Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 15: Anxiety Sets In


Well, like I told you all last month, I've had my nose to the grindstone and I've been working like a dog. It's not that I mind the hard work; it's just that the pace of things and the progress I've made are not what I had hoped for, given the amount of time I've put in.

It has been painfully slow and frustrating, especially because I'm not as interested in this project as I was when I started working on it more than 9 months ago. That may be because of the success--or lack of it--that I've had with the project. It may also be because my adviser, Jeff, keeps tweaking the project and asking me to switch gears, pushing the part I'm working on to the back burner as soon as he's not satisfied with progress in another area, only to drag it up again later. Given time and a little space, I feel like I could get the aspect that isn't quite working moving forward. I know I avoid him. I like to walk into his office to tell him something good, and if I don't have anything good to say, or a question to ask, I want to work out my own problems.

I've always been very independent; my parents told me I had a type-A personality even as a child. If I get stuck, though, I have no problem asking for help. But Jeff just won't leave me alone. I guess I should be grateful that he cares, but it feels like he cares too much, and his moods and his behavior depend on the progress I've made on his project.

Why don't I talk to Jeff about this? Because the project I'm working on is Jeff's pet project, the one that he's writing a big fat grant proposal on. He needs results. Soon. I'm the only person working on the project, and Jeff isn't the most patient person in the world.

He says he wants me to come see him with my progress, but it's so unnerving when he makes those exasperated sounds that make it seem like he's thinking, "Well, if I were working on this project, it would be done." And in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, "Well, excuse me for being the poor, unfortunate, underexperienced graduate student whom you chose to work on your pet project." I know I should go see him more often precisely because of my lack of experience--but I thought graduate school was about learning and teaching yourself, and exhausting the possibilities and stretching your imagination before seeking out your adviser, because that's how you get experience. Am I wrong? Or is it simply that working for an untenured, still-new-to-the-system faculty member desperately seeking funding is something I should have thought twice about? Ah ... hindsight ...

So now I'm just anxious all the time. I feel like I should be working when I'm not. I haven't really been taking care of myself, and it's starting to show. It seems like this back-breaking, mind-numbing behavior will stop only when I have results for this project and I'm comfortable with the progress I've made (translation, when Jeff is comfortable, has enough data for his grant proposal, and leaves me alone). And really, I'd love to share my frustration with Jeff, but, given the vibes I receive from him, I don't know. ... I'll be having lunch with one of my mentors soon and will most certainly ask for her advice in the matter. I've written before about finding that balance between work and self, and I just haven't been able to strike one yet.

We are always harder on ourselves than other people are. The faces Jeff makes when we talk about the progress that has actually been made, versus what we'd hoped to accomplish, expose his frustration, which I understand.

But I don't think he understands mine. I am a 2nd-year graduate student and the only person working on this project--a project not of my own mind. I'm not enjoying the pace of the project, and I know I can't switch to another project because this one is being used for a major grant proposal and the group isn't big enough to pawn it off on someone else. Sometimes life just sucks.

On a much brighter, much-to-my-shock-and-amazement note, I received both the fellowships I applied for. Unfortunately, there are a few problems. The university administration fouled up the paper work. Ah well, back to work ... posters to prepare for conferences in the coming months; results to get; sanity to maintain ...

Sorry, no Playing the Game this month, although if anyone has suggestions for dealing with research anxiety and untenured faculty, let me know--I'll be happy to include your comments next time.

Until then ...

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers