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INTRO About to get my PhD and totally sick of the slowlane

evanascent

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Aug 5, 2018
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Hello, I’m 31 years old; born and raised in a small town in IL roughly a 4-5 hour drive away from Chicago, but now live in Slovenia (my dad’s native country) because that’s where I met my Slovenian husband.

I’ve recently read TMF and Unscripted, both of which I’m very thankful to have come across at exactly the time when I'm transitioning to a new stage in my life. I first read TMF because of an Amazon review stating that “I've read many business books, and this is by far the best.” Both fit exactly what I’ve been searching for and hoped to find – Thank you MJ DeMarco!

My backstory/FTE:

I’ve followed an exemplary slowlane path: went to an Ivy league school in the US, won a prestigious grant that brought me to Slovenia for a year, then did well in a 1 year pre-med program back in the US. It was only after applying to med school that I realized it wasn't what I really wanted. My RAS was activated and suddenly I noticed tons of online articles with titles such as “Doctors face the highest rate of suicide” and “Medical school debt at an all time high and increasing.” Out of 5 doctors that I spoke with after applying to med school, 4 said that they wouldn’t recommend a career in medicine; the only exception retired more than a decade ago.

It was during this time that I started discovering and reading materials about finance and entrepreneurship. What I read further confirmed my gut feeling that a career in medicine wasn’t for me.

I returned to Slovenia to be with my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) and pursued a few dead-end entrepreneurial projects. Within a matter of months, I was accepted into a STEM PhD program. I was invited to apply through personal connections, otherwise I wouldn't have known about it. It wasn’t something I ever imagined doing, but I wanted to build my skillset and connections. Besides, the position was funded, so I have no debt and earned a generous monthly salary. I don’t think it’s possible to get much better than that.

I already knew before the PhD started that I wouldn’t want to remain in academia and that it would be a brutal experience. I was correct. Mentors generally don’t want to be bothered with their students, but mine really outdid herself in terms of being both neglectful and irritatingly intrusive at the same time. Along with my colleagues, I was often ordered to pursue dead-end ideas using equipment that can’t carry out the tasks I was told to complete—and I would be brushed off when I told her that. Her mindset was/is, “Because I’m the mentor, I'm a genius and everything I say is pure gold.” The last straw was when she started purposely undermining my work.

I was ultimately able to get through the toughest part of the PhD because I asserted my independence and turned to people outside my group for guidance and access to the equipment I needed. That really pissed off my mentor and created a lot of stress for me, but I couldn’t care less (somehow we actually get along). If I wouldn't be able to finish the PhD, I would have to pay back all the money I earned plus interest, not her. This nearly happened to a colleague of mine who just barely finished her PhD the year after I started—talk about a red flag that something is wrong in the group! Add to this the long work days, lack of vacation, the unrelenting, insane levels of stress and the inevitable physical breakdown that accompanies it, and you really start to question why you're here.

Presently:

I’m now finishing the program (almost everything but the defense) which means that I have free time again for the first time in years. The entire PhD has been one huge FTE, although I’ve learned some valuable lessons and developed some much needed problem-solving skills. Even though I will apply for some industry positions and am doing some freelancing work at the moment, I won’t have peace until I gain true financial independence with a CENTS-compliant business. At this early stage in my entrepreneurial journey, I’m looking for one idea to focus on; potentially something in the academic sector.

Thank you for reading; I look forward to gaining and contributing insight through this forum as I immerse myself in the fastlane.
 

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lowtek

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Welcome. I got my PhD in 2012 (physics) and can relate to some of your experiences.

I was fortunate that I was my advisers only student, and he was a solid mentor. He worked like a freaking animal, and lead by example. He pushed me to do better and to be better, and I'm a better man and thinker for it. Unlike many people, I'd accept a call from him today and would love to meet up again some time to see how he's doing. Truly solid individual, and brilliant scientist.

I did some work with another faculty, who was a true slave driver that treated the students like cattle. Except. One student who literally sat in his office for an entire year, watching korean drama (no, I'm not joking) was golden. No productivity, no contributions, just laziness. I think he was granted leniency because he was in fact the smartest one in the group, in theory (as in mathematics) but couldn't do experiments to save his life. The post doc got it the worst. The adviser was Chilean, and the post doc was Colombian. He would scream, literally, at the post doc in Spanish for 15 minutes at a time. I know enough of the language to know that he wasn't screaming praise at him. Poor sap had to take it because his wife and kids were in the country. How inhumane.

