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The Journey

This is the first guidepost on a journey I'm about to take.

I entered a PhD program, about three years ago now, with the plan to stay there for five years in order to obtain a PhD. This program was broken up into two phases, the first phase corresponded with a masters degree, and the second phase corresponded with the research phase of a PhD. The average times were two years for the first phase and three years for the second phase. I was accepted into the first phase with funding, and in order to continue to the second phase one needed to pass a two hour oral qualifying exam with three professors in three different subjects. In order to obtain funding, one needed to have an even higher grade on the qualifying exam, together with an overall average in the courses taken over the first two years.

I passed the qualifying exam with flying colors, but just shy from the required grade to remain eligible for funding. I also had the necessary grade point average from the courses I had taken. The adviser I had done my masters thesis with had told me he would not accept me as his student and I was unable to find a professor who would accept me and fund me themselves.

I spent the first four semesters doing coursework. My fourth semester was originally planned to be focused on the qualifying exam and finishing the masters thesis. I ended up taking four courses this semester and both got pushed off until the fifth semester, in which I didn't officially take any courses, except for one seminar talk I gave. I later found out this wasn't out of the norm from most of the students I had entered the program with.

A little over a month before my qualifying exam my adviser told me he would not accept me and was hesitant to tell me if he would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation if I needed one, which would have essentially been the end of the road. Ideally, what I would have done, after I found out I was no longer eligible for funding, instead of looking for professors within this program, would have been to immediately start applying to other programs, but all of these would have required a letter of recommendation from my thesis adviser, so I didn't do this.

At around this time I happened to send an email to a professor whose doctoral thesis I happened to come across in my own research for the problem of my masters thesis. I mentioned it was very well written, described how I thought I might use it and then casually mentioned I might be looking for a PhD position in the near future. I didn't hear back for a few months, until about two or three weeks before I submitted my thesis. I ended up not using that material, although it was an interesting line of thought, it was not directly related to the main problem in my thesis, so I left it out. Within a week he offered me a position to be his doctoral student in a field a bit different from my own. After some thought, and discussions with friends, former professors of mine, and finally with my own adviser, I decided to accept the position.

So, I'm about to start this new PhD in a few months. It's in a field I'm not sure I'm particularly interested in, at least not to the level of interest I have for my current field, which I feel I was deterred from continuing. I was told that working hard is not enough, that I was too slow and came up with nothing original or particularly interesting during the masters thesis. It was an absolutely helpless feeling thinking that my adviser held my (academic) future in his hands with his choice of refusing to write me a letter of recommendation or not, admittedly, possibly exaggerated in my own mind during the heightened emotional state caused by having a qualifying exam and thesis defense in the immediate future.

In any case, I think there is some truth to this. The field I happen to be interested in is not an easy one. It easily takes three to five years of merely studying background material before one is able to even understand the problems of interest and be capable of making a dent. And, this is for those who absorb information quickly, are able to see natural implications with facility. This is not me. I work very, very hard to understand material, far more than my peers, in terms of time and energy, and when I'm done, I have nowhere near the depth of understanding as they do, or the retention. If I don't see a concept or technique for some time, I forget it. I can pick it up quickly when I need it, but not on the spot a year or two later, as my peers do with ease.

Coming to terms with this is something I've had to struggle with, as I have heard for years that you obtain this naturally with hard, determined work.

This new field has a few upsides. It's relatively new and has many fertile grounds where original, interesting, and possibly fun, investigations can be carried out. It is more applicable, so if I find that academic research is not for me, a pivot into industry will not be so difficult (in practical terms, in philosophical and ethical ones, I see this as insurmountable, something I can try to explain in the future).

I went into this current program I'm in with a very positive and optimistic attitude. For years, my professors had been telling me I had what it took to do a PhD, that it was hard work, but that you didn't have to be a genius to do this. More importantly, I was always encouraged and I had very good communication with my professors and advisers, and could talk to them with relative ease. I can't stress the importance of an environment where I can simply walk by a professors office who happens to have the door open, stop buy and have an interesting academic conversation. Without fail this was the case in my previous institution, although admittedly not a research institution. These last three years have essentially destroyed this attitude, or at least greatly reduced. I often feel I was done a diservice by this. That I was proped up through massive grade inflation and a false sense of my own intellectual and academic level.

