Existential Ph.D. Crisis

When I started this blog, I thought I would be writing about my thesis as much as my experience in Israel. Turned out I didn’t talk about it so much. I can’t say it’s because it’s not interesting, but cultural shocks, politics and war are much more entertaining than the daily struggle of a researcher. Plus, soooo many things have been written about grad school, and I can not top PhD Comics (http://phdcomics.com/comics.php).

But I am feeling a bit lost those days. Not that I am not making any progress (although you should know of never asking a PhD student how her research is going), it’s actually going relatively smoothly lately.

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I just feel like there is no purpose in what I am doing. I have few projects in parallel, some of them I really believed in at the beginning but now it all looks like I am crossing the Valley of Shit. Which sucks because my supervisor is finally happy with my progresses and said we have to start writing (it will be my first paper…). And suddenly I am feeling paralyzed. I know my current research won’t be ground-breaking, and I will be lucky if it even leads to remotely interesting results. I mean, I know how to sell my research, I can make it sounds very cool, but the truth is that the output will certainly be minor. And although I am aware that it’s fine, that it’s ‘just’ a thesis, I am being scared for the future as well. I always try to live in the present, as I learnt many times that nothing ever goes according to the plan anyway; but it’s a little bit harder those days.

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I will turn 30 this year and I still don’t know what I wanna do when I will be a grown up. Research is fun, I love the intellectual stimulation, the interesting people I get to meet regularly, the discoveries etc… but it is also a very peculiar world. Just like in the industry, if not more, there is a lot of ego going on, an exhausting race for fundings, and success depending more on how you sell your work than the actual product of it. All the things I hated in the companies where I worked before.

In my previous job, I was really invested at the beginning, I wanted to have an impact, and when I realized that some people tried to put me down and didn’t take me seriously, I started complaining a lot about it. At that time I was living at my parents, and one evening, after he heard my litany a little bit too much, my father told me the wisest thing ever. He said “Remember, that’s just a job, you are not gonna save the world. So relax.”. It was brilliant! I realized how much that was true, how much my work was meaningless in the great scheme of things, that it mainly consisted in absurd previsions and attending meeting where we would discuss the organization of another meeting to brainstorm on ideas that would never be implemented. So I stopped caring. Overnight I was done with worrying about work-related matters and felt totally disconnected from my fellow colleagues who were so involved, working countless hours in the hope of being noticed and offered some kind of recognition. The problem with not carrying is that it is really not helping going through the day. You end up spending most of your time thinking about how to have a more meaningful occupation.

And that’s when the idea of PhD arose. I thought that maybe, there, there was a chance to have an impact. But now that I am realizing that my research is probably not more meaningful than my projections for the industry of aquaculture in Norway, how do I continue? They say that you don’t get the perfect job when getting out of school, you build it through experience and skills that you acquire on less-perfect jobs. But I am worrying that the skills I am mastering now are not the most relevant for the future. Someone said one day that research is not so much about being smart when you realize that a trained monkey could be able to do 90% of your daily tasks. I mean I am getting really good at photoshop, but I am not sure I want to work for a fashion magazine… Unless I could find a way to get paid for curating the web and creating memes. Until then I will keep on teaching fish how to count and make rational economics decision, because that sounds much more down-to-earth.

Random thought process of an average Ph.D. student

“Science is beautiful, it’s the future, I am contributing to make the world a better place.”

“Not sure this project is gonna save someone’s life but at least it will be a good publication.”

“Is it coffee time yet?”

“I knew I had something important to do today, but can’t remember what.”

“Do we have a government yet? Maybe I should read the news…”

“Okay, this task is boring, but keep the big picture in mind, you’re doing it for science.”

“What am I gonna do after the PhD?”

“Is it lunch lime yet?”

“I think a career in the academics would suit me, I love the research part and teaching is meaningful.”

“Oh good, a seminar, best excuse for procrastinating.”

“So where was I? What did I write here? It doesn’t make sense, I wonder what I meant…”

“Arrrrrg, why are students so stupid??? I need an other red pen. Stop writing in red, red is for me!!!”

“I should find a conference abroad to go see my friends and get the flight paid for.”

“Maybe I will have a hard time falling asleep if I drink that fifth coffee. Or is it sixth?”

“I wonder which one of the skills I am acquiring now could be useful if I’d decide to work in the industry eventually.”

“Is it too late to learn an actual profession? Trading is not so bad after all.”

“Maybe I should start looking for a rich husband.”

“I should have had kids when I was in high school, they would be big enough now for me to focus on a carrier.”

“There must be a way to get paid for sending relevant articles and cat videos to people.”

“What if my research won me a Nobel price?”

“I should work more, starting of today, I will work at least 12 hours a day, I really need to make progress on this project.”

“I haven’t checked Facebook for like an hour, what’s going on there?”

“I need chocolate.”

“Two years left until the end of the PhD and I don’t even know in which country I would like to live.”

“I should write a blog post. I hope they will like it. Maybe they won’t think it’s funny, I should probably be reading papers instead.”

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Random thought process of an average Ph.D. student. Can be repeated as many time as needed. More than once a day. Not necessarily in that order.