How do I learn to like research?
February 19, 2008 12:26 PM   Subscribe

How do I get excited about my research or is academia really for me?

I'm a 4th year graduate student in mathematics, specializing in combinatorics, mostly of the algebraic and geometric variety. I have passed all the requisite tests as a grad student to become a fully fledged PhD candidate, getting my Master's in the process. In fact, the last hurdle to getting the silly thing is, I need to write and defend my dissertation.

And here's where my problem comes: I don't seem to find research interesting. I really enjoy working on homework-type problems - things that I know have a solution and which can be done over the course of a week or so. However, I can't seem to find the energy to get into research.

Relevant data:
  • I've had a problem with depression for the last 10 years and have only recently sought therapy. I'm now on antidepressants and the quality of my life has improved tremendously. The reason I first sought out the treatment was because I was having such problems getting motivated to continue progressing in my degree (on top of all the other problems I had), but unfortunately that apathy has not abated. I feel silly, when my non-academic life seems to be going so well, to go back to my doctor and ask for bigger pills, but this may be something to try.
  • I have tried talking about this to my friends who are grad students, but most of them have checked down to the master's track. And even then, the general opinion about doing research seems to be apathy and distaste. I haven't tried to talk to my advisor about it, because I feel funny telling him that I don't like research. However, my advisor knows about my depression problems and could likely advise me on this sort of thing, as he told me that he has struggled with same in the past.
  • All my life, I have been the type of person that quits things that don't come easily to me. This is a major problem, and I'm working on it as best I can. However, it may be that case that if I was able to actually accomplish something in my research (which has not happened yet, not even any minor results), I would enjoy it a lot.
  • My advisor has only held an assistant professorship for a few years. That is, he is not tenured. This doesn't mean he isn't smart and nice to work with, but it does mean that he doesn't necessarily have a lot of free research questions lying around to hand out to grad students, so I'm sort of working uphill in trying to find things to work on.
This semester I have been trying to give my brain some candy to maybe relieve a little burnout. That's taking the form of a course in elementary piano skills, which is fun, but doesn't seem to be doing the job I intended for it. (In fact, I'm finding it more stressful than not, having never played an instrument.) But I really can't think of anything else to try, except doing research until I find it fun, which may not ever happen.

So, my question is: how do I learn to enjoy this and not get burnt out, or does it sound like academia is just not my bag?
posted by TypographicalError to Education (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
In my opinion, if you are not passionate about your field of study and willing to spend years and years doing research, academia may not be suitable for you. If you like solving homework-type problems, maybe consulting or an engineering company may be more suitable. I am not implying that they do homework-level stuff, but I mention this because typically academic research may be to open-ended and long-term for your liking.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 12:32 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't seem to find research interesting

This is the nub, gist, and the key point. Why throw yourself into a field you hate from the start? The only reason I can think of is that you are really that into suffering and other areas of your life aren't giving you enough pain.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:35 PM on February 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Exactly what swordfish said, academic research may be too open-ended and long-term. When you have a real client and/or a real boss, you know what you need to do and you can do it, and you'll know when you've finished. With a dissertation, you don't have that sense of confidence. These were my own reasons for getting out of academia and into a professional practice. It's possible the depression, medication etc. have little to do with this particular issue.

All my life, I have been the type of person that quits things that don't come easily to me. This is a major problem, and I'm working on it as best I can. However, it may be that case that if I was able to actually accomplish something in my research (which has not happened yet, not even any minor results), I would enjoy it a lot.

This quote may be a baseless story you're telling yourself about what a whiz and what an authority you're supposed to be, based in turn on a story someone else told you when you were about 7. Just drop it. Start fresh. Your friends have opted for the Master's rather than the Ph.D., right? Maybe their example can teach you something.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:41 PM on February 19, 2008


You are not alone. Read this thread.

Here is another thing to consider. Academics don't get paid much. They don't get much respect. In the end, the main benefits are flexible work hours, job and institutional security and, most of all, doing something that they love. If you don't love doing research, then one of the the three main benefits of this line of work is missing. With a masters degree in mathematics, I imagine you could get a pretty good job where people will give you discrete tasks to perform and will also pay you a TON of money. Then, if you really find that you miss research, you can retire early and rich and do all th research you want.
posted by googly at 12:52 PM on February 19, 2008


I agree that this may have little to do with your description of yourself as a quitter with depressive tendencies. Indeed, it might be that being in therapy will help you realize that you don't want to continue in your path not because you're "a quitter," but because you value yourself and your life and you don't want to spend your precious time doing something you don't care about.

