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Educated Woman, The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 41: Fear and Feedback



Every grad student needs to do a little soul-searching from time to time to keep the mind focused on the job at hand--completing the degree--and to stay grounded. One of my recent introspections helped me realize something: I have a fear of screwing up my future that makes me crave more constructive feedback from Jeff, my adviser, than he tends to give. It's not that he doesn't interact with me; it's that when he does I can't tell what he's really thinking.

Jeff isn't a yeller like some advisers, for which I am thankful, but he had a relatively toxic relationship with a former student who has since graduated. Although the bitterness didn't spill over to the other students, it left a residue of hesitancy in our interactions with him. So although Jeff and I don't fight, he doesn't say much about what he thinks about my progress either, which leaves me to figure it out on my own, interpreting his blank stares like tea leaves or a Rorschach inkblot. Is that a disapproving look? Is he feeling superior, disinterested, or appalled? At this point in my academic career, I'd rather have someone tell me how I am (or am not) measuring up, how I have improved, and what I need to work on still. I'd prefer to get it straight, no chaser; ultimately it would benefit me in the long run.

I've come up with an analogy that describes my situation and the frustration that I feel. Say, for example, your 5-year-old sister has unfortunately happened upon an old horror movie while flipping the channels for Sesame Street, and a chain-saw-wielding monster appears out of nowhere to terrorize his victims. What do you do to keep her from freaking out? As the older, wiser sibling, you have two options. You could:

a) Talk to her about the images she saw using all the information you have at your disposal--the blood isn't real, the explosions were special effects, and the actors are just acting; they're not really dead--and let her come to her own understanding.


b) Laugh at or ignore her insecurities and walk away, leaving her in the dark about the real world and fearing the nightmares to come.

Some people might consider the comparison between doing a Ph.D. in science and watching a slasher film to be forced. To each her own, but the same could be said of relationships between grad students and advisers, or even older students and younger students. Every now and then, no matter where you are in life, you need someone who is not a parent to say, "Hey, the nightmare isn't as bad as you think it is. You're doing okay. Yes, you could improve here or there, but overall, you've come a long way from the first-year graduate student that you once were." Or, "Watch out, your adviser is behind you in a hockey mask carrying a chain saw." Or whatever. A little mentorship goes a long way. If your adviser isn't exactly your mentor, things can be a bit dicey.

Like a fearless 5-year-old, I could've sworn I had an immense amount of confidence when I entered graduate school. But I've been worn out and frightened by reality. The confidence has been beaten away by qualifying exams, research drama (one day it works, the next day it doesn't), my own self-critiques (we are our own worst critics), and life that has nothing to do with graduate school (family and friend drama). Yes, some of us need more self-love and less self-loathing. Research guilt (Did I do it right? Did I do enough? Would someone else have done it better?) is its own special corner of hell. Although it's very easy to say, well, you shouldn't feel that way, I'm sure everything is fine, and offer yourself pithy words of encouragement, on the inside that's never enough. Those words occasionally need to come from someone else.

Maybe Jeff's "mentor-lite" approach has to do with his age and rank. The plight of young professors is one of harried quests for money, teaching classes they may or may not have taken, and in general, just trying to keep it all together while starting a research group and suffering the same uncertainty about how their work is likely to be judged that we graduate students suffer. I understand that Jeff has a lot on his plate, so I can't place all the blame on him, but as a principal investigator heading a lab, one of the prime responsibilities is training students to be independent researchers. If you want to do that well, providing viable student feedback that doesn't take the form of "Well, if it were me it would be done by now" is essential.

This lack of outside information about where I stand, what I do well, and what I need to improve feeds directly into the irrational fear that plagues my job search. Will I screw it up and end up in a situation I detest? How do I transition from a wretched job to a place I might like better? I think I'm capable, but hey, that could be narcissism talking. You never know when you might turn the corner and find that guy in the hockey mask standing there, waiting for you.

I had hoped that I would have a more open relationship with Jeff, one where we could talk about my fear and frustration as it relates to my research and my job search, but his lack of interest in anything aside from the next paper doesn't make me want to open up and talk to him about my future. I'm trying to figure out how to go about my life without closing too many doors. I'm not sure where I'm going yet, so I want to keep all the roads open. So many situations depend on making the correct choices. If I don't do a postdoc, I can't get an academic job. If I go into industry, it might be hard to get back out again and into academia. If I intend to leave the bench, how do I make myself credible in a new field?

Many people tell me that I have to find something that I enjoy and build credibility in that area. But nobody tells you how to do it. How long does it take to establish a reputation once you've left graduate school? How do I maintain my reputation if I decide to move around to find my niche? Will people hate me if I stay in a position for only a year? What do I know that will be useful to anyone outside my narrow field? Or is what I've trained for all I'm good for?

Reading Peter Fiske's column " The Skills Employers Really Want," I am reminded that I have learned and improved on some skills while I've been in graduate school. But again, it would be nice if I could hear it from someone other than the voices in my head. Here's a brief list of things from Fiske's article that we've all potentially learned in graduate school:

  • Public speaking

  • Computer and information-management skills

  • Ability to support a position or viewpoint with argumentation and logic

  • Ability to implement and manage all phases of complex research projects and to follow them through to completion

  • Knowledge of the scientific method to organize and test ideas

  • Ability to organize and analyze data, to understand statistics, and to generalize from data

  • Ability to solve problems

  • Ability to acknowledge differing views of reality

  • Ability to suspend judgment, to work with ambiguity

Enough wallowing and worrying; there is much to do. If anyone has any hints on how to get constructive feedback from an adviser who doesn't really give any, I'm all ears, and I'll happily share:

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