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ever feel like you're wasting away your youth?


spectastic
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I'm sure some of you are in the same boat. I'm in my mid 20s, in a phd program, doing research with batteries. I'd say I'm good at what I do, and could argue that I could be excellent if I put forth more effort. But since starting out, I've become more jaded by the not so glamorous aspects of my field, the uncertainty that comes with what comes after the PhD, but most of all, the opportunity cost of what I could be doing with my time. I see other people my age with good jobs, starting to settle down with families, traveling the world, getting a vast amount of life experiences. It's really made me rethink about what success really means. Do I want to become a workaholic and get stuck in this routine for the next 4 years, or do I want to cross off some bucket list items, and be able to reflect upon my experience and say "yea, I've lived, my life was good."

Sometimes, when I come in to the office, I'd find myself thinking about the places I could be, things I could be doing, like improving my dating life (which I'm working on almost daily), doing a motorcycle trip across south america, back packing across europe with my close friends, meeting new people, doing crazy, epic things that I'd have never thought existed. You ever tell yourself you'd do something, but not now, because of life circumstances, and you'll do it some time later, only to realize that you never do, because life just keeps throwing shit on top of your priorities? that's what I'm afraid of. I'm sure it's possible to have a balance somehow. Curious to know what others think about this dilemma. 

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I felt like that when I got married young. Turns out, definitely shouldn't have married that guy.

It may just be a case of "the grass is always greener." People tend to want what they don't already have, but it does sound like you are making strides to attain what you want. You are working on your dating game and you are in a program that teaches you skills for a career. What jobs would you get if you stopped now? Would you have to completely start over in a new field? Could you live comfortably? If you're honest with yourself, will you be happy doing this? Not if you'll be happy taking trips, but if you'll be happy doing whatever job you'll get with your current experience. Could you potentially be happier following through with your doctorate?

It's ok not to know the answer and it's ok if the answer is not staying in your PhD. Since it is your first semester though, I suggest sticking it out a bit longer. Does your intended research schedule allow enough time off to go somewhere? There are some cheap trips that can be amazing if you can get a week off.

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It really depends on your age in this regards. I spent my entire high school just enjoying life (doing drugs and traveling). In college, I had a very limited budget, but still liked to make plans and travel on breaks (spring break go to a national park, winter break go skiing up north). I'm now in a gap year between my undergrad to PhD, and I plan on going on one final big bang trip (Fifa 2018 and backpacking Eastern Europe) from the money I gain working during this time (I'm planning to stupidly start my PhD program broke). Then, when my PhD starts, I probably won't do many travels just due to time and money reasons. I love traveling though, and I miss my high schools days of just free leisure traveling from jumping trains to literally just hitchhiking with strangers up North. However, having that PhD degree will help me to gain enough money to do the travels I truly want to do, without wasting years and years of my life (as I did in high school). It's also to each their own. Yes, adminstration/corporate jobs will always pay more. I have a friend climbing the corporate ladder, and they are already making more than what I will even with my PhD, but I don't enjoy the corporate world. I want to go into pharmaceutical sciences. There are people I know who have families right now, but I don't want a family, I want to enjoy my youth a little more. 

Honestly, the way I look at it, it comes down to you. When I was in my undergrad, my budget was slim (living monthly). However, I decided to get a big group of buddies together, and drove up to a place called Yosemite for spring break camping. It was an amazing experience and I loved it. The whole trip cost me less than $100 up there (and that included food, gas, and all the alcohol we bought). If you are unhappy with your life and want some change, than make that change. If you realized the field you're in isn't what you want to do, then leave. If you like your field but aren't happy with your personal life, then try to change your personal life. Now of course you can't go on extravagent trips to Europe or anything, but a simple 2 or 3 day trip or even a week road trip can be very cheap, especially if you split it amongst a group. Its not even about traveling either. During my undergrad, I had a really tough semester, and sometimes I would just drive to the beach late at night on the weekend or something for a swim. Really helped me unwind and clear my mind. 

