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Friday, March 4, 2011

Scientiae: Change is the Only Constant

After some discussion, it's nice to see that the Scientiae carnival will continue this year! Instead of doing monthly posts, the carnival will be done quarterly. I hope there are many contributors, both old and new, this year!

The first carnival of the year is hosted by JaneB over at Now what was I doing?:
A truism widely used in one of the fields my research area touches on (way to be vague?) is: Change is the only constant.
A recent post by Biochembelle has influenced my post today. If you've been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know that my PhD experience was not stellar (to say the least). Looking back, I can see now that part of it was because I could not accept my mindset changing about my career.

When I graduated from my bachelor's degree, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I took a job as an inside technical sales person for an industrial electric motor company. That lasted all of two months. At that point, I decided to go back to school, go back to astronomy, and get a masters. During that time, I loved research. I loved the people, I loved the subject, and I was having the time of my life. So, it was just natural to continue with a PhD with the future goal of becoming a tenured professor.

I moved across the country and switched fields. The first six months were okay. Not great by any stretch, but I attributed it to being in a new city with new people and studying something completely different. All of a sudden I didn't have any close friends nearby for the first time in my life, and I had no idea what I was doing in my research. On top of that, a paper came out basically scooping my PhD project, so I had to start from scratch.

Things continued to get worse. I would get into these funks that lasted for days or weeks, hating my research and hating my classes. But, when I talked to other students or professors about it, everyone said they feel/felt that way during their PhD. Everyone convinced me that being miserable and frustrated all the time was perfectly normal. Clearly, they didn't have a grasp of my particular situation. At one point it was so bad that, after a melt-down in our living room, my now husband suggested I see a therapist.

I knew I wanted to quit. My husband knew I wanted to quit. My therapist knew I wanted to quit. But, I just couldn't do it. It wasn't about letting other people down, though that was part of it. It was really about seeing myself as a failure. It was about finishing what I started, because I didn't want to be one of those people who were never happy no matter what they did.

So, I pushed through. I finished my research, wrote up my thesis, and couldn't be done fast enough. I was so incredibly happy when the committee told me I passed. Not because of the accomplishment (I couldn't even stand to be called "Doctor"), but because it was finally over. I could move on to something I enjoyed.

I knew very early on that I no longer wanted to do scientific research at that level, but I just couldn't bring myself to leave. I couldn't accept that I had changed my view about research and about becoming a professor. Looking back, I would have to say it's one of my very few regrets in life that I didn't leave my PhD.

In the end, I do think I've learned from the experience. I now allow myself the option of leaving or quitting or giving up. I try not to do things I don't want too (within reason, of course - we all have obligations and responsibilities that must be tended too!). Two years ago, if I had the problems I did with breastfeeding Evan, I would have just kept going, being miserable for months. Instead, I gave myself a specific time-line: if it wasn't working after a certain amount of trying (six weeks), I could move on. And you know what? It worked. I was able to give it a good try. It didn't work, so I stopped. No guilt (okay, some, but not as much as I thought), and things got so much better so much faster.

So, here is my advice to anyone out there struggling with something - be it your job, your relationship, or some other facet of your life: give yourself a specific time-line (don't say "well let's see what it's like in a while"; say "I'm giving myself until July 1st"), give it a fair chance during that time, and if it doesn't work out, change the situation. No guilt. There is nothing wrong with changing your path. In fact, it can be quite liberating!