The mid-grad school doldrums

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you’re in year 3 (or maybe even 4) of your PhD program. You can no longer claim to be a new grad student, and are rapidly advancing towards “senior grad student” status. You’ve finished taking classes, passed your qualifying exams, and maybe defended a thesis proposal. On paper, it seems like you’re progressing well towards your PhD. But then you realize: I have no data.

My hand is raised. Is yours? The scenario in the preceding paragraph pretty well describes me as a third year grad student and, based on conversations and observations over the years, it seems to be a pretty common experience. Yet, despite being common, it seems like every grad student going through this feels like they’re the only one in this situation. When I tell grad students now that I was in the same boat as a grad student, they are often visibly relieved.

I spent my first two years in grad school thinking I was going to work on hybridization. But then, after reading more about parasitism, I realized that was what I really wanted to work on. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t switch, though, given that I’d spent two years working on hybrids. I was worried it would put me behind (though, now that I think about it, I don’t know what “behind” really would have meant). Fortunately, I had lunch with one of my committee members, Doug Schemske, right around the time I was considering switching to working on parasitism. Doug pointed out that what I do my dissertation research on would launch me on my research career, and that, even if switching made it so that grad school took an extra year, that time would be well worth it if it came with the payoff of working on questions that truly interested me.* And, of course, he was right.

So, in year three, I switched to working on parasites. Except, as I’ve written about before, I accidentally worked on hemoglobin for the first half of that field season. When I realized my mistake, I seriously considered dropping out of grad school (as I discuss in that earlier post). It’s amazing how many people have stories of major dissertation disasters like this. A mink got into their fenced study site and ate all their nestlings. Their carefully marked plants (at a study site at a National Guard training facility) were run over by tanks because it turns out that flagging tape isn’t visible with night vision goggles. Fish were introduced to previously fishless ponds, removing the ability to compare fish and fishless systems. (Does that count as a demonic intrusion?) Customs holds up all your samples so that they’re all dead when they finally arrive 6 months later. A plumber hooked up the DI water with a copper fitting, contaminating all your glassware. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I really like this post from Arlenna at chemicalbilology on grad school soul-searching, which deals with the most important part of these struggles: when your project fails (and it does for everyone) and you realize you don’t have any/much data towards your dissertation, you start to wonder whether you’re really cut out for this, whether you’re good enough. As she puts it, “it’s the waking up to the real process of science and how it works for most people (even most high-level people), the part where hardly anything you do works, you have to keep plugging and plugging away at problems that seem so stupid, and nobody is there saying ‘Come on, let’s go, you can do it, one more rep’ like your personal research trainer.”** Unless you are doing science because you really want to know the answer to the question you’re working on, it’s going to be pretty hard to stay motivated through the huge amounts of failure that are an inevitable part of science. (This is another reason why Doug Schemske’s advice to me was key.) But I think it does help to know that pretty much everyone goes through this phase.

So, if you’re in what Arlenna refers to as “the hardest, crappiest, soul-searchingest phase of graduate school”, hang in there! And, if you’ve made it through that stage: what helped you get through it? What advice do you have for grad students in this stage?


*I was recently on a panel for grad students considering careers in academia. One of the students was asking about making a pretty big shift in research area for her postdoc, because she thought she was much more interested in that other area than the one she was currently working on. One of the other panelists advised her not to do that, because it would make it harder to get a job. To me, that was bad advice. While it may be true that it would make it harder to get a tenure track position (quickly), wouldn’t it be worse to be stuck working on something that doesn’t really interest you? There was an interesting discussion about when to change systems in the comments on my system envy post and in this recent post from Jeremy.

**I love the mental image of this! Maybe Personal Research Trainers should be a thing?

Postscript: After putting this in the queue, Jeremy alerted me to this gif from the whatshouldwecallgradschool tumblr. Definitely appropriate!

