The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: mental-health

Grad school is hard: you’re not alone.

I’m back home and settled in after a wonderful ESC annual meeting. From photography, social media and teaching workshops, to stellar talks, to prizes won by friends and labmates – it was really a fantastic conference.  If you want to see some excellent photos of the event, Sean McCann posted a great roundup of some of the week’s highlights. One of the most memorable moments for me was actually during Sean’s great Student Showcase talk on wasp-specializing Caracaras, when he showed incredible video footage of these social birds all-out slamming into nests full of big, irate wasps as a means of knocking them down so they could be collected and eaten (!!!BOOM!!! It was awesome.)

I have to say, having been to larger meetings in the US, I really do prefer the smaller Canadian scene. It’s a good-sized and diverse yet close-knit group: I find it so much easier to catch up with colleagues and friends and also to meet new people and make new connections.  At ESA last year I found it very difficult to find anyone amidst the thousands of attendees, and it often felt like each school’s department was a bit of an “in-group” that was a little hard to penetrate.

Meeting and talking face-to-face with other scientists is, of course, one of the main draws of any conference. This year I found the experience particularly helpful and enlightening, not just from a science perspective, but also from a Doing Science perspective. Having had a [understatement] bit of a slump [/understatement] this past year with my work*, I had some great chats with a number of established researchers about their own challenges as grad students.

One conversation really stood out among many. This particular researcher does Very Sexy and Fascinating Science and has always conveyed a lot of passion for their work through their writing and talks. However, this person told me that by the end of their PhD they absolutely HATED their study taxon with a burning fiery hate and never wanted to see/work with another one again. It took two or three years before they were able to remember why it was that they were interested in the subject in the first place. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this – I couldn’t imagine this person ever being anything but enthralled with their science.

Yet, this was only one example of several stories I heard about how people struggled with their graduate studies: “Grad school is hard. It messes with your head. It almost killed me. You’re not alone.” was the refrain I heard over and over again. It was, frankly, incredibly reassuring to hear their stories and know that they still managed to establish successful research programs and careers despite their early-career challenges. It reminded me that even the best sometimes falter, even fail. Few among us are immune to feelings of inadequacy, doubt and occasionally despair about our work. 

Sometimes all this is just ... a bit overwhelming.

Sometimes all this is just … a bit overwhelming.

Joshua Drew recently shared a great presentation that addresses this very issue, and I’ve pulled out from it one quote that particularly blew me away:

But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.

Any guesses as to who said that?  It sounds like pretty much every grad student I’ve ever known**, at one point or another in their careers.

It was Charles Darwin writing to to Charles Lyell, one year after publishing On The Origin of Species (1861). Wat?  Yes.  Even the brightest and best among us have their bad days.

There’s hope for us all yet.

____________

* The good news is that, for whatever reason (change of season, change of scenery, change of activity, medical treatment finally kicking in, fear of God thesis committee, better coffee, some combination of the above – heck, who knows), I feel like I finally got my groove back. I’m productive and loving it, and it’s consistently been this way for a couple of months now. This is a really freaking welcome change of pace from what I’d been experiencing in the first half of the year.

** Seriously. Every time I’ve had a conversation with other grad students about impostor syndrome and/or their own work, some form of this sentiment invariably comes up at some point. It’s rampant. Also rampant are the effects this can have on student mental health. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have contacted me over the past few months to tell me their own stories – it’s incredible that we don’t hear about/talk about it more often. I sincerely thank those who DID talk about it with me – it really truly helped a great deal to hear your stories and to be reminded that I wasn’t flying solo on this crazy journey.

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Winter Diapause

DiapauseFirst, Happy New Year! I appreciate you all so much and am thankful for the many friends and wonderful acquaintances that this blog has brought into my life. I wish you all the very best for the coming year!

Now, a bit of a downer: after much hemming and hawing and soul-searching, I’ve decided to put The Bug Geek into diapause* for the winter. My research activities this term are going to require a lot of time and energy, and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m stretched a little thin.

I haven’t taken on anything new, my teaching workload is actually dropping a fair bit, and my other responsibilities are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. So what gives? I seem to be in the midst of what is known as the “Third Year Slump” (or, more colourfully, “The Valley of Sh-t“), an affliction that affects many PhD candidates. The symptoms of this mysterious ailment include apathy, stress, depression, self-doubt and a drop in productivity.

I am still in love with my research, that’s not the issue at all. Nevertheless, for the past 6-8 weeks or so, the mere thought of having to get some work done sends me into a bit of a tailspin of anxiety. As I work to overcome this (really quite obnoxious) personal hurdle, I’m giving myself permission to do a little less than usual. When I wrote out a list of my responsibilities in order of their importance, blogging, unfortunately, fell to the bottom. I need to focus my positive energy on my research, which, other than my home life, is my main priority.

And so here we are. I may still post occasionally if I’m feeling inspired, and suspect that my normally upbeat mood (and my outdoorsy blog fodder) will return as the weather warms up.

In the meantime thanks for you readership and, more importantly, your friendship. Know that I’ll be back soon. If you think you’re really going to miss me, you’ll probably still find me chatting on Twitter and reblogging pretty insect photos on Tumblr.

*(Yes, I stole borrowed the term and title from Bug Girl. I think she’ll forgive me.)

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