Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why do I suck?

I'm trying to write my thesis. I really am. I just keep getting stuck, so it's going super slowly, and I'm plagued with guilt about being slow. But every time I try to push myself, to give myself deadlines, to increase the pressure on myself, it just backfires, and I get less done.

I think about what I want to do next. I imagine when I defend my thesis, my committee members may ask me what I plan to do next, and I dream about various answers. I think about telling them that I've realized research is just not for me, and I imagine telling them reasons why I think that. I imagine they might be able to offer some insight into whether I'm right, or whether they might tell me how I could learn to be good at and like research.

But the thing is, my committee, my mentors, anyone who might actually be able to offer me insiders' insight when I say I don't think I'm cut out to deal with failing 99.9% of the time, I don't think I have the vision to seek out the paths that lead to good results, and I don't know how to gain that vision, all the people who might be able to say something to help me are also the people who I need to be references for my future jobs. So I need them to think I've never had a doubt in my life about doing anything, and I certainly don't need to help them come up with a list of my weaknesses. They need to think I'm confident, brilliant, passionate about my career (whatever I eventually decide to pursue).

I've wanted to be good at this. I've wanted to bolster my strengths and improve where I have weaknesses. I've just never really figured out what they are. When everything you do is met with negative feedback, you just change random variables all the time. All you know is, that didn't work; I'll try something else.

I did eventually gain some insight over the years, but I feel like I had to learn everything in the hardest way possible: by doing it wrong in a million different ways. But I continued to evaluate myself, and examine what I could see working (or not working) for other people, and I did eventually improve. But now I just feel too tired of it all, and like it's too late.

I started this game as a smart girl, capable of working very hard. As we all did.

But I was naive, and my whole life, all that had been demanded of me was to do what I was told, the way I was told to do it. And my advisor was a micromanager, so he told me what to do, and how to do it, and how to think about it, and I tried to do it.

But lab work doesn't work that way. What my advisor really wanted was publishable results. And with research, no one knows a priori how to get there.

And anyway, a Ph.D. isn't about that. It's not about just doing what someone else wants you to do. It's yours, your work, your thesis, your Ph.D. But damn if standing up to my advisor doesn't result in insults and threats and extreme unpleasantness. But it's what had to be done to make progress, rather than circling the same microproblem forever. So, difficult Lesson 1 - You can't be a people-pleaser, and Lesson 2 - You may have to endure unpleasantness, insults, and threats and you have to try not to let it get to you.

And then there's Lesson 3, that I'm still trying to wrap my head around. How to choose the right paths to pursue. You see, I'm a plodder. I like to do things once, correctly, and double-check my work along the way. It seemed to work for me in school. But it doesn't work for me in the lab.

I used to do homework with a friend, and I used to say we were perfectly matched as homework partners. He was a racer, and I'm a plodder. He could take our ideas, race through the steps, and see that we were on the right path. I could then plod along and make sure we got all the steps just right. I was not good at the half-assedly racing through to see that it was going to work; he wasn't as good at the details of to plodding along to get all the steps right. It was a great partnership.

But it turns out that the skill he had is much more important to getting stuff done in the lab. And I still suck at it. I've tried. But I feel like I race through the wrong way, choose the wrong steps to gloss over, the wrong results to follow. I race through, choose the path, and then the path is wrong. I do this over and over. How the fuck can I get better at it??? Still don't know.

Over and out.


  1. I know what you mean about the conflict between wanting real advice and wanting to appear confident. The only way I've figured out around that is talking to people who I don't go to grad school with, but then it's people that are on the same level as me and don't have the same sort of insight a professor could provide.

    Your homework partner situation sounds familiar to me- except I am the racer! I miss my plodder friend. Finding people that are fun to work with but have complementary skills is not easy.

  2. I am sorry! I also feel like I get "stuck" when I feel overwhelmed. The more there is to do, and the more I think about it, the more I can't make myself put one foot in front of the other and get out of bed. Then you feel worse, and so it goes. Focusing on small steps is the only thing that works for me.

    I hope you can find someone to talk with about your concerns - perhaps you may find that your advisors have also had the same fears in their career...?