Think THRICE before choosing a new PhD program

Think THRICE before choosing a new PhD program

 

Joining a new PhD program where you will be in the very first cohort is hard as fuck (AF)! And it’s hard for some of the following reasons – there are so fucking many. The MAIN disadvantage will be the lack of INTELLECTUAL capital. This affects everything!

  1. Departmental (Faculty and Staff) INEXPERIENCE can fuck you up – The Department might have no clue what running a PhD program means administratively, intellectually, or financially. This means extra time and missing important deadlines and information on what you need to successfully complete your PhD.
  2. They LACK INTELLECTUAL RESOURCES, i.e. not enough PhD faculty with experience to advise a PhD, not enough collaborations and projects from the department to build research. Academia succeeds – I believe – when people are true experts in their work, are aware of what others are doing, and when possible collaborations are endless and without restrictions. Your advisor might not have even successfully graduated a Masters Student, but they are expected to advise PhDs. These two can in no way be compared.
  3. FUNDING – The faculty and the department may have no knowledge (intellectual resources) and experience on getting funding for projects and for PhDs.
  4. ADMIN – Administrative staff may not understand the technicalities, requirements, and differences between PhD students and undergrads/ Masters’ students.
  5. UNDERGRADUATE CULTURE PERVADES – with that comes a lack of understanding of the needs of PhDs when it comes to research and mentoring. It’s not just about a dissertation but mentoring and teaching you about being an academic, hopefully running a department and a lab one day, not completing a fucking assignment.
  6. They SEE YOU AS A NUMBER – They may focus on your dissertation and getting you out instead of molding you as a great academic. Here I mean inexperienced faculty and admin might be rushing you to graduate to advertise numbers without care or concern about your needs, wants, or the specific needs for your program and career. They want numbers, while you want to be properly trained and marketable.
  7. They have LITTLE CONNECTIONS for getting you in a good position – What are their networks and reach to get you the job you want? If they just got this job, they do not have the reach and history to help you get that job you want. Their work may not as yet be mature.
  8. POLITICS – Fucking hell there will be politics! People will be fighting to have you as their PhD, but have or make no time to advise you because they will be trying to get their research going. Although they need a PhD for tenure, they will be focusing on their work first. You might be advising yourself, and YOU CANNOT ADVISE YOURSELF. You will burn out!

 

 

One plus of going to a brand-new program is that you may have more flexibility in doing exactly what you want. There might be some freedom. But this is not guaranteed. Faculty will try to claim you, your work, and/ or steer your work in their direction to support their research. And remember, if they are new faculty, they have to prove their worth for tenure, so beware of situations where Faculty might steal your work to accomplish this. They have the position of power, not you. Beware of the shitty Advisor. See here – https://lifeofaphd.wordpress.com/2016/10/28/intellectual-bandits-in-academia/ and https://lifeofaphd.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/when-your-advisor-doesnt-advise-you/

 

Secondly, because of the shit-storm you will be in, you will learn what you do not want, and you might have some skills from these experiences that you might not have had, had you not gone through this. This however is NOT a reason to choose such a program. You advisor and others can teach you this as they mentor you.

The stresses that you will undergo in this new program might not be worth it. I will even say, it is not worth it. A PhD program is hard enough, you do not want a department that cannot help you and who are adding stressors to you. Believe me, you do not. Do not do it. My advice, DO NOT CHOOSE TO BE IN THE FIRST (nor second) COHORT OF A NEW PhD PROGRAM.

When your Advisor doesn’t Advise you

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Yes. This fucking happens. Some professors could give one rat-fucking butt hair about your dissertation. They are out there to get what’s theirs, and will not have you getting in their way. Let me attempt to unpack this.

