Notes from my graduate studies at the University of Toronto in the Department of Computer Science.

On leave

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Most of you that read this blog know this already: I've taken a leave of absence from the PhD program. I'd like to reflect on this move.  When I mention that I've taken leave to anyone, the two questions I often get are, why? and what are you going to do?

So, first the why.  I've been struggling with my life in academia since I began the master's program in 2007.  The story I tell myself is that I've found it a real challenge to find satisfaction in the pursuit of computer science research.  Mostly it has seemed at odds with all of my other interests in the environment, food, mental health, and activism.  Of course, my environmental interests have strongly guided all of the research work I've done so far; my thesis work on software quality wasn't just about any old software, it was specifically about climate software for the express purpose being of some benefit to climate scientists. I've also run or participated in workshops related to climate change for highschoolers and for software researchers, or on software research with climate modellers, participated in many many discussions in our lab exploring the application of software research to climate change and generally to transition. Starting back in August of last year, I took a step back from this pursuit and wrote a post acknowledging my interest in psychology and environmentalism, and later about my need to incorporate activism into my research. These recognitions of my broader interests (beyond just the science of climate change) led me through a year with some wonderful courses and activities

To essentialise, my recent academic focus has been entirely on exploring the question of what software research can contribute in the transition to a sustainable society.  I've been trying to find a way to integrate my interests.  At points I've been truly hard on myself for not having a good answer to this question, or for not even enjoying the exploration of it. In the time I've spent exploring this question (a little over three years now), I've not found anything that has strongly held my interest.  I've found nothing in the mix of computer science and environmentalism that inspires me.   Moreover, I feel as if I've exhausted myself in the effort of trying to find it. 

I'm pretty sure my exhaustion is as a result of the way I've been approaching research (that is to say, it's not that I think the project of computational sustainability is intellectually bankrupt).  I wish I could tell you in detail about what my approach has been and why I think it has led to this exhaustion (beyond being hard on myself), but I'm only now starting to get the distance to be able to reflect with any clarity.  At the moment, it's still all a bit of a muddle.

I spent a long while considering the move to take a leave of absence.  Originally when I transitioned into the PhD program I had set myself an arbitrary period of a year to discover a research project I felt was worth pursing.  As my deadline approached, I started to feel a real anxiety over the decision. It felt uncomfortably binary: stay and keep searching, or give up the search and leave the program.

Staying began to feel like condemning myself forever to a wandering purgatory, and leaving felt like giving up an amazing privileged and opportunity.  I had myself thoroughly wedged between these two options.  To add to this drama, I can be a moody person and with some regularity find myself in multi-week long slumps (which vary from acedia to a more deep and despairing depression).  Stir this all together and I was feeling pretty darn incapable of much other than just going through the motions.

In the depths of this state I spoke with one of my friends and mentors, who pointed out that I seemed to be obsessing with doing.  As in, all I was asking myself were questions about what I should do next, and what I should be doing in order to be of benefit, or do in order to get myself out of my muddle, etc.  He noted that I seemed to be neglecting being, and that maybe it was important for me that I actually do not try to make a decision to do anything.  To resist making a decision would allow me the space to get a better sense of myself and my interests.  And so, I took the option of a leave of absence.  In effect, it's a decision to not make a decision.

That's the why.

This leave isn't just a delay though, a pause button.  The important thing for me is how I am conducting myself now that I've left, and the attitude I bring to this time.  I've been earnestly trying to explore this idea of being rather than doing.  I'm typically always compelled to do things, to be productive in some sense, to take some action in the world that has some impact.  But right now I am attempting to take a step back from myself and observe what's happening when I have those impulses.  What is driving them? In what ways am I attached to them? What happens when they are frustrated, or when I purposefully choose an indeterminate path that neither satisfies or obstructs?  What would happen if they were never satisfied, then who would I be?  The attitude I'm trying to take with all of this is one of curiousity with myself, and an openness to not hold myself to the ways I, and others, have traditionally held me to.  

If you must know, in terms of what I've actually been doing with my time: I have been journaling quite a bit, attempting to keep a regular habit of sleep and meditation, running much more, taking formal instruction in yoga, and a doing few other sorts of the known healthy things to incorