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Success! Journal paper 3 of 4

Days turned to weeks, turned to months, turned to years. I was slowly getting to the point that I wanted to give up and I honestly didn’t think this day would ever come. Yesterday night I got the news, robot paper was accepted for publication and I literally cried. I almost have a whole ass PhD and this was my Masters work, but we can now get things ready for actually publishing the damned thing!

Since it’s been a minute since I told the robot paper story, and because I think it’s an important story to tell. I think it’s worth repeating myself and going over what the heck robot paper is, why it nearly (literally) killed me, and why I almost ended my career before i even got started.

It’s not all robot paper’s fault. It was a rough few years between my Masters and start of my PhD. I guess we should start at the beginning though and the beginning is the end of my Masters. My PI at the time and I agreed to publish the work I had been doing in a journal paper (this work). In return he funded me over the summer and I got to travel a bit for conferences, which was fun (I miss traveling). We (I) started right away on writing the paper and by the time I was leaving to start my PhD things were finished and we were ready for our first submission. Things were looking up and I was feeling pretty damned good about myself and the research I was doing.

Then came the first blow. The paper was desk rejected, which meant that we had waited months for them to say it wasn’t worth reviewing. In case you don’t know what that means, it wasn’t a bad paper, the editor just thought it was just not a good fit for the journal. If that was the only problem, things may have been different… if. Instead, that was the start of a very long and devastating process. We reformatted the paper and resubmit it to a different journal. They actually reviewed it, but rejected it.

Everyone wanted more from the paper, more tests, more progress, just more. Submission after submission we got the same frustrating feedback, the design alone wasn’t good enough, they wanted us to use it in a “cool” way. Walking over terrain for example was a suggestion one reviewer made. The problem is we had just finished the design, which by itself was very novel… or so I had thought. The robot represented years of my life and no one seemed to think it was good enough for a journal publication despite both my former PI and our overseas collaborator constantly telling me it was good enough.

Months turned into years, one submission turned into nine (I think?!). It never ended and while robot paper stood stationary, life was moving forward for me. I had other things going on, other papers, other projects, other education. Then I failed my first qualifying exam, okay not exactly failed and I still have a lot of strong emotions around what happened, but school-PI wanted to see what I could do without help and my expectation and the expectation of my committee were going in two very different directions (more). Fun fact, that event is what actually convinced me to do the 365 days of academia project. Things were slowly unraveling for me and I felt like I didn’t belong in the school, much less as a researcher.

One paper turned into two, two turned into four, and nothing was going out. Stuff I needed to do kept piling up, but nothing was getting published, no progress was being made. I was so stressed my still undiagnosed (or maybe I should say still unidentified) autoimmune disease flared up to the worst it had ever been and it literally hurt to move the muscles it took to breathe (more). I was slowly sinking in the weight of my obligations and no one seemed to notice.

Robot paper felt like a curse. A no-so-friendly reminder from the universe that I should never and can never be comfortable with myself or my skill level. All the while I blogged, every day (mostly) and generally tried to not think about this too much more than I had to. I mean we have a lovely catalog of the failures I had working up to this point, like my “last paper” work (like this example), which only recently got better (the paper is still in review, so that’s something).

I felt like I was dying slowly and since I have an overly honest policy around here, I thought about hurrying the process along more than once because I was clearly not meant for this. Frankly I don’t think I can put into words the anger and frustration I had, not at the reviewers or the paper, but with me. Why couldn’t I do better? Why couldn’t I be better? And it wasn’t all robot paper’s fault, but it sure as hell felt like the turning point.

The PhD system is broken, let’s be honest. The purpose should be to teach you how to science and how to think about science, but instead it’s a gauntlet of abuse and if you make it to the end, well here’s a diploma. The suicide rate for people attempting the PhD track is surprisingly high and as a disabled veteran, who is at best mentally unstable, I often think that a PhD probably wasn’t the smartest choice for me. So yeah, not robot paper’s fault, but not exactly my fault either.

Thankfully the dam broke. Suddenly things started moving, one paper published (here), became two (here), and now we have number three in the books and the fourth in review (here). I’ve won awards (here), had a grant funded (here), got interviewed by the school (here), and hell, even DARPA noticed me (here). I’m not sure how I got from that pure feeling of hopelessness, the one where death is preferable to the pain of living, to this point.

I cannot say things are easy or that they are even “better,” but I’m in a different place and maybe just making a bit of progress feels like an improvement to feeling like I’m stuck. Sometimes a change in scenery is enough, even if you’re still in the same place in your head. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the relief of getting something done and having a slightly smaller to-do pile. Whatever it is, I’m glad that I’m not in that place anymore.