MASTERS ADVISORS

When you’re a Masters student, apparently Advisors could care less about what you do. You may think it’s ground-breaking, and saving lives, but to them, you are time away from their focus on their research or their PhD students. You see, when it comes to getting tenure as a professor, having PhD students who have graduated under you is needed and important. A Masters student doesn’t do this for them. So, their strategy is to spend as little time on you as possible and focus on things that actually contribute to getting tenure. Fucked up right?! Yup! But, that’s the way the system is set up. So, if you are a Masters student working on your thesis and your “advisor” is not giving you the time of day and attention that you feel you and your work need, REACH OUT TO OTHERS. Whether you are having this problem or not, it is never a good thing to limit your association, knowledge, views, and conversations with your advisor only. Others may say differently, BUT, you will soon learn that diversifying your circle helps you more than it can ever harm. And if your advisor isn’t doing his/ her job, latch on the person(s) who are helping you and be sure to give them the credit where it is due. Keep them in your circle along the way.

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ROLES OF PEOPLE ON YOUR DISSERTATION COMMITTEE

Your advisor must serve some purpose on your committee. Some purposes include:

  • Content
  • Theory/ Frameworks
  • Methodology
  • Context
  • Project collaborations
  • Connections
  • Great supporter in the ring
  • Knows how to tell distractors to fuck off

These should be things you consider for anyone on your committee.

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I once had an advisor who I felt could have given me more feedback on my writing when I sent him/ her stuff. So, I found another professor who was wonderful enough and did a fantastic job at reading and commenting on my writing. Although my advisor I felt dropped the ball on this, when it came to presentations and my defense, it was like Rocky Balboa and Mickey Goldmill entering the ring in presentations. S/he gave me encouraging speeches before my presentation, had my back in every way, and asked me questions to inform my audience more. S/he was the best advisor I have had thus far. Such a G! So while she faltered on one aspect, she showed up in one of the biggest ways possible. One very important way for me.

PhD ADVISORS

Now, in the PhD process, things are more serious and you have more to lose, including your fucking mind and reputation. There are different types of advisors. It is important like I mentioned in previous posts that you attempt to be clear on what you need/ look for in an advisor. This person should be supportive and make this period the happiest time of your life, because doing a PhD and working on exactly what you want, making a contribution to causes that are important to you, is a very rewarding and fulfilling thing. You ought to be happy. If you are not, and a professor or your Advisor is the source of that unhappiness, it’s time to figure something out.

5/ 100 TYPES OF ADVISORS IN THE ACADEMIC KINGDOM

Here are some of the types of advisors you may come along:

 

  1. The I-am-not-responsible-for-that Advisor:

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This Advisor is very hands off and covers his/ her ass leaving you to deal with everything on your own. Should it come to a debate in a presentation of your defense, s/he remains quiet, leaving you to fend for yourself, not ever saying or doing anything to allow you to get back on your feet or inform your committee that your work did not concern that area they brought up. S/he may even let others on your committee make you change your dissertation or the direction your work was going, or let them add stuff for you to do without stepping in to say, “No, we discussed this and it is not part of his/ her work.” S/he is the king/ queen of sending cover-your-ass emails which document their not being responsible for things you do. Beware of these manipulative fuckers!

 

  1. The You-gotta-teach-yourself Advisor:

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This Advisor does not help you. They do not work with you, they do not recommend shit for you to read, they ain’t got time for your PhD-having ass. One colleague of mine told me that s/he asked his/her Advisor for content on a field in which the advisor claimed as their expertise. The Advisor told him/ her: “No, that’s your job to find the material you need. That’s the PhD process, you have to learn how to find what you need.” WTF?????????!!!!!!!!!! Are you fucking kidding me? Why the fuck are you this student’s Advisor then? You are actually choosing to not share knowledge with this person, when it’s your fucking job?!! In this case, I would reach out like a muthaf$@#& to other people in the field to ask for content. Fuck that dumbass advisor with their lying fuckery. And if anyone who does this is reading this blog post, fuck you and the evil Segway you rode in on.

 

  1. The I-will-make-sure-you-don’t-graduate Advisor:

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This Advisor’s students rarely graduate. S/he is deliberately preventing his/ her students from graduating so that they will keep working in his/ her lab to further their own research. They usually have a lot of projects happening, racking up points for themselves in the research column, but could give not one fuck about your timeline, life, or career when it comes to graduating. Beware of this fucker! They are selfish and only seeking their interest. If someone has a reputation of their students not graduating, watch the fuck out! And if anyone who does this is reading this blog post, fuck you and your evil fucking toenails.