Having said that, knowing *nothing* about your field, in my field (social sciences), there were research questions that were purely academic (e.g., how does personality variable X vary with variable Y) and there were other ones that were more applied (e.g., how do different personality types react to this or that HIV prevention strategy).

I found I was *much* more interested in the applied kinds of questions. Even so, academia was ultimately not for me, as the emphasis on publishing in academic journals seemed to go against my wish to be an applied type person.

Is there an analogy in your field? Like are there applied research versus academic research kinds of questions, and that you might be interested in one versus the other?
posted by jasper411 at 12:56 PM on February 19, 2008


Is there an analogy in your field? Like are there applied research versus academic research kinds of questions, and that you might be interested in one versus the other?

Applied combinatorialists are called "computer scientists." That is a path I'm considering.


Academics don't get paid much. They don't get much respect. In the end, the main benefits are flexible work hours, job and institutional security and, most of all, doing something that they love.

I love reading about math, I love being at conferences, I love talking to people about math, and I love talking to people who do math. There is a lot of love here, but just not for the research.
posted by TypographicalError at 1:41 PM on February 19, 2008


What kind of dissertation are you expected to produce? I am asking because some fields have the 3 paper dissertation, described by some as "the only thing holding the 3 papers together is the staple." Is it possible in your field or acceptable to your advisor to put together a number of smallish results into a dissertation?

You have indicated an ability to work on smaller problems - perhaps your current lack of interest in your research comes from having have set too large a goal. Try to identify what would be the smallest publishable chunk of work for your field. Then try to find an upcoming conference deadline and give yourself that as the deadline for producing this chunk of work.

Do you know students or professors in other departments who are doing research that could benefit from your particular skill set? Working together with somebody might make research fun, may result in publications, and may end up suggesting areas of research or problems you find extremely interesting and exciting.
posted by needled at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2008


Welcome to the life of a research mathematician. :) I got a Ph.D. in math a couple of years ago, and I can understand where you're coming from. There is nothing more frustrating in my life than beating my head against some problem for months and not getting anywhere. In fact, several times every year I seriously ask myself why I've decided to become a research mathematician, and I've come close to walking away. But, then I'll actually get somewhere with my research, and during those eureka moments it'll all seem worth it. (Of course, as you get more experienced, those moments seem less mysterious, and you get better at making them happen.)

My advice to you is to hang in there and work hard until you've proved a result. (Trust me, if you work hard enough for long enough, it will happen.) Once that happens, you'll be in a better position to evaluate whether or not you'd like to be a research mathematician. I don't know of any trick to make those months when you're seemingly spinning your wheels be enjoyable. That's just part of life for a research mathematician - the highs are very high and the lows are very low (and if you're easily susceptible to depression, then they can be that much worse).

It also sounds to me like you simply have not found a problem that you find exciting. (Has your topic been assigned to you by your adviser?) If that's the case, you need to keep looking for one that does excite you. Also, it is a good idea to work on multiple problems at the same time. That way, if you get stuck on one, you can switch gears for a bit. I can tell you from personal experience that when you're not working on a problem that you find really interesting it can be very hard to motivate yourself to do research, but this in no way means that you're incapable of enjoying doing research.
posted by epimorph at 2:19 PM on February 19, 2008


Grad school can be a very frustrating, depressing time, and most students have doubts similar to yours; I know I do. However, this comment is a red flag:

All my life, I have been the type of person that quits things that don't come easily to me.


In my experience, the people who are productive at and excel in research are those who identify research questions (of any importance) and work and work and work away at them because they're obsessed.

Not finding your current research interesting might just mean that you haven't found the right problem yet. But if you rarely or never get obsessed over little details in those homework-type problems--the exceptions and patterns in existing knowledge that are the springboards to research--then I'd strongly considered moving on.
posted by Mapes at 2:36 PM on February 19, 2008


I love reading about math, I love being at conferences, I love talking to people about math, and I love talking to people who do math. There is a lot of love here, but just not for the research.

That is awesome! One common thread in what you say seems to be that (other than reading) you like to interact with people around math. And one problem with research in certain fields - I gather that this is true of some mathematics research as well - is that research is conducted alone. And that has consequences: it means that you have to be incredibly self-directed; it means that you get little or no encouragement or immediate feedback along the way; and it means that you have to deal with all the inevitable discouragements and blind alleys and dead ends by yourself. Most of all, its lonely.

