of June.  I also went to a conference a few weeks ago, and this post is about that.

I got sucked in.

When I first started my PhD, I told my adviser two things: I wanted to finish my PhD in 5 years, and I didn’t want to be an academic.  I wanted to do research at a national agency for government, or at a think tank or something.

Both of those things have changed.  I decided to take a sixth year to finish, and I had an epiphany after this conference: after six years in academia, I totally got sucked in and I do, in fact, want to be a professor.

I realized that there are so many aspects about the academic lifestyle that I have come to love and get used to.  I like the flexibility – the ability to set my own hours, and I’ve gotten much more used to structuring my own time (which I used to hate).  I like the autonomy; while I could work under the direction of others, it’s actually kind of exciting to direct my own research and answer my own research questions.  That’s why entered the field in the first place, honestly.  I really love doing research, and I love most aspects of that.  I love sharing my work with others at conferences (I thought I hated them, but I realize that I just really dislike the large conferences.  I like smaller ones).  I love writing papers, and I love collaborating with others who have interesting and intersecting research questions and coming up with an innovative way to answer our questions together.  I think my work is important, and I like the idea of pushing forward the social sciences in my field.  I don’t mind writing grants so much anymore; furthermore, I think I can be pretty competitive for grants because I’m a good writer.  I like reading academic papers.

But probably most of all, I like teaching.  I thought I would dislike teaching, and my first teaching experience was pretty neutral, but as I’ve gotten more experience I realize that I really love teaching and mentoring students in my field.  I’m super passionate about my social science and I like to share it with other students, and teach them how they can use it in their own work (regardless of whether they pursue graduate school in my field).  As you can probably see here, I’m a statistics nerd, and so I like teaching statistics to students as well.  I like working one-on-one with students and giving them career advice, and I like helping make important decisions about curriculum design and learning outcomes.  I even like grading papers (although not stats homework!)

I think what I would like best of all is a job at a small, elite liberal arts college.  I’ve been reading some testimonials from current professors at SLACs, and the environment is pretty much exactly what I want.  Lots of personal relationships with students, small seminars and discussion-based classes, expectations to mentor students and supervise senior theses and independent study projects, and the expectation to be involved with the college in a really meaningful, deep way – attending speaker series, organizing those events, advising student groups, attending student productions and such.  I would really love and want that!  But I know that elite SLACs also offer a balance between research and teaching; their professors all conduct research and are expected to publish, and I know some even get grants.

I could also see myself at a smaller research-intensive (RU/H or R2) university like a regional branch campus of a state system (e.g., UNC-Greensboro or Asheville, or a CSU campus).  The upside is that many of those institutions are more diverse and I would love to work with a diverse population of students.  Many of these campuses also have small master’s and doctoral programs, and while supervising master’s and doctoral students is not a major priority for me I think I would like it.

But I realized that I was denying my desire to do so because I was scared – scared of the freaking job market, which is terrible, and scared that I wouldn’t be able to hack it as an academic – that I wouldn’t be able to get the grants, get the publications get tenure.  But you know what, I think I’m actually a pretty competent and competitive academic, and I think I COULD get them.  I’m excited and passionate, but more importantly I’m motivated and pretty hard-working, and I’ve realized that I don’t mind working a lot of hours if I get to mostly determine what I am doing with them.  So I’d definitely want to be somewhere with good work-life balance, because I want to give time to my family and friends and personal interests…but also somewhere I can really dig in, too.

And now, oh god, I have to face the academic job market.  Great.

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Slumpy slump slump.

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I’m definitely in a slump right now.

It’s something every graduate student experiences, I think – those times when for some reason, your world tilts and you don’t feel like doing anything.  There are always times that you don’t feel like doing work – but then there are those special times in which you don’t feel like doing anything – not work nor your hobbies.  Or maybe you stick obsessively with one thing that you do over and over.  Mine is usually reading books.  I get into a particular genre (historical fiction is my favorite; or sometimes, medical nonfiction) and I read book after book after book.  The time slips by.

When I first started sinking into these slumps I would become alarmed and stressed out.  “Oh no,” I would think, “you can’t be in a slump, not now, not really ever.  You’re a doctoral student and you have to work!”

But as I’ve learned through the years, graduate school (and life in general, really) is a series of peaks and valleys.  Sometimes you fight with your husband and sometimes you have warm fuzzies.  Sometimes you want red velvet cake every day and other days the very thought makes you sick to your stomach.  And sometimes you can bang out 9 pages a day and other days you don’t even want to think about your damn dissertation, or anything.

So I’ve learned that in long-term projects, I have to give myself space and room to breathe – room to go through the slumps, as it were.  It’s unrealistic for dissertators to think that they are actually going to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week, writing writing writing and analyzing and in the library or whatever.  Or maybe there are some people like that, but the vast majority of us are not.  I consider myself an excellent writer – and have heard such from all of my advisers – and I am one of those people who writes for fun.  I spin stories.  But even I can’t sit at my computer and write, every day all day.  It’s just…eventually your brain gives out.  So some days I write for 4 or 6 hours, taking few breaks.  Some days I crank out 7 pages.  And some days I get a paragraph.

But that’s okay.  Dissertations are made up of paragraphs.

I’ve learned to embrace the slump – to just let it pass.  Trying to fight it just prolongs it.  Sometimes you have to give into it, and let it take you over for a few days.  But you have to remain calm – don’t panic, don’t give into anxiety.  Don’t ruminate oh my god, I am never going to finish anything or I am a failure at life because I don’t feel like doing work.  If you love your work, it will pass.  And for me, at least, the end of the slump always brings on a burst of energy and creativity.  I feel somehow renewed, refreshed, and ready to work again.  Today, I can feel the slump coming near its end, and I find myself looking forward to working on sections of my literature review and even maybe feeling like attempting this data analysis that I don’t yet know how to do.

I consider it training for an academic lifestyle.  I always said I didn’t want to be an academic because of the guilt.  It was one of the things I hated the most.  Grad students know what I’m talking about – the guilt that follows you around when you don’t work, even if you’ve been working all day or all week.  You feel guilty for taking the time to watch your favorite TV show or read a book or go to sleep.  Regular people things.  I knew I could be an academic, and potentially succeed in that career, once I got rid of the guilt.  These days I don’t feel guilty when I do things for myself, because I’ve realized that I am so much happier and more productive when I do do those things.

And the slump taught me that I love my work, too.  I find myself looking forward to writing – relishing the book on structural equation modeling I am currently reading, looking forward to uncovering the history of the construct I am exploring, even looking forward to rearranging the thoughts I dump on my paper to make a coherent tale, one that will convince my readers that my work is important to the field.  I like the process.  I keep waiting for that horrible misery to hit me – the one all the dissertators of yore have told me about – but it has yet to do that.  There are some parts I don’t like, but all in all it’s been a pleasant experience.  I write when I want and I don’t when I don’t – I do something else.