 

  1. The Come-baby-sit-my-kids Advisor:

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The best relationship you can have with your advisor is one in which there are clear lines establishing that this is a professional relationship. Some professors are very chummy and invite you to meet their families, baby-sit their kids, and dogs. I’m telling you, this can get nasty. Keep your distance. There is a thin line between love and hate. I know of many instances where Advisors used their personal knowledge of their students in ways that damaged them emotionally, professionally, and psychologically. Remain professional with your Advisor. Set the boundary for him/ her and it will be the best thing you do. It’s your choice.

 

  1. The I-will-steal-your-work Advisor:

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This Advisor or professor only wants to be around you so they can use your data, project, or ideas. They are closely related to the I-take-all-the-credit Advisor. They will steal your shit without your knowledge, or are brazen enough to tell you they will be using your shit. And guess what, you have little recourse. They more than likely have way more resources than you to get their name on your shit faster than you can get your name on your own shit. Beware! You have to man up (or woman up) and have clear documented conversations with these people. How is your work cited, which number author are you on that paper, who will be presenting the work, etc.? Else they will screw you. Again, they only care about getting theirs, and when the stress of tenure is coming down like the hammer of Thor on them, they will eat their own – YOU. If you are one of those professors reading this blog post, fuck you and the eye-crust you woke up with this morning.

I will leave you with some good news…

  1. The I-will-be-your-mentor Advisor:

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This advisor, who may or may not be your advisor or even on your committee, is someone who really has your best interest at heart. They support you, support your work, and are always there to assist you. They recommend stuff that they come across for you, are eager to write you recommendation letters, and are a listening ear when you need one. This Advisor is priceless! Do not let him/ her get away. Treat them kindly and know that they are a gem in this dirty, shark-infested water of academia.

I can write a million posts on different types of Advisors, and I am sure I will write many more, so don’t worry.

Intellectual Bends & Communication – PIs, Research Assistants, and Projects

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Know who you are as a PI and know who you are as a researcher/ assistant. Both parties should know how best they work and should inform each other of this. If one or neither of you are clear on this when you start a project, be sure to document how you work, how you work best, and what works for you so that you can state this in your next research project. Knowing how you work best, being able to articulate it, and discuss it with your student/ PI is a good thing.

At the beginning stages of a research project, and pretty much throughout the life of a research project, no one knows where things might go. Your project might be a resounding success, or one of many steps to enlightenment. It’s a journey of discoveries in many ways, both personally and professionally. So a good framework of certainty for this uncertainty can be how you and your team work. Both together and as individuals.

For example:

  1. Do you prefer daily or weekly meetings for updates?
  2. What time do you get in or really start getting work done?
  3. Do you work best early in the morning, or later in the evenings, or at nights?
  4. Are you expected to be in the lab everyday all the time or can you work away from the lab?
  5. How will you contact each other in case you need to? – Phone? Email? Telepathy?
  6. How do you best communicate – via email, telephone, or face-to-face meetings?

How best you communicate is an important point! Believe me! Email is the default mode of communication for most people today. This however gives rise to terrible miscommunications. I would recommend all meetings happen either by Skype or face to face. A quick email to ask a question is fine, but anything beyond that, meet face to face.

I have noticed that in a research project, especially where the PI is not working on the project directly, communication can make or break the project and the people working on it. The PI/ professor has not one fucking clue what’s happening or what needs to be done, so they assume you have been twiddling your thumbs or are incompetent. They are clueless about all that is involved administratively and otherwise for the project. I have also noticed that students/ researchers are so far down the tunnel, having to remember every single step and mistake that it can be frustrating. Especially when you have so much shit to do. I suggest having meetings often that are simply for updating your PI. Nothing else!

Meeting agenda:

  • Updating professor on the project
  • Issues/ challenges and problems encountered
  • Next steps

My reason for putting the discussion of problems separate is because sometimes professors may try to help you address problems while you are updating them, and they are really guessing here. Your work on the project may have placed you ahead of the problem and possible solutions that you tried and failed. By updating your PI on the project and introducing the problems you have encountered and solutions you have tried, you have imparted your knowledge with your PI, and have put them in the position of ASKING if you have attempted A, B, C or D, instead of assuming that you haven’t. It also gives them time to get their head in the game.