At the risk of projecting, perhaps a bit of my own bio is relevant here. I started out in a field (history) that in many ways I love - I like to read about it, talk about it, etc. But doing my dissertation, and then a post-doc, was really hard. I also felt like a quitter, I also felt pretty damn depressed, and I also wished for someone to hand me a research problem on a silver platter. I can't asking myself what my problem was.

It took me years, but I finally realized that the problem wasn't research or academia or my own psyche - it was that I was just lonely, and that I valued interacting with people around my chosen field of interest more highly than research itself. I won't bore you with the details of my story after that, but I have moved into a related field that encourages collaboration more than history did, and it has made me a lot happier. I can't say that it has inspired a love for research per se, but it has made it more palatable and more enjoyable.

I"m not sure if this applies to you, but perhaps it will be of some use.
posted by googly at 2:50 PM on February 19, 2008


I love reading about math, I love being at conferences, I love talking to people about math, and I love talking to people who do math. There is a lot of love here, but just not for the research.

As others have said, if you don't like research and can't think of research questions, an academic-research path is probably not the one for you. That said, if you really love math but hate research you might consider a teaching path, either at a community college or even (gack) high school. It's certainly not going to be as lucrative as industry work, but you might find it very fulfilling, and it's certainly noble.

I felt burned out on research when I finished my MA, and it was through my community college teaching that I re-discovered research passion, which ultimately led me back to grad school. But don't pursue the PhD unless you really want it, because it's just too much work.

And personally I think the world could use a lot more good math teachers...if I had had better math teachers then maybe I wouldn't have ended up hating math so much!
posted by DiscourseMarker at 2:54 PM on February 19, 2008


Here's a different take.

It's very common for graduate students to become disenchanted with research, or to find it hard to move from being a consumer of research to a producer.

One of the important things to realize is that research is work. It isn't inspiration and a fevered night writing down your blaze of insight. It's not you sitting down with your passion towards a field and letting it rip. It's blind alleys that don't work, again and again and again. It's fiddling and twiddling with details, again and again and again. It's a long, slow slog.

Flipside: realize when you're reading an article in a math journal that, odds are, it doesn't represent a sudden insight or burst of inspiration. Instead, it's more likely that that one article represents multiple man-months of work. Not joyous sitting down and letting the math flow through you, but taking another stab at the goddam thing that won't work, or trying again to wrap your head around why you're getting this squirrely result that seems like it should be wrong.

You should not expect your working life as an academic to be an unending serious of semi-erotic passionate engagement with some subject. If you do, you are likely to be bitterly disappointed. Instead, I'd bet that the trick for most academic isn't being passionate about it, it's being willing to slog through the waist-deep puddles of crud that you're not passionate about as part of the process of getting to what you do care about, or do really find interesting.

None of this means that academia is for you. But you might sit down with your advisor, or with other profs, and talk to them more about what the field is like to work in, with the accent on work.

Another related thing that grad students often have difficulty coming to grips with is where ideas come from. They don't spring out of your head. Sometimes they come because you've had a long-standing interest in something, and a dataset or technique comes along that lets you toy with it. Other times it comes about because you see someone else's work and it pisses you off in some way -- it's just wrong, or it's using the wrong techniques and the right ones would show something else, or it's a miserable failure to generalize results that should be generalizable, or it fails to take something important into account, or whatever. And they generally start pretty half-assed and vague, and refining them is also a long, slow, often tedious process.

Anyway, lots of students think that they can't come up with research topics because they don't know how to come up with research topics. Knowing that it's not a matter of just being brilliant and passionate and then they come to you can be a bit of a relief.

I'd argue against the idea that you have to be "passionate" about your field, because that makes it out to be more than it is and creates unrealistic expectations, and people have lots of unrealistic expectations about academia. But if it's the case that when you read stuff, it's all just interesting and nothing ever really makes you say "No, you FUCKHEAD, that's not it!", then you might want to reconsider.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:43 PM on February 19, 2008 [10 favorites]


If you've been there 4 years and haven't done any research yet then maybe it isn't a career for you. Most researchers can't help researching, they are always comnig up with new stuff and have their fingers in all kinds of pies.

However if you've done the research and it's just the writing that's left to go I recommend truly stupendous amounts of Redbull as a writing aid ;) If not publishing your results in a timely fashion disqualified you from the academic life then it would be a very excleusive club indeed.
posted by fshgrl at 5:18 PM on February 19, 2008


Getting a PhD is about doing Math for at least 10,000 hours. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 5 years. So just put in the hours. If seems like you're not making progress, you must still go to the office and struggle with whatever problem you're working on. Liking your problem makes this a lot easier. But it's not about passion, it's about solving that damn problem.

