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 exactly 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://www.nataliabielczyk.com/blog/2018/10/6/so-close-yet-so-far-a-postcard-from-kilimanjaro). I am making this last effort in order 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 backup each other, and disrespect the rest of their environment. Well, one might think ‘this depends on the environment, you might consider to change it and start over’. But the second reason is much deeper: as human kind, we are much earlier in the process of understanding of 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 really 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 in 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 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, in the beginnings of my PhD, I was so eager to do the project that I could wake up at 4am, 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 in order 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 own 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 any forward - everything else, from other research projects, through looking for jobs, setting companies, cleaning, cooking, dating, to traveling, 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 really dark. I should be ecstatic but instead, I feel quite exhausted and I am looking forward to have 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 definite ‘no’ to science? Not at all. My brain needs a little break from brain science right now, that for sure. And a break from this current academic system. For now, I need more of personal freedom to choose topics I find important, and less of enforced projects dictated by grants. More of 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 the whole new range of academic achievements in some time from now.
So, shall we?