Dear PhD Advisor–a decade on

I am going to write this letter to you, and then I’m going to not send it.

I’ve always wondered what would have happened if I had another advisor.  One who took the time to develop my career, and knew how to do that, and cared enough to.  I literally didn’t see you for 18 months because you were abroad, and you weren’t answering my e-mail.  And it wasn’t 18 months at the end of my thesis; it was my third and fourth year, right when I should have done the bulk of my work.  You were among the worst bosses I’ve ever had.  It’s hard for me to say that, because you were a nice enough person.

You explained it by saying that you have a sink or swim philosophy, because in real life when you are a postdoc and later a faculty member, people don’t hand you the research questions.  What a cop out.  The point of a PhD is to learn those things; if you come in knowing them then you don’t need the degree.  When students start out, you have to help them a bit…they don’t have perspective on the field, on careers, on what questions to study that are “hot.”  In my day, there wasn’t as much of an Internet, and it wasn’t possible to find basic information, like where alumni had gone.  Had I known, I would not have joined your group.

And while you did nothing to help me, you sure did a lot to tear me down:  My work wasn’t good enough.  The problem wasn’t interesting.  The model wasn’t a good model.   Never mind that you were the one who had vaguely proposed it.

You had the attention span of a flea; you’d propose a project, I’d do a ton of work, and then you’d lose interest.  It’s a good thing you left for 18 months.  That’s how I got my first paper out–entirely without your help.  And by the time you tried to tear it down, I was done writing it.  I’m not sorry you left, but it’s bad that you sucked so much as an advisor that your being away was better than your being around.

You had a few students who made it in spite of you…generally they found other co-advisors, or changed fields.    I wish I had been one of those students, and I often ask myself why I didn’t have the initiative to do that, and blame myself.  I trusted you too much, for one thing.  In a department full of egos, you were territorial and didn’t encourage collaborating–and I was way too loyal.  I suppose I half-made it; I did ultimately land a tenure track position and the opportunity to stay in my field, sort-of.  Just I didn’t land a good one, and had I stayed there I’d have spent the rest of my life single and teaching in a backwater, with neither the time or resources to do the research that was the whole point of going into science to begin with.  It wasn’t worth it.

As it was, I invested six plus years of my life, for very little return.  I spent my graduate years lonely and miserable, delayed marriage, and since I left academia, the fancy PhD hasn’t helped me at all.  In fact it’s an albatross–people ask me “you graduated from THERE and ended up HERE?”

Yeah.  I did.  I was good enough to get THERE, but once I did, I was poorly mentored.  I had a fantastic postdoc (and a fantastic postdoc mentor), but postdocs are short and one great postdoc isn’t enough, especially when you are applying for jobs in the middle of it.  My postdoc mentor taught me what an awesome mentor was, though.  I still did all my own work, but he guided me, and he really cared.  It’s thanks to him that I found that academic job.

Anyway, I feel better having vented.  It’s been over a decade since I finished my PhD.  I wish I didn’t feel bitter when I looked back; that I could forgive my advisor and also myself.


Three years

Tomorrow is three years since my dad fell ill.  That day there was a ton of snow.  Today it’s 66 degrees F out.  Go figure.

I have been having strange dreams in the last week.

In one, I was interviewing with a distinguished middle-aged white guy for something.  (I mention that because all the political stuff lately has made me very aware of race and racism.)  I realize now that he looked like one of the people I work with, who isn’t very friendly.

I also actually had a similar phone interview last week.  Both in the dream and in reality, the interviewer asked about my PhD, etc.  In the dream, I told him the truth–that pursuing an academic career was a risk and, in retrospect, a mistake that derailed my career.  In the dream, he told me that my going to graduate school would only have been a bad decision had I known ahead of time that there was a 100% possibility of failure.  I don’t think that is true, but in the dream it seemed a very profound statement and I woke up feeling a little comforted.

I had another dream last night where I got an e-mail from a stranger who had been renting  a property from my dad (not realistic; my dad never rented property).  The stranger said that nobody had come to mow the lawn and his grass had been growing very high and he was trying to reach my dad.  I sat on the e-mail for a while, and then realized I had to make arrangements for the lawn.  I thought about whether and how to tell the stranger my dad was gone.  Then I realized the house he was renting was my parents’ house, and that we had moved on.

I have started interviewing for stuff on the other side of the country, where my husband will go for fellowship.

Especially with my father gone, I feel so very alone sometimes.  Ever since he died, and I saw up close what happened to him (and to my mom, whose cancer was the impetus for this blog), I feel afraid of the future.

