19 May 2009

Two Roads, One Destination

Today, I recalled something D-friend J (not to be confused with D-fav J) said to me not too long ago. He was speaking about his difficulties in initiating his dissertation research and noted that he struggled to design an appropriate research project, and in the process began to doubt his abilities and strength as a future scientist. He mentioned that he spent nearly a year in despair and thought seriously of quitting as he worked through the process. I can now happily report that J came out the other end with a viable project that was eventually funded, and he now sees a silver lining in the experience. He was glad that he stuck with it and that he hadn't been handed a project as some of our own colleagues have. To D-friend J, the struggle was part of the process.

This got me thinking about my graduate experience and that of those around me. There really are two different graduate experiences. There are those who walk into a well funded project designed by an experienced researcher, and those who don't. Now, I will leave J to his opinion, but I have given this some dichotomy some thought and I have come to quite a different conclusion.

The merits of walking into a project are many. Obviously, you don't have to worry about designing a project. You hit the ground running. Don't underestimate the value of skipping this hurdle because graduate school has a timer on it. Your departmental support will run out and some departments, mine included, have unreasonable expectations for when the finish line should be reached. Second, you don't have to write grants in support of your research. Designing and getting support for a project is time consuming, stressful, and virtually guaranteed to send you to the brink of depression. Finally, there is another merit that is often overlooked. If you are walking into a funded project, especially if that project has NSF funding, it is most likely that your advisor is an established and respected researcher. The importance of training with a successful researcher should not be under-emphasized.

The young professor seems eager, and in fact he or she is. They are eager to get a mini-me in their lab so they look and feel good about themselves. Unfortunately, they don't tell you that their one big accomplishment as a professional scientist is in getting you to work with them. They probably haven't established their own research program, haven't got a handle on their teaching assignment, and are going to be entirely too busy on those tasks to appropriately mentor you during the first months while you are struggling. Let's face it, a naive graduate student is a young professor's meat and potatoes; they are the first rung in the tenure ladder. The professors are untested as mentors, and often haven't quite made the mental adjustment from worker on someone else's research program to designer of a research program. That crap they have up on their web site--total bullshit. It is as simple as that. Whether or not a young professor will have the ingenuity and creativity to establish their own research program remains to be seen. Aligning yourself with such a researcher is a crap shoot. Are you willing to bet your future on a crap shoot?

The problem with graduate school is that no professor, young or old, is going to tell you this.

Looking to shift the emphasis of my research program, I elected to work with a professor that was better established than the one I had worked with on my masters. After one semester, I proposed my project to my committee. Imagine my dismay when my committee told me it wouldn't work. I wondered why my major advisor hadn't pointed out the problems with my research design. It was back to square one. That was when my master's advisor stepped forward and said that I should work on a project similar to my master's project and if I chose to do that, she'd be happy to advise me. Crushed by my initial failure and lured by the seemingly easy project design, I switched labs. Yes, this put me on a path that went away from where I wanted to go, but it was better than having no project at all.

I assumed a lot in that switch. I assumed that my advisor would offer the same level of support she had during my masters program. I assumed that my advisor would help me secure funding for this project. I assumed incorrectly.

I spent the next semester designing the project and forming a new committee. My advisor offered little to no guidance on the scope of my project. In fact, she expanded it in ways that made me uncomfortable, but assured me that no one ever finishes the project they propose and we would just "cut that part out at the end". My committee liked this project, noted its amibitious scope, and each member assured me that it was a fundable project. Never doubting my grant writing skills, I was poised and ready to work with my advisor to secure funding.

I wrote a few small grants which were promptly rejected. I approached my advisor about writing an NSF grant, but she had already obligated herself to submitting to the very same program as a co-PI with a better established researcher outside our university. Ultimately, that grant was never submitted, but I was never informed. No mention was ever made of submitting for another deadline. In fact, my advisor seemed to think that funding my project was entirely my responsibility. I wrote eight grants in my first year. I had no field season for lack of funding. I wrote twelve grants in my second year. I had no field season for lack of money. I wrote nine grants in my third year. Most of these were to fund a research project that supported the new direction my advisor wished to take her lab, but that had nothing to do with my dissertation project. My advisor felt that this was an exciting new direction and that funders would jump on the project. They didn't. I went back to writing grants in support of my project. I was able to get out to do some field work by paying my own way and piggybacking on the research of a lab mate. I owe her big time for that. In my fourth year, I wrote five grants. In four years, no grant I wrote was funded. To this day, I have no idea what the problem is with my project. One of my committee members suggested that I have someone other than just my advisor read over my grants before submitting them, but when I asked two professors to look at them, both claimed they didn't have the time. Finally, at the end of my fourth year, I received a two-year fellowship for which my major advisor claims that I am ill suited. So much for faith in me. The fellowship pays well enough that I will be able to pay for my own research. I will be able to finish--that is if they let me have both years of the fellowship.

