The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

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The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Sun Nov 15, 2015 2:26 pm

For those of us currently somewhere inside higher education, this is the thread for sharing coping mechanisms, seeking tips on how to deal with specific aspects of university life, verbally tearing your hair out, swapping war stories, and/or general discussion of what the heck is up with academia.



So to kick it off, as a second-year PhD student (who also did the MA thing a few years back), I am finding academia to be my worst nemesis, super-oneitis emotionally abusive lover I can't seem to leave, employer and sustainer, and occasional provider of real joy and intellectual discovery. It's a weird cult, and I could use some outside perspective as well as perspective from people who've been in/are in the cult now.

Concrete things I would like to know how other people deal with (probably mostly questions for current/former grad students, but everybody feel free to chime in):

1. Being a husk of yourself: I have heard many other grad students make this complaint with a "that's just how it goes" attitude, but I haven't really felt like myself since my first semester in a PhD program. Sure, basically the same person, but a million times more distracted, irritable, braindead, emotionally fragile, etc. Maybe this is just what happens to anybody who's chosen to be really stressed for a few years, but I get the impression there's a particular grad school flavor of "I don't like this person I've become." Anybody else got any experience gritting their teeth and dealing with just being a crappier version of yourself for a while (while fearing that the effects are irreversible)? Or ways to mitigate the cognitive/emotional effects of this particular kind of stress?

2. Never knowing when to cut and run: My dream job in the NGO world was posted recently; like, tailor-made for my personal training and experience and connections. I want(ed?) to apply to it, but have not, because I feel like if I don't at least get ABD status ("all but dissertation," aka you've finished everything for a PhD except your big final manuscript), the two years I've already put in were for nothing. And I'm close: just one more semester of courses and two publishable papers, and I'm ABD. But jobs in my very niche field, much less jobs I would be a serious contender for, don't come up very often. Maybe every three to six years. Am I being a moron for wanting to stick it out and have something to show for my time here? How do you balance "finishing this is not going to pay off financially or professionally and it's killing you so GTFO now" with "but once I get a PhD I'll have it forever and no one can take it away from me and this is the only chance I'll ever have to get a PhD for free"?

3. Stress management in general: academia has this cool cultural narrative where if you're not so stressed that you're suffering physiologically, you're not working hard enough. "Don't push yourself so hard" is not a viable option if you want to make it through a PhD. I've picked up or relapsed to all kinds of maladaptive behaviors in the last two years (tobacco, self-injury, shit eating habits), and I'd rather find ways to handle this lifestyle that aren't just petulant bursts of self-destruction that I'll hate myself for later. Anybody got tips for small stuff to work into daily life to deal with constant, ongoing stress?

4. The social vacuum: Moving to a new state where you know nobody and have to devote all your time to school is a pretty good way to ensure that your social circles are 100% based at school (outside of my partner, natch, without whom I would already have snapped). I've got plenty of friendly acquaintances, and a few people I'd call actual friends, but they're all in my department (had a few non-department friends last year but they all moved away for jobs). As a result, the only social-circle decompression time I get is with people who, when you get down to it, are my competitors. Academia is a bunch of very ambitious people competing for very, very scarce resources, and this does foster a culture of backbiting; it makes it hard to ever really relax around any of my cohort, and extremely hard to show weakness (by, say, admitting that you are stressed to death, or are struggling with a class or topic). Any advice for feeling like you always have to have your back up & mask on, even during allegedly relaxing social time? "Make friends outside of school" is a good idea and I've been trying, but it's hard when the culture outside of school is not all that friendly to white mainlanders.




Advice, commiseration, thoughts, friendly smackdowns, problems of your own, etc. welcome. Other than those things, feel free to just shout at the sky about how insane higher education is, or post triumphant stories of how you came out alive and it was(n't) worth it. Razz
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by kath on Sun Nov 15, 2015 5:30 pm

I'm thinking about applying for a master's program, and I know I need to get in touch with potential supervisors before I submit my application. I know a few students in the program, but I don't know any of the professors (I went to a different university in a different province for my undergrad).

