Grad School Slumps


I’m reaching a point in my graduate career where I’ve realized I don’t know what I’m doing.

Now, some of you may have squinted your eyes in suspicion at that statement, especially my fellow graduate students. Really? Just now you’ve had this realization? You’re a graduate student! Of course you don’t know what you’re doing!

But it’s more than just scientific knowledge, or research knowledge. It’s more of an existential question. What, exactly, am I doing?

I go to the office. I sit in my office chair. I might check some code, I might look over some edits for my paper, I’ll probably spend more than an hour doing reading and taking notes on the high-level theory that will form the basis of my thesis. I’ll do this until my eyes glaze over. Then I will go home.

Slumps happen. Your research has stalled. Your paper is spinning its wheels in the deep muck of “is this even worth writing about?” Every line of the textbook you’re reading has three words you don’t know, and the definitions of each of those words each has three more words you don’t know, and the tree of your ignorance grows ever-more branches. You dread going to work.

The question, really, is how to pull yourself out of a “slump.” It’s incredibly difficult. It’s a lot easier (and more appealing) to just say “I will work from home today” and then lay on the couch reading the same page over and over.

It is said that the best way to combat existential malaise is to take action. That’s what has gotten me out of my most recent slump: I coded a thing, the thing made a plot, and now I have a new result to chew on while I make progress on my paper. I have ideas for new plots. I will make those tomorrow.

Write some code. Take some action. Avoid the couch–it’s a trap. And remember you can always talk to loved ones or colleagues about how you’re feeling. The reminder that you have people in your life who support you and want to see you succeed is valuable beyond measure.