Some motivation to get you through your PhD

If there is one thing I hate, it’s the stereotype that PhD students are pathetic, dependent, helpless creatures bogged down by self-doubt and self-pity. It annoys me even more that PhD students are responsible for perpetuating this myth. We laugh along with popular websites like Piled Higher and Deeper (a.k.a PhD comics) and What Should We Call Grad School, which regularly make jokes about the futility of grad school.

Sure, these sites are funny because there is an element of truth in them, but I believe that they cause more harm than good. Although they are well-meaning and try to foster a culture of solidarity among students, they are more likely to cause complacency than empowerment.

We don’t need another shoulder to cry on, we need a kick in the arse!

As I am nearing the end of my PhD experience, I thought I’d share a bit of motivational advice I found especially useful. It is the final chapter of Adam Ruben’s book, Surviving your stupid, stupid decision to go to grad school. Some of you may be familiar with Ruben’s writing, because he also writes a monthly column in Science Magazine, Experimental Error.

Here it is, enjoy.

GRAD school is a world of shit. It just is. You know this.

You work a job with hours that bleed into and subsume your free time. You earn the leanest praise and mediate the pettiest disputes. You’re paid very little, or nothing at all, or – big fun! – you pay them. True, there are moments of real personal discovery, but also tedium, repetition, seminars, and repetition. Even if you vehemently love your subject – and to justify your stupid, stupid decision, you’d better – the day-to-day drudgery can quickly crush your initial idealism.

As each day brings more doubt and less progress, you get caught in grad school’s academic undertow, and even when you notice what’s going on, your natural response is not to act, but to complain.

Please allow this book to offer one piece of serious advice (don’t worry, this is the only one): Take control.

Decide that enough is enough. Stop waiting for your advisor to guide your work – write a paper using your own brain and slap it down on his or her desk. Study – really, actually study – what it is you’re studying. Realize that you can’t include everything in your thesis, and drop your lofty and unrealistic plan to transform the field. You won’t. Plan what you need to do to graduate, write it down, sit with the person whose approval you need, and work up a timeline. Seek out interesting conferences, and if your department won’t pay for you to attend them, search for outside sponsorship. (You have the freaking Internet, for crying out loud.) Actively pursue your own intellectual goals, because – and it’s so easy to forget this – that’s why you’re here.

Can’t find the motivation to work today? Tough shit. It’s like a snow day: Every day off you give yourself makes you feel good that day, but it’s one more day you’ll have to make up in June when you really want to be out of school.

It’s possible that many graduate programs want you to get depressed, say “Fuck it,” and take charge of your own destiny. They may consider this part of your necessary struggle. Well, so be it. Wait no longer. Take charge now.

And get on with your stupid, stupid career

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