It’s been four years since my mom began chemotherapy.  Her oncologist told her last year she could stop with the CT scans.  My husband feels otherwise and I know he’s right but I don’t want to tell my mom.  Mentally, I just can’t cope.

In bed this morning I thought about how people in horrible situations–facing death, or man’s inhumanity to man, must have gotten through each day.  I guess maybe at the time you focus on surviving, in little chunks at a time.  Only looking back at the event in totality do you realize the horror of it all, and wonder how you survived.

I really miss my dad and want him back.  I can’t believe it’ll be three years, and soon five, and then (if I’m lucky) fifty.  I also can’t believe that life has gone on, but it has.  Back after it happened I remember spending so much time wondering whether there was an afterlife, and whether I’d ever see him again.  These days I don’t think about it as much.  I have learned to live without him.  There’s a new political administration that he didn’t see; he never got to see WhatsApp or my iPhone; he didn’t get to see his granddaughter walk or his grandson be born.  At first it hurt a lot that he was missing all of these things, and now although it still hurts, it’s normal; my post-dad world.

I’ve come a long way

I had a physical yesterday, and an OB well-woman visit last week.

The OB exam felt weird–it was one of the only times I’ve visited an OB and not been pregnant.

I used to be very afraid of doctor visits, and avoid them.  I must have inherited that fear from my parents, who were the same way.

Neither checkup was a big deal.  I’m glad I’ve overcome my anxiety.

The doctor was very pleased that I’ve brought my BMI just about into the normal range, although it’s still at the high end of normal.  She says that ideally though, I should be in the middle of the normal range with a weight in the 130-140 lb range.  I am proud of myself.

I’ve been sick this week with a bad cold.

My baby turns 18 months tomorrow.

As far as having come a long way, that kind of cuts both ways.  I can’t believe I’ve been alive for 37 years…it seems like such a long time to do anything at all.

Since having kids, and since the loss of my dad, I’ve started to feel old, and like the best times of my life are behind me.

There won’t be any more kids, for one thing.  We can’t manage more.  So I feel kind of sad that I’ll never have a newborn again.  Sometimes I wonder where my life went.  I guess what ought to have been the best parts of my life all got squished together:  People date, marry, have one child, have another–the process takes a while.  For me it all happened in about two years, and was interspersed with my mom’s cancer diagnosis and my dad’s diagnosis and death six months later.

Maybe it’s that I’m nearing 40; if I die at the same age that my dad recently did, I passed the halfway point a few years ago and am already over the hill.  Seeing my parents the last few years struggle with cancer, it scares me that the second half of my own life might be like that.  Things like youth and good health, in the first half of my life I took for granted and didn’t really appreciate or enjoy.  And maybe they won’t be there in the second half.

Anyway, other than that feeling, life goes on.  It is stressful as always–my husband got a fellowship in another part of the country.  I don’t know what to do about that.  I guess we’ll figure it out.

Becoming a woman

I have changed so much in these last few years.  I used to work in a male-dominated field.  Most of my friends were men.  My mentors were men.  I dressed poorly; I ate out; I embraced being one of the boys.  I had an old boss who confessed years later that (although he would never act on it) he was very attracted to my femininity.  I was flattered but perplexed, as I didn’t think I had any particular femininity at all.  If I did, it was only relative to his other colleagues–who were almost all men.

Somehow, a lot changed when I had kids.  Part of it was that I had moved to a job that was 50% women.  But another part was that so much of my experience now consisted of things that a man just couldn’t relate to:  pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, all the endless invasive OBGYN exams, etc.   Meanwhile the women around me acted like I’d just been initiated into some secret club of moms.

After having kids, I slowly became interested in fashion (because in my new job, it seemed to matter).  I became interested in cooking, out of necessity after I came down with gestational diabetes.

My husband’s career became our primary career, because as a doctor his work directly impacts life and death, and also because he has the potential to earn twice what I do.  And because with several years of sleep deprivation, I stopped caring as much about my job, and idolizing people who did.  I slid into a job role where I was dealing with people instead of doing technical work–and I found that I really enjoyed it.  Some days, I felt like quitting and staying home with the kids.

I don’t recognize myself; the old tomboy who used to be a glass ceiling-breaker.  I didn’t totally choose this path; I left academia out of necessity.  I never really understood women who worked in female-dominated fields, whom it seemed to me spent more time “communicating” than actually doing things, who cared about their clothes more than their work product.

