My Past and New Journeys

Since I finished my qualifying examination on Tuesday, I have been thinking about what my ensuing journey as a PhD candidate should be like, or rather, what my new journey should be like.

Nothing external to myself is going to change in future. I’m still going to stay at the same lab, work with the same group and follow the same advisor. I am not even going to change where I sleep. I call it a new journey however, not because of any change in my environment, but for my own resolution to create a new future self that’s different from my past self, as I have found plenty of problems in the past three semesters (especially in the past half year spent on my first research project) within myself and am determined to get rid of them.

My Past Journey

My advisor as well as other collaborators all congratulated me with encouraging words for completing my first research project, but to be honest, it really wasn’t terribly pleasant. The evening I submitted the paper I couldn’t have felt a more thorough relief, and in the following few days I almost tried hard to wipe its memory out of my mind. Even now it still takes me much courage to even think of it.

The problems were manifold, but I’m convinced that the biggest was a mental one. There just seemed to be endless melancholy in me. I easily felt sad for reasons of all sorts: getting stuck at a weird implementation issue for days, doing horribly in a presentation, feeling not efficient enough, etc. This usually started a chain of effects, even ending up with a vicious cycle: feeling bad further degraded my work efficiency, which in turn made me less confident and feel worse.

I could have jumped out of this vicious cycle, for example by taking a walk outside or doing some casual reading, but I didn’t. I just couldn’t stop blaming myself and worrying about the consequence once I started this vicious cycle. I had to rely on some milestone success instead to be rescued.

I also had the mentality of being quite reluctant to do whatever I was not fully convinced of. I spent time debating with my collaborators, but it was not unusual to find the debate futile and disappointing, when it failed to change anyone’s opinion. That was of course followed by me doing things against my own opinion, because after all I was deemed inexperienced and unable to conduct independent research, and therefore was also expected to do as my senior told. That was painful and I usually ended up spending more time doubting what I was doing than doing any actual work. This of course, would later make me feel that I was being inefficient, and thereby add to my mental stress and make the vicious cycle even more vicious.

Another thing that gave me a lot of pressure had to do with the composition of my team. To be fair, I have to say that I had a quite strong team: myself just an inexperienced PhD student of course, but in addition I had three collaborators at least of the level of assistant professorship. But that’s the point! Such a team ensured that I was the only one to do any coding or experiment work, or even to know the details of what we were doing; I was also made to have no real peer who shared the same situation as me and played the same role on this team to talk to. For quite a long period I was sceptical of my own work, doubting that I had been misunderstanding the ideas of my collaborators and therefore doing wrong things, but I had no one to share this doubt or to either confirm or remove my doubts.

Beyond the mental pressure, I also had problems in my research methodology. When I embarked on this project, I had little background knowledge in it. Although this was largely due to the sudden change of topic which rendered most of what I had read irrelevant, I am now convinced that I should not have proceeded straight to attempting an answer to the research question, for that not only made me doubt my work more at every step and made me feel bad for not being learning, but also robbed me of some good resources that I could have referenced and used. I failed to keep the habit of taking notes either. I set off maintaining a research log, but abandoned and forgot about it soon afterwards. The absence of a log exacerbated the impression that time was flying past and I had wasted all of it achieving very little, and in addition also made us unable to keep track of how our thoughts and implementation or experiment design had been changing, which would undoubtedly be quite helpful in our discussions.

Lifestyle was another important problem. The aforementioned vicious cycle ended up shaking my originally healthy lifestyle, which in turn became part of the vicious cycle itself, once I started going to bed later and later, skipping more and more meals and finding it harder and harder to concentrate for deprivation of sleep as well as food as a consequence.

A New Journey

I am determined to try my best to rid myself of those old problems that have haunted me in the past, and below are what I am planning to do next.

An easy and helpful start, I think, is to start fixing my damaged lifestyle, which would include avoiding skipping meals, going to bed and getting up on time, as well as doing workouts and chores on a regular basis. To be in good touch with people and have better chance for communication of all kinds, I will also make it my habit to go to the lab every weekday (which used to be my habit but was disrupted thanks to COVID-19). I believe communication will be greatly helpful for defending against gloomy feelings.

I will also start reading more papers and writing more about both my research progress and what I’ve learned. To assist this, I have set up a wiki site where I record things in a structured way. I have never maintained a wiki before and a lot of exploration might be necessary to figure out the way to best utilise it, but I believe it’s something rewarding to do.