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I'm a senior PhD student at an American university. I have found over the course of my degree that my mood has largely been influenced by how well my research is going. If I make a small break-through then I feel great - conversely, if I am struggling or have gotten stuck on something then it completely takes over me and my mood declines. I know that this isn't healthy and it isn't really fair to the people who care about me.

Does anyone else experience this? How can I make moves to lessen the impact of my research results on the quality of my life?

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    I think a large number of us experience the same thing. I know I certainly do. The solution, however, is complicated. For myself, it manifests as depression / anxiety and I have worked with my family doctor to find the right balance of psychotherapy and medication to, as you say, "lessen the impact of my research results on the quality of my life". It doesn't fix everything, but it helps even things out a bit. – Mekki MacAulay Jun 14 '16 at 17:55
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    Not quote the same but closely related: How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? – jakebeal Jun 14 '16 at 18:41
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    For what it's worth, I don't think it's specific to research. I know many people in other fields who experience something similar. – ff524 Jun 14 '16 at 20:29
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    @ff524 I think you're right that any professional doing highly skilled, creative work will get emotionally involved in their work and have it affect their mood. What makes academic research fairly unique is the time scale of months or years over which success is measured. A lawyer may be depressed after losing a case, but there will be other cases soon after. A doctor may have a patient die, but there will be other patients the next day, etc. With research, all you've got to go on as emotional fuel until your next success is your previous successes, which could be months or years in the past. – Dan Romik Jun 14 '16 at 22:00
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    (continued) The only creative work I can think of that I think is susceptible to something similar to the emotional rollercoaster of research is writing. Writer's block seems to me very analogous to not making progress with your research, and can similarly lead to anxiety and depression due to the similarly long time scale in which success in writing (especially of novels) is measured. Most humans just aren't psychologically geared to go for long periods of time without any positive feedback on the things they spend must of their waking hours doing. – Dan Romik Jun 14 '16 at 22:03

13 Answers 13

83

Does anyone else experience this?

Yes, I'm pretty sure we all do to some extent, and that it's one of the defining characteristics of being a researcher that you get so emotionally involved in your work and are so passionate about it that it has that effect. It can be both a curse and a blessing (see the fantastic question linked to by jakebeal in the comments). Hopefully if you are talented and work hard, it will be the latter more often than the former.

As for how to manage it:

  1. get used to it (I mean that literally, not as a sarcastic admonition) - if you plan a career in academia there will always be ups and downs of this sort. At some point one learns to be patient and not to freak out every time the research isn't going great.

  2. Always have other more "normal" work to do, like teaching, that can help you feel like you're doing something worthwhile even during those times when you're stumped with your research.

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    Caveat: the "normal" work might also go badly, and you might be more prone to perceive it as such if the research is not great. – tomasz Jun 15 '16 at 22:24
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    @tomasz I think the idea (which is largely correct) is that those other "normal" work aspects, like teaching, are less likely to unexpectedly explode in your face, despite you doing most things right. They are more predictable - if you are an ok teacher in general, your next lecture is unlikely to be an utter disaster either. – xLeitix Jun 16 '16 at 10:06
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I agree with others that this is natural, though I'm not sure I would say its unhealthy. It's how you deal with your emotions that may be healthy or unhealthy. Here are some suggestions, which have some overlap with other answers.

  • First, realize that your goal is to learn and understand things, not to get a result today. The world's not going to come crashing down if it takes you months longer to solve something than you hoped, or even if you never solve it. This can help you to enjoy the full range of research, of which "struggling in the dark" is a large part. Barry Mazur's fond of saying "when something is hard, that means it's interesting."

  • Cathart. Talking to other people about your frustrations can help you deal with them, and also give perspect. (Of course, you don't want to vent all the time.)

  • Try to find other things to do so that you feel productive. This is one reason it's helpful to have multiple projects going on at one time, preferably each in various stages, which is common for senior researchers though less common for junior researchers. Maybe you can spend time writing up notes on something, reading papers, or learning a relevant topic, to at least feel like you're accomplishing something.

  • I personally have not mastered separating work life and home life either (I'm also not sure it's necessary), and sometimes I come home down about work. I find it helpful to have an engaging non-academic hobby, to get your mind completely off work for a time. It could be something physical like sports, or less physical like novels/cinema.

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    You scared me for a second with "Barry Mazur was..." Is he not still fond of saying this? – Pete L. Clark Jun 14 '16 at 22:03
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    @PeteL.Clark Well, I wasn't sure, hence the past tense. But I have a solution that shouldn't scare people! – Kimball Jun 14 '16 at 22:06
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For me, the simple attempt is to achieve at least one positive thing a day and hang on to that. If all else failed, I still have something that I can feel happy about. It might be as small as automating some mundane task that I repeatedly did manually, preparing a couple figures that will be useful for some presentation/publications, etc.

