In the end I like structures that are human-shaped, not idea-shaped and humans are great heaps of inconsistency, ambiguity and complexity.
I forebear telling him that the reason I do not find Mormonism especially ridiculous is because I find all pretend invisible friends, Special Books and their rules equally ridiculous. Mormon ideas about realms of crystal rebirthing and special underpants are no weirder than the enforcing of wigs and woollen tights on orthodox Jewish women or laws and dogmas about burkhas and Virgin Births. The religion of the Latter Day Saints is not deserving of especial contempt simply because it is newer. It is as barmy as the rest and I cheerfully treat it as such.
Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad, It wearies me: you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuffe 'tis made of, whereof it is borne, I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me, That I have much ado to know my self.
(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)
OK, OK, it's not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I'm sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.
Ever since I started grad school, I've collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I've been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it's a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:
- But what do you want a Ph.D. for? | Macleans.ca
- Things I learnt during, and about, my PhD | Jamie's Weblo
- How to Survive Your PhD -- David Gauntlett
- A graduate school survival guide: "So long, and thanks for the Ph.D!"
- SOME MODEST ADVICE FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS
- Chris Blattman's Blog: How to get a PhD *and* save the world
- grad skool rulz « orgtheory.net
Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you're there. You're on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.
The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, "Stop laughing! I'm serious!"
My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.
And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, "I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you." For whatever reason -- my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe -- I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don't.
But ever since I've started grad school, my reply has been a firm "No." The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?
Some of my friends and advisers are saying, "You think too much. Just do it." That's a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.
I have many reasons why I should say "Yes."
- My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I'm very much out of step technically and methodologically.
- My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
- I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
- The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I'm a known quantity and I'm sure I would make a strong candidate.
- Honestly, I'm in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I've acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
- I've always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
- The friends I'm starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I'm not going into this alone.
Why am I hesitating?
- Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I'll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
- Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I'm having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I'm a slow learner).
- It's hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there's the fellowship, but I'm not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There's our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
- My coach had a great question for me when I started this master's project. He asked me what my goal was. "To get my master's degree," I said. "No," he said. "That's what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That's your goal." I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I'd decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
- I'd long decided that I'd graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I've been advised (and it's good advice) to skip the master's, transfer in the hours I've already completed, and I'll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I'm traditionally ill at ease when things don't go according to plan or I feel that I'm rushed.
One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors -- friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.
There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it's building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.
That said -- why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now -- why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I'm not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because...
Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual...
Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that's any different from the workplaces I've experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I've worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.
As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I'll benefit from what the experience can offer.
Update: "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it." Also: "Ride the horse in the direction it's going."
Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post...) NCSU (my alma mater -- LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.
I meant to add this time management rule to my previous Fall Review post. I can’t remember whether it originated with Mark Forster or David Allen, but it goes something like this: At all costs, avoid heroic efforts to get things done. Examples of an heroic effort would be pulling an all-nighter or shoving all other obligations to the side to totally focus on The One Project that needs to be done by tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. As I said in the Fall Review, yes, some projects do need hours of uninterrupted time so you can make progress. But I think the ideal is that you plan that work well ahead of time – staging its component pieces in the days leading up to it – so that you can approach the work or project mindfully rather than in a panic. And, so you can leave your desk at a decent hour feeling that you’re on top of things and get a good night’s sleep.
Forster’s “little and often” and “continuous revision” rules can help here if you start early enough and if you’re consistent in applying them.
Unfortunately, because I had not used my time wisely on Sunday (I chose to work on a project whose deadline was further out and I underestimated how much time the looming project actually needed), I had to launch an heroic effort on Wednesday to meet a Thursday deadline. This effort took 8 solid hours of time and attention and I was left quite depleted afterwards. And it’s the aftereffects, the post-partum hangover, from an heroic effort that must be avoided. It can take a while for your tanks to refill; in the meantime, other projects are backing up.
I’ve never been able to grow a thicker skin, so instead I create buffer zones.
During 2007's fall break, I took a breather and penned (odd word for a blog post, but I'll use it) an update on how the semester was going and the changes I was going through at that time.
A question from Brother Thomas and my friend Rani's firing up of her own blog about her academic struggles and successes compelled me to do another mini-review of how the semester is going. So, some random thoughts in random order:
- The semester's academic work is going just fine, though I do always seem to be about a week behind, with two large projects looming like giant looming things. Despite all the work that's piling up, I feel mostly on top of it all. I have the 500-Human Information Interaction class (the "intellectual fun" class) and the 523-Introduction to Relational Databases class (the rock-logic technical class that is torquing my intuitive English-major brain). They're a good balance of subjects for me to have. And both of the teachers are excellent.
- The index card trick alluded to in this post didn't survive. It duplicated the hardcopy monthly calendars I keep in my binder; also, it's too easy to check the class reading schedule on the web. I prefer the calendars since I can see a bigger swath of date-related information at a glance; my planner book tracks my daily to-dos. Small piles of index cards were just one more thing I didn't want to track.
- The binder, by the way, is my secret weapon. It holds a master academic calendar, all the syllabi, assignments, class notes, etc. for both classes, with tabs separating things here and there. I take notes on generic grid paper, hole punch it, and add it to the binder later. I should probably re-write the notes to really cement it all in my head, but -- no. No, I won't be doing that.
- My day job sucked up all life, space, time, and peanut butter pie out of my life during September, which made completing the schoolwork esp. challenging. Fortunately, I faced this predicament last year and prepared better for the crunch this year, so it went as smoothly as it could go. But there was still no peanut butter pie.