Chances are, your problem is not unsolvable. It will yield to high pressure and grinding over long periods of time. But you must be grinding away at the problem, not yourself.

Mathematical thoughts can exist in almost any environment. Imprisonment, hospitalization, even starvation. But they need to be given permission to exist and room to grow. If you are consumed with thoughts about depression, failure, dropping out of grad school, or whatever, the mathematical thoughts don't have enough room to breathe in your mind. This is bad, because in research you have to think about a problem continuously for weeks or months on end.

Research is not a quick process, and people naturally get anxious and think about other stuff. Life, people, love. It would be hard enough to focus on research if you weren't depressed! Having serious issues on the burner makes it almost impossible to concentrate on Math. So what can one do?

Personally, I think the time spent pondering mathematics is also time spent improving myself as a person. They're not incompatible. Mathematical knowledge and life knowledge overlap to a surprising degree. Sorry, it took me a long time to learn that and I just want to put it out there.

Anyway, all that being said, combinatorially-minded folks like yourself are in high demand nowadays, so you will have no problem getting a non-academic job if you do choose to go that route. Good luck.
posted by proj08 at 6:10 PM on February 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Math PhD student here, in practically the same field, (Graph Theory). I was in the same situation as you are a few years ago. I went straight from undergrad to a PhD program, got my masters along the way (Functional Analysis, a world away from where I am now), and passed the tests. I really couldn't get turned on by anything enough to do research, either. That was a _huge_ thing to admit to myself, especially since I'd always just stuck things out. I sat down with my advisor, told him so, and he told me that if I'm not passionate about research I shouldn't be doing it. I spent 5 years working at a couple small liberal arts colleges, teaching and working on curriculum development. I taught a graph theory class and really dug it, so I quit and came back to school full-time. Almost one year back in and a few things are clear:
1) I'm the old guy. At 30 I see almost everyone else came in with the inertia that I had on my first run a few years ago.
2) That's not so bad. I know what I like to do, my work ethic is better, and I really understand math rather than just being good at it.
3) I have lots of new grad students seeking help from me in their teaching and other work, since my own background is pretty varied.

I will be a much better mathematician when I'm done than if I had gone straight through. I'm a lot more poor now than I would be otherwise, and I won't be as young when I look for my first TT job, but it was absolutely the right decision for me. Contact me if you'd like to talk more about stuff outside the green.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:08 AM on February 20, 2008


Addendum: Oops I didn't notice what you said
My advisor ... doesn't necessarily have a lot of free research questions lying around to hand out to grad students, so I'm sort of working uphill in trying to find things to work on.

In that case, you need to drop that sucker and find someone else. Combinatorics and algebraic geometry is one of the hottest fields right now- there is absolutely no shortage of problems. I kind of wish I was in that area, it seems so ripe for the picking.
posted by proj08 at 6:03 AM on February 20, 2008


Short-range plan: I'd vote for just getting through it. Having the Ph.D. in your pocket will open a lot of doors for you. If you've made it this far, you'll be kicking yourself forever if you don't finish it up. If you do bail, make sure that you end up with a master's degree, so you can teach (which brings up my second point).

Long-range plan: Have you considered teaching at a junior/community/technical college? The emphasis there would not be on research, which you don't seem to enjoy anyway. And, as a Ph.D., you'd be a bigger fish in a smaller pond (most two-year schools only require a master's degree, though many full-time faculty have a Ph.D. or some hours toward one). It's not big money or anything, but teaching has its own rewards.
posted by wheat at 10:31 AM on February 20, 2008


In that case, you need to drop that sucker and find someone else. Combinatorics and algebraic geometry is one of the hottest fields right now- there is absolutely no shortage of problems. I kind of wish I was in that area, it seems so ripe for the picking.

Well, here's the issue: I'm at a place with essentially a couple combinatorialists, only one of whom I've interest in working with. Going to someplace else may well necessitate redoing my quals and etc., not to mention convincing another professor that I'm worth taking on as a student, even though I'm bailing on my current school after 4 years. This seems an intractable problem.
posted by TypographicalError at 10:39 AM on February 20, 2008


Given your description of the situation, I think trying to transfer would be a mistake. Research is not for everybody.
posted by grouse at 3:10 PM on February 20, 2008


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