Obviously this assumes you have multiple parallel things running, but that is always good anyhow. (i.e. "not all eggs in one basket")

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    I found that if I left something unfinished at the end of the day, then the next day I was ready to finish it. – Jason Harrison Jun 15 '16 at 23:47
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I tend to believe that (some) people choose research because it fills them with emotions, either positive or negative. This is a fuel for your interest in searching. The history of science contains a lot of descriptions of both alternating enthusiasm and depression (often in a milder form).

Tricks that work are often subject dependent. Examples are relaxation, a walk outside. It is often useful to have persons to talk to, and who listen. They know not need to understand what you stuck with. Speaking problemes out loud to somebody sometimes expel... something, and help you solve parts of the issues. I do that with colleagues, and offer them to do the same with me in return. Some collaborations arose from that.

As said by @Burak Ulgut, routine work may help too. When I am good at nothing, I do reference search and fill my reference management library, and leave my mind wander. It feels like gardening, very soothing, which I cannot do at work.

You also have to learn to treat yourself more gently. Savor little victories too, and remember that you often learn more by failures you understand than with illogical successes.

Finally, if all that does not work, or if it worsens, do not hesitate to seek for some mental condition. A lot of creators, artists, scientists, may have a form of mania. It could be hypomania (weak form), that often gets unnoticed, and light medicines can help you maintain some comfort. I learnt by my physician friend that some cured maniacs know how to underdose their medicines to remain in a slightly manic phase, and stay more creative and full of energy.

Warning, the backdraft can be severe, do not try this at home.

7

We're only human. To be born without such emotion would be impossible.

To me it sounds like you're more emotionally attached to your results than you are your performance (execution of process). This is extremely common in any line of work/study.

One thing we have to remember is that certain results are out of our control. We can't completely control when we are "winning" or "losing". All we can completely control is the amount of effort we exert.

Instead of totally focusing on the results your actions generate, how about becoming emotionally invested in your performance.

If you work smartly on a research problem all day, then you can feel good. It doesn't matter if you've gained the insight your after. You came, you did your best, you deserve to feel good.

Conversely, if you start researching for the day and find your result instantly, should you feel good? Hell yeah, we have to celebrate the wins we get.

But if you then go home straightaway to watch TV for the rest of the day, do you deserve to feel good? I don't think so. Not if your emotionally attached to your performance.

It's great that you've realized that this is a problem for yourself (most people never will). Now you can work on doing something about it. Got out there and become a better version of yourself.

Good day.

TLDR: Results are out of our control. Focus on your performance (execution of process). Evaluate yourself. Justify emotions based on the amount of effort you exude.

7

I am guessing that you identify with being a scientist and focus a lot on research. In this case, it is no wonder that a lot of your feeling of self-worth is tied to how the work is going.

Which is a problem if the work is not going well -- which given science, of course there are phases where this is the case (nobody has done it before!).

Strong suggestion to

  1. Change the time perspective: Tie your work-related feelings of self worth not to the immediate work, but also to your prior work. A mishap in an experiment do not invalidate years of good work (had to be good, otherwise you would not work in science anymore).
  2. Find other sources of self-confirmation (hobbies and the like, something you love to do and are good at). As the saying goes, never place all your eggs in one basket.
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I have noticed that meditation makes my mood much more stable. I don't get as upset anymore when something bad happens. There are meditation techniques to stop physical pain (have you seen monks committing suicide by burning them self to death), never freeze (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tummo#Scientific_investigation), need much less air when breathing (yogis put their head into a small hole for hours, with no air), etc etc etc. Meditation has tremendous effects on your mental abilities and health. Research shows that the brain will change if you meditate a lot, the cortex will thicken (that is where our higher cognitive abilities are). And of course, training does too.

Research have shown that traumatized women that trained and meditated quickly halved their mental problems in a couple of months. Better than medicine, and no negative effects.

Research shows that the only thing that creates new neurons in our brain, is physical exercise. You need to sweat for half an hour, then you create new neurons. But, these new fragile neurons will whither and die unless you exercise vigorously. But, research also shows that meditation feeds these fragile new neurons and grow them so they become full "adult" permanent neurons. So, physical exercise (running) and meditation 10 minutes a day. And in a couple of months nothing will break your peace of mind.

But meditation is a vast subject, monks study it for decades. The easiest meditation is Transcendental meditation. You just repeat a nonsensical word over and over again. That's it. When you reach trance, you will feel a tingling sensation in your limbs, feet and hands. If you are not feeling that, you are not in trance. Read upon transcendental meditation. But do not attend courses, Transcendental schools just try to rip you off money. I've never been to a course, I just repeat a word and listen to transcendental meditation instructions on youtube. That is enough, I get a tingling sensation.

5

It's completely normal.

However, if you do not like the mood swings, you could just completely discourage yourself every time you have success, and then you have a consistently bad mood, with no swings (just kidding, of course!).

