Monday, May 21, 2007

Bad Example


I just wanted to make sure everything was OK since I hadn’t seen you around in awhile. I hope you’re doing well and research is moving along – please let me know if you have any questions or if I can help. I’m hoping to put in more regular appearances at the office in the near future, so feel free to touch base whenever it’s convenient.


She arrived a couple of hours later for the first time in a couple of weeks.

“Hey.” I said, turning from my computer screen and list of things to do. “How are you?”

“Good. Guilty.” She offered.

I cocked my head at her. “Guilty? Is something going on?”

“I haven’t been in much.” She said, looking away. I nodded – hard to argue with non-existent attendance. But I do more than my share of working from home, so I’ll happily give her the benefit of the doubt. I also understand personal situations taking priority over work. I have extensive experience with depression and being oddly unable to motivate myself into clothes other than pajamas and out of the house toward campus.

“Young man,” Winston Churchill asked a young Billy Graham, “do you have hope?” A visiting pastor delivered the sermon at church yesterday and spoke of Christian hope. The belief that there is shining light in the midst of a world seemingly filled with darkness. That through belief in God we have the comfort and courage to work toward what is just and good and kind when doing so seems difficult and somehow worthless.

It is, for me, an uphill battle sometimes. It’s not that I’m always lazy – I can have extraordinary bursts of valuable productivity. It’s just that I don’t always care – I feel somehow distant from people or projects and would rather watch TV and nap. Is my work going to help my patients? Unlikely. Is it going to get published in journals of high impact factor, easing my transition into an independent career? Probably not. If it did, do I want to be a professor? Not so much, I think.

Working-my-way-toward-middle-aged Katie, do I have hope? I fear not. At least not enough. Pessimism has cloaked me so that I don’t often feel the wounded surprise when something doesn’t go my way, but I also don’t feel the bright anticipation when starting a new project or convincing myself to go to church or trying to exercise a bit. I just don’t really care.

Which likely explains my feeling of distance from church and prayer and God.

Last Monday, Maria turned to check her email, offering answers to a couple of questions that I’d asked over recent weeks. I considered it, pausing from clicking buttons while I faced away from her, sighed then turned to face her again.

“Are you OK?” I asked. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“No.” She shook her head and I spared a moment’s envy for the length of her hair. “My sister had her baby.” She confided, and I smiled widely.

“Congratulations!” I said. “A boy or girl?”

“Boy.” She grinned and told me a weight. I nodded as if I knew how big that meant the baby was. I remain a bit leery around the tiny creatures. I like them better when they’re a bit older. “But it was difficult for my sister. The cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. Twice.”

I blinked in dismay. “So they did a C-section?”

“No, she didn’t want that. But they had to keep the baby in the hospital for longer than we thought.”

“But he’s fine now?” I said, not wanting to hear bad news.

“Oh, yes. He’s precious.” I nodded and congratulated her again.

“So I haven’t been in much – I feel bad.” She said and I paused to think. I believe that most people are capable of making it through grad school. If you find the right environment and project, you can show up every day and make progress, fail and try again, meet people and solve problems while creating new ones. But that desire to do so must be present.

To do a graduate degree just because one is unsure of other options leaves one with my particular problems. In possession of a PhD I’m not sure I want to really use. Struggling to go in some days, not out of overwhelming depression, but because of a minor earache. I was on campus for Monday of last week – that’s it. I accomplished very little at home even, but am not overwhelmed for this week. There just isn’t much going on.

Since this happened after my discussion with Maria on Monday, I’m quite sympathetic to her problem.

“I spent a lot of my graduate career feeling badly.” I said slowly, trying to think and speak carefully. “Guilty because I didn’t work hard enough, inferior because it took me longer to understand some things, hopeless when stuff didn’t work. It’s not the best use of your energy – feeling badly about yourself and your work. Instead, I think I should have made decisions and been OK with them. Let myself take a break sometimes, deal with family issues, work when the urge strikes. It’s difficult to sort out, but you’re far enough along to trust yourself when you make decisions.”

She considered me for a moment, then abruptly asked what happened with Dawn.

“She’s not coming back.” I said softly. “I haven’t heard anything official, nor do I expect to do so, but I think things are going to play out in a way that keeps her away.” Then I shook my head and sighed again. “Sometimes things aren’t fair. I…don’t know what to do or say about that. It’s just not fair sometimes.”

“I don’t know if I can do this.” She said. “Work in research with people who are unfair and selfish.”

I nodded – it’s a decision one must make, I suppose. Do you work to change things? Duck your head and do your work? Or walk away? I can’t help her decide that, so I moved on.

“How’s your prospectus coming along?” Since she switched labs so late in her time at my current institution, the powers that be are hurrying her to decide what she’s going to do so she doesn’t lose more time.

“I haven’t really started it.” She confessed and I blinked. That was nearly 3 months ago that we spoke of it, I thought. Her research was moving along at a nonexistent pace rather than just slow. This makes me less eager to help her – it seems like throwing time away.

“Well,” I said, knowing I should say something in response, “if you’d like me to look at something or help in some way, just let me know.”

Except I’ve been out of the office for each day since then. And while I’d happily respond to email, it’s not the same as turning a chair to ask a quick question. That was how I gave part of her project to Ken. We’d waited too long, something had to be done, I was complaining about not knowing how to loop the Matlab code most effectively and he did it for me. He was also around when I met with the PI for that data and I pulled him into the meeting after giving him all the credit he was due. I was rather pleased when our collaborators directed questions to him and he was able to discuss the science behind the code. It’s research at its best – the merging of skills and interest for rapid progress toward some reasonable goal.

Yet Maria was absent and missed it.

I often am too. The nature of my projects make them portable and I can be highly productive at home. I rarely feel guilty about skipping the drive to campus, but perhaps I should.

I hope Maria looks to Ken as a better role model than me. But I also hope to provide a bit of a better example. Which means I should get dressed and make the trek to work.

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