2012-03-08

Mutiny of the Heart

My heart (soul, emotional being, whatever) has come to the conclusion that no matter how hard I work, my success is dependent on my adviser. Since most of my interactions with my adviser have not been "emotionally positive", my heart has stopped being supportive of the effort necessary to finish. In fact, I believe my emotional self is actively trying to sabotage my effort to finish.

My experience with my research proposal defense provides evidence to support this conclusion. My adviser insisted that my research proposal be three complete chapters (approximated 60 pages total but 3+ drafts per chapter). Other advisers in the department only expect 10 pages. My heart went along with that - accepting some significant personal sacrifices along the way (like giving up my position as chair of the FOSS4G 2011 Organizing Committee). Because my committee wanted significant changes, I had to rewrite those 60 pages. I've managed to slog through that rewrite and add another chapter but have stalled.

I have worked very hard on large, complex intellectual projects before. Over the years, I have helped ship about a half dozen commercial software projects. I have worked 120+ hours a week for months on end. I have learned to gauge the arc of effort necessary to deliver software on a schedule. The difference is that in delivering software, I was able to provide input on what was possible in the given time frame. I knew that my effort was finite. Milestones were celebrated joyously. Shipping the software provided enormous release.

With my dissertation, the level of effort expected feels infinite. Milestones are celebrated with emotional attacks from my adviser. Now my adviser has decided that she will not let me file for an extension beyond the six years the Graduate School normally allows for a PhD. My heart has decided: "Why bother working hard? We get the release at the end of six years. And success is still dependent on that one person's opinion who has given no real evidence of support."

Intellectually, I know exactly what needs to be done to finish writing the dissertation. Intellectually, I know that my adviser, in her own special way, believes she is supporting me. Intellectually, I know that earning my PhD will be a great achievement.

But my mind cannot do this without the support of my heart.

How can I get my heart back in the project?

One way I am exploring is by deciding "I want to finish my dissertation for myself. It's a valuable piece of work. Even if I do not get a PhD, I will have that piece of work to show for my effort. I will know I have made a contribution."

Another way has been to start exploring what it would mean not to finish my PhD - to fail. I am a big proponent of risk taking. I believe that you often learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Not finishing my PhD means I won't be qualified for certain types of jobs. After a little introspection, I realized that I do not want those jobs!

I am a risk taker.
I like to work hard at projects with clear goals.
I like to build things and see those things be used.

None of these traits are supported in academic jobs. Sure, a tenured faculty member has some room to take risks but even then, scientific knowledge tends to be very incremental. Proposing radical new ideas does not result in grants or publications. The goal of academics seems clear enough: publications based on original research effort. But publications are accepted only through a process of review that is rife with politics. And academics are specifically encouraged not to build things. Instead, you are support to be developing core theory.

Another career path that the PhD is almost requisite is working as a civil servant in the US Geological Survey. I have been trying this career path for almost four years. I can tell you that this is the most risk-averse environment I've ever experienced. Projects goals appear to be clear but shift dramatically with the political climate. And despite a great history of building cool stuff, the USGS, like most of the federal government, focuses on picking and choosing from the commercial solutions currently in political favor.

In fact, the job the USGS is lining up for me when I finish my PhD is managing a group of contract software developers modifying the Palenterra viewer, originally developed by ESRI for NGA. Interestingly, I can only have this job if I successfully finish my PhD. Who requires a PhD for a software project manager position? I was one step away from project manager in the 1990s before I even finished my BS.

A PhD really only qualifies me for jobs I don't want. I don't need the PhD (other than to say I climbed that mountain). In fact, I may be better off without it...

But I still want to finish the project I started. I want to see some benefit come from the work I have put in. I am about 75% of the way through. Maybe I can get my heart back in it if I can convince myself that I am only finishing the dissertation for my own selfish reasons.

4 comments:

Sean Leather said...

Does your proposal become part of your thesis? In other words, it is longer than normal, but the work is not wasted?

I think developing software is, in general, quite different from doing research, even if that research involves software development. The goals are radically different.

For my position, there is an amount of risk in going doing one research path, because I don't know if it will turn into something publishable until I have traveled that path quite a ways. This is quite different from the risk in producing a product and hoping people will use/buy it. The two audiences expect different things.

What is your adviser's response to your concerns? What do other professors in the department think? Can you get a third party to provide you with some influence?

Good luck with your re-evaluation. I know how difficult these decisions can be, considering I'm on my own second attempt at the PhD.

Eric Wolf said...

My adviser's plan was that the proposal would become the first 3/5ths of the dissertation. But that assumes the committee wouldn't expect too many changes. In practice, my adviser discouraged me from seeking input from my committee members as I wrote the proposal. The defense was the first change they had to comment. The changes were substantial. In fact, my adviser had to argue vehemently to prevent them from failing my proposal completely.

I would say the biggest risk in research is that publishing failed results is not considered acceptable. Research would be infinitely more interesting if you could get credit for writing up the lessons learned from failure rather than trying to frame everything as a success.

The result is that most academic research does not stray too far away from the existing body of knowledge. If you do, you have to be independently funded and even then are considered a nut-job.

Look at Stephen Wolfram. I've argued with my undergrad math professors that Wolfram is one of the greatest mathematicians of our time. My professors, even the open minded ones, completely dismissed his work. They didn't even consider him a mathematician, much less a great one.

In my field, GIScience, the theoretical people are having to constantly defend the field especially to "real" Geographers. Maybe that's why they make greater efforts to avoid building tools.

Unfortunately, my adviser has little empathy for me. And she even discouraged me from attending the university's group counseling services for dissertation writers.

I didn't realize you were in your second attempt at the PhD...

Sean Leather said...

I went to the University of Texas at Austin for the PhD. Due to various reasons, I decided I didn't want to continue there. So, I graduated with a master's, no thesis.

I hope you can figure it all out. Good luck!

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