I feel like I have betrayed the person I used to be, and like I wasted a lot of potential–because I really am a crack techie and programmer.  But frankly going with the flow is easier than fighting it.  In a state of sleep deprivation and fatigue, doing a job that is easy is a lot less stressful than one that requires my full concentration.  It’s been six years since I left my old field, and although I’ve encountered discrimination, never once have I heard the explicit, crude sexual comments I did as a graduate student and postdoc.  I didn’t realize how much that environment sucked until I got out of it.  It’s easier sometimes to go with the flow than to fight it, and I certainly feel happier.

Two years on

It has been two years since my father died.  Some days it feels like a moment; other days like a decade.  There are days I don’t think of it much–and I feel like I’m moving on–and then I feel a jolt of guilt.

Many people said the second year of bereavement would be worse than the first.  It has not.  It has been easier.  I have forgotten a lot.  I was terrified of forgetting, but I guess forgetting is the only reason that time heals…as you get distance, you forget the details, good ones and bad.

As a working mom of two and a medical wife, life has sometimes been too busy and stressful for me to focus on grief.

People said there would always be a hole; that things would never be the same; that the pain would never completely be gone.  That has been true.  However, now having lived through it I also see how people can learn to live with a big part of their soul missing, and that the missing piece does not prevent them from being happy again.

The tenth anniversary of my dad’s death is also the tenth anniversary of my PhD defense.  It’s funny; I remember my defense very clearly.  I’d bought a suit the day before.  I never in my worst nightmares knew what would happen eight years later, to the day.

I miss my father.  The grief and loss are still present.  For the most part the acute pain and the horror are not.  Things that bothered me before it all happened (e.g., being passed over for promotions) seemed like small potatoes for a while, but I notice now that they’ve started to bother me again.  I still miss my dad and a part of me still looks for him on the street, when I pass the old bus stop.  I’m afraid to ever move away and leave behind the places that he was.   I still wonder what happens when we leave this world; whether I’ll ever see him again.

I just remembered how he would keep some cloves in his pocket to freshen his breath, and how they would break into little pieces and shake out of his clothes.  Little memories like that bubble up from time to time.

And that’s the way life is.  Terrible things happen, and somehow life goes on.



I keep having anxiety dreams about graduate school.  I think it was the first time in my life where I really failed and crash-landed.

I’d attended a state school for college, so graduate school was my first time being very far away from my family.  It was cutthroat competitive.  I was very lonely, and ultimately tired of being single.

I realize in retrospect how depressed I was.  I really needed help.  I was in a male-dominated field, so I had few close female friends.  I struggled aimlessly under a terrible, negligent PhD advisor who did not feel any responsibility at all toward his students, and would disappear for years at a time.  Some of his brightest students were stuck there ten years.  Years later, he turned out to have had a slow-growing version of the same brain tumor that my father had–one whose symptoms for my advisor manifested as apathy.

I failed romantically.  Lonely and depressed, I fell in love (I thought) with someone and held onto him as though he were the only raft in the ocean.  Well, the “someone” turned out to have severe mental health issues of his own.  Long story short it went as poorly as a romance could possibly go–and worse, it dragged on for several years.  He never did marry anyone.  Meanwhile my advisor has not managed to send a single PhD student into an academic career in fifteen years or so.

Anyway, I didn’t fail entirely.  Despite it all I managed to publish a couple of useless papers, graduated with a shiny degree, and found a postdoc where I worked for a very good advisor and blossomed, and did very good work.  The problem was that I didn’t start with a solid foundation from graduate school, and that made it hard to find academic jobs.  I did find one, finally; it was unsuitable, and I left.

Looking back at it all, whenever I failed I always kept going.  Writing it all out for the first time, I realize that maybe it wasn’t failure after all.  I didn’t end up quite where I’d planned to go, but I did end up somewhere.  Possibly somewhere better for me.

If I’d stayed an academic, I wouldn’t have been around for my parents when they needed me.  I don’t know whether I’d have managed to get married and have kids.  I’ve seen women do it all, but I’m not sure it would have worked out for me due to the timing, and due to various other factors.

Looking back, I can also see that although I blamed myself for not ending up quite where I wanted, a lot of the things that affected my life and career were pure bad luck and external circumstance too.  One thing I’ve tried to learn is not to care what you look like from the outside.  Nobody is as invested in your life and career as you are.  Maybe somebody Googles you someday and says “oh, s/he succeeded,” or “oh, s/he failed” and for a moment they feel either jealous or schadenfreude.  But that’s a moment.  You have to live your entire life, 24/7.

So you may as well be true to yourself.


Great column by Carolyn Hax today, here.  In summary,

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to you, but you can make the best choices available to you at any given time.

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to people you love, but you can be there so they don’t have to go through them alone.

I feel like I did do this for my dad.