My Time in Grad School & Realistic Goals

So I’ve been in grad school for computer science a little bit on and off for five years. I was thinking about this because in this month of trying to clear out a back log of half-or-mostly finished work I’m going back to notes I made almost three years ago. I’m reviewing as many of my old ideas and notes as I can, modulo the fact that I have sometimes destroyed my own work in a fit of self-destructive behavior.

I have to say, it hurts like hell. Partly because I’m feeling the weight of the time that’s passed with me making, on paper at least, so little progress. I really have only recently started being honest about how much being sexually assaulted again two years ago messed me up. It reopened a lot of wounds and made me more unstable than I had been in a long time. Of course, as I’ve mentioned before my research group’s entirely helpful response was to threaten to kick me off of their grant because I was such a mess. This being made even more amusing in that we were very much under budget because enough grad students had already quit by this point and that another student had been allowed to take nine years to finish his PhD while never even communicating with the team or showing up to meetings and he was still getting paid. I think the combination of what happened and the lack of support I had helped slow down my crawl back up to functionality.

The other reason why looking back at all these old notes hurts is that there’s chunks of them I just don’t remember writing. Entire threads of ideas that I literally have no memory of developing. This isn’t just being forgetful, unfortunately, but rather it’s an expression of my mental disability. I pretty regularly lose time, though less intensely than I used to. It’s minutes or hours or days now. In contrast, there’s a four month span of undergrad that I have no memory of and I was acutely aware shortly after this period that I had no recollection of any of it. Strangely, though, I got all As. I literally have no idea how that was possible.

Losing time is just one of the many ways I feel like my brain is working against me and it’s just so frustrating to see all these ideas and pieces of research threads that I’ve tried and then forgotten it all so thoroughly that I haven’t even known that there was anything to search my notes for as ideas.

So looking at my old notes is making me think a lot about how long everything is taking and how hard I have to work to get around my mental disability, but what does this mean for the expectations I should be setting for myself? The average U.S. PhD in CS is roughly 7 years and the average PhD in math, which is probably a better comparison in some ways, is 8 years according to numbers I saw fairly recently. I think it’s safe to say that those numbers probably reflect the experience of people without mental illnesses. So what then should I judge myself by? I feel guilty and pathetic that grad school is taking as long as it is, but what’s a realistic goal given the severe mental illness, the sexual harassment in my old group, and the recovery time after the assault? This is an honest question, because I don’t know what the answer should be. Half of me thinks that the answer is \infty years because I’m not cut out for being a researcher, but the other half isn’t so ready to give up. I’ll admit that, when it comes to myself, I’ve massively internalized the lessons related to invisible disability: that any deviation from the capabilities of the most able-bodied individual is my personal failing and a revelation of my utter laziness and lack of good character.

I once ranted about these feelings to my therapist and she assured me that I was doing well for just how severe my mental illness is, to which I had to admit that I had no reference point because I didn’t really know anyone else who was working on their PhD and was as ill. I’ll never forget her response: “Clarissa, why do you think that is?” Well I’ve to come to the conclusion that there’s a couple of reasons why that is. The first is that there just aren’t that many of us who are privileged and lucky enough to have the opportunity to try and the second is that those of us who are trying to make a go of academia aren’t necessarily open about being as mentally ill as we are.

So I don’t know what realistic goals for myself would look like. I don’t know what’s “typical” for someone like me trying to work in academia. I really want to know, though, and I want to be able to compare notes with other people who are mentally ill like I am. I want to talk to other people so that maybe, just maybe, I can learn to forgive my own limitations and stop hating myself for them.

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2 thoughts on “My Time in Grad School & Realistic Goals

  1. So sorry to hear about two years ago. That sucks.

    Yeah, it’s hard to get any sort of idea on how long it “should” take— even without bringing MI into it. Let alone a major incident like sexual assault. I can share my data point if you’d like— the overall timeline is public record, but the MI-specific aspects are prolly best reserved for email or the like. I forget whether you have my email yet or no; if not, just DM me on twitter or something, and I’ll send it.

    As far as other academics with MI, I know a handful of us. It’s very much the sort of thing that’s disparaged and hidden away, so very few are out about it. But rest assured, there are more of us than it seems (granted, most have less severe issues). And, of course, there’s the privilege issue crossed with the lifetime costs of MI. After undergrad I spent a couple years in poverty on the verge of homelessness, and yet somehow managed to avert that fate and get into gradschool at the last possible moment. Had things gone just a bit differently, I wouldn’t be here to be included among “us”.

    It doesn’t have anything to say about MI, but back when I started gradschool I found Robert Peter’s Getting What You Came For (2ed) really helpful for *honest* advice about doing gradschool, how that fits into your career, etc. Not sure whether it’d be helpful for where you’re at now, or not, but it might be something to check out.

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