 

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One last thing. The way I define success is by happiness. If I am happy, then I am successful in life. There is no one path to it either. Success can be slowly working your way up a corporate ladder while raising a family alongside it. Success can be going for a PhD program and getting married and having a family afterwards. Success can be traveling the world broke doing odd jobs here and there. Success can be not getting married at all and just enjoying your life single forever. Success doesn't mean money, or titles, or even family. One of the most successful guys I knew was homeless. This guy loved to read, so much so, that he quit his job, sold his house and all his belongings, bought a tent, and moved to the woods. Every week he would come to the library by my house and check out a bunch of books and just read them all week. When he was done, he would come to the library, return the books, and check out some other books. He was one of the happiest guys I knew, pretty fit too (he loved to take long walks in the woods when he read). He was also pretty smart too i might add (he was the chief electrical engineer for a big company from my understanding). 

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I like to say I wasted my 20's to enjoy my 30's+. Just hit 30 this year, and gotta say it's working! I'm finally saving money for traveling, a family, and a house. This never would have been possible for me if I had a "live large" mentality in my 20's. But I went into work and grad school with the mantra "I'm doing this to afford a family in the quality of life I want us to raise them In."

Edited by _kita
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I just want to say that what you are feeling is commonly felt by many other grad students. I think the nature of a PhD research program makes these existential questions more prevalent. We're all doing very specific and niche research. It may be very interesting to us (at least at one point) and we may be very good at it, but ultimately, all of our hard work and effort and unless we're very lucky, we're not going to change the world. At the end of the degree, maybe a dozen people will really care about our results. Perhaps a few hundred may know about it and file it away in their minds.

At the same time, society and culture tells us that our 20s are supposed to be our "best" years where we do a lot of fun times before "settling down". I just turned 30 so I see these messages in TV shows etc. all the time. Grad school is like an apprenticeship, where we are generally underpaid compared to our abilities/work because we are getting a qualification/degree out of it. (Not saying this is a good thing---I strongly believe that people should be paid in proportion to their labour, and that grad students should be paid much better wages. But I'm just stating reality here). Comparing ourselves to our friends/acquaintances who aren't in trainee/apprenticeship programs will always suck, because it's comparing two different career paths. Apples and oranges.

So, I want to say that during my 7 years of grad school at two different programs, I've felt this way many times. I've met tons of other students that feel the same way at some point. I really think grad school emotions is a rollercoaster of feeling like we have the best job ever and questioning all of our life decisions that led to this point. I also want to say that out of all the examples of people feeling this doubt, there are two phases in grad school where this happens the most commonly. The first is during the student's first year. A lot of life changes has happened, usually, and sometimes grad school reality is not grad school expectations. The second is halfway through the program (the "mid-grad-school-life crisis"). Usually there is a little bit of a slump after quals/candidacy and before the dissertation/defense preparations begin in earnest. It's a point in your career where you might have finished some of the initial project goals you had at the start and now you start thinking "now what?". And it's a point where it's time to seriously consider your next steps beyond the PhD and it's normal to feel unqualified to think up your own projects, or to be apprehensive about the unknown.

Sorry that the above is not really advice on what to do, but rather just affirming that you're not alone in how you're feeling. It doesn't make you a bad academic or mean that you're not cut out for the academic world (not that you need to be either). But now I want to share some tips that help me (and others) manage these feelings of doubt/uncertainty and helped me get closer to my own career goals:

1. Find support in others. One good way is to talk to your grad school friends about your feelings. A post like this is a good idea. I read threads elsewhere on these forums where people say they're not in grad school to make friends, and I can get that. It's a work environment and you don't need to be BFFs with your cohort. But I personally found that conversations about grad school life with people actually in grad school have been the most helpful for me to process and manage these feelings. So, if you're not interested in being best friends with your colleagues, at least cultivate a relationship where you can act as each others support network. If humour helps you, there are plenty of blogs/comics/websites that chronicle the woes of being a grad student (just be mindful that you're not reading these things and spiraling further into self-doubt). Some of my favourites are PhD Comics, Lego Grad Student, and WHATSHOULDWECALLGRADSCHOOL.

