Fair warning, this will be a huge rant…
I’m finishing my 4th year of my PhD and I’m scared. The closer I get to the finishing (self-imposed) date, the more I panic and feel blocked. And I’m not motivated at all.
For the past week or so I’ve spent hours in front of my PC, knowing that I have to analyze data, make statistical analyses, plots and then discuss them. I need to finish my part of a paper, 2 work reports, my yearly report of my PhD and start writing my thesis, and I did a grand amount of nothing.
All August my brain kept telling me “it’s ok if you didn’t do it today, you have tomorrow”, but then August ended – how, I’m still not really sure, September is here, one week gone and I still have nothing. I know I work better under pressure, so I know that I’ll have to finish each of these topics I just mentioned until the end of next week, but this time this is scaring the hell out of me.
I started my PhD on January 2012. The first months were a joke! I spent them in Portugal collecting samples and doing 2 term papers… oh, how I totally wasted those months… so my real work began on September 2012, when I arrived in Barcelona (yeah, almost 3 years here…). I knew right away that my project would be hard – the funding was cut, Portugal and Spain were in a huge financial crises, and to top it off, the main techniques used in my field of research changed drastically within a few years, so I knew from the start that no matter how amazing my results were, they would have to be taken into the light that it was done with techniques that are not the “go to” thing anymore. That’s frustrating!
Still, for more than 2 years I labored, with my 3-7 days DNA extractions, and endless PCRs without results, endless lab contaminations, whole days, weeks and months that went to waste because all of that… but still, I had some kind of hope that I would make it work, that somehow I would obtain enough results from my old old samples that I would be able to finish without a hitch. See, my PhD was never supposed to be the big thing, it was only just a step, to get to something better. I never liked it here, and it never crossed my mind to be here any day longer than strictly necessary.
But as a new yearly report and defense of my progress looms on the horizon, I have to take a look at my results from my samples and finally start admitting (at least to myself) that they won’t be enough. And that I’ll be lucky if I manage to get any kind of usable information for 10 of my 100 samples… and this sucks! It breaks my heart and I don’t know what to do about it.
Objectively, and rationally, I know that this won’t have to be a problem. I can spin my dissertation theme. I can go for why I had such terrible results, or I can expand the temporal and geographic scope to include other samples I worked on these past years that had far more promising results.
But still, I feel like I failed, and this realization, of the failure and everything it entails, it has left me unmotivated and dispassionate about something that was so sure was my future. Because what if I can’t do it? What if I’m not good enough? What if, because of the circumstances, I never get a post-doc doing something I want, or somewhere I really like?
I know I don’t want to spend much more time doing this, but actually taking a step forward and working on finishing it, no matter what I have or don’t have, is scary as hell. See, this is a “safe” place. I’m doing my PhD, I have a goal, I have a purpose, and even when my scholarship ends and if I have to get a job until I finish it, it’s ok, because I have a finish like to look forward to.
But then what? The finish line comes and what’s next?
Not trying is tempting. Because if you don’t try you don’t fail, it’s as simple as that.
I understand why so many people lose years on end on grad school, I understand why my best friend is still doing her masters, 8 years after getting in, I understand why my colleague took around 12 years to finish his PhD. And I never wanted that for me, but I understand the appeal, and that scares the hell out of me.
I always wanted to work in science, even in times when I was lost and didn’t think I could do it, the only future I saw possible for myself included handling micropipettes and eppendorfs. But after so many years of being sure, I find myself envisioning a different kind of future for myself, with a steady job, ideally surrounded by books and/or coffee, and it’s not bad, and yet it’s the worst thing for me because It feels like giving up!
I have the upmost respect for all the people who go to grad school and after decide to do something else entirely. I know a lot of people who have given up on science. I never wanted to be one of them, I still don’t. I don’t want to think that I’ve spent all my adult life in pursuit of something that I’ll just abaddon. It’s been 13 years since I got into college! 5 years of undergrad, 3 years of Msc, (one miserable year trying to get a scholarship to do my PhD), and now 4 years of PhD, with at least one more in tow… I don’t want to have worked so hard for nothing. And at the same time, I’m scared, oh so scared, that no matter how hard I try, this might be it for me, and it might not even be my choice.
I’m 31 years old. Since I was in my second year of my Masters degree, getting this Phd has been THE GOAL. I’ve put everything on hold – not entirely by choice, but everything became secondary to this. I left my family, which was never a problem, because I never wanted to stay in Portugal, but I moved to a place I hated, and that destroys me a little bit every single day. Let me clarify, I don’t hate Barcelona. I hate my place of work. I don’t particularly like the people and the way that things are done here. I don’t like the language. I hate that I didn’t make a single friend in the 3 years I’ve been here – I mean, I know I’m not an easy person, but this is just ridiculous. I hate my everyday life, and I’m always comparing it to home and I miss home every single day – which is funny as hell, because at 17 I was ready to move to London and I saw no problem with that (still one of my biggest regrets).
So it’s a horrible feeling, to think that maybe, just maybe, I’ve put everything else on hold to do this one thing, that I might not even be successful at. And I have no idea what to do next…
I guess this is the end of this rant… I’m so sorry for the long (and pointless) post, I just needed to get it out of my chest. Now I need to finish all that stuff, on the 18th I’ll be back on a plane, so there’s that to look forward to.