Towards the end of my time there, they took on a young (my age) female faculty member from Berkeley. She came from a big name group, one of the top guys. Knew absolutely nothing about setting up a lab. Had clearly never touched any of the equipment personally. She was a pure diversity hire; she certainly wasn't hired on her competence. I don't know if she managed to graduate anybody with any results, but the lab was a total sh*t show.

Getting the PhD, assuming you're doing your part, means a few things:
You can endure years of delayed gratification.
You can take a novel idea all the way through to completion

Both of these are assets in life, and in business. So take heart. While it may feel like wasted years, that's only if you let them be. If you can reflect and generalize on the experience, I think you'll find it to be transformative and something you can leverage in tough times.
 
OP
OP
evanascent

evanascent

Contributor
Read Millionaire Fastlane
I've Read UNSCRIPTED
Aug 5, 2018
13
24
22
Welcome. I got my PhD in 2012 (physics) and can relate to some of your experiences.

I was fortunate that I was my advisers only student, and he was a solid mentor. He worked like a freaking animal, and lead by example. He pushed me to do better and to be better, and I'm a better man and thinker for it. Unlike many people, I'd accept a call from him today and would love to meet up again some time to see how he's doing. Truly solid individual, and brilliant scientist.

I did some work with another faculty, who was a true slave driver that treated the students like cattle. Except. One student who literally sat in his office for an entire year, watching korean drama (no, I'm not joking) was golden. No productivity, no contributions, just laziness. I think he was granted leniency because he was in fact the smartest one in the group, in theory (as in mathematics) but couldn't do experiments to save his life. The post doc got it the worst. The adviser was Chilean, and the post doc was Colombian. He would scream, literally, at the post doc in Spanish for 15 minutes at a time. I know enough of the language to know that he wasn't screaming praise at him. Poor sap had to take it because his wife and kids were in the country. How inhumane.

Towards the end of my time there, they took on a young (my age) female faculty member from Berkeley. She came from a big name group, one of the top guys. Knew absolutely nothing about setting up a lab. Had clearly never touched any of the equipment personally. She was a pure diversity hire; she certainly wasn't hired on her competence. I don't know if she managed to graduate anybody with any results, but the lab was a total sh*t show.

Getting the PhD, assuming you're doing your part, means a few things:
You can endure years of delayed gratification.
You can take a novel idea all the way through to completion

Both of these are assets in life, and in business. So take heart. While it may feel like wasted years, that's only if you let them be. If you can reflect and generalize on the experience, I think you'll find it to be transformative and something you can leverage in tough times.

Thanks for the words of encouragement; it helps to hear from a fellow PhD survivor. If there's one thing I can give credit to my mentor for, it's that she insisted I do everything myself (and at least she didn't/doesn't scream at me either! Yikes!). This definitely enabled me to gain valuable skills that will stick with me for life--I don't see any way that I would have gotten them with a regular job or in a group where significant chunks of the work are outsourced.

You are definitely lucky with your PhD experience--that now makes two people I know who have had positive PhD experiences, the other person being my dad who got his in mathematics at UCLA. Same thing--he still keeps in touch occasionally with his advisor. My group has way too many PhD students (at one point, 5), and my mentor has also gotten herself involved in projects that don't really fit her area of expertise; that was especially true in my case.

Thank you for sharing your experiences in academia--I always enjoy hearing the crazy things others have experienced/observed. I had to laugh about the student who watched Korean dramas for a year. Although perhaps not quite extreme to that level, we have a similar case in my group, except that he has no business doing a PhD and can barely speak/write English. My mentor accepted him because he was the only applicant for the position (Marie Curie project), but she can't get rid of him and has resorted to doing nearly everything for him so she can save face within the project. Pretty much all of his experimental work has been completed by others in the group. It's appalling.

Your story about the diversity hire is unfortunate. We also have a "lab assistant" (I'm using the term loosely) who was something of a pity hire by my mentor because he has a physical handicap. He barely does anything and is unbelievably sloppy, but now my mentor's hands are tied because she can't just fire a handicapped person. It's definitely a love(or pity)-hate relationship there. Although a bit different, I also know of one person who, rumour has it, got her researcher position because she has blackmail on her boss. Given the nature/timing of the supposed blackmail event and the sloppiness of the researcher, I think there's a high likelihood that it's true.
 

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