Lost but Getting There

Whenever I get a chance to meet some of my friends, they always ask me how graduate school feels like.

“When will you graduate?”

“We’ll surely hold a party when you graduate.”

“We’re sure you can do it because you are very good “

“When will you work?”

Of course, I tell them that I’m doing my best to be right on track and then I’ll change the topic so that I will no longer be in a hot seat.

Sometimes, it is discomforting to answer such questions because it makes me face the challenges that I am facing again when I am supposed to be taking a break away from those. Nevertheless, I believe that most people ask those questions in good faith because they knew that being in a university the second time around is full of challenges and thus, they merely want to make sure that I’m doing good. After all, mental health matters.

Nevertheless, talks about graduate school create some sort of pressure for me to continue the path that I have already taken. Moreso, the expectations coming from other people slowly pile up and instead of becoming a motivation, it usually ends up as a barrier to success.

When I had the opportunity to talk with my friend from another university who’s also working towards an MS degree, I found some sort of refuge because I can simply rant about my failed experiments and I am sure that I will be understood. I could simply talk about how I spent some fortune in doing characterization of my material only to find out that I did not obtain my desired crystallographic structure (which means redoing the synthesis steps again).

And trust me, talking about failed experiments to another graduate student is a relief because you understand each other. You can just cry and you will be understood without being judged.

But why do graduate students feel demotivated? Isn’t it this is our dream – to become the experts in our field and contribute something to the general tree of knowledge? And if this is our dream, why do we sometimes feel that we’re losing a grip of that dream?

There are many factors that contribute to the demotivation of graduate students and I would like to name the three most common, at least, in my experience.

The Unspoken Race

We all want to make a contribution to the body of knowledge, yes. And we all want to graduate, yes. But while everyone is busy doing their own novel works, there is an unspoken race among colleagues to graduate on-time and break that cycle of being “delayed.” Furthermore, we want to have our work to be hailed as “novel” or “ground-breaking” so we work on topics that are hard given the internal constraints.

Some are pressured to publish in a highly-reputed, high-impact factor journals because it is a prelude to graduation.

While publishing in Nature or Science is considered as a very good academic feat, it also brings intense pressure to students who are still struggling to understand why their data is not going well as hypothesized. As a result, most graduate students feel inferior about themselves even though in reality, they are just doing fine.

Funds, Funds, and More Funds

Funding is an integral component of any project. You cannot expect someone to deliver a high-impact research when the funding is only sufficient for the procurement of key materials or equipment. For developing countries like the Philippines, investment in Research and Development is usually not given a high percentage in the national budget because there are more pressing needs that the government needs to address. As such, only a small percentage of the GDP is allocated to R&D.

Because of this situation, many researchers are forced to drop some of the key steps in their original research proposals. This adds to the burden on the part of the student because this limits the window for committing failed experiments (because failure means cost).

Instead of simply thinking about why the experiment failed, you still have to worry if you still have remaining funds to continue your work.

And trust me, it is depressing. I have to shell out from my own pocket because I want to finish on-time. Of course, if there’s something that I learned from this, it’s how to remain fed even though my finances are running low.

The Procurement Drama

Of course, because our research is funded by the government, we are subject to the Philippine procurement law (or R.A. 9184). Indeed, this law was created to ensure that all government transactions are free of corrupt practices and to standardize the procurement processes. As such, we have to undergo the tedious “3 quotations rule” when buying materials and equipment. And I am pro-transparency and anti-corruption so this is just fine.

But to experience the long waiting time just for buying the materials and equipment you need is simply ridiculous.

The tedious procurement drama that government-funded researchers experience comes at the expense of compressing their Gantt Charts (because procurement eats, in the bare minimum, at least 1 -2 months). This again, puts pressure to researchers to find ways to deliver the results of their thesis within the remaining time that they have. This leaves few room for improving their work to achieve “optimized” results, e.g., optimized parameters for synthesis of materials.

And because most want to graduate within the prescribed period, in the very least, we shred some parts of our proposals, if not, totally overhauling it.

The Uncertainties Beyond

And so you finished my Master’s degree! Congratulations! You deserve a big hug! But what now?

This is basically one of the dilemmas of graduates. Most universities do not have a program to ensure that their students will secure a promising career after graduation. Most typically aim to produce as many graduates as possible but they lose sight whether their graduates will have a good career thereafter. While this is slowly changing over the years, progress have been slow. Unless the universities develop a concrete strategy to ensure that their graduates will be employed, at least, in their respective field of specializations, fear will always linger in the heart of students due to the uncertainties that they will face beyond graduation.

And then another killer question appears.

Is this all worth it? Is this all worth the pain?

Losing motivation has become a silent disease in universities. We start strong, with our ambitions as clear as we dreamed to be, only to find ourselves trapped in a never-ending ups-and-downs.

And before you knew it, you’ve spent days pondering why everything doesn’t make sense. And boom! Another week was slashed in your Gantt Chart. And you became a child again – lost in the complexities of this world, and you just sob silently.

But we do not include those things in our progress reports, do we?

Nobody wants to be called a ‘loser’ or a ‘failure.’

However, it is important that we tell the real situation during meetings so that our advisers will be aware that we are struggling. This will not only inform them about the issues that you are facing but it will also serve as an avenue for our advisers to give insights on the best course of action to be done. Isn’t it the main purpose of advisers is to advice after all? Besides, those failed experiments will eventually lead to a successful one as long as we learn something from it.

As for the advisers, it is important that realistic goals are set during consultations to prevent excessive pressure in students that might kill their already dwindling fire.

Most importantly, talk to your colleagues. When you feel demotivated, it is a good practice to rest for a bit, figure things out, and if things still do not go well, talk. Talk to someone, maybe your best friend, a fellow graduate student, or to anybody else you trust. Cry if you must. Rest until you are energized. Remember, your mental health comes first.

There is no definitive step on how to regain the lost fire. But just keep walking. No matter how depressing the results of your experiments seem to be, just keep going. Even though you’re running out of positive vibes, just keep walking.

Being in a state of demotivation is just one of the many metastable states that you can go through.

If you keep moving, and ultimately, you’ll find the right amount of energy to overcome the barrier between failure and success.

And when you do, your efforts will all be rewarded.

But for now, if you haven’t found the right recipe yet, let it be known that you are making progress, no matter how slow it is.

Though you might seem to be lost and fragile, I know that you will be also getting there.

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