Perhaps more fitting is a principle of the Old Romans: "better a battle lost with everything done right, than a battle won by luck." I found that a very useful principle to follow.

You can not affect which breakthroughs you are going to have today or how well your daily progress is going to be. But, what you can do is to choose how you want to work, which pieces of work to concentrate on, how to switch activities when you find yourself stuck and similar.

Introducing a discipline of how to manage the different levels of your activity will put you in control and I predict, also your mood swings will subside when you are in control of what you choose to do (rather than depending on lucky breaks). Breakthroughs are often due to the right strategy being consistently applied with a healthy dose of self-scepticism. Good luck!

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I don't think it is related to academia rather to work in general.

If you are succesfull, you are happy about it. If you are failing, you are disappointed. No matter what you are doing.

In extreme we can identify extatic/neutral, neutral/frustrated, extatic/frustrated or poker-faced mood spectra for people encountered success/fail.

I suppose you are in the third group, so take it easy and try to accomplish a "small win" every day. Or you can divide the task into sequence of tasks and judge them separately.

If we took all the seriousness away, take the inspiration in this fictional man whose scientific outcomes were that he was either late (just bu couple of minutes, honestly) or he proved that something cannot be achieved the way he had chosen...

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This is indeed common.

A partial solution is, as much as possible, to not let "how well your research is going" fluctuate so wildly.

  1. Diversify. Have several threads of inquiry within a project, so that success or failure with any given one is not so destabilizing.

  2. Be more scientific. It's of course forgivable to see negative results as failures (given the reward system) but in a purely scientific sense these are just as valuable. When doing something, be prepared for it to work or not work, and to extract information and further plans from either eventuality. If you are struggling, why? If you can get to the point of formulating your frustrations as questions, you are stronger: maybe you can answer it yourself, and if not you have a contained question to take to an advisor or colleague.

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Yes that is common.

This is due to a strong attachment towards the outcome of the work. [Can easily be understood from Bhagavad Gita]

How to remain detached with the results while still working dutifully?

Well, many people hence take on to various alternatives or "breaks". This might be getting intoxicated a little or munching or chatting (which I consider complicating the dependency or mood).

So that can be tried.

There are many tips on this which depends on time, place and circumstance.

At my office, I know my boss is not gonna kick me anyways. So I always give my best. But if project gets complicated, I slow down (as per his standards). He adds pressure, but I don't freak because I know, he cannot kick me (earlier I would). And what can be the worse? Getting fired? There are worse things that can happen than getting fired. But I try my best to get back in best form.

I know, somehow or the other, the obstacle will clear out. And I also know, another obstacle shall settle in, that's a part of our world. There are no permanent solutions. Only temporary patchworks here and there. And the more we responsibly fight these obstacles, the more we become experienced.

So we can work out many such techniques. To remain detached to the results of work is not an easy task and is a whole subject of spirituality (nicely elaborated in Bhagavad Gita As It Is) to become like that. Most go for the approach - ignorance is bliss. So see, whatever convenient. But very few out of thousands are cry about it [Denotes sincerity, not oddness].

Very few specific meditations help. Not of the types of feeling void and nothingness. They are like forgetting the temporary existence. But fact is, engage one has to ultimately and feel the same. While working, feeling frustrated, one cannot meditate on void. Better give up work and become a full time monk, which also is not very practical in this age. Go for Mantra meditation maybe if you are inclined to spirituality.

3

I'd add my personal experience as an answer. I used to have wild mood swings, depending on how research was going. Sometimes, I would be happy doing what I was doing and I was really productive. Then, without much warning, I'd fall into lethargy and one or two weeks would go by with no progress. Later, it turned out I had bipolar disorder.

Even if you are healthy, you could still learn from sick people. So, to reduce the mood swings, you should make sure you get enough sleep and you have a fixed sleep routine, e.g. go to sleep at 11 and wake up at 7. Eating healthy and exercising will also help a lot. The other thing that graduate students often overlook is socializing, and by that I don't mean getting drunk every evening. These are possible if you impose an upper bound that you are comfortable with to your daily scientific activities.

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What is the likely cause for me to feel like I do?

There are many reasons why one can get too good or too bad results. Try and analyze the probable cause for the results. If you are doing research this can be split into two categories you will frequently encounter.

1) New tools one is not yet proficient in using. If one does not know how the tools are used one can easily misuse and also misinterpret output of the tools for good or bad which will affect emotions.

2) New knowledge one has not yet learned well enough to actually know what one is doing. Expect to be struggling for a bit once you try and get the hang of something you just learned about, and always start with easy examples you know what to expect from (ground-truth).

Hopefully you will over time learn that misunderstandings which boost (or lower) your spirit do happen once in a while. If some result seems too good (or bad) to be true it usually is for one reason or another (of the two above) , so you will learn some skepticism to dampen the worst of the roller-coaster.

protected by eykanal Jun 15 '16 at 13:35

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