July 15th, 2019 | These Dark Hours

These dark hours

These Dark Hours

The peak is so close; glowing somewhere on the horizon, yet looking like a fata morgana – step after step, and you do not feel like you are coming any closer. I felt the same way while approaching the peak of Kilimanjaro in 2013 (you might be willing to check out the blog post from October 6th, 2018, https://nataliabielczyk.com/so-close-yet-so-far-a-postcard-from-kilimanjaro/. I am making this last effort to finally submit my PhD thesis now. And this will happen in literally a few hours. I expected it would feel orgasmic, but instead, it feels like a sad relief. Yet, I would like to capture this moment – just for the sake of memory. Maybe one day, I would get back to what I felt when I realised that all this tantalising pain is finally over.

I wanted to be a researcher ever since I was 6 years old. This dream ALMOST came true. I say ‘almost’ because even though I have all the credentials to be a researcher right now, I feel like I do not want to do this for a living anymore. Let me explain.

There are two main reasons why academia has become a disappointment for me. The first reason is the human factor: during my PhD, I learned a lot about how academia works behind the curtains – how p-hacking is enforced on researchers by their grant-thirsty superiors, how bad management can break people’s careers and how people flock in informal groups of mutual interest and back up each other, and disrespect the rest of their environment. 

Well, one might think ‘this depends on the environment, you might consider changing it and start over. But the second reason is much deeper: as humankind, we are much earlier in the process of understanding the human brain than I thought when I was starting my adventure with neuroscience. Since I first got to study the human brain, eight years have passed – and I do not see much progress in understanding cognition ever since. I believe we need another 50 to 100 years to develop the right tools to study brains and to be able to explain how emotions, memory or decision-making work.

Looking from this perspective, it is no longer as joyful to even obtain a PhD, and every hour spent on finalising the thesis feels like time lost forever. There are so many other, compelling things to do right now! I guess from a long perspective, it will feel rewarding that I eventually made this final effort and finished my big task. 

Yet, at the moment it feels just like an eternity spent in some dark abyss – every hour feels like it lasted for a year, and every time I have to spend more energy to push myself to sit down to it. Initially, at the beginning of my PhD, I was so eager to do the project that I could wake up at 4 am, jump out of bed and jump on it immediately. 

Then I was getting more and more disillusioned, disappointed and tired. First, I needed to schedule special slots when I work on my thesis, and play some cheering music beforehand. Then I needed to drink a glass of wine every time I was getting down to the thesis to overcome the collateral fear. 

Then, instead of one glass, I needed two glasses of wine, a walk, three stupid movies on YouTube, and yet another glass of wine. And so on. You get the idea. There is also one more psychological effect involved: if you think about changing your career path after PhD but you have never worked on the open job market, you also start sabotaging your thesis – you are so afraid of this dark unknown that you subconsciously postpone thesis submission as far as you can.

For all these reasons, in the last two years, it was almost impossible for me to motivate myself to sit down to the thesis and push it forward – everything else, from other research projects to looking for jobs, setting companies, cleaning, cooking, dating, to travelling, was just more interesting than this. It was one big procrastination time.

And now, in a few hours, it all comes to the end – and it feels dark. I should be ecstatic but instead, I feel quite exhausted and I am looking forward to having this just done. This whole story just proves to me that if you are feeling deep inside that you are losing heart for something, you should just stop and search for something else to do as soon as you can. Because life passes by very quickly – and this feeling will only feel worse with time, never better.

So, does this all mean that I say a definite ‘no’ to science? Not at all. My brain needs a little break from brain science right now, that is for sure. And a break from this current academic system. For now, I need more personal freedom to choose topics I find important, and less enforced projects dictated by grants. More freedom to choose people to work with, and less of fixed teams according to who is employed by whom. And personal freedom can lead to a whole new range of academic achievements some time from now.

So, shall we?

Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2019, July 15th). These Dark Hours? Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/these-dark-hours

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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Ontology of Value where I write posts dedicated to these topics.

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