I'm not sure if this Grad Student phenomenon has a name yet, but I'll give it one - "The mid-degree crisis". You are about two years into your degree, but still two (or more) years away from finishing. Most of your structured requirements are finished, but you've done less than half the work that you'll need to do for your degree. And one day… you can’t remember why you pursued your PhD to begin with.
I’m about a year and a half into my PhD. My reading has become very specific as I prepare my thesis, I've probably made over 50 flow charts, and I tend to think about my research more often than not. I can tell you why my thesis topic is important. But a couple months ago I was having a hard time remembering why I wanted to pursue a PhD. I didn’t think much of it at first until over time I realized that I had no answer the two major questions that we all should be continually be asking ourselves: (1) Why am I doing this degree and (2) What do I want to get out of it?
I always wanted to go into research so academia seemed like the logical place to allow me to do that. If I don’t go into academia, then what will I do? I like to write and am interested in the research process and communicating my work so maybe a career as an editor is an option. Would I be a prime candidate once my degree was done if I continued things in the same way I was now? There was always the post-doc option, but would I be delaying the inevitable or helping my future? I then began to ask why I chose this thesis topic? Should I have done a different degree? Did I regret skipping Masters to go straight into a PhD? …Should I quit?
I had these visions of running into a wall. I would be handed my degree at convocation, walk off the stage…and walk straight into a wall. If I didn't want to apply to academic positions, would I be completely out of work? Would it be worth the extra years in grad school for a job I could get after my Bachelors degree?
And that was when I had my mid-degree crisis. I felt mentally paralyzed. I couldn't work on my thesis, but my mind wasn't clear enough to re-assess what I should be doing for myself. I had to finally come to grips with telling my supervisor about my recent spiral. Sharing this information with someone was a start to not feeling guilty about it anymore. I removed myself from my work for about a week. I needed to remember that my thesis was only a part of my life, and the stress of it should not consume my life.
I began to reflect on what made me interested in pursuing a PhD. A quote by Dr. Suzanne Fortier, the current president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council in Canada, reminded me why I began this journey in. When asked if Canada was producing too many PhDs, Dr. Fortier responded:
"If you asked me, are we training too many people to become university professors, I think the answer is yes. Are we training too many highly educated people who are encouraged to be creative and to push the advancement of knowledge, I’d say definitely not.”
Be creative and push the advancement of knowledge…. I wanted a summer research job so that I could learn how to answer questions and be a part of advancing my field. I was happiest when I was writing and dedicating time to thinking about my work. It allowed me to begin to make connections, discuss findings, and the implications of my work our field. I am not a person of many words, but I like having conversations with anyone about their research, from Rhetoric to Bioinformatics, because listening to other people talk about their field has always been interesting. I had completely lost sight of this.
In my reflections, here are some questions that I thought about and were most important to me so far (this is by no means exhaustive and I would love to add it):
- What did I like about research before I officially pursued my degree?
- How did I decide on my thesis topic?
- What aspect of the research process do I enjoy the most?
- What aspect of the research process causes me the most anxiety?
- Are there any skills that I currently don’t have that would be transferable no matter what career I decide to pursue?
- How is the stress and anxiety from school affecting the rest of my life? Is it worth it? How can make the anxiety more manageable?
Taking time to reflect is beneficial in all parts of life. Consistent reflection will make me a better research scientist, because the questions of why are we are studying a certain topic and what questions we want our studies to answer are the fundamental to research. In our personal lives, it can open our eyes to what we truly want, and for some people, may allow for the realization that pursuing a degree is not in line with what they want in life.
The uncertainty surrounding life after convocation still looms. Reflecting has been long and exhausting, but I am beginning to figure what is important to me, both within and outside of school. We must remember that a PhD is a marathon, so we need to consistently take time away from work to reassess our priorities both at the research and personal levels. By checking in with ourselves, we can begin to build the life that we want and create a door to walk through in the wall waiting for us at the end of our degree.
Have you had a similar experience midway through your degree? How did you cope? What questions do you think are important to reflect on at the beginning and over the course of a degree?
[Image courtesy of Flickr user @boetter  with Creative Commons License]