JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

I'm standing on the brink of my third year of graduate school and I've realized something very important: There is a body of research out there that would make me want to get up in the morning, thrilled to be alive.

I'm just not working on it.

What to do? I now know what I might want to do with my life, but I'm stuck on the project I'm currently on. Many of us get stuck in spots we don't anticipate because of a) lack of funding, b) lack of students to pawn the project off on, c) the amount of time invested (how long will it take to get to this same place on another project?). Let's explore these reasons as it relates to my situation. ...

Lack of funding is not an issue for me. Remember those fellowships I applied for way back in Chapter 11? I've successfully danced for my dollars and my funding will take me through the rest of my graduate school career. There's the rub, for me at least: I signed on with an untenured professor who, although he probably wouldn't say this, has no interest in allowing me to explore my interests unless those explorations will directly--and definitely--benefit him. So when I'm producing like a good little graduate student, why on earth would he encourage me to go explore something different, even if I'm paying myself with outside funds that are in no way related to the project I'm working on or the advisor I'm with?

Let's be real, people; I have a very acute understanding of the nature of my relationship with my advisor. The work I do now will directly impact my advisor's tenure review, and my department has no problem turning down tenure-track faculty when they're up. My advisor has no intention of being one of the people who get turned down.

This is not to say that exploration is discouraged; it's just that I'm supposed to be doing it in my spare time. Working 60 hours a week, spare time is hard to come by. I mean, I've stopped cooking because it takes up too much time. Being partial to sleep, I need 8 hours so that I can survive my day. If I were to take more time to read and think and develop ideas for a new project, the little bitter animal in the corner of my mind would very likely jump up and attack me. I've just recently placated it enough to keep it under control; I don't want to get it riled up again.

So, you say, why not broach the subject with Jeff (my advisor)? I did, in a subtle way. "Once this project is farther along there are other things I'd like to consider working on. How can we go about doing that?" Okay, so it's not that subtle. I saw his mind going, "Oh, no! She doesn't want to work on this anymore! How can I keep her going until I can get someone else on the project?!" He tried to brush it off: "This will get exciting soon." In my mind I'm like, if I'm not excited right now and I've been working on it for a year, just when, exactly, am I supposed to jump up and say, "This is what I've been waiting for all my life!"?

On to point b, the lack of students to pawn the project off on. For those of us working in small groups, especially those overseen by a new professor, it's hard to get out of something because there's usually no one to hand it off to. Advisors like continuity, especially if they're looking for the tenure pay off. Why would you relinquish your hold on an area that is showing promise just because your student wants to move into another area? If the student is far enough along to have already published a paper in that area, the thought of having that student leave the project is, I'm sure, even more painful.

Speaking of which ... the paper I talked about in Chapter 18 got accepted, with revisions. (Yes!) So, unless there is some student eagerly waiting in the wings to steal my thunder, it might not be easy to wiggle out of this one anytime soon. Case in point: Jeff's comment at our second discussion on exploring other avenues, at our weekly meeting. He said, "We will have to see what the first-year students want to do when they get in, then we'll see." What am I, chopped liver? Who cares what the first-year students want, put them to work! Just because they haven't done any work yet, we consider their desires before mine? Okay, sorry, I had to let it out.

One way of getting out of a project, it seems, is if the project really isn't going anywhere. If you've tried and tried, and done everything you could and nothing seems to work--that is, if you've proven yourself, and the project, a failure--then you're more likely to be able to move along, rather than to languish. In my stubbornness, I believed I could make it work. So I kept going, despite Jeff's obvious frustration, and somehow I eked out some results. So it's my fault; I should have quit while I was behind. Bottom line: If, as a graduate student, you want to maintain some control over your professional life, it helps to be either a beginner or a failure. Let's move on to point "c."

If this much time is invested, how long will it take to get this far on another project? I've been on this project for about a year now, and we are just beginning to get promising results after some technical difficulties in the beginning. I plan on being out of here in three more winters; to start something else or to switch advisors would take time. In addition, none of the other advisors in this department are working in the area I'm currently interested in, either.

On the other hand, I am now a more seasoned graduate student. I'm not as harried or as nervous, and I feel like I might occasionally know what I'm doing and talking about. So maybe it wouldn't take as much time to get going on another project.

Maybe I should just finish up this project, then make the change when I start my postdoc. A postdoc in a new area--the one I've just discovered that I'm gung-ho about--would get me into that new area, and then I'd have two sets of skills: the ones I learn in grad school and the ones from my postdoc. So now, all I have to do is make the time to explore the literature in the areas I'm interested in, make the contacts at the meetings and conferences, and start contemplating the next stages of my life. Yeah, I know, I'm only a second-year grad student, but it's never too early to pick your head up out of the fertilizer and say, hey, I wonder what's over there?

So what should I do? Advice from anyone out there that has dealt with this particular issue would be great (send e-mail to micella_phoenix_dewhyse@hotmail.com), and I'll share in the next column. Off to the madness.

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.