Does anyone have scripts for how to write that email? Do I ask to meet them and talk with them? Are they probably likely to be like "I'm glad you're interested, please come visit me during my office hours" or "how presumptuous!"?

Also, Werel, maybe I should not have read the content of your post. Shocked
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Sun Nov 15, 2015 6:06 pm

They definitely won't be like "how presumptuous!" (unless you're asking them for a guarantee of admission and/or a whole lot of their time). Getting in touch with potential supervisors is a really smart move and will help your admissions chances, since in most grad departments, it's the faculty who make admissions decisions.

You should definitely include a brief (short paragraph) of your specific interests which align with that particular supervisor's, as an explanation of why you think that department/supervisor would be a good fit for you; even better if you can use this paragraph to show good background knowledge of that person's work and trends/big ideas in your field ("I'm especially interested in work like your 2008 paper in Pretty Pictures Quarterly that challenges Derpington's simplistic definition of 'fingerpainting'" [uh, this is what scholarly discourse in the fine arts looks like, right? Razz])

Also a good idea to include a couple of specific questions about the department and/or this person's approach to being a supervisor; questions like "what aspects of the department's academic culture are you most proud of?" or "what characteristics do you see most often in students who thrive in this program?" can be a good way to gauge how invested this person is in mentoring people in stuff that's not strictly academic (and do not underestimate the importance of finding a supervisor who's a good personal/work-style fit for you, and willing to support you in stuff outside your course material/research).

Overall, just keep it friendly, respectful of their limited time, show that you're truly interested, and provide a no-pressure opening for a meeting ("I'll be near campus on X days in the coming weeks, and would enjoy briefly meeting you to talk more about [program name], but absolutely no worries if your schedule doesn't permit" etc).
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Guest on Mon Nov 16, 2015 2:54 am

I'll never know the particular stresses of being in grad-school, so *hugs*.



Werel wrote:Am I being a moron for wanting to stick it out and have something to show for my time here?

Nope.

How do you balance "finishing this is not going to pay off financially or professionally and it's killing you so GTFO now" with "but once I get a PhD I'll have it forever and no one can take it away from me and this is the only chance I'll ever have to get a PhD for free"?

Considering what you've said here: "because I feel like if I don't at least get ABD status ("all but dissertation," aka you've finished everything for a PhD except your big final manuscript), the two years I've already put in were for nothing.", it seems that getting that PhD will at least pay emotional dividends, so perhaps stick with it?

Anybody got tips for small stuff to work into daily life to deal with constant, ongoing stress?

...More pot?

kath wrote:Are they probably likely to be like "I'm glad you're interested, please come visit me during my office hours" or "how presumptuous!"?
Since your letter will be in earnest I doubt you'll have to worry much about coming off as presumptuous 'cause you'd be showing n' taking initiative, so that's a good thing, no? It's on them if they happen to think your being uppity...

kath wrote:Does anyone have scripts for how to write that email?

Dear Mr./Ms. xxx,

My name is kath and I am interested in undertaking x program and would like to know more what this course offers, in particular xxx, xxx . Would it be at all possible for me to meet with you at a time that is convenient.

I eagerly await your reply and thank you for your time.

Regards,
kath.


Is this too plain/simple as something to build off of, or would it suffice?

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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Tue Nov 17, 2015 10:18 am

HermitTheToad wrote:

Considering what you've said here, it seems that getting that PhD will at least pay emotional dividends, so perhaps stick with it?
Huh. Y'know, Hermit, I hadn't even thought to explicitly weigh "emotional dividends," even though I was apparently already doing it subconsciously. Thanks for putting it in that light.

HermitTheToad wrote:...More pot?
Laughing InDEED.
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Wondering on Tue Nov 17, 2015 11:07 am

Werel, I would apply for that job. Applying is just applying. It doesn't mean you have to take it or that they'll even offer it, but I would apply for it. It's possible, if they like you enough and want you enough, they'd be flexible in letting you get to your ABD status. You've only got one semester to go.