Remember, the point of your meetings are to meet each other half-way. You have to come up from the depths of the waters of knowledge to meet him/ her, and s/he has to dive down from the surface of knowledge to meet you. Going down too quickly or coming up too quickly is beneficial to neither. We don’t want to get intellectual bends do we?

Another point on communication – beware of the emails you send to others. I have seen TERRIBLE emails from PIs and professors to their students that just make you cringe. Do not get pulled down into that trench. DO NOT REPLY TO EMAILS THAT UPSET YOU. Ask to meet and speak in person. Some people are terrible human beings and having a PhD does not change that. Preserve who you are and don’t play their nasty games. They sometimes knowingly (or unknowingly) are trying to just fuck with you, and fuck with your mind. Do not let them. The PhD process is fucking hard, the job of your PI is not to make things hard for you or make you learn how hard life is by fucking you over. It is not.

  • Learn who you are
  • Communicate that to your PI/ student and your team so everyone works at their optimum, and
  • Don’t get Intellectual Bends

Brains, Bureaucracy, and Bullshit!

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Brains, Bureaucracy, and Bullshit!

As I go along this PhD process, not only am I learning about research, but I am also learning about the hidden minutiae of academia. I am seeing the shit that goes on, and using this information as a guide when I am finished with my PhD, is a helpful tool.

I have been paying attention to the shit they don’t tell you, until you sign that contract and show up. You are blind-sided when the mask that is shown to you during that courting period is ripped off. These notes are for my future self and to anyone who it might help. I have been thinking of what questions to ask, what do I do during the interview process to glean some insight on the brains, bureaucracy, and bullshit at an institution.

  1. STAFF TURN-OVER

Question 1a: What has the turn-over been over the past 2 years for administrative staff?

Question 1b: What has the turn-over been over the past 3-4 years for professors?

I know a department at an institution that lost 3 admin staff within the period of 2 months! In addition, they lost 2 of their PhDs, and 4 professors, all within one year! What is going on at that institution that people are leaving in droves?

Any institution that has a high turn-over of employees is a sign that something is not right and that you should probably leave or not accept their offer. So remember to ask those questions. You can also ask, “How many of your Faculty and staff have been here for 10 years or more?” This too gives an indication of the quality of the environment, longevity, etc. The length of time someone stays at a place of employment is always a good sign of loyalty and trust.

Until you are at an institution, or know someone there who can give you the truth about a place, much of it may not come up during the interview period. The many levels, and layers of bureaucracy can make, and/ or break you and your research. The many lines of signatures, passing the buck off, and forms you have to go through to get the slightest of anything done is also something to find out about.

2. CHAIN OF COMMAND

Let’s say you need the services of an external party, and that external party requires a signature on a form in order to proceed. How many levels in the chain of command do you need to go through in order to get a signature? Does everyone pass the buck, taking responsibility for nothing? Are people afraid to sign almost anything?

How would you find this bullshit out? Well, asking the following questions during your interview process might shed some light.

Question 2a: What’s the procedure for authorizing the ordering of materials, services, equipment, etc.? Please give me an example.

Question 2b: What’s the procedure for releasing funds for research? Please give me an example.

Question 2c: Who/ what are the steps and people needed to give the greenlight before a project begins or to request services for a research project?

If the person you ask does not know, that’s a warning sign. They should know the exact procedure. Frankly, if they don’t it might be a sign that they pass the buck off to each other, and/ or there is extremely poor communication in the department or school. They operate as silos.

You should be able to ask anyone in the department these questions, not just one or two people assigned as the “Heads.” If most people do not know the answers to these questions, it’s a sign that each person minds his/ her own business and there is a poor culture of communication and family in the department.

 

3. IRB PROCESS

IRB and Academia go hand in hand. Some do it better than others. In some institutions, IRB offices are staffed with people who are educated on a variety of research practices and procedures from different fields. In others, it’s staffed by those who know little to nothing about research and are there to make sure you “follow the rules.” Terrible IRB offices can hurt you and your work. If you are spending days filling out IRB forms, and having meeting after meeting with staff because they don’t understand what you are doing, and it’s exhausting you more than it should, that’s not a good thing. If when you ask for answers to questions or clarifications, the answers are just as vague or complicated as it was before, that’s not a good sign either.

