26 April 2008

Why this blog?

A little over a year ago, I decided not to return to grad school. Not for the first time. I'd taken a quarter off (also not for the first time) for various reasons, one of which was that I had not finished an incomplete in time to receive funding for the fall quarter. But not finishing that paper was simply a symptom of much larger problems--problems to do with deeply rooted insecurities and depression. So I'd taken the quarter off and as my deadline loomed to finish the work and as I felt more and more stressed in the face of not having completed it, I decided that I'd had it with the strain of earning a PhD. I notified my department and started taking steps to pursue other options.

I knew I still wanted to teach, so I looked at available jobs in local community colleges. And I started filling out an application for a private school head-hunting firm. Applying for jobs requires letters of recommendation, so I contacted my supervisor for teaching and my academic adviser to ask for letters. And I called an old professor, J, from my years as an undergrad. He was the closest thing to a mentor I'd had. And we stayed good friends after I graduated and went on my way. He wasn't in when I called, so I left a message: I'm dropping out. I'm looking for a job. Would you write me a letter?

A couple of days later, J called me back. I wasn't looking forward to this call. I knew it would be difficult. He's always encouraged me to pursue my PhD and to teach at a university. And I was right--the conversation was not an easy one. But it was an incredibly rewarding one. In that hour spent talking while I sat in the shade on a friend's driveway, J recounted his own grad school experience to me. The hours spent shooting trashcan hoops instead of working. The guilt of knowing that his wife was supporting him while he made no progress. The self-doubt that constantly nagged at him. The power games his dissertation chair played with him. All in an effort to make me understand that I'm not alone in my discouragement and frustrations with grad school.

At some point in that conversation, J passed on advice someone had given him. "It's like being lost in the wilderness. Whatever you do--no matter how unsure you are about which way to go--you have to keep moving. Because if you sit down, you'll never get out of the wilderness. You just have to keep moving." That advice resonated with me. I knew I simply had to do what needed to be done--that nothing else could better prevent the negative, self-destructive thought cycles I caught myself in. And in the year since J shared that advice, I've heard it from several others--from Seymour, who started this program with me nearly 5 years ago; from 'The Dean' (JP) and 'The Doctor' (RAF), who Seymour introduced me to and who have been an amazing source of support; even from new acquaintances I don't know all that well. I intend this blog to help in my effort to keep moving.

And how will it do that? I anticipate it helping me keep moving in two key ways:

Obligation: If I know that others know what I'm supposed to be doing and how well I'm fulfilling those obligations, I'm much more likely to act. In other words, I don't always do so well when only accountable to myself. By making my progress public and easily accessible to those who may care, I'm applying a bit of pressure. I've particularly got The Dean and The Doctor in mind, as they have effective pointy figurative boots with which to give me a kick. But if any of the rest of you want to join in the prod-Amy-to-finish exercise, please feel free.

Recognition: One of the destructive thought cycles I find myself in is thinking I've accomplished nothing. This often happens because I think on a large scale about my projects, rather than thinking in terms of the small daily steps that must be taken. I find that when I have some means of recording what I actually accomplish each day--no matter how small it is--I'm able to break that cycle and continue moving. So this blog will not only communicate to others what I'm doing, it will also force me to recognize my own accomplishment. Something I need any help I can get with, as I'm my own worst critic (who isn't, really?).

I'm not entirely sure exactly how this will end up working. It's just an idea that occurred to me this afternoon as I was working in my office (yes--I spent most of my Saturday working in my 8x10 office; yay me!). I have a few ideas about what I can do here that will help others help me and that will help me recognize what I need to do and what I have done. A few things you'll see here:
  • Goals for daily reading. I'm prepping for my qualifying exams, which translates to a lot of reading. I'm going to try to set a goal each day and report on whether I met it.
  • A weekly (maybe daily?) task list of things I'd like to accomplish. This may show up on the side bar. Or it may show up in an entry. I haven't decided yet.
  • Reading notes. I really need to start keeping track of what I'm reading for my lists in a more organized fashion. I doubt these will be of interest to many people other than me, but hey--if you really want to know what I think about surveillance in Villette or preconception in Middlemarch, feel free to peruse.
  • Reviews of useful works of criticism.
  • Lists of useful web resources.
If you have suggestions for how I can make this blog a useful tool, I'd love to hear them. And if you have suggestions for useful research management devices, I'd love to hear those, too.

Wish me well as I renew my commitment to this venture. It's time for me to start moving out of the wilderness.


MarkovX said...

I too have been having a huge struggle with grad school. Part of the problem is that I decided to go to grad school without even knowing why I'm going to grad school. I was just going because I didn't really want to program in indsutry, so I applied and got accepted.

And obviously now, a huge lack of motivation has been my biggest roadblock for quite some time.

At one point of time, my advisors requested a daily log updated every 30 minutes of my work progress. This was very beneficial at first, I finished my current task in a week, that I've been procrastinating for 6 months.

It's hard to figure out what is causing my apathy -

i) I want to teach, and want the degree to give me the credibility to teach (well before my game deisgner job offer)
ii) I have people that desire my work as the freight procurement research community highly anticipates my research, due to the success of one of my advisors in the field
iii) I want everyone who's supported me to be proud of me

Yet despite those great motivational points, I still end up going through the week not progressing. So for me, I agree, It's quite hard to exactly decipher what the roadblocks are.

It's hard to see, with me going into a full-time job, that I would get any work done. I'm hoping it really is all in the motivation. The only thing I can do is just step-up, and chug through it.

hmm... this turned out much longer than I expected, but basically I just wanted to express my support to you and your decision to keep on going, and hopefully my struggles will help comfort you

Seymour Glass said...

graduate school is a curious exercise in guilt, fear, stress, and madness. once you come to accept them as facts of life (and not faults of your own) then you can begin to move.

glad that you've decided to stick it out. i'd only given up on you about 3 times, but you're plucky. before i heard about the new blog i was actually going to suggest that you blog regularly about your progress and reading so that we can comment on how productive you really are.

now i just need to be productive. i think it's catching. i'm off to do some dissertation research. Walter Benjamin, here i come!

Brooke said...

Yay Amy!! Your decision to finish seems to right to me. I support you 100% even though I don't know what that means that I should do exactly. But I'm here. I know, I'm here to make sure we plan dinner nights out and have a great time at the RM retreat!