And if you have classes you need to take and have a good relationship with your department/profs, you might be able to work something out there, too. My dept when I was working on my PhD let people take a leave of absence and come back later, within certain parameters.

I wouldn't turn your back on your dream job just because you think it would be an either/or situation.

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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Enail on Tue Nov 17, 2015 1:40 pm

Oh, and if you get the job or don't get it, your reaction to that might tell you something about what you want.
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by bomaye on Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:00 pm

@Werel, apply for the job, you only have to make a decision if they want to take you on :p
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:09 pm

Ahhh guys that's not the advice I wanted, which tells me something No

Thinking about taking this job leaves me with two major knots in my stomach:

1) Unfulfilled obligations to fieldwork site: I do ongoing fieldwork in a small village in another country. Current plan is that I return next summer, and sometime thereafter stay for longer periods (6-12 months at a time) to collect dissertation data. Thing is, it's a collaborative research area where people in that village stand to benefit a little bit from my work (think public health), and they are expecting me to finish doing what I told them I was doing. I'd feel like a shill if I didn't come back because I took a job. They might understand, but cutting and running like that violates all the ethical guidelines of my field and my gut.

2) A dumb one, but the idea of leaving Hawaii prematurely (to move to a state I'm not that keen on living in) gives me pause. Feel like I've got unfinished business with this place outside of school.

But y'all make a good point that applying does not mean they'll offer me the job, nor that I have to take it. And if I apply and don't get offered/take the job, at least my name is in those people's brains, in case they ever have another job... yeah, alright, I'll work on my cover letter tonight. Smile


Last edited by Werel on Tue Nov 17, 2015 6:03 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by bomaye on Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:14 pm

You're welcome Wink
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by bomaye on Thu Nov 19, 2015 9:20 am

Werel wrote:
4. The social vacuum: Moving to a new state where you know nobody and have to devote all your time to school is a pretty good way to ensure that your social circles are 100% based at school (outside of my partner, natch, without whom I would already have snapped). I've got plenty of friendly acquaintances, and a few people I'd call actual friends, but they're all in my department (had a few non-department friends last year but they all moved away for jobs). As a result, the only social-circle decompression time I get is with people who, when you get down to it, are my competitors. Academia is a bunch of very ambitious people competing for very, very scarce resources, and this does foster a culture of backbiting; it makes it hard to ever really relax around any of my cohort, and extremely hard to show weakness (by, say, admitting that you are stressed to death, or are struggling with a class or topic). Any advice for feeling like you always have to have your back up & mask on, even during allegedly relaxing social time? "Make friends outside of school" is a good idea and I've been trying, but it's hard when the culture outside of school is not all that friendly to white mainlanders.

Are you currently competing for scarce resources right now from that specific school while you're doing your super-duper smarty-pants thing? And if you are, after graduating, are you still competing for the same things in the same way with those exact same people?
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Thu Nov 19, 2015 9:52 am

bomaye wrote:
Are you currently competing for scarce resources right now from that specific school while you're doing your super-duper smarty-pants thing? And if you are, after graduating, are you still competing for the same things in the same way with those exact same people?
Yeah-- and the sad thing is, I'm in one of the most chill and least competitive-atmosphere departments I've ever seen. Other places it's like blood spatters all over the walls and everybody's wearing pit fighter armor. Laughing But we're all competing for the same funding, graduate assistantship assignments, etc. while we're students, so that tension's still there.

After graduation, it gets a lot worse, because jobs are a hell of a lot scarcer than student funding. It helps that I don't want to get a job in academia, and I have been pretty honest about that with my peers, so they know I'm not gonna be applying for the same professorships as them; relevant jobs outside academia (which is what I want) aren't that common either, though. And since only 20% of new PhDs find academic employment at graduation (Science fail!), the other 80% of us are all going to be fighting over the same small pool of non-academic jobs. So it's gonna be tough to ever really chill out around other students in my field until I have a secure job (may that day come eventually).
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Enail on Thu Nov 19, 2015 9:58 am

Could you try and meet more people from other departments? Or even (gasp) undergrads?