2. Rediscover your passion. We all chose this path because at some point we were deeply interested in our work (whether it's the topic, or the idea of discovering new things or whatever). I find it really helpful to take a step back occasionally and remember what I love about the field. I very rarely read popular science articles or news stories or TV shows about space/astronomy/planets because it feels a lot like work. But it was these things that led to my love of the field in the first place. Sometimes it's helpful to revisit these things and read or watch something you wouldn't normally watch. Another way I find my passion is to talk to others who work on my specific subfield. I always get a huge surge of motivation and excitement after a conference. I find that continuing to engage with my colleagues on professional Facebook groups and Twitter keeps me connected to my subfield. This is especially important if your department doesn't have a ton of people in your area. Also, it's another way to build a support network. Finally, for me, I try to do a lot of public outreach. Talking to non-experts about my work forces me to examine the big picture, which gets me excited about the work again. And seeing/hearing the audience's excitement is very motivating. These things help me feel like I am actually doing something I enjoy, not being stuck in a routine.

3. Prioritize your non-work commitments. I don't want to prescribe a set number of hours because everyone has different work habits and preferences. But for me, I did not want to work more than 40-50 hours per week. If I worked 40 hours per week, my stipend would work out to a barely livable wage (definitely not in the city where my PhD school was though). So while that's part of the reason I set a limit on working hours for myself, the main reason is to avoid burnout. There is a lot of pressure in academia for academics, especially students, postdocs and pre-tenure profs to feel like they have to devote their whole life to work otherwise they were not worthy. At some level, this is indeed driven by competition: there are only so many permanent jobs available after all. But, you're not going to succeed if you're burnt out. So, I eagerly took on and carved out time in my schedule to do things I enjoy doing. It sounds like you are already doing some of this. It took me a few years to develop the courage (and wisdom) to say "no" to work related things in favour of my personal life, but when I did it, I felt a ton better about myself and my workload. I used to think that I needed a "good" excuse to say no to something or reschedule something, but I now realise that this meant I was prioritizing work above all else, which was not healthy for me. So, I do prioritize work during the work day, but if someone wants to meet with me at 5pm? I am happy to suggest the meeting happen the next day, or the next week. And I'm not afraid to say the reason is that "I want to go home and cook dinner so that I can watch X show" or "Sorry, I can't, I am playing tennis with my friend at 5:30pm" or whatever. To me, work should not trump the other parts of my life so I compartmentalize work commitments to business hours on working days. This also applies to taking vacation time and doing the things on my bucket list. Find out what the policies are at your school and plan to do some of the things you always wanted to do while in school. There is definitely some balance required of "living in the now" vs. "preparing for the future", but it's easy to just think you'll do something later. Taking the time to do something on your "later" list now can feel really good and help with motivation too.

4. Check in with yourself often. As I said, grad school is a roller coaster of emotions. My plan was that I would do grad school/academic career path for as long as I feel happy doing so. That is, for every "down" in the rollercoaster, there needs to be an "up". I told myself that if one day, the rollercoaster never goes back up, then I will know it's time to do something different. To me, this means that the grad school / academia journey isn't a decades long process before I get any stability. It's very daunting to think of it that way. Instead, I just take it one year at a time. If I'm still happy and I still see a path towards my eventual goals, I'll stay. At the same time, I try to take actions that will increase my ability to achieve my overall life goals where possible. For me, this means learning skills that are employable outside of academia, developing and making contacts with people in the geographic region I want to stay in etc. I suggest these things because I find that my friends who decided to devote 100% of their time and energy into research because they can't imagine any other life run into self-doubt / burnout more often. Each person has to find their own balance of how much to devote into their research career versus an alternative career, but I can't imagine 100% towards research is ever a good balance. Or, to put it another way, I find that my colleagues and friends who took time to diversify their skills and experience were able to leave academia and find happiness/success elsewhere when they reached the stage where they were no longer happy in the academic track. But my friends who didn't do this either became successful in academia through their achievements, or they seem to be very unhappy but stuck where they are. So, I think it's important to check in with yourself often, gauge how you feel and have an "escape plan" if this academia thing doesn't work out. For me, even just knowing there's a way out provides me with a lot of peace of mind and helps me manage self-doubt.

