Ever wonder what goes on in your graduate’s head? I know I do (and did)! I asked my husband, Casey, to write about his research experience, along with the possible psychological ramifications of being an academic. I understand that everyone is different, but it’s nice to have the perspective of a grad student who has walked the journey. ~Mandy
-written by Casey, a former grad student
Don’t be like Mike…..
I’m a sports junkie, I have no problem admitting that. So, I vividly remember the Gatorade ad campaign from the ‘90s that encouraged me and other kids to be like Michael Jordan. Think what you will of Jordan now (post hall of fame speech), but the idea was straightforward: imitate the person you see succeeding and be successful yourself. While there is some truth in that message, it can be very, very dangerous in academia.
Right now, somewhere, there is someone in my field who is reading a book. Every time I stop to rest my weary brain I know that someone else is reading a journal article… probably in German. I can never forget the casual chat with someone at a conference when they mentioned offhand how they do Latin vocabulary cards on their smart phone while waiting in queues. And, of course, there is the seemingly weekly occurrence when I find out someone just got an (another) article accepted in a prestigious journal. I need coffee; it’s time to go back to work.
This is what I used to tell myself when I would make coffee late in the evening to charge up for a four hour reading and writing session. It is also what I would tell myself the next day when I read the output of that session only to realize it was rubbish. Irretrievable rubbish. For a long time I believed this narrative was an indication of my capabilities. Then I got some sleep. Not one night of eight hours—though that always made a positive difference—but a month worth of decent sleep. And I read a book without footnotes. For pleasure. I played a round of golf and, afterwards, I watched a football match. Scandalous, I know. With just a few weeks of mental rest and distraction, I had ideas again. A few of them weren’t rubbish.
I submitted my doctoral thesis when our son was 13 months old and still sleeping in our bedroom: you see, it was the only place in our one-bedroom flat that was quiet enough for him to do so. I worked all day as an adjunct lecturer and, for the better part of 6 months, did my research and writing from 9 PM to 2 AM. I’m a morning person, by the way, so this is even more insane than you think. My son usually awoke between 5 and 6 AM, thus so did I. That was my silly schedule; what is yours? It’s probably worse. But you can’t stop, can you? ‘That’ person is now reading an essay… in French… and you’ve never even heard of the author.
Research is alluring because of the potential that you will find something never seen before. There is always a new and intriguing topic to explore, a new possibility for making a link that answers an open question. That same boundlessness makes researchers perpetually feel there is more to do, because there is. You can always read another book, article, or essay, and surely you could be a bit more proficient in a foreign language, a computer program, or the like. You never know when you’ve finished your research because that is a question that can’t be answered. Research is like a race without a finish line, so it feels as if you can never run fast enough or far enough to reach the goal. Because of that dynamic, any signal that someone else might be working harder than you can be (mis)read as a sign you’re not working hard enough.
I’m a workaholic. If you’re reading this, there is a very good chance you’re a workaholic as well. Grad school and doctoral programs attract workaholics like mosquitoes to a blue-light zapper. What they don’t do, however, is warn you that this psychological tendency increases the probability that you will lose all sense of work-life balance while you’re doing your degree.
Among the things that I learned through doing a doctorate and living in the hellish purgatory that is post-doc, adjunct teaching are these two. First, no one can read everything or know everything you think could be relevant to your research. Not. Physically. Possible. Second, it is your unique, individual perspective on whatever you’re researching that is more likely to provide the critical insight than is reading more stuff than other people. When I finally learned the first lesson I was able to think of research as a strategic endeavor (I try to read what matters, I don’t try to read everything). When I grasped the second I recognized that my single greatest strength as a researcher was being me. And that meant I didn’t have to be like anyone else, not even the most successful person I knew in my field. My particular constellation of experience, interests, and quirks (of which there are many) allows me to see problems in a fresh way and hopefully to offer new solutions to them. I had to be me to be a good researcher, and that meant finding time for those things that made me who I am before grad school. You know, back when I had a life outside the library.
What is it that makes you you? Music; art; sports; cooking; movies; watching funny videos on the internet with friends? Make time to do that. If you don’t you’re cheating yourself in two ways: not only are you turning your brain into mush by not giving it a rest, you’re stifling the thing that could make you a distinctive researcher. If you aren’t you, then you’re just a poorly engineered reading and writing machine that will break down sooner rather than later.