Climbing a mountain

I have heard people describe a PhD as climbing a mountain (usually Mount Everest). The comparison was first explained in terms of “you don’t do a PhD for any other reason than to show that you can, the same reason people climb Everest.”

However, as I look back over my PhD, now that it’s pretty much done, it feels more and more like this climb. I started at Base Camp, and started winding my way up. I had a huge false start at the beginning (I semi-seriously joke that my PhD only took 4 years – because the first two ended up being on a project that just didn’t go anywhere). But as I wound my way up the mountain, I had many wrong turns and had to backtrack back down a few times to regroup. And while I did get to the top, it feels like it was of a different mountain, not the one (Everest) that I started up. If you climb a mountain, people will generally say “wow, good for you.” But the sincerity and impressiveness is not the same if it’s “any ordinary mountain” versus climbing Everest.

Now, I’m sure part of this is just my pessimistic attitude and negative life view (one of my siblings was berating me for this recently). But looking at my publication history, looking at the acceptance of my work by the greater community, and just how I feel myself about the research that was done, I find it hard to being incredibly positive and think that my results are “world class” or that I’m a “superstar.”

I have a lot of regrets about my PhD, which is unfortunate. I wish I had chosen a different research topic, one that inspires me more and that I would have been less likely to hate by the end. I wish I had decided to switch universities, so that I would’ve been exposed to a different community and different opportunities – although this one is sort of odd, in that I really like the startup stuff I’m doing, which wouldn’t have happened if I had left. I wish I had pushed my supervisor for more opportunities and help in expanding my abilities and skills.

I know many other PhD students who have a great community that they work within. And, I actually think most research communities are probably actually similarly great, including the one I am in. Except, and this is important, when your research doesn’t fall squarely in with the research being done by the rest of the community. If you’re more on the sidelines of your community, it can feel very isolating. I’ve found that you can feel like you’re getting pushed out of the community more than you’re ever being welcomed in, just for being different. It’s not bullying (no one is really saying mean things, even if they reject your paper) but it’s that other less-talked about social problem, of just not feeling included/accepted/wanted. It’s like being in school and going to the cafeteria and not knowing where to sit, and when you do sit, no one wants to talk to you.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met a lot of great people over the course of my grad career. Some from my school (and different research areas), some from the greater community I’m technically part of (who would probably be shocked to hear I’ve felt this way) and others from other communities (who are surprisingly more welcoming, probably because it’s more of a bond on just being grad students then research related).

Anyway, with less “real” research to focus on, there’s a lot more time now to just sort of re-think over my experience as I try to figure out how/what I’m going to do to move forward. I know, for now, it’s going to be tied to the startup. But that doesn’t actually mean I need to stay where I am. Lots to think about, and hard to figure out, as I also don’t really feel like I’m in the right state of mind to make these decisions right now.


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