- My time management changed at some point this year; I can't pinpoint where or when. I've rather quietly (to me) adopted the injunction to "start early." This is the secret weapon of accomplishing grad-school work. I think it happened when I looked at my master calendar and saw that I had multiple major deliverables due at work and in both classes during the same week. But look at all that empty calendar time just sitting there the week before! So I've started pushing this stuff out earlier. Even if I can't get it finished early, I can at least get it started early and so the ideas compost while I do other things. So going back to the task is more a matter of keeping the ball rolling, rather than getting it started.
- Starting early also helps my projects "to accrue" rather than "to be worked on." I found myself doing this last spring and am doing it as often as I can this fall. A time management tactic by Mark Forster is this: when faced with projects stretching out for some time ahead of you, start work on the most distant project first. It sounds counter-intuitive, but getting that big project started early gets your subconscious involved in sifting and shaping the material, solving the problem, etc. If I can touch the project regularly over the coming weeks, I find that I add a little more to it each time with very little strain. (This is very much a blend of Forster's continuous revision and little and often processes.) There are inevitable hours-long work sessions, of course, including the finishing of the piece, but I get more satisfaction out of those sessions knowing that good-sized chunks of the work have already been done.
- I recall a week when the deadlines were so lock-stepped that I had to finish a task or project before resuming or even starting the next project. Had I gotten sick, or dropped one of those projects, I'd have never caught up and my empire would have collapsed.
- At times like that, I remember my co-worker Richard's advice. He'd finished a hard 2 years getting a master's in bioinformatics, and sometimes took unpaid leave from the day-job to get his schoolwork done. When my manager and I started our master's programs, he said: "Don't skimp on your sleep; you can't afford to get sick and fall behind." And: "Just accept that no one will get 100% -- not school, not family, not home, not work. If you can give them 90%, you're doing outstanding."
- I saw my mentor, The Improbable Cassidy, in the hallway and, teasingly, asked her how many groups and committees she was a member of this semester. She shook her head and said if she stopped to think about it all, she would freeze. We agreed that denial is an often underrated coping mechanism.
- Cassidy has a new baby, The Wondrous Anastasia, and what with feedings and naps, Cassidy has adopted the "work when you can" method and testifies herself to be more productive even than before. During crunch times, this is a good strategy and, though it's a filthy habit, it does work. I find myself using it with distressing regularity.
- Speaking of Cassidy, she persuaded me to join the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (cc:ASIS&T) as the Program Chair. I felt I owed her some tremendous back-payments on favors she's done for me the last 2 years, and that's a large part of why I agreed to do it. Also, I felt it was time to start getting a little more involved in the life of the school and meet more of my peers. (I've volunteered on special projects in the past, but have never held a board position before.) Since joining, I've sent out typical Mike-Brown over-the-top emails (rather like these hideously long blog posts that are dinosaurs in the Twitter Age) on program and publications ideas, disgorged a flurry of emails to help organize a recent talk, and spent several hours creating an event-planning template to make these things go a little more smoothly in future, I hope. (Slow-learner that I am, I finally twigged that "program chair" = "event planner.")
- A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For the last two semesters, I've parked in a park-and-ride lot and taken the bus. This semester, after sampling the parking deck behind the post office (only for dire emergencies at the beginning), I'm now parking there regularly and willingly paying the $3 for 3 hours. No more waiting for or missing the bus, and I can now linger for after-class conversations or meetings. And if I don't linger, I get to the office a half-hour earlier, which more than pays for the parking fee.
- No. Exercise. At. All. Apart from walking across campus or up stairs and, sorry, they don't really count. A 45-hour-per-week job, with school -- plus the homework and the commuting to and from -- as basically my second job, crowds out exercise time. I started the Hundred Push Ups program but did not make it past the first week. I'm such a marshmallow.
- The Beauteous Liz, as per usual, minds the store at home and picks up the slack of household management since my attention is always elsewhere.
- The Ph.D. Oh Lord. That's another blog post. Maybe later.
- In the past, while waiting for the bus, I'd pull out cards and write to friends, since I don't have time to write long letters anymore. (They'd be happy with long emails, but I think cards and letters arriving in the mailbox are more fun.) This semester, I've not had time nor brainspace to write any cards at all. I hope to get back to this soon, before Cara & Andy leave Seattle for NC in November and before Sue & family leave California for Sweden very soon.
- Last fall, I stopped my banjo lessons because it was one rock too many. I restarted the lessons in May with a new teacher and have continued them through this fall. Music lessons are a metaphor for lots of things related to life and learning and growth, and my teacher is an excellent guide for all of those things. The learning is hand-eye, rhythmic, and uses different parts of my brain than the verbal/technical parts that are way overused. I can feel myself getting better as I practice, and that's a good feeling. Also, good practice requires total focus, which helps distract me when the black dog of melancholia follows me home.
- I started this program officially in Spring 2007. Now, I find myself recognizing more folks in the halls, chatting with them, getting their stories. It's socially comforting to be recognized. It's happening slowly for me, given my schedule, but it's happening.
- Viewing that paragraph on cc:ASIS&T and this exponentially expanding blog post should tell you that I must not be busy enough. It's all, as Rani sez, "structured procrastination."
When Bush speaks, you just get all the anxiety and none of the reassurance, because his presence inevitably reminds you of all the plans and projects that have gone awry over the past eight years. The bully pulpit only works if people think you can lead them to a better place. And there just aren’t that many people who think that about George Bush anymore.
There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her claws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. —Anton Chekhov