We're a little crazy, about science!

A new school year

Well today marks the start of year three for the 365 days of academia project! It also means I’m now a fourth year PhD candidate. Since we’re going into another year I think today I’ll revisit why I started this project in the first place and basically just give everyone a reminder about what keeps me going. That way I can talk about all the anxious feelings I have heading into the new year and how I feel like I’m nowhere near where I should be.

Summer isn’t quite over just yet, but it’s close. There are only a few more days between now and the start of the school term. It’s more of a formality than anything since now that I’m on year four of my PhD I’ve taken more than enough classes to fulfill my degree requirements. That’s right, from here on out it’s all research, all the time. Which also made it a perfect time to take the leap to research full-time in my Co-PI’s lab (here). Even though he may be leaving soon… (uh oh). This year promises to be full of interesting work and exciting discoveries. I love research and the fact that for a small moment in time you get to know something no one else knows. You’ve figured out a tiny magic trick the universe performs. It feels good and I cannot wait to see what happens. Of course, life could get messy with my Co-PI situation, but one thing at a time.

Okay, so I promised to explain the 365 days of academia project again. I haven’t talked about the motivation for the project since it started and frankly it’s evolved over the past two years so maybe my motivations for continuing are the same as when I started. Like with most things in my life, this project was borne from failure. It was the end of the first year of my PhD and I did not pass my qualifying exam the first time around. It ended up working out for the best and I nailed it the second time. I had come into the lab thinking that I could do my PhD at lighting pace, I wanted to get in and get out, I’m an old man compared to people who go right into college from high school. I had almost a decade of life under my belt before I jumped into college.

It was a tough lesson to learn and it was taught to me the hardest way possible. Not only did I fail spectacularly, I failed publicly. I had invited everyone to my defense and the room was packed. Everyone wanted to see what I could do and it was incredibly underwhelming. My main PI later said that he wanted to see what I could do without his help so he was very hands off. I’m still angry about that, but I took that anger and I used it. I channeled it into this and the 365 days of academia project was created (The first post before I officially kicked it off is here).

Originally the goal was a digital notebook. A way to write down all the things I’ve learned and continue to learn. Notes to my future self so that I would never forget something I was taught. The more the project went on the more I wrote about my feelings and life, my failures and successes. It’s become more of a journal than a lab notebook and at first I was upset that I let that happen, but I think it’s for the best. I’ve had the chance to talk about deeply personal things and just be open about the struggles of life and how those things affect my education.

I still teach and make notes about the things I learn here, but I think the whole project has become more accessible. Not everyone wants to learn about the spinal cord (but if you do…) and that’s okay. Talking about my life gives people a chance to connect with me through their own similar struggles and frustrations. I’ve had the chance to connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to connect with. I still get the occasional thank you emails for my educational sections of the blog (not linking to all of them, but if you want to learn more check out the categories), but it’s nice to connect with others outside of the academic/teaching side.

Originally the project was just a year long. I wasn’t planning on continuing, but here we are on year three and I’m also glad I decided to keep going. Blogging everyday is work, even just posts like this can take me an hour or two (mostly because I take breaks). It’s nice to create something though, so I keep going and when I’m finished with my degree I will have an archive of the journey. I don’t know what will happen after that, but for now I still have two more years so let’s just get through that first!

Speaking of which (see how I did that?) I have two years to my expected graduation. It’s not set in stone, it’s just that five years is the typical PhD length and that is what I want to hit. If I can do it faster, then great! If it takes longer, then it’s not ideal, but hey at least I made it to the finish line. It feels like forever and not enough time all at once. I’ve made significant progress in my education and I can recognise that, but it just doesn’t feel like I can get all the stuff done I need to do to make the five year goal. Somedays I feel stuck, like I’ve progressed, just not fast enough. I can’t keep up with my peers and that scares me.

Very recently my main-PI complimented my work. He’s watched me progress slowly and I felt like it was so slow he may just kick me out of the lab. But just a few weeks ago he complemented the project I’ve been working on and said my growth has been exponential. I hope that’s the case. I really want to keep up with the rest of the lab, but making the jump from mechanical engineering to neuroengineering was a very hard job. I don’t regret it and I’m very happy with the choice, even now, but it still keeps me up at night knowing that I’m still playing catch up. It’s part of the reason I’ve pushed so hard to progress.

The next few months will help set the stage for the rest of my time in the program. I have my PhD proposal defense that I need to start scheduling, I have a handful of publications I’m working on, and I have my own data to collect. I’ve written grants and applied for funding, I’ve found an actual job that will let me continue my education while earning an actual income. It’s a lot of changes and I keep talking about them (if you read daily you’re probably bored of this list by now!), but it’s just because it feels like yet another mountain I need to climb, only to have a larger mountain behind it.

We’re on year three of the project and it’s already promising to be the most eventful year to date. I’m nervous and excited, but mostly I’m just glad you’re all here to share it with me. Yes, I’m being a big softy, but hey I’ve been in a pit of depression the past few days dealing with that whole job change thing (here). It helps to have support, even if it’s just virtual support. It’s why I always try to respond to emails or comments, to let people know I appreciate it and to show support back. I promise we’ll start talking about other stuff soon, but for now I’m just trying to exist in the moment. A moment that has a lot of unknowns, but also quite a bit of hope.

Right now it’s hour by hour, meal to meal. Sometimes that’s the best you can do and that’s okay. So for anyone else who’s struggling with the now, we can do this.


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