Also, if you don't hate meditation as much as I do, even a few minutes of meditation (first thing in the morning, maybe, or when you need a stretch break?) is supposed to be good for de-stressing, if you keep it up for a bit. There are lots of guided meditations online, or you can just listen to your breathing (which I actually prefer, b/c I get pissy with the guided ones for trying to tell me what to do Laughing)
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Thu Nov 19, 2015 10:12 am

Other departments is a good idea! The friends I had last year were in a totally unrelated department, which was nice, because they were also on student schedules/budgets but we were never going to be competing for anything. Maybe I'll try out some of the grad student trivia nights and pub crawls and all that other junk I'm always getting emails about. Wink

I briefly tried meditation a few years ago, and occasionally thought "why didn't I keep doing that? It was sort of nice." Maybe I'll try it again. One of my primary goals when I came here was to learn how to shut up and be quiet in the presence of the land. I haven't figured out how to do that yet, but this seems like a good way to make the attempt. (If anybody's got any quasi-animist spiritual tips on how to pay respect to land, lemme know, my failure to do so is one of the stresses riding on my mind Razz)
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Caffeinated on Thu Nov 19, 2015 10:47 am

Werel wrote:One of my primary goals when I came here was to learn how to shut up and be quiet in the presence of the land. I haven't figured out how to do that yet, but this seems like a good way to make the attempt. (If anybody's got any quasi-animist spiritual tips on how to pay respect to land, lemme know, my failure to do so is one of the stresses riding on my mind Razz)

At the risk of stating something obvious, what about taking walks? The kind with no music, no distractions, just walking and paying attention to your senses. What does the sun feel like on your skin today? What do you smell on the breeze? What do you see when you look closely in the underbrush that you might normally miss? What do you hear when you really listen?
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Thu Nov 19, 2015 7:09 pm

That is a good idea, Caffeinated, and probably also good for stress relief. Been telling myself I don't have time to take walks, but that is a good way to go insane from sitting still indoors all day; maybe I will tell myself that walks are mandatory homework for a grade ("B+: a good effort, nice sea-gazing, but points docked for checking your email on your phone once") and then I'll do them. Razz
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Caffeinated on Fri Nov 20, 2015 7:20 am

Honestly, I would recommend trying to leave your phone behind while taking a walk. Having a daily time that you're completely unplugged, and totally unreachable, does wonders.
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by bomaye on Fri Nov 20, 2015 9:12 am

As someone with massive amounts of experience with being inside and being panicky about it, even a 10 minute walk can make a day a little better
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Mon Nov 23, 2015 6:02 pm

It's been raining nonstop for about a week, so the jury's still out on walks, but I'm finding that just doing homework outdoors (in the garage, on a covered patio, etc.) is helping. Got some of that good-challenge brain-reward "aha!" feeling from figuring out a tough assignment today, instead of "I hate this and it's the bad kind of challenge" thing I've been bogged down in. All that psych junk about green spaces seems to have merits.

Also, with a little distance from Midterm Stress Weekend from Hell, I'm remembering all the truly excellent perks of being in academia that it's hard to get elsewhere. Namely, travel: in 2015 alone, I've gone to the mainland, a US territory, and two foreign countries as a direct result of being in this PhD program. That's so important to me, and such a huge reason I'm doing this in the first place, I don't know how I keep omitting it from my mental math.

tl;dr: the outdoors is nice, and when it's not stress defcon 5, I can recall how sweet this gig is in many ways.
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Mon Dec 07, 2015 3:37 pm

Happy final week(s) of semester to all my folks in higher ed whose current mental state is accurately represented by this brush fowl.

