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The only way is through

Well I’ve been on a talking about mental health kick lately and I guess that fits with today’s topic. Sometimes in life we find ourselves out numbered, outmaneuvered, outsmarted, and without any real power. It never feels good to find yourself in that kind of situation. I’m proud of how far I’ve come mentally, because if the situation I’m in now had occurred even just a few years ago, I would be checking myself into a hospital for my own safety again. When the weight of the world presses you down so hard you just want to scream, all you can do is push back.

Of all the roles I have, my proudest is being a mentor to new students. I absolutely love it and while I don’t think I would enjoy teaching, I take mentorship very seriously and it fills me with a joy that few other things can. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m somewhat infamous for my speech I give to my new mentees. I don’t ever plan the speech, I never thought about it, it just sort of happened and the basics of it get repeated. Since I’ve mentored so many students at this stage in my career some laugh when they find out I’m mentoring someone new because they know the speech is coming.

The speech is basically my verbal commitment to them. I am here to help you, if you need me day or night send me an email/text/carrier pigeon/smoke signal and I will respond as soon as I can. If it’s an emergency I WILL respond sooner than that. When I’m mentoring female students in particular, I remind them that sexual harassment in any way, shape, or form is not okay, be it from a student or a teacher. I literally have no power, but I will risk my position for you if you come to me and tell me something happened.

That’s the speech and I mean every word of it. This isn’t a story about my speech though, it’s a story about the part where I say I literally have no power. Because as a fellow student, it’s true. I have no power to effect change.

Maybe I’m just trying to remind myself of that because I have said it at least a dozen times since I started my PhD. I emphasize it specifically because I want students I work with to know that I cannot really help them if they need it. I bring it up now because the corollary to that statement is, I cannot help myself even if I need it. Today was a good reminder of that, or more accurately last night was.

For months now I’ve been reaching out to school-PI to make sure my expectations and his are aligned for my PhD. I need to collect X subjects worth of data to finish my degree. We’ve already agreed on the scope (roughly) I just needed agreement to the amount of work that needs to happen. Months, literally months I’ve emailed, I’ve spoke to him in person, and I get the same stoic response that he’s busy, but he will get to it.

Finally instead of sending him the one-page proposal I worked on I summarized it. I also sent him something he’s been asking about “final paper” so a response was needed. Last night after months of waiting I finally got his answer and it was devastating. My proposed sample size was 1/3 the sample size he wants for me, there were added requirements, and he suggested that if I work hard enough I would be able to graduate before the end of next year, roughly six months longer than I was anticipating/hoping.

It gets worse.

Hospital-PI hired me with the understanding that we were in agreement with the scope of my dissertation. Tripling the number of subjects means I need to figure some way to make it all work outside of my normal work hours. Plus as hospital-PI pointed out, there’s no guarantee that the minimum requirements won’t be changed again before I do my proposal defense (thus semi-locking things into place). Basically, I’m wondering if my job is on the line here and I was sure I was going to need to get ready to step away from working at the hospital all together. Meaning saying goodbye to “big idea” and everything that comes along with working at the hospital.

I’ve had a weird relationship with school-PI since I first started in his lab, but the weirdest thing that has occured happened a year or so ago when he was pushing me to do my proposal defense only to put the breaks on it completely. I think I wrote about it… yep here. And then he wouldn’t let me collect data for my PhD dissertation, even though other students had done this exact thing (here). I’m tired and frustrated and just tired… did I mention tired?

I don’t have any power in this situation though and it’s frustrating because I’m trying to make two people happy and both have power, but neither has power over the other, only me. Which makes me the guy in the middle, not a fun place to be even when hospital-PI is looking out for me (and admittedly himself, which is fair in this situation). I’m not sure what I should be doing now honestly. I’m arranging a meeting with my graduate advisor, but there’s not a whole lot of hope on that front. The last time I met with them regarding this situation in a different context, I left more disappointed than anything.

I’m so very confused and just lost right now. The fun thing about being a mentor is that I have the answers to most of the questions a student would have, but the problem is I don’t have anyone to ask questions to or get advice from. Once again I’m charting my path with no idea which way I need to go. One year left, that was my goal. Now I’m not sure what will happen, but as the title suggests the only way is through.

I just wish it didn’t have to hurt so much along the way.

2 responses

  1. I want to say that I’ve got you … but I don’t have any power in this situation either. It’s a sad irony, all of us yelling that we want to take care of each other and not really having the ability. But I’m here and will go on being here.

    I’m frustrated for you. I was happy you seemed to have things set up so that you could maintain work and school. This back and forth dance – in which you think you have an agreement made, only to have somebody overturn it – has gone on so long that I’m beginning to wonder if everyone is as well-intentioned as you once thought. Miscommunications happen, but how many on the same topic can happen all in a row? Just the fact that you were strung along for months (which is a significant amount of time relative to your graduation schedule) makes me think your time is not being respected. You thought you were going to have your proposal defense done by about now; I was on the verge of asking if the IRB approval was holding it up, but was it really your PI refusing to answer you?

    Of course that is just me speculating; I don’t know any of these people and have not heard their side of the story. But it’s starting to smell bad.

    If you did have to spend an extra six months, I know that would be a big disappointment. I’ve talked about how I value time – almost obsessively – so I get it. But even if that hammer were to fall, it could not wipe out your existing accomplishments, or ruin your potential. Again, this is not to minimize it. Just don’t forget about the things that can’t be taken from you. Focus there, if you can.

    I’m glad you feel that you can bear up under this one … but I wish it didn’t have to hurt. You deserved a period of relative peace after what you went through around last year’s end. I’m sorry. I’m here. And you’ll figure it out.

    Like

    February 22, 2022 at 9:14 pm

    • Just being around helps a ton, so thank you. I know it doesn’t feel like much, but it’s more than I could ask for. I mean that sincerely.

      There are a lot of factors involved with the proposal defense that have been frustrating. We were full speed ahead and school-PI was pushing me to do it, but then suddenly he stopped me and I’m not sure why. He never told me either. I went back through our old email exchanges about it and he was pushing hard for me to defend my proposal defense in jan 2021, but in dec of 2020 he changed his mind for some reason (after I had scheduled everything, so that was awkward). I’m not sure what’s going on with him, but now everyone at work is frustrated for me since they are getting strung along too and are trying to help me manage school and work at the same time.

      I’m planning on talking with my graduate advisor about the situation and hospital-PI is good friends with a faculty member at my school (different department unfortunately), but he offered to ask for advice and I gave the thumbs up, so hopefully by the end of the week we will have something figured out.

      I wouldn’t mind it too much if my graduation got postponed slightly. I’m more angry/frustrated/insert adjective here that he keeps changing the rules for my graduation. I could’ve had this data collected a year ago if he would’ve let me do it with hospital-PI (who had an IRB that the project would fall under). If he was consistent it wouldn’t be so bad, I would graduate late, but that would be on me and my choices and other commitments, this feels a lot different though.

      Thanks again for the support. You’re amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

      February 23, 2022 at 11:18 am

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