When I received the fellowship, the chair of our department expressed his displeasure because he feels I should not have been awarded support that would necessarily include a sixth year of university funding. Honestly, I am incensed and confused by this attitude. After struggling for four years, after writing more than thirty grants in support of my research, I finally got the support I need to pay for my own research out of my own pocket, and I am being told that the money came too late? WTF?

Imagine how different my experience might have been had I walked into a predesigned, well funded project. I would not be facing my fifth year only now getting my field work underway. I would not be facing the pressure of trying to finish a four year degree in one year. Honestly, I don't think it can be done. If they strip me of the second year of funding, I have every confidence that I will be walking away from this project empty handed. Had I had funding at the beginning, I would probably be finished by now. I would not be the laughing stock of my department. Instead, I spend every day trying to cope with the stress that never seems to end. I stare at the bottom line on my student loans and wonder if I will ever be able to afford the minimum payments. I wonder if I will ever own a new car or my own home once I move away from this place. I feel humiliated nearly every day that I walk into my building. I'd quit, but I can't. I can't afford to walk away with anything less than a Ph.D. because that is what it is going to take to pay off those loans. All in all, in this economy, I see nothing but economic ruin for me.

Sometimes, I wish for a swift and painless death. And I'm not kidding. I'm not suicidal, but I would welcome an end to the stress if it befell me. I don't feel my future holds any real, well future. I made a mistake--not in coming to graduate school--but in aligning myself with an untested researcher who, either through lack of experience or lack of interest, didn't take a vested interest in my success. I still feel that my advisor should have taken a more active role in seeking funding for my project. Instead, she has distanced herself from me. She has certainly taken greater interest in the projects of other students. Whether it was through gross incompetence or willful negligence, I paid the price for my choice and no one else. And I will continue to pay for it for the rest of my life.

I used to be considered one of the top students in our department. Now, I feel as though I'm something of a departmental joke. Professionally, I wonder if this is something that I will ever be able to overcome. Unlike D-friend J, I woud not recommend designing your own project. I do not feel like it will make me a better researcher. While he came out feeling worthy, I'm four years in and my confidence is shattered. My only suggestion to others is to go for the pre-designed, well funded project working with an established, tenured professor. Don't put yourself in this boat with me. If it sinks, no one will save you, and others just stand on shore thanking their lucky stars they aren't you.

1 comment:

  1. Jesus, D. As you know, I'm quite displeased about the bullshit you've had to go through and sympathetic to the problems you've had, but you do know there's zero guarantee an experienced faculty member will be better in any plausible way? Indeed, my mother's entire committee was, if I recall, rather experienced faculty, and they gave her a time. And a colleague who was a recently-minted faculty member was her most helpful contact, understanding what she was going through unlike the faculty who had long since forgotten or perhaps had never cared that they were tough and unrealistic with their grad students.

    It seems completely churlish to point all this out, but I think it's important for you to remember that your problems are neither the result of a lack of ability on your part nor the inadvisability of working with a new faculty member, or on a self-designed project. I would say from my observations that there are perhaps slightly more advantages on the whole to working with senior faculty than younger ones, but quality of advising is in no way related to that. Indeed, I would say on average the quality of advising seems inversely related to the age of the faculty I've known, with many notable exceptions.

    Your departmental/phd-al problems are quite real and quite profound and quite certainly unnecessarily generated and aggravated by certain pudendal professors. The bit about not wanting you to have two year funding cuz it would mean you'd be there two more years is exceptionally bullshitastic, and the fact that you couldn't get other faculty to help you read over your grant apps continues in that vein. But if I may be so bold, my observations of the gruelling guantlet tht has been imposed on you have led me to believe that the chief lesson is: don't attend your institution!!! Cheeses feist. The wackaloonity of the people you describe on a regular basis defies basic belief.

    Hang in there -- I see a bright future for you. I may be wrong, but I may, indeed, be right as well.

    And believe you me -- this "laughingstock" business -- I could not doubt more that you're the laughingstock of the department. I felt the same way sometimes, but people are waaaaaaaaaay too wrapped up in their own worlds usually to be snotty about other people's travails, and at least among my colleagues, the eccentricities of faculty and difficulties getting funding are so widespread and understandable, no one would laugh at the problems others had with them. They may not go out of their way to commiserate, but again, that's cuz they're self-involved (as a PhD student usually must be).

    I'm not sure what tact to take here, since you usually seem like someone who would want tough love of the "stop whining, sure it's terrible, sure it's bullshit, but get on with it" mold, but you've been sounding so... hurt by all this insanity recently, I don't want to say that. I really do feel for you, and just wish it was in my power to make the hurting stop. No one likes it when loved ones are put through the ringer... which is perhaps why my mom is not quick to recommend grad school to people.

    So I guess what I'm saying is, as your internet boyfriend -- you want should I rough Dr. What-the-Dickens up? Cuz I will. Mess with my Daktari, will she, she don't know whose Internet Girlfriend she is FUCKING with.