I would say it’s a good thing during the interview process to find out about the particular procedures and times it takes for IRB approval for work coming out of the department. If people don’t know, it’s a sign that they are not really doing research. Again, everyone should know the answer to this question. It will also help to ask graduate students about this. Ask them how the IRB process was for them, how long it took for approval, whether they had support from faculty and the staff, etc. Students usually are more honest than staff.

Questions might go like this:

Question 3a: What about the IRB process is different at this school from others? How long does it usually take to complete the application and get it approved?

Question 3b: How often are there IRB workshops and training sessions for students and faculty in your department?

Question 3c: Who do you like to work with best in the IRB office? How have they given insight to what research is to you? What was one issue one of your students had during the process?

The answers to these questions inform you about if there is proper communication between faculty, students, admin, and more. Do they know what the fuck happens at their IRB offices, departments and to their students? If they don’t know, it’s a sign. And if it’s a convoluted process (unnecessarily convoluted) where people pass the buck, think about that seriously.

I hope these notes help someone and prevents them from making terrible life-changing mistakes, and I will be looking back on these reminders from time to time.

 

 

What kind of Ph.D. Advisor do you want?

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I have been thinking about this question more than ever lately, “What kind of Advisor do I want? What qualities am I looking for when it comes to choosing my PhD Advisor?” I decided to jot down my thoughts on this, so that I can refer to them when needed, and/ or share them with others.

In a few words my Advisor must be a mentor. I don’t need to say a good one, do I? Let me repeat that, my Advisor must be a good mentor who stands by me, and prepares me to be a successful researcher and educator.

Imagine that you are preparing for your oral defense, thesis defense, conference, or some other big presentation. As you read the two situations I present below, I encourage you to note how you feel while reading this. Whatever emotions, fears, and concerns emerge as you imagine yourself in these situations might be a good guide to knowing who you want around you during your Ph.D.

Situation 1: During your time under the care of your Advisor, s/he has been writing papers with you, and working on research projects together. These activities allow you to get to know each other, learn how each person works, their strong points, and areas in which they are not so strong. You are professional with each other – no need to be involved in each other’s personal lives. In fact, I would recommend that you ALWAYS keep a professional line between you and your professor, no matter how warm and fantastic they may be. I will tell you why in another post. Your advisor reads your dissertation and gives you good feedback on it. S/he works with you on preparing you for the presentation. You present for him/her and s/he gives you critical feedback to prepare you. Before your presentation on that important day, s/he meets or emails you letting you know you got this! Building your confidence and letting you know – without saying it – that s/he has your back. During the presentation s/he is engaged, paying attention to everything you say, and giving you that nod of affirmation that things are going well. If you mess up, his/her look lets you know that it’s okay. After your presentation s/he manages questions by the audience. Should someone’s question or critique of your work go outside the boundaries of the work or becomes unprofessional, s/he gives you the opportunity to defend yourself. You will have to continuously have to defend your work throughout your career, so getting good on this is a good skill to have. You have to know the boundaries of your work. Should someone seem to have ulterior motives in their questions or critique of you or your work, you defend your work. Should the critique be going on for more than desired, preventing others from participating, your Advisor shuts this person down and proceeds with others in the audience.

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Situation 2: You have sent your draft of your presentation or document about 3-4 weeks ago and as yet s/he have not gotten back to you. After emailing him/her several times, s/he finally reply apologizing for not getting back to you, giving you  little to no feedback, OR, giving you so many comments that you just don’t have the time to address them. The comments are not very constructive, and seems to even address matters that your work is not meant to address. The forgetful Advisor – be wary of this Advisor – I will write on this in another post. On the day of your presentation s/he arrives late appearing unconcerned, or disheveled, totally adding to your anxiety. During your presentation, s/he makes faces that confuse you. You are not sure if s/he are confused, if you are unclear, or if their minds are on something other than your work. Or, the Advisor is on his/ her phone for most of your presentation. After your presentation, your Advisor opens up the floor for questions. While you are being asked questions, she is on his computer, or outside the room chatting. When someone is critiquing your work beyond the point of constructive or within the boundaries of your work, s/he sits mum. S/he says and does nothing to manage this person and the presentation, both of which have now strayed, in fact, they are nodding in agreement with asinine questions and comments.

