Grad school angst

17 Dec

I had a draft of this post but then a woman posted a thing on her blog that blows this out of the water so please read her post.  She exploded on the math scene a few weeks ago with her incredible amazing readable Ph.D. thesis which is my new goal in life and I think this is an achievable goal.  Here’s a short post about that amazing incredible thesis.

To encourage you to read that thesis (please do read it, no matter what level of math you are especially if you are math-phobic), here is an excerpt:

I like to imagine abstraction (abstractly ha ha ha) as pulling the strings on a marionette. The marionette, being “real life,” is easily accessible. Everyone understands the marionette whether it’s walking or dancing or fighting. We can see it and it makes sense. But watch instead the hands of the puppeteers. Can you look at the hand movements of the puppeteers and know what the marionette is doing? A puppeteer walks up to you and says “I’m really excited about figuring out Fermat’s Last Thumb Bend!” You say, “huh?” The puppeteer responds, “Oh, well, it’s simply a matter of realizing that the main thumb joint has several properties that distinguish it from…” You’re already starting to fantasize about the Zombie Apocalypse.

Don’t you want to read it now?  And also be the author’s best friend?  That’s my reaction anyway.  If the thesis is too long, at least read the first post linked, here’s a quote.  This has been shared by so many of my Facebook friends and in my math communities and the post clearly struck a chord.

My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent.

Anyways, here’s my original post that I drafted some time ago.  Though I might add that after I was mildly eviscerated by some professors during the question part after a talk I gave (so I’m still up at board and audience is still sitting and there were like 30 people at least there), one student came up to me and said “don’t let the haters get to you.”  It’s the best thing anyone has ever said to me after a talk, and now we’re friends, and maybe it’s a coincidence and maybe it’s not that he’s black (I can count on one hand the number of black male mathematicians I’ve interacted with, and I only know black female mathematicians from that awesome EDGE program).

I think all graduate students feel inadequate at some points, and also isolated in that feeling, which leads to imposter syndrome [this is a really good link].  A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a prominent mathematician (A) who said that all us women at UT looked happy, and in contrast she remembered grad school being extremely difficult.  Another professor remembered that when they were in grad school, A had seemed happy too.  We all look and seem fine, but we aren’t constantly happy, and that’s okay, especially if we recognize that we aren’t isolated in this sadness.

Anyways, me time!  We’ve got a paper from that awesome summer research program in the galleys, and I’ve written a zeroth, error-ridden draft of a project that I’ve been working on for just under a year.  My blog is 3 and I occasionally get compliments on it, my baby is 1 and I often get compliments on him, and I’m finally sleeping through almost every night.  My brain is back from its pregnancy/new baby/sleep-deprived state, my spouse is incredibly supportive and also supports us financially, so I have much less to worry about than many people.  I have my health.  I enjoy tremendous privilege.  And look at this bibimbap I made for dinner!


I included all that awesomeness to highlight how, even when life is going great and so Instagrammable, you can still feel crappy.  We just have one life so it’s hard to compare with others.  For instance, by the time she was my age, my mom had left her country on a boat and with it everything she’d ever had or known, and stayed in a Korean refugee camp for months, and moved to freezing Minnesota from tropical Vietnam, and worked every possible job, and had a two year old and a husband and had built a life despite having a stroke shortly after coming here.  My mom’s a tough cookie.  I hope someday my kid can say that about me, because right now I feel more like a soft but also inexplicably burnt piece of dough.

What are the anxieties plaguing me?  Oh, the usual, which I’m sure lots of grad students feel sometimes:

  • I’m not good enough at math.  I’ll never be smart enough/fast enough/good enough to solve real problems.
  • Nobody cares about my research; it’s trivial and stupid.  And when I do figure out things they are trivial and stupid, and I’d spent months following the stupid path and not seeing the trivial conclusion.
  • I’ll never finish.  Everything will always be wrong, and when I do write things down see bullet points 1 and 2.
  • I’m a bad person.  I should be contributing to society and doing good instead of sitting all day banging my head against the chalkboard.
  • I don’t deserve x,y,z (fill in with your favorites, my go-tos are my supportive husband, sympathy and slack because I have a baby, a day off because I don’t get anything done on my days on)

Anyways, I’m feeling better nowadays.  When I started grad school, a professor told me “Don’t let your highs get too high or your lows get too low,” which is good advice.  My favorite grad school advice: “Swim in your own lane.”  That sort of deals with almost all the anxieties in five words.  But I’m not trying to offer solutions to those anxieties, just that they exist and I feel them sometimes and maybe so do you, and that’s okay.  Even mathematicians are mere mortals.

Here’s a hilarious picture of my sweet baby to wrap up this post!



6 Responses to “Grad school angst”

  1. Piper December 17, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    thanks!!! also, email me already! 🙂 gmail account same name as my site.

  2. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen December 17, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

    I feel like I feel bullet points 2 and 4 basically all the time. #2 especially seems kind of insurmountable, since there’s no objective measure of interestingness, and conversations with non-mathematicians and undergrads usually leave me seriously doubting the relevance of anything I think about.

    I know you aren’t pretending to offer solutions, but I’d be interested to hear you expound on how you deal with that particular anxiety. I’m not sure I understand how “swim in your own lane” applies.

  3. bf December 19, 2015 at 5:27 am #

    As a mathematician nearing fifty, I can tell you all the angst, in all the bullet points you mention, never fully goes away; in fact in some respect it worsens as you’re given increasing responsibility. And if you want to get published, you still have to write in terse, cryptic lines.

    On the other hand, now we can write our own version of any paper and publish it online, in our words; plus, if you’re lucky like I have been, you develop a network which I like to think as my village of colleagues-friends who help and support each other across generations, cultures, and continents, within mathematics and out of it. And yet again, modern technology helps keep up contact between those who are physically apart.

  4. Sam Hang Tran December 23, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

    Thank you for the post, it helps me to understand more how my bf has been through since he started his PhD 🙂

  5. Sam Hang Tran December 23, 2015 at 1:32 pm #

    I have forwarded this post to a few friends who are doing PhD in Maths too 🙂 I don’t know if this might sound naive: remember why you started, as long as you enjoy parts of it, then it’s not too bad, no? I find this useful now and then… *hug* I’m back in Vietnam after 5 straight years btw, let me know if you’re ever around 🙂


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