May. 31st, 2015

pastwatcher: (dragontail)
Ursula K. Le Guin has a blog, on which she invokes her freedom not to interact with readers. I think that's wonderful, but then I love so many things about her writing, I'm content to admire her from afar.

She did reply to a struggling grad student though, saying "grad school is a very dangerous place", even comparing its stress levels and mental health risk to Afghanistan. I think that's not an appropriate comparison to toss off without an argument, but I would say that grad school is dangerous. Not less so for me than that student, having constantly delegitimized my own depression and isolation, because after all it's a huge privilege to be in a PhD program with funding.

I would tell people I care about: don't do it because you're ambitious, or not do it because you feel inadequate. Don't even do it because you might regret missing the opportunity. Maybe do it if you love the subject itself so much, that you want to take a chance to be trained in it more deeply, that you'd want the learning even if there were no degree at the end. If you love the craft so much that you are willing to put up with a dysfunctional apprentice system. If you go down this road, make sure you have the strength it takes, or the support it takes, not to lose track of yourself, your priorities, and your mental health, in case things get hard. Make sure you are dreaming of multiple futures.

I don't think I regret doing grad school; I've always loved math, and I have learned so much, and have enjoyed being so sharp and curious. I really am excited to see where else my analytical skills take me. And when I talk about the things I really want to do, rather than dismiss them as too hard to bring about, it makes me energetic and creative rather than depressed and overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, I might wish to go back and tell myself to quit after my third year, that once that loss happens that makes me know my personal life is more important than anything else to me, I won't get over it. That is, I won't go on just as before. I won't be able to have as many joyful moments of immersion in math, although I will be able to make something I am proud of. I will meet the love of my life as I know it, and that will give me this strange feeling that now there is no ideal time in my life to look back to, that choosing one would always mean giving up some joy and light.

I'm defending my thesis on Wednesday. I have the summer to add more to the draft I sent to my committee last week. Last Tuesday evening, I finally filled in the last link in the chain for my main theorem, and stopped being afraid that it would all fall apart. At long last the prospect of writing more is not panic-inducing or overwhelming, and is a project I can handle. And the idea of co-writing a paper even after (or while) graduating, is also exciting.

There is a professor coming to speak tomorrow, whom I haven't seen since he visited Harvard in 2007, because he's been in England. He taught me freshman math major stuff including differential forms, and then taught me basic topology. Six years later, having finally figured out what subfield of math I wanted to do, I looked up what he does now, and it turns out he's in the same field! (Actually it seems he has one foot in symplectic and the other in algebraic geometry, but many symplectic people have another foot in something.) I can't help wondering if his way of approaching things was really so influential and appealing to me, that I kept looking until I found something like it. It is that specific part of the world of ideas, that I will miss.

I'm looking forward to seeing Tom tomorrow. He and his wife did advise me to make my decisions based on how much I loved math or didn't, not on how good or not I thought I was. So it will be strange to tell him I'm done with academia, and that I don't quite know what happens next. Strange, but all right, I think.

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