Robot paper has been a sticking point for me for years and it will feel weird when it’s finally published. That probably won’t be for a few weeks or more, but just knowing it will now be published is a huge step forward. With “last paper” the literal last paper in the four paper pile up I had, I’m hopeful to finally get out from underneath all this and focus on more important things, like my dissertation proposal for example. Robot paper really felt like an anchor after a while, and I didn’t realize how relieved I would be when I got the email that it was accepted. I fully expected to have another rejection and dreaded reading the email.

It’s not robot paper’s fault that things went downhill so quickly, but I am glad to finally say goodbye to it.

10 responses

  1. Congratulations and way to go👏 🎉 🥳

    Liked by 1 person

    April 4, 2022 at 6:55 pm

  2. Yaaayyyyyyyy I am so glad this went through! Congratulations Alex (and as always, I look forward to the chance to read the thing myself).

    After reading the little recap here … I mainly want to tell you that I’m sorry. Not just sorry you had to go through all that, but sorry I wasn’t there. We were Twitter mutuals that whole time, I think, and I was mostly ignoring you; I was “too busy” to click through to your blog and see what was up. I was one of the people who didn’t notice you sinking. And when I did notice, my reaction was often “I don’t know what to say” or “I can’t do anything.”

    And you felt like you were slowly dying? Right under my nose? Aauuuugh. Reading backwards through your blog archive felt like paging through a catalog of missed opportunities, times when I could’ve said something nice if I had only been paying attention. But this really brings it home. I know you had other readers to encourage you (thank goodness and thanks to them for that!), but trust me, it was my responsibility to be involved too, and I took way too long to figure it out. There came a point (late 2020 or so) when I wished you would interact with me more, and I can barely even explain to myself why I didn’t think of taking some initiative and leaving comments on your stuff first. It makes me feel dumb.

    The neglect wasn’t deliberate. Maybe it was even inevitable – maybe I really was too clueless to do better at the time. But I still regret it and want you to know that I do. I wish you’d had more support while you felt hopeless and exhausted. It hurts to think about.

    Anyway, congrats again, and hopefully things will keep being better from here on out. Goodbye robot paper.

    Your perspective on the educational gauntlet is eye-opening too. I suppose in the past, if I ever saw something that was harder than it needed to be, I just thought of it as “a challenge” … a way to find out who was willing to strain a bit and prove themselves. At most, I might get annoyed at the waste of time. I didn’t think about what a meat grinder it would be for people who don’t have a lot of spare energy to begin with, and just need a chance.

    Whatever the system has to say, you are competent, and you are always, always valuable.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 4, 2022 at 9:06 pm

    • Thank you! It’s been such a long journey I had to re-read the email a few times to make sure it said what I thought it said. I’m so happy to have this one almost finished. It’s a good paper and I’m excited to get to share it. I really hope the design process catches on.

      Please don’t be hard on yourself! It’s not your fault and really it only was apparent to me in hindsight just how bad things were at the time. You’ve done far more than needed, I promise! You’re a good friend and I respect you too much to let you be that hard on yourself.

      I apologize for not interacting with you more too. Part of it is just how much I have going on, part of it is I’m just super awkward and have problems interacting with people on twitter (and in real life) in general, and I think part of it is I’m a guy and I didn’t want to come off as creepy or something because the internet can be very … harassment filled? I can think of a better way to phrase that.

      The education system can, and should be, challenging. It’s just not designed to be inclusive really. Some people drop out because they realize it isn’t for them or they are in the wrong track, but I think a large percentage of people who drop are doing so because they lack the support needed. It’s those people that I get upset about because we’re losing so many good people who are genuinely curious. The system shouldn’t be designed to keep everyone out by default and only letting in the people it deems worthy, it should help lift up anyone who is willing to do the work and learn. A subtle, but important difference I think.

      Thank you again for all the support. I wish I could do more for you, I feel like our friendship is very one sided. But I do appreciate you, so thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      April 5, 2022 at 11:32 am

      • Don’t worry, I’m not being too hard on myself. I can forgive myself for the mistake. But it was a mistake, no matter how unintentional it might have been, and I wanted to admit to it. I think it’s healthy for me to do that once in a while. Even if it wasn’t my fault, it makes me kinda sad.

        Thank you though, you’re kind to your formerly oblivious friend.

        I completely understand why you didn’t talk to me more. When I approach a new person, generally my biggest fear is being pushy. And I’m not even a guy. So I get it. It’s okay.

        You do more for me than you realize, I think. I know you have a lot on your plate and are usually stressed and tired, so when you do spend a bit of your spare time looking at my posts etc., I feel disproportionately loved and honored. Your gratitude alone means a lot. All’s well, don’t worry.

        Liked by 1 person

        April 5, 2022 at 8:00 pm

      • Well thank you and I appreciate the reassurance! You’re too kind.

        Liked by 1 person

        April 6, 2022 at 5:39 pm

  3. Congratulations on your publication it can be a difficult process sometimes

    Liked by 1 person

    April 5, 2022 at 12:18 pm

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