10 thoughts on “The mid-grad school doldrums

  1. I love the mental image of personal research trainers! And since you have a treadmill desk, you could probably get an All-Purpose Personal Trainer who helps you with your physical fitness and “research fitness” at the same time.🙂

  2. Ok, seriously and on topic, I didn’t actually go through this stage. I think in part because, shortly after I joined the lab, Peter Morin handed me a project. It was a chunk of his then-current NSF grant that no one else in the lab was doing. It wasn’t a big project–it was one-paper-sized. It was a microcosm experiment, so it could be done in a few months at most. And technically it wasn’t difficult, so I could basically jump in with minimal training and do it. So it was basically a side project for me, but it eventually became one chapter of my dissertation. So from pretty early on, I already had some data.

    I have a post in the queue on side projects and their benefits, and I think this is one of them–they help cover for the times when you can’t work on your main research project (here, because you don’t have one yet).

    • I came in and worked on a project that my advisor handed me — but that was the project on hybridization that I decided I wasn’t especially interested in. It did result in a publication, though, which certainly was helpful, but it wasn’t one that I planned to form a dissertation around.

    • Definitely second the idea that side projects are quite important to scientists if not to science.

      I was also lucky to have data quite rapidly during my PhD, though I struggled some times because they were “disappointing”. Then I realised that it was more important that they were disappointing than whatever they should have been if they were not, it this was the key finding of that piece of work.

      As a second thought on this post, I am wondering why it is so important in Academia to stick with a single cohesive project for a PhD. (or for a career, considering the mostly negative feelings about switching area as suggested in the previous post).

      Side projects might definitely bring a lot of perspectives, if at least partly related to the main study. Moreover it tells a lot as to whether you’d be further able to move goals beyond expertise habits. (Aren’t we expected to move along/aside during our research path?).

  3. Spot on, for me and least half the other grad students in my cohort (we’ve just finished our third year). I’d bet this is also the stage at which many grad students begin to question whether they want to stay in academia at all, which can be a different question than whether they are cut out for academia. Unfortunately, many people further along in academia (both post-docs and faculty) tend to respond similarly to the two issues, assuming that it’s always just the doldrums, possibly because they went through something similar themselves. Almost every time I’ve mentioned in the last year that I’m uncertain whether I want a career in academia, an academic further along has said something along the lines of “oh don’t worry, this is just the mid-grad-school doldrums, it’ll pass.” And while this might be exactly the right response to someone who needs a push from a personal research trainer, it’s almost exactly the wrong response to someone looking to explore careers outside of academia.

    • This is a very good point. When I was in this stage, I also considered whether academia was the right path for me (and whether I really wanted to try to go the R1 route). I eventually noticed that I mainly doubted that path when things weren’t going well and I wasn’t feeling confident about my abilities. When things were going well, it was so fun and I really wanted to try to stay in academia. So, I decided that, for me, that meant I probably really did want to stay in academia, and the doubts about whether I should were mainly the mid-grad-school doldrums. But probably the times when research is going well are fun for everyone, so, now that I type that out, I’m not sure if my reasoning was totally valid!

      I personally feel that it’s probably good for any grad student, including ones who think that want to pursue an academic career, to explore career options outside of academia, especially if good options present themselves. The depth of that exploration will presumably vary depending on how strongly the student is considering a non-academic path, but I think it’s still valuable for students who think academia is their preferred path. Even if that exploration confirms their desire to pursue a tenure track position, that’s still a valuable experience and valuable knowledge.

  4. This is the stage of grad school where imposter syndrome is in full swing, often because the original project hits a snag or you realize that it isn’t a project that you’re really invested in. This is why I always recommend to graduate students that they have one or more side projects on the go in case the original project doesn’t pan out. This is based on my personal experiences during my Ph.D. and the fact that I believe that multiple projects provides students with maximum flexibility in terms of the skills that they learn. This is turn contributes to greater flexibility when the degree is finished in terms of employment opportunities.

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