How to lose my apathy and get a PhD
November 20, 2010 6:36 AM   Subscribe

How to Be Awesome and Finish a PhD? I'm in my first term of an engineering PhD (post-bachelors and 2yrs working in industry). My work is sucking: I don't do enough homework or research. How do I get back the drive I felt in high school when I was a clueless single guy who felt he had to prove he was brilliant?

(anonymous because this is deeply embarrassing)

What I think I want to do is:
--Put in long hours (the kind of hours my friends who are consultants brag/complain about) to salvage this academic term's grades and do impressive research.
--Once this term is under control, use the extra time to try some of the small-business ideas I've been thinking about
--Take time for social activities, exercise, art, etc.
--Relentlessly work on projects for increased career success or self-improvement
--See how far up the Scale of Scientific Sins I can get in one lifetime.
--Sign up for cryonic preservation

If I did what I feel like I want to do, I'd hold myself to a much lower standard:
--Accept that I, as a single human, am mortal and can't save myself or the world
--Have ice cream for breakfast most days
--Leave school, get a low-stress engineering-related job
--Be successful enough that family are happy (gradual career advancement, match parents' standard of living, hang out with friends, have children eventually)
--Enjoy comfort in relationships, work, surroundings, etc.
--Enjoy frequent temporary oblivion/flow in Internet, gaming, and TV

I go to class, but do the homework at the last minute and occasionally after the last minute, I think due to classic perfectionism/anxiety like I've often read about here. I'll probably get a B average this term, will be unable to get funding for next year (I have a stipend now), and will have to leave school. I do research, but barely put in the 20hrs/wk research minimum, not the 40hrs/wk I hear is standard for successful students. The work itself is easy, just takes time to figure out and do it: I'm at a second-tier school and got a Bachelors (with a ~3.0GPA) from a top-tier school.

To me, this seems like deep procrastination. This is the work I think I want to be doing right now, but I'm not sure if I'm anxious or apathetic. I think I'm especially motivated by wanting to impress good women and get my parents' approval, and I don't have the same motivation now that I have a long-term girlfriend and met my parents' expectations. In high school (seven years ago, the last time I studied all the time and had near-perfect grades), I was unhappily single and wanted to impress smart girls, and had clear goals from my parents. I also thought that becoming an engineer was a passion/calling for me (improve the human condition! create wealth and prolong life with science!). Now, I don't know what I want.

Also possibly relevant: I stutter, enough that it's noticeable, not enough to get in the way of normal friendships and work. This used to motivate me more: sounding like an idiot more often than most people gave me some extra desire to prove I was smart. It doesn't really bother me now, though I expect I'd have a few more friends and a better career if I could stop. Speech therapy makes a difference, but requires a lot of time to deprogram bad habits.

Now, in my free time, I like to eat and read articles on the Internet. I have dreams, of course (get a PhD, start a company, get a six-pack, etc.) but nothing with the personal urgency I used to feel. Actually, I remember wanting to be lazy in high school, too, but I couldn't be lazy and still impress my friends and parents. Now, I'm more accepting of myself.

I feel like a bad person because many people with more motivation would better use the opportunities I have now.

How do I fix this and get myself to work?

Thank you for listening! I heart metafilter.
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who has a PhD and supervises PhDs in an engineering school I would have serious doubts about the ability of someone who isn't motivated to get a PhD in their first term ever finishing their PhD. PhDs can be extremely soul sucking endeavours, motivation tends to decline with the repetition and frustration of working in one area for numerous years, you need to start off thinking you are going to deliver change to the world and over the years get realistic and dig yourself out the other end, you need to start on a high to be able to deal with the doubt that whay you are doing is worthwhile or that someone else might produce the same thing as you, a month before you finish and better than you have done it, or that when you finish you will be overqualified and good for nothing.

You need to dig into the reasons you want to do a PhD in the first instance. what is your motivation? Why did you apply to work on the topic you are working on? If you can't think of anything but don't want to quit I would advise you look at interrupting in the first instance. Check whether your funding allows for it and then go and do something else for a bit to see if you can identify whether there is a real need in you to go after a PhD and see if that allows you to find the motivation. Because if you can't I would suggest there is a good chance you are setting yourself up for a fall.
posted by biffa at 7:18 AM on November 20, 2010

I go to class, but do the homework at the last minute and occasionally after the last minute, I think due to classic perfectionism/anxiety like I've often read about here.

Does your school offer anxiety counseling? Many do. It's not news to anyone that grad school induces hideous amounts of anxiety.

Don't be too hard on yourself at this early date. It is difficult to go back into an academic environment after 2 years in an industrial job.

Tactical solutions:

- break your work up into smaller manageable parts, so you don't feel at the start of each day you have too much to do, but at the end of each day you can still feel like you did something.

- Find a workspace and use it for work. And whenever you feel like you can't work anymore, do your non-working SOMEWHERE ELSE. If you start goofing off IN your workspace, and then feel like you're not getting enough done, it will reinforce your anxiety every time you occupy that work space.

- Exercise. Run or bike or swim or something. Give your mind a break and work your body.

The strategic solution:

Find a research project you actually enjoy doing. At the end of the day, wanting to have a doctorate is often not a good enough motivation to get people through grad school. You really need to enjoy what you're doing during the day at least some of the time. When you mostly enjoy the work, you can slog through the unpleasant parts for a few weeks, maybe even months, but 3-5 years with no job satisfaction other than slowly approaching the end goal of a degree is a tough row to hoe.

Now, I'm more accepting of myself.

Consider accepting that a Ph.D. isn't for you, then. It isn't for everyone. And it doesn't make you more or less awesome.
posted by solotoro at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2010

Seconding biffa. It's extremely difficult to put in long hours if you don't like, or at least believe in, what you're doing. Why are you doing a PhD anyway?
posted by sesquipedalian at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2010

As someone who is also trying to sort through their issues with grad school, I think you should finish the semester with style (get to work now!) and then rethink your options over winter break. If you can somehow rally and bump your grades back up, it will keep your options open.

That said, you're "lower standards" life sounds like a pretty darn good one -- in that you can still do the engineering work that you enjoy while still having a well-rounded life that meets your needs on multiple levels. This option may seem like you're lowering your standards because you used to be an over-achiever, but maybe now you're just more mature and understand yourself better. Self-awareness like this is good -- don't ignore it! However, if you choose this path, maybe you should limit the ice cream for breakfast thing to once a year, like on your birthday.
posted by sk932 at 9:02 AM on November 20, 2010

You know whats really impressive? Having the confidence to accept yourself for who you actually are, recognize your own limitations, and still live a happy, balanced life. That's kind of what your second, supposedly "lower standard" life sounds like to me.

It sounds like your previous ambition came out of a not very happy place- you wanted to impress your parents, get a girlfriend, whatever. Why do you want to return to that place?

"Now, I'm more accepting of myself." That's a good thing, not a lazy thing!

"I feel like a bad person because many people with more motivation would better use the opportunities I have now." Maybe. But you aren't them. You can't beat yourself up for not being someone else.
posted by MadamM at 12:13 PM on November 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm going to disagree with the above posters who say a Ph.D. is not for you. It might be, and it might not be. Speaking as someone who started with similar doubts and is now a recent graduate, there's nothing that you've described so far that makes it impossible to get a Ph.D. Loving what you do certainly helps to get a Ph.D., but it's not necessary. Overworking yourself certainly helps to get a Ph.D., but it's also not necessary. In order to decide if a Ph.D. is for you, you need to understand what a Ph.D. is.

A Ph.D. serves two purposes. The first is obvious: It's an apprenticeship. By working with your mentor, first on menial tasks around the periphery of research, and then later making a real contribution, you learn how research is done, you learn about the culture of academia, and you develop the beginnings of an independent research program. It's a way to "get you out of the house" and working on your own.

All of this is true. It's also entirely hype. This brings us to the second purpose of a Ph.D.

A Ph.D. is a hazing ritual. In it a sponsor (your advisor), and a group of other members (your committee), who all belong to an exclusive club (the proffesoriate) determine whether or not you are fit to join their ranks by making you suffer. Culturally, the suffering is incredibly important. It presents a barrier to determine your determination and your worth. It bonds you closer to your fellow graduate students and forms community ties with both current and future faculty. It builds you a place and a rank in an existing social network/hierarchy with a long history, and makes sure that you are sufficiently broken to accept that place (which as a newcomer, is going to be at the bottom). Your committee does this because that's they way it was done to them, that's the way it's always been done, and it's quite possibly the only way to actually do it.

As an apprentice, in order to succeed, you have to be willing to do what is asked of you. You probably won't see how what you're being asked to do is important, or how it benefits your education, but much of it is that until you know more (both by class and by example) you simply cannot be trusted to do the work of a master. You are there to learn, but you are also there to earn your keep because the person who is teaching you has to pay for you. So you work on what you can do, and you learn by osmosis, and eventually you are trusted with more and more creative freedom.

As an initiate, in order to succeed, you not only have to suffer, but you also have to put on a show of suffering. You have to blow your work way out of proportion, complain about how little sleep your getting, and your lack of social life and all of that good stuff, even when it isn't true. You must maintain the polite fiction that a graduate student's place is in the office 24/7 our of pure love of their work, when the reality is that most graduate students do have lives. Most faculty have lives, too. It's just that both groups (sub)consciously know enough to hide it.

You can have it all, degree, career, social life, oblivion, and sleep, but you need to be willing to do a few things: Actually do the work that actually has to be done, recognize when work has to be done and when it's for show, learn to refuse the unimportant work without actually refusing (the show has a purpose), suffer at least a bit, put on a good show of suffering a lot more than you actually are, and be secretly responsible for your own sanity (because everyone else is out to destroy it).

If you can do all that, then you can get a Ph.D.. If you can't do all of that, then you have to become someone who can, or leave the program.
posted by yeolcoatl at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2010 [11 favorites]

It's just a PhD. It's one option for your life, there are plenty of others and there is nothing wrong with getting a low stress job and enjoying life AT ALL. It is as awesome as you think.
posted by fshgrl at 2:17 PM on November 20, 2010

I quit my Ph.D. after the first year. I now am a part-owner of a really awesome tech company that's skyrocketing to success. Never, ever would've happened otherwise, and I've never been happier. Even without the company, it would have been the right choice. I no longer spend every day worrying about how I'm going to prove to people how smart I am.
posted by nosila at 3:00 PM on November 20, 2010

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