 

Which Advisor do you want? Most persons will pick the first Advisor, I am almost certain, or they should. Before you get to this stage there are warning signs that we all need to be aware of, because I am almost certain NO ONE goes in search of the second type of Advisor. Your PhD is not supposed to be years of pain. It will be tough, but it is not supposed to be harmful to your health, psyche, or emotions. As you go along the process, keep your wits sharp about who you choose to be your Advisor. They can make you, and they can break you!

 

While you think of this, think too about the kind of Advisor you want to be. Do not be a dick Advisor! It would be a shame to be mentored by a great Advisor and end up being an asshole. I know persons who were mentored by great people and ended up being dicks, so having a good Advisor doesn’t mean you will be a good one either. Make a conscious effort to groom yourself and train yourself to be an Advisor worthy of praise and respect from your students and your colleagues.

This shit is already hard, don’t make it harder than it should be.

No summer for you!.. well, not really

Woohoo!!! Summer!!!! NOPE! So, what’s summer like when you’re working on your Ph.D? Yes, school kids have a lovely vacation during the summer months, but we are no longer kids. We work in education and research, but long gone are summer vacations.

During the summer, most Ph.D’s are doing two or more of the following:

  1. Writing/ working on papers
  2. Reading
  3. Attending conferences
  4. Working on experiments/ projects
  5. Fieldwork/ Research
  6. Writing grant proposals
  7. Taking a break when they can
  8. Spending more time with family
  9. Drinking
  10. Netflix, TV, etc.
  11. Doing some exciting shit!

During the summer months, a Ph.D. can get a lot of work done. You have no classes or teaching assignments and you can really get the mental space you need to focus, think, dream, and actually work. The weather is lovely and being inside sucks, but if you get the opportunity, you can work (write) outside. That’s what I love about the Ph.D., as long as I am not required to be in my lab, I can take my work anywhere with me.

During the summer months (June/ July/ August), most conferences take place. So time will be spent either fleshing out that long abstract that you submitted weeks or months ago. Oh yes, months ago, so you now have to figure out, “What the fuck did I write?” While cursing your way through responding to the reviewers, you will absolutely enjoy spending time with your thoughts and submitting a great paper to that conference. If the conference is in  a beautiful location – which most of them are – that too will motivate you to getting that shit done.

You may be using your summer to travel to your sites for fieldwork and data collection. For those whose sites are in other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, this means that the latter part of your Spring semester will involve packing and preparing for your trip. This can add some anxiety to your Spring semester. Bear that in mind. Pack all the shit you need, and most importantly, get your IRB approval done early – I will talk about this in another post.

Whether you are doing fieldwork on-site or working in your office, make time to do some exciting shit during the summer. I believe everyone should come back from the summer break with at least one great story! Make it happen! The Ph.D. is a very lonely process – I will write about this later too – so spend all the time you can with your family and friends. You need it. You may not think that you do, but you do, you need it. Use the time to find yourself again and attend to your health (mentally, physically, emotionally).

Enjoy your summer! Get work done, go to that conference in that awesome location, enjoy the outdoors, and spend time with those you love. Your summer will be fantastic!

Link to one of my favorite academic books – Becoming an Academic Writer by Patricia Goodson

For all intents and purposes

I read an article yesterday, and it had me thinking a lot. It had me thinking about Plan B’s and C’s should this Ph.D. thing not work out. When I say “not work out,” I mean, should I wake up one day and decide, “Fuck this shit!”, or decide that I no longer want to be in academia, that I still have something else that I can go to, that I enjoy, that I can make a living from.

In this blog I attempt to document and reflect on my journey through the Ph.D. process. I will share my ups, downs, and the fucking bullshit that comes along with it. I will share the realizations I have had, and the lessons I have learned. I will be as honest as I can.

Here is a link to the article >>>