Fear is Not an Acceptable Excuse

Diving Board
Credit: flickr / Brian Auer

In the aftermath of my decision to quit grad school, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and seeking out advice.

I called Julie from Escape the Ivory Tower, and we talked about whether it was possible to write a thesis alone, and my fear that if I switched schools I would just fail again, because the problem is, in fact, me. I think you should always look to yourself before blaming others, and I remain unconvinced that I am not the problem.

At the conference, I got talking to another uOttawa prof, who tells me he hears so many nightmare stories from students that he’s contemplating starting a blog about it – I hope he does! He also told me a couple of useful things. Firstly, the only way to get the incompetent CS grad studies receptionist to respond is for professor and student to go there in person. Secondly, it’s not “hard” to graduate without a supervisor. It’s impossible. Your supervisor has to sign off on your thesis, and get two other profs (one at UO and one at Carleton) to do the same.

He asked me some questions, like why did I publish (it’s the done thing/people tell me to), did I enjoy going to conferences (it’s fine, but I met at least as many cool smart people working for two days from the London office as at this one), and did I really, really, want to be a grad student (no).

I can fight with bureaucracy to get reinstated  – and navigating bureaucracy is not a skill I possess. I can then fight to either get my supervisor to let me transfer to someone else (yes, the view of the university is that I am his possession to give away), or try and get him to sign off on a thesis and convince two other people to do the same – this seems improbable given that he a) doesn’t know what I’m working on and b) told me it was worthless, but my office mate thinks he might.

Or I can use my energy elsewhere. To reclaim my life, to create things for the sake of it, to be a good software engineer and throw myself into a job at a company that has already changed the world, and that I think will continue to do so.

You can probably figure out which one I’m choosing.

I’ve been reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Non-Conformity (Amazon). Interesting book. I’m probably not as unconventional as him, but I have lead an at-times somewhat unusual existence. So I don’t check that box? It’s OK. It doesn’t define my worth as a human being.

But – one last paper. I’d been working on it, had an idea for it, but just not making progress. The abstract deadline is looming. I don’t know if I can do it.

And there’s a bunch of reasons that might explain why – insane travel, new job, other things to write, being so ill over xmas, lack of direction.

The truth though, came out when my boyfriend suggested I repackaged my conference talk as a tech talk, when I’d just got off an all-night flight and was too exhausted to present any other reason.

I don’t think what I’ve done is really that interesting or worthwhile.

I could add, “to other people” but maybe I’ve been doubting myself for so long that it seems that way to me as well.

Nearly a year ago, my supervisor told me my work was worthless – specifically I think the words were – “makes no contribution”. Anyone I’ve spoken to has been horrified by that – not a good thing to say to a student, not motivating, not true, whatever. However, for all I talk about “the surest way to mediocrity is trying to be liked by everyone” I’ve clearly believed it enough to let it hold me back.

And I look at the situation I find myself in – not graduating, feeling frustrated, let down and ripped off by uOttawa – and I’m honest with myself, I haven’t asked for what I needed, I haven’t pushed for any alternative, a different supervisor, or a different school, I’ve just said, “OK, if that’s what you think… I’ll just be over here quietly getting on with things”.

So – I haven’t written that paper. Because it’s easy to rationalize being rejected when it was rushed because you’d been travelling like a madwoman and were working full time. It’s easy not to put my everything into it because I don’t really believe in what I’m doing anymore. It’s best not to not get too attached to it. To fail – before I even start – because I didn’t really even try.

The abstract is due tomorrow. The paper is due in 8 days. My plane lands in 4 hours and 51 minutes.

So, I’m telling myself,

Do it, or don’t do it – don’t “try“.

8 thoughts on “Fear is Not an Acceptable Excuse

  1. It’s true that there is no way you can finish a thesis or get through a program without an advisor, or at least one who is on your side. I struggle with this in some ways because I had no guidance on my thesis and it took me two years and in the end the program director said it was too much to tackle for one person. At some point we have to do what is best for us and I think you are absolutely doing that. I really feel for you right now. I also admire you and am cheering you on from this side of the world. <3

    1. I had expericenced the same situation like you for my graduate thesis. I finally got it done tho but honestly i think it does not worth struggling that much for doing what you do not like. Cate, i think i made a good decision, a thump up from me!!!

  2. I have this funny philosophy about life – it is somewhat of a religion, or at least a way of being, that seems to work for me. I believe that in order to achieve the most important things in life, these things should take a tremendous amount of hard work, but it is work that my body naturally craves doing. There isn’t that mental torture going on as to whether or not it is the right thing to do.

    If and when I start to feel mental torture, I take a deep look at that thing and question whether or not it is still as meaningful and important as I once deemed it to be, or if it has been replaced by more important (and often more evolved) things come to take its place. And if I discover this to be true, I then come up with a plan of how I can let go of this thing that was once important, a plan that helps me be OK with it.

    If you take a look at big moments in your life other than the dissertation, what is your pattern?

    1. In the summer at IBM, I would come home from work and create the future of the news visualizations, or study for interviews. And that was fine, because it was fun. Could I – in theory – come home from work and write a thesis? Sure. But I won’t, because as you say it isn’t something I crave doing. Either I’ll do the projects that get me excited, or I won’t do anything at all. Neither of these gets a thesis written, and the second – worse case – means nothing gets done at all.

      I get a reasonable amount done in my free time, but I don’t really get stuff done that I hate doing. Which is I guess exactly what you’re saying? Only I didn’t draw up a plan – that is probably good advice.

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