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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by fr33et on Sun Dec 13, 2015 9:41 am

Hi everyone. Does anyone have advice for an undergrad math major trying to decide whether or not to go into academia? I was pretty sure that was what I wanted to do, but this semester has been really exhausting and I'm starting to care less and less about math. Does anyone know of career paths that involve a good deal of abstract reasoning, but preferably with a bigger interpersonal component and less competition? The problem is I'm quite a bit better than average at theoretical things and quite a bit worse than average at interacting with people, but get way more joy from interacting with people than from theoretical things (though they can be fun as long as I'm socially fulfilled as well). I guess I'm just a needy person?
If I do go into academia, does anyone know how I can keep my soul? There are professors I know who have managed to keep their kindness and their happiness, at least as far as I know. My dad is a math professor, and he says he doesn't think anything could make him happier. My mind works pretty differently from his though. Also he has some weird difficulties interacting with people, and I wonder if they might have been exacerbated by spending so much time on abstract thought.

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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Mon Dec 14, 2015 11:49 am

fr33et wrote:Does anyone have advice for an undergrad math major trying to decide whether or not to go into academia?
Go into academia if:

-You like working alone. A lot. A lot of alone time with your computer. Doesn't sound like you do.
-You're extremely self-motivated and do well with only self-imposed goals and deadlines.
-You don't need a clear work-life division and/or are comfortable feeling like your work is your life.
-You do well under a lot of pressure.
-You are willing to accept really, really dismal employment prospects. Really dismal. Cannot say that enough.
-Writing enormous amounts of text comes quickly and easily to you.
-You are not averse to spending lots of time on bureaucracy.
-You love math more than anything else in the whole world, including the freedom and energy to let your brain roam over a lot of different topics on a regular basis, because your mind will be kept on a very short leash tethered to math.  
-You simply cannot imagine doing anything else.

Otherwise, you are smart to consider:
fr33et wrote:Does anyone know of career paths that involve a good deal of abstract reasoning, but preferably with a bigger interpersonal component and less competition?
Actuary (assuming stats are within your skillset); researcher/fact-checker for think tank; math teacher/tutor; the client services end of software development... don't know much about applied math fields, but I have a couple of friends who teach middle school math and enjoy it a lot.

edit: this UC Davis site lists a bunch of applied math jobs, and air traffic controller sounds fun as heck.
fr33et wrote:If I do go into academia, does anyone know how I can keep my soul?
Go into academia a few decades ago, like your dad. Shit's totally soul-killing now. Razz

But for real: don't allow yourself to do work at home. Force yourself to set aside actual mentally-present time for friends and family. Treat it like a 9-to-5. Treat it like a hilarious, bizarre temp job that could end at any time, and have a low-expectations sense of humor about it. Be ready for intense, cutthroat competition, but refuse to participate in the cutthroat part.
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Wondering on Mon Dec 14, 2015 12:01 pm

Werel wrote:
-You don't need a clear work-life division and/or are comfortable feeling like your work is your life.

*nods* The lack of work-life balance and division is what got me out of academia. Definitely an important point to keep in mind.

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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Fri Jan 15, 2016 7:20 pm

Ugh, I just got that Heart YAY HOBBY Shiny/thrilled feeling from academic stuff for the first time since I came back to grad school, doing a non-assignment but school-related extracurricular thing. That feeling is the biggest reason I'm here in the first place, though. Hey, maybe that's why I've been so unhappy with school. Hey, maybe I should devote more of my time to doing para-academic work that feels fun and meaningful, instead of skinning my nose on the institutional grindstone and being all pissy and miserable about it.

Idea
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Re: The Academia Survival Thread [disc/adv/vent]

Post by Werel on Tue Apr 26, 2016 5:36 pm

A fun little article for all my fellow academics and/or academia survivors: "How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang." (It really does, from an economic and sociological perspective. Uh-oh)

(ALSO: the fact that the average time between receiving a PhD and being hired into a professorship is thirteen years is another big reason I plan to spend zero time chasing academic employment when I'm done. That's so fucked.)

(Also also, last two weeks of semester general-purpose vent: I am insane for doing this. Everyone who does a PhD is insane. I wish there were an emoji for "I don't even know where I am, what my name is, or what day it is right now because I'm subjecting my brain to the crush for some reason." Run in circles flail)
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