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I appreciate the feedback guys. I agree it's good to have a support group. I'm not particularly close with my cohort (we're co-workers/teammates, but I wouldn't consider them close friends or anything), but I do have other grad students in other labs/departments that I can see myself being buddies with. 

#3 really resonates with me. I feel like the expectation of grad school is for me to dedicate nearly all of my time and effort to it. but I see it differently. Sure, I'll put in my 40-50 hours (that's about my sweet spot too), but I also want to grow in other areas. For one, I've been in the real world, and developing a social circle outside school is an uphill battle. In that regard, being in grad school, having access to all these activities is actually a HUGE perk. In college, I missed out on a lot of opportunities to socialize and network. Now that I have all these resources once again at my disposal, I'm going to use it. It's not going to be my top focus, but I'll definitely try to be more opportunistic about it this time, compared to my last go around.

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1 hour ago, spectastic said:

#3 really resonates with me. I feel like the expectation of grad school is for me to dedicate nearly all of my time and effort to it. but I see it differently. Sure, I'll put in my 40-50 hours (that's about my sweet spot too), but I also want to grow in other areas. For one, I've been in the real world, and developing a social circle outside school is an uphill battle. In that regard, being in grad school, having access to all these activities is actually a HUGE perk. In college, I missed out on a lot of opportunities to socialize and network. Now that I have all these resources once again at my disposal, I'm going to use it. It's not going to be my top focus, but I'll definitely try to be more opportunistic about it this time, compared to my last go around.

For full disclosure, in my first year leading up to quals, it was more like 50-60 hours and in my final year applying for jobs it was also 50-60 hours. Unless you don't count time applying for jobs as work (my advisor and I did though, since the effort it takes to come up with new research proposals is still work and I'm working on the extension of those ideas now in my current postdoc position). But on average, of the most part, it was 40-50 hours per week!

In college, I was a commuter student (90 minutes each way, so 1.5 hours on the bus each day!) I barely had time for extra activities except for whatever I can fit in between my classes. I couldn't ever stay for evening events unless I made special arrangements (e.g. carpool) since the buses to my home stopped running around 6pm each day. During my PhD, I lived 5-15 minutes away at all times, which opened up a ton more things I could do. And there are things like gym membership included (wasn't part of my undergrad fees) and all sorts of clubs. Definitely felt much happier and fulfilled when I sought out these opportunities.

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I definitely did feel like I was wasting my youth in grad school - I started when I was 22 and finished right after I turned 28. Part of that was because I didn't have a good understanding of what it meant to be my 30s (meaning I thought, at the time, that 30 sounded impossibly old). Part of that was because my friends who didn't go to grad school were doing the same thing, especially all of my friends in our school's master's program who graduated when I was a second or third year and started having real work lives and more free time than me. In fact, some of my friends started after me and finished before me (I became friends with a different set of master's students in the beginning of my fourth year of grad school.

But part of that was me, and at the beginning of my fifth year I made the conscious decision to slow down, prioritize my non-work life and enjoy my twenties. Best decision I ever made - my fifth and sixth years of my doctoral program were way better for me, mentally, than any of the other years in grad school. I taught myself to bake; I started running; I deepened some friendships and made some new ones; I explored New York much more fully than I had since my first year in graduate school; I took a few trips with some friends. You have to pace yourself and remind yourself that you're a human, and this is your real life and the only shot you've got.

Now I'm 31, and most of the time I think the delayed gratification was worth it. My PhD led me to an excellent job I couldn't really have without it, and I love my job and my new city and the friends and lifestyle that I can afford now. The 20s are overrated; the 30s are really where it's at. That's not to say that you should ignore your comfort and happiness for the sake of your PhD (see above). In fact, I have mixed feelings about whether I would do it all over again, given the chance. There are some things that I regret not doing with my 20s - like taking a few years off before graduate school to live abroad, maybe on a Fulbright or something.

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