Stuck between a quarantine and a hard place

Let me get this out of the way. The world feels too surreal and weird right now. A virus in combination with the indomitable human stupidity has ground the “normal life” to stand-still. However, we are all expected to carry on. And we should. If you don’t get up every morning and crib about the weather or the news or your neighbor, the virus would have won people!

Our university is now a virtual reality and Microsoft Teams is the new meeting room. We are still supposed to carry on with our everyday duties, the only difference being we #workfromhome. I still have to teach a class of graduate students the importance of Life Cycle Assessment and I still have to make sense of my experimental data. As a doctoral student, I also have to publish four papers in reputed journals in my field if I wish to get that ‘Dr.’ before my name (or Anubhuti Bhatnagar, PhD if I were humble) by 2022. Before you roll your eyes in derision, no, this is not the reason why I joined a doctoral program. I do love research and getting paid for just thinking about things but PhD is the license to be allowed to do all the thinking and get paid for it. So right now, it is just about the title.

So far I have 0 papers. I wrote my first research paper in pre-Covid 19 world and submitted it for the process of peer review that all scientists love so much. On 10th March (when Covid 19 had taken over our lives), after three months of anxiously checking my inbox everyday, I received the Editor’s email. They thought my paper was crap and needs to be burned and eliminated from the world or as the editor put it: “I have decided that the manuscript cannot be accepted for publication.” This is the third time my paper had been rejected, and the only takeaway I had in terms of criticism was, “whatever you are doing is wrong.” It is the first research paper I have written in my life so obviously I know it is a bit shit but they could’ve just said, “Accepted with major (Mt Everest sized pile) revisions?”

I don’t take rejection well. So naturally, the first response was two hours of wailing in front of my ever-patient partner. Then I contemplated quitting school and finding some sort of job that provides, what my favorite comedian David Mitchell calls, a long period of bland contentment. But, eventually, I got up, dusted myself off, and began the process of writing all over again.

I had spent past two weeks in recovering and rewriting, along with worrying that the world might end before I get published. Yesterday I mustered enough courage to send the edited paper to a colleague who’s generally given me good advise in lab and my father who is a respected scientist, but more importantly has been reading my crappy essays, articles, and poems since I was 18. My mother’s a scientist and an amateur writer as well, but she’s too much of a cheerleader when it comes to her kids to give an objective response or critique.

I knew something was horrendous about my paper, when in the evening my father called me and said, “First of all, you are a very cute daughter. Now, about the paper…..” and he told me in very polite terms that it looks like I have no idea what I am doing, which is true to an extent. So I went through a lot of second-hand embarrassment while I waited for my colleague to get back to me. Their email started with, “Don’t be overwhelmed with the suggestions, but….”

I realize it sounds self-indulgent and pitiful to be complaining in these trying times about something as trivial as this. But when I read that email, I could feel the old Impostor Monster that lives inside my heart and soul, leap out and perform an interpretive dance about my lack of writing skills. Then it took a couple of cheery laps around the house (because you know…#stayathome).

Obviously I asked them for their help voluntarily, and would have hated if they had tried to mollycoddle me. Additionally, I would much rather get all the criticism now and work on my paper than see another rejection letter. But it is still quiet disheartening to be told (in the most kindest way possible, I should add) that unfortunately I am pretty bad at the one thing I actually like.

The day I got the third rejection, I read a lot of blogs and advisory columns by professors and doctoral students that academic writing is a different ball game, and it really doesn’t matter if you know ten synonyms for the word competence, as long as you’re incompetent at getting through to your peers. Clearly I am a bit overwhelmed by the suggestions and corrections I have to make. But now that my monster has had some fun, and I have wallowed in self-pity on this platform, I hope I can get some work done.

If nothing else, I want to come out of this world-wide quarantine with the writing skills of Shakespeare. Although he’s probably a wrong role model since academic writing is supposed to be compulsively pithy. I should probably be aiming for the skills of Oliver Lowry and his collaborators. By 2014, their paper had over 300,000 citations, which is the maximum for a paper to date.

You can read it here: http://www.jbc.org/content/193/1/265.long

Also this: https://www.nature.com/news/the-top-100-papers-1.16224

Edit on May 31st: I didn’t quite manage to get the hang of the writing skills. Plus had another major breakdown on May 18th and barely managed to keep my sanity. You can read about how my two months went in the next post.

Published by anubhutib

Graduate student in Finland navigating through PhD and trying to have some fun along the way.

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