Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The state of the PhD: Where I am

Note: This is the first post in what looks like will be a two- or three-part series about my personal grad school issues. If you are not interested in personal turmoil or troubles in grad school, please check out some of my other posts.

I finished my graduate school classes last week. While there's a small possibility my committee could decide that I need to take some other class to help in my research, for now I have fulfilled all the official course requirements for my degree, plus all the "hidden" requirements the Physical Oceanography Division demands. I passed with flying colors, scoring A+'s in two of the program's most notorious courses, the highest marks in my "rite of passage" geophysical fluid dynamics class, and the adoration and respect of nearly all of the professors who have taught me. I say this not to boast, but to set up this bomb: No one cares.

OK, so my parents care, my grandfather cares, proudly boasting to his siblings about my marks, but the people who matter don't care. In my most recent conversation with my advisor, he told me in no uncertain terms that at the end of two years, no one in the department gives a hoot what grades I have earned--they care what research I have done. Which has been extremely minimal. Furthermore, he pointed out, I am paid as a graduate research assistant, which means that in theory I work half-time on school, and half-time on research. So if at the end of two years I have only minimal research to show, there's clearly a problem. Students who entered at the same time I did to earn a master's degree are finishing up their theses and preparing to defend. The grad student guidebook recommends we PhD students take our PhD qualifying exams, which include defending a prospectus for our intended research, after 18 months in the program. Given my course load, my committee determined at the beginning that I couldn't take it until completing four semesters of classes, but that is where I am now. Not only have I not started on my prospectus, but I don't even know where to start. After two years, I still do not have a research plan. And with this conversation with my advisor, all the fears that have been smoldering inside me, suppressed by continual burial, were suddenly brought to the surface to burst into flames.

Was that metaphor too much? How about: all the fears that had been bottled up inside me, kept from boiling by extreme pressure, suddenly burst out and bubbled over. OK, I think I got the bad metaphors out of my system now. Apologies.

I held it together there in his office, but when I got home, I broke down. I cried--a lot. This was right before my hell week, where I had a final presentation on Monday, a final presentation on Tuesday, and a final paper due on Wednesday. All that followed by two final exams. It was not the best time to lose all motivation, feel that working on classes was futile, that I should drop out, etc. I managed to pull myself together and bury it again (or bottle it up again...sorry, I guess I wasn't done) in order to get through finals. But now that those are over, I have to pull those issues out and examine them. I have been granted a reprieve in that my advisor is out of town for the week, which means that I have time to gather my thoughts before facing him. Before big decisions have to be made. And so I come here to air my thoughts, present the different sides of my internal arguments, express my doubts and assess whatever determination I have left.

First, let me clarify that I may not be as far behind as my advisor made it seem. While some of the students who entered at the same time I did are writing their theses and planning to defend this summer, there are just as many who entered the year before and still do not have completed theses. For whatever reason, progress is relatively slow at our school, or at least in our particular program. Average time to a PhD is 6.5 years. That gives me 4.5 years to finish before I am truly behind. My advisor has a master's student who entered this past fall, and she is very...driven. Having been handed a manageable research project (unlike PhD students who are guided to form their own), she has accomplished enough in her research to make my advisor worry about the fact that I have made no more progress than she has in twice as many years. At least that's one theory. My advisor has a reputation as one of the nicest professors in the department, and previously he had only ever been supportive and encouraging of whatever progress (or non-progress) I had made. If at some department meeting it becomes apparent that his student hasn't done any research, his peers will judge that it is his fault as well as mine. He needs to start pushing me so that he doesn't look bad. Well, it's another theory. Last week I commiserated with another PhD student in the same position (two years completed, little research accomplished, previously nice professor suddenly applying pressure), and we came up with these theories. It was also reassuring to know that there was at least one other student who was in the same position.

Even if I am not unreasonably behind schedule, the fact is that I am not in a comfortable position with my research. How did I get here? I see my problems coming in two categories:
1) Difficulties and failures of my research
2) Approximately 18 years of previous training to be the perfect student

I chose this PhD program with this advisor because of the research project he proposed (some may recall my tortured decision). I was interested in numerical modeling and biological-physical interactions, and the project involved the study of interactions between hydrodynamics and coral reefs, both through modeling and field measurements. And he promised scuba diving around coral reefs would be part of my job. It sounded great, but things haven't really gone smoothly. I finally got my scuba certification last fall, but I still haven't taken the scientific diver course that is required before I do any scuba for my research. It might happen this coming fall, but that's only a "might". It was fairly well accepted that with a full course load my first two semesters that I wouldn't get any research done until the summer after my first year. When that summer came, I dove into trying to get a coupled model running on my computer. The trouble is, it turns out my advisor is not, in fact, a modeler himself, so he had no better idea than I did of how to get the model set up. A month into the summer, I still didn't have the model running anything beyond the default scenarios, and when I finally took one of the many problems I was having to a professor who does run the same model himself--on the same operating system--he was absolutely baffled as to why I was getting the error I was getting. My advisor handed me some data so I could pull enough research together to give the required student talk at the end of the summer, and apparently I did a great job on that. I used the same results from that August talk in my talk for the general public in November. And I turned that November talk into a short article (again for the general public) this past spring. I've stretched those weak results about as far as they can go, because the fact is the only real research work I've done since last summer was on my February research cruise. I still haven't looked at the data we collected on that cruise (or posted photos...I swear I'll get on that now that it's summer).