My new PhD program is in a different field, but with enough commonality that my background would not go entirely to waste. It is expected to take three to five years. Had I stayed in the current program, I would have been done in two to three, and would not have been required to retake courses I've already taken multiple times, retake preliminary exams, and so on. I'm having trouble dealing with the amount of time that will inevitably be wasted.

I'm interested in doing creative, original, and intellectually stimulating research. I tend to view the first two years of most graduate programs as there mainly to build foundations, allow students to find the fields they are interested in, and possibly weed out students. I have the foundations, and far more. Most of the foundation courses are in fields that are not particularly related to mine. They are of value, of course, in developing intuition, the necessary mechanics and working knowledge, and so on.

For me, foundation courses played this role, but mainly they were to prove to myself that I could do that if I wanted to. I have sufficiently proved this to myself, and no longer have any interest in taking courses that will simply force me to relearn something I already learned, and only forgot because I never worked with it, or perhaps I learn something new, but the pattern that will be followed is clear: I will learn it, but eventually forget it as I don't use it on a daily basis. There is much to be said for this. Having a wide array of knowledge can be very useful for seeing the big picture, hidden connections, and so forth.

I'm at a crossroads.

Forget that I have already accepted this new position.

I'm trying to figure out if I should continue down this path, or if I should exit, as I've failed myself too many times already. I failed to get accepted into a research program immediately after finishing my bachelors degree, so I ended up working in industry for two years. Those two years were possibly the worst of my life, so far. I ended up taking graduate courses at night during this time, and had the equivalent of a masters degree, but for bureaucratic reasons, was not able to be awarded one (I had taken too many graduate courses as an undergraduate and not informed the department I would want them to count for my masters degree, even though they were not needed for the bachelors degree, as I already had all the credits necessary).

So, I'm feeling now that it's almost as if it's a sign from the cosmos telling me, quite clearly, this is the end of the road for you, here. I, again, am going to have to start over. Not to mention that I haven't officially been awarded the masters degree here, as my thesis has not been finished grading. Despite all my meetings with the academic offices here, I was not able to get a guarantee, to my satisfaction, that the courses I had were indeed sufficient for the masters degree, assuming I passed the thesis. My history with academic bureaucracies has left me skeptical of any assurances that are not written on paper and stamped by everyone imaginable.

Assuming I do continue down this path, I'm trying to figure out how to make the best of it. How not to fail again. Fail myself.

I spent the last two years trying to make sure I qualified for the second phase of my program, with funding, as I'm not a genius and I knew professors would not be going out of their way to pick me as their students, as happened, here at least. My focus was primarily on getting good grades as opposed to learning the material. They are two entirely different things for me. I could go on for hours about how the educational systems I've encountered are deeply flawed, and probably will at many points in the future. In any case, the point is that I have no interest in grades anymore. I will not be a slave to this system anymore. I've wasted too much of my time on this, and will not anymore. If I do this, it will be for me, for my own knowledge and my own understanding, not a piece of paper signed by a professor.

This focus on grades was compounded by the fact that the entire grade was determined by a single final, oral, exam. The homework and work put into a course was absolutely irrelevant. If you happened to have a bad day on the day of the exam, intellectually speaking, that's it, too bad.

(I had friends who had already published and could figure out interesting, challenging problems, but did not have the facility and speed to do well on the oral exams, after which they were unable to get funding and ended up leaving academia.)

I will also not make the mistake of relying on other people, in the way that I did here. I made the mistake of relying on my adviser to guide me. I accepted a problem I wasn't intersted in because I thought it was an investment in my future in the program, ignoring actual interesting problems I had wanted to work on for some time. I'm on my own, I've found. I will happily accept any given support, suggestions, and help, but in the end, I'm alone. I will teach myself material I need to know when I need it, I will not wait for the course to be taught a year later.

This post seems a big negative, but that's not the intent. I actually see myself as a very positive person (I can hear my friends laughing right now, but I hold to this). But be clear, I'm not one of those overly optimistic people, actually I can't stand this, drives me insane.

This is just me describing my current crossroads in order to be able to make the best decision possible. I'm trying to find out if I should take a different path, or if I should hold steady to the one I'm on, and if so, how to find balance and meaning in life, while doing this.

There are no answers here. This is merely a description of my situation.

I'm thinking of going back home. I don't really know what that means. I'll write about this next time.

Letter 01, Part 01 : The Journey

The Journey
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