Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dear PhD Student in Personal Crisis...

I have met you and met you and met you, hundreds of times over, in cohorts and classrooms and conferences. I want to tell you to step away from the head games, to realize there is no single "right" path to compare your "wrong" journey against. I want you to know that you could dedicate your life to a single silly thing -- strawberries in summer, or building furniture from scratch -- and if it felt good, then you have succeeded.

But academia doesn't work that way, and the longer you are seeking the big degree, the more you will doubt yourself and your future. The job market is hopeless, the advice blogs terrifying, and your committee is too self-involved to see reality. Just step away from it. You're not alone. You'll never be. Play Let It Be or Nevermind. Then you'll see the bright white beautiful heaven hanging over you, with no advisor notes or publication deadlines or student loans due.

CMers: How would you answer this letter that appeared on

I was wondering if you could please help me. I’m 38, and in my (hopefully) last year of a science Ph.D. program. (I worked for a few years between undergraduate and grad school.)
I sometimes think that I don’t really have parents, although they are alive. My mom is mentally ill, and my dad divorced her and is doing his own thing. My dad and grandmother gave me a few thousand dollars of financial support this year, because I don’t have time for a second job outside of school as I finish my last year. I also got a loan. I have always had either two or three jobs otherwise. I will repay them, next year, but otherwise, my parents do not provide any sort of mentorship, guidance or support. My dad actually takes quite a lot more than he gives.

The rest.


  1. I was engrossed all the way to the "There's more" link, but the link doesn't work.

  2. I've tried to reach the author because there's a ton of code and formatting in this post, and I can't make heads or tails of it. I will try to sort it out by tomorrow morning, so please return then and give the text another go. I'm sure I'll have the answers I need by then to make this complete and readable. Monkey, if you're reading, I've sent you an email in addition. Let me know what you intend that link at the bottom to do. Right now it's just a bunch more of the letter after an http:// prefix.

    1. I believe I've got it sorted out a bit. Sorry for any inconvenience.

    2. Sorry about that! When I clicked on it, it took me straight to the page and everything looked just fine.

  3. First of all, don't listen to the Salon guy. He's a fucking moron.

    You're nearly forty. Your parents aren't supposed to be mentoring you or supposed to be your main source of emotional support anymore. You're a middle-aged man. And stop comparing yourself to other people your age because they aren't thinking about you anyway. They're posting their happy crappy facebook shit and you have no fucking clue what sort of personal 9/11 they may be suffering. Facebook ain't real life, dude. And everybody gets dumped. Everybody wastes money on stupid shit.

    Now listen carefully. Do exactly what I tell you to do.

    1) Find a psychiatrist.
    2) Take the little pills.
    3) Finish your Ph.D. as if your life depended on it, because it does.
    4) Find some science job. Doesn't have to be your ideal job. Just find some science job. You can do it. Just do it.
    5) Get on
    6) Fuck various women until you find the very least insane one that likes you back (keeping in mind that the one you like fucking the most may be the most insane one--this is just the way of things).
    7) Marry her and live happily ever after with your dumb job and your dumb family and your dumb house and the dumb dog the kids made you get.

    And quit whining. It's not attractive and will not get you laid, unless you whine in a song while you're playing the guitar. But if you could do that you wouldn't have written this letter, would you?

  4. Stella's preamble: perfect.

    1) and 2): yep, just do it.
    I would add 2.5) Run, bike, swim, go to the gym: at least one of them, every day, vigorously.

    Re. 3) Next time you see your advisor, ask him/her how much more you'd need to do (feasible within a year) to get a LOR for an industry job (with a PhD, of course.)

    Re. 4) Identify the industry of choice and possible employers, and work on getting the "skills" (yes, technical crap) that would look good on an application. Start talking to them now .

    4.5) Very important: where you live matters. When looking for a job, if it requires you to move to BumfuckConservativeDorf, decline. Large metro areas only.

    Regarding 5,6,7, I'm an agnostic. If the guy is a PhuD with a science job in a large metro area, reasonably sane and in reasonable shape/health, the rest should take care of itself. I belong to the lackadaisical school of dating.

    I once fucked (and married) eye candy, and she did turn out to be insane. I got out of it eventually (and kept my shirt), but it took a while. So Stella is very right about that.

  5. If you're a science Ph.D. student and you aren't getting paid, there's something wrong with you right there. What F&T (was it her?) said a while ago about graduate programs in general goes double for STEM: if you're not getting tuition waived and a stipend, don't go.

  6. Get off Facebook for a while, and for now block all the LinkedIn email as spam -- because if it upsets you, don't read it. Get that PhD finished ASAP. Realize that your education and your job are not who you are. Quit fretting about having a relationship and getting married -- forget about a social life and finish that PhD first. In fact, put everything on hold until you finish that PhD. Set aside your past, with its mistakes and heartache, and move forward.

  7. What everybody above (especially Stella and Peter K) said. Finish that Ph.D., and ignore other goals/concerns (other than being checked out for what sounds like possible depression) for the moment (but really do finish this year, and, since you're going to have a Ph.D. that actually makes you eligible for a decently-remunerative job, get said job).

    Once you've done that, find a mental health professional (probably not a psychiatrist, because sadly all they seem to do these days is to prescribe pills -- not that the pills might not be useful, short- or long-term; Peter K's advice to try exercise is also good) with whom to explore the (strong) possibility that you're inappropriately enmeshed with your family. It would be nice if you could continue to serve as a mentor to your younger siblings, but even that might need to go on hiatus for a while, while you build stronger boundaries, and a stronger sense of yourself (you can consider this to be serving as a role model for your siblings, because you are/would be). If living near your family (you say only one brother is in the same city, but it's not clear how far away the rest of the family is) is contributing the to the problem, consider whether greater geographical distance might help (trickier to figure out in these days of instant communication).

    One exception to the order of operations above: if you find that, the closer you get to finishing the Ph.D., the more the family neediness/demands ramp up, find a counselor right away. You may be experiencing (and perhaps inadvertently cooperating with) conscious or unconscious sabotage. The same is true if you're feeling that your Ph.D. advisor is unsupportive/undermining, especially in ways that remind you all too much of familiar family dynamics.

    And be very thankful that you're male, and have some time to figure this out without feeling that you've got to have biological children *now* if you ever want to (if you were female, I'd be pointing out that there are ways to have children other than the biological approach, and that bringing a kid into a situation that is unstable in any number of ways -- financial and emotional, to start with -- is not a wise choice).

  8. As an extension to this question, I really wonder what we can do for the endless stream of PhD students who say a version of this to me on a regular basis. I've started avoiding grad students in general at conferences, because they are so frightened and insecure. I can't lie to them and tell them it will be fine, but at the same time it's their very insecurity that is pulling them down. If you stop caring, that's when people get interested in you.

    So everything Stella said, plus Cassandra, and add to it: stop giving so many fucks. Just do what you need to do.

    They should make this philosophy a part of grad school orientation.

  9. I wouldn't recommend for anyone who is admittedly suicidal.