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Warning Signs: Introduction

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

Once again, I am going off in a different direction here, just so that I don't fizzle out and get tired from posting on the same topic numerous times over. Without further ado, welcome to Warning Signs!

One of the commonly unfortunate pitfalls of entering a graduate program is either the lack of options for the student, or the lack of research done by the student, even when options are plentiful. While I am not completely done with the "Being Heard" module that I started, I wanted to expand and introduce a couple of topics in this module.

If you ask any seasoned veteran that had to survive a graduate program, they will tell you that your list of priorities should be first and foremost the mentor themselves. Will they support you? Will they develop you? Will they challenge you? Will they nurture you? Or will they do all of the complete opposite? We don't want a faculty mentor that will make our lives miserable and/or throw us under the bus at their earliest convenience. However, finding a mentor that is a good, healthy fit for us is easier said than done. Sometimes, as the saying goes, "beggars can't be choosers". Small institutions (like the one I did my PhD work in) have pros and cons, with quality of choices being one of the big ones. Sometimes, depending on where you end up doing your research, you have to make a difficult choice of either settling for whoever has enough funding to take you, or not starting your PhD program at all.

Sometimes, we have to swallow our pride. If it looks and acts like a duck, it probably is.

While I would ideally like everyone to have a fair shake at developing themselves professionally, and earning the prestigious title of "doctor", the reality is, if the puzzle piece doesn't fit in the hole, you can't force it to fit. Most likely, what tends to happen when we try doing this is that we end up either damaging the puzzle piece itself, or the rest of the pieces surrounding it. The worst part is, the piece still doesn't fit! Even if you manage to jam it in there between the gaps, the piece was likely in the wrong place to begin with. You will end up with a picture that doesn't look like the original you were going for.

The purpose of this module is therefore to try to inform the reader when they are either blindly trudging themselves into a trap, or being to stubborn to admit that they got a raw deal. As I mentioned at the start of this article, the mentor you end up with during your 4-5 years as a PhD student is absolutely essential. If you can help it, you don't want to have to deal with 5 years of manipulative, emotional abuse. You also don't want to deal with a highly ambitious project that has a poorly structured hypothesis and nothing to stand on. You don't want to work for a "visionary". You want to find a mentor who thinks rationally, and secures funding for reasonable, realistic projects. You want a mentor that you can discuss your project's issues with, and who will try to help you work through them, not belittle or badger you. While it can certainly be frustrating to go through the whole PhD application and interview process only to have to quit at the beginning of the program, it will save you a lot of unnecessary fatigue, and emotional distress years down the line, when you're still stuck on a dead-end project with no light at the end of the tunnel.

I went on and on about the mentor, but where should the rest of your priorities lie after that? We will summarize as follows:

  1. Family - your family is your first line of support.

  2. Mental health - sacrificing your mental health isn't worth it. It leads to fatigue, burn-out, and even affects your physical health!

  3. Physical health - this is close behind mental health. Don't force yourself to come in and work if you are sick, injured, or need rest.

  4. Mentor - I cannot emphasize this enough! A mentor will make or break you. Don't pick a bad one!

  5. Committee - a good committee will remain unbiased and help you out when your PI is being too aggressive.

  6. Project - Is it reasonable/realistic? Does it interest you at all? We will discuss more in a later post.

  7. Field of study - Note that this is the one you have the most personal control over, and it's one of the lowest among the recommended list of priorities.

  8. Institution - This should be lowest on your list of priorities. Who cares if you got into Harvard, if you're absolutely miserable and you're stuck with an overly ambitious project, a malicious, backstabbing "mentor", and no family to support you? There will be other opportunities to go to Harvard later on in your career, such as during your post-doc. Bad mentors are in modest institutions, as well as world-class ones. Choose wisely.

Notice how I listed family and self above everything else related to your PhD program. If you fail to take care of yourself during your 4-7 years in the program, you'll quickly burn out, start taking longer breaks, start spacing out more, and maybe even lose your family or health. No matter how important your principal investigator (PI) thinks their research is, you need to make your family and yourself a priority from day 1 in the program. You can't compromise on this. Get a psychologist/psychiatrist if you have to. Get therapy. Whatever you do, don't neglect your personal life. It's not worth it!! If your PI can't understand this, they're not worth your time. Trust me.

And with that, we will end our introduction to warning signs. I think this topic should be interesting to anyone who has been following me so far, so hopefully that is indeed the case. As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to contribute at all! Enjoy the rest of your day!

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