Some of the difficulties my project has encountered have been outside my control. My advisor wrote me into a joint proposal with a number of other principle investigators, which started me down a certain path of research, but it didn't get funded. He also directed me toward working with a guy at NOAA, but that didn't work out. After my two months of relatively successful summer research, which was on data from Hanauma Bay, we planned to put new sensors out in the bay to investigate some phenomena we discovered from the initial data. It turned out, however, that the restrictions on instrumentation in the bay had been tightened, and our repeated attempts at trying to comply with the new rules all failed. The February research cruise funded from a proposal a labmate and I wrote, but the part of the project that was supposed to be mine was cut because, again, we couldn't get permits for the sensor--this time because it was within three nautical miles of land off of Kaneohe Bay. I'm all for protecting the sensitive ears of marine mammals, but does it really make a difference to them whether the source of the pinging is slightly under or slightly over 3 nautical miles from shore? Alas.

These are among the many reasons that I was frustrated with my research. The more I failed to understand the model and get it running, the more impossible the task seemed. As I was repeatedly denied more data, it became easier to forget what it was like having data. For the past two semesters, any time my mind would turn to research, it would flinch away. I didn't know how to approach it. Talking to my advisor always seemed reassuring, but somehow I'd go back to my office still not knowing what to do. Besides, why would I work on something so impenetrable and infinite when I had something neat and tidy with clear, achievable goals and an obvious finish line? That is to say, classes.

I've always been a good student. Even in an elite university, I excelled in my classes (well, most of them). My whole life, I've trained myself to work hard in school, churn out good projects, good papers, and score well on exams. I've never been mean about competition, but it's always a personal goal in the back of my mind to be at the top of the class. And just because I took two years off of school between undergrad and grad school doesn't mean I forgot those skills. I don't know how to do "well enough" in classes. The competitive spirit kicks in, and I have to do the best. That is why, when faced with the choice between tackling a perpetually unrewarding research project or pursuing the catnip of a possible A+ to stare at on my transcript, I ignored the research and worked on my class work. (And maybe a good bit of internet surfing. And sometimes blogging).

That is how I got to the pathetic place I am right now. Two years into a PhD program with no prospectus in sight. Since this post has gone on way longer than I'd anticipated, I'm going to break it up. Tomorrow, I will get to the juicy stuff I meant to get to today: My inner arguments for and against continuing toward a PhD.


cassey said...

Research is tough, and directing yourself is even harder. It's the biggest reason I didn't manage to complete my MA. When I take it up again, I'm going course work all the way. Ok so that was about me, but I said it to let you know that you're not the only person who hits those rough spots.

I think your theories about why your supervisor has changed course on you are more than likely spot on. Have you considered getting another supervisor? I don't mean dumping the one you have, but rather having someone who knows more about modeling also as part of the team to help you achieve your research goals?

Hope you get some clarity soon.

Hezabelle said...

It's not fair for them to expect you to get everything you need out of your classes and still be doing research at the same time - especially when the research isn't actually doable at this point. Shouldn't your advisor be there to help you figure out how to get the data you need?

I hope you figure out what you want to do. I look forward to reading the next part!

And congratulations on your class grades because they are AWESOME. Don't let them take that away from you!

Eleni said...

Cassey - That does make me feel better--commiserating, knowing that it's not just me.

The professor that I turned down when accepting the position with my current advisor is the modeler who has helped me a bit with the project (or tried to help me, and couldn't figure out what was wrong). I feel bad going to him when I basically rejected his offer to advise me two years ago. I think another problem I have is doubt that I've tried hard enough to get the model working myself. Maybe I just missed something important in the directions, maybe I just need to read more about it, etc.

Hez - Thanks for the support! I'm so confused about it all, I can't tell what my advisor is supposed to do and what I'm supposed to be able to manage myself as a PhD candidate. How can I ask for help if I don't know what help I'm allowed to ask for?

You both brightened my day :)

cassey said...

Don't feel bad about going to the other professor. Part of his job, and the department you're in, is to ensure that the students get enough support. I'm sure he'd love to work with you, and get you motivated again.


Eleni said...

You're right, I don't know why it seems so awkward to me. I guess I don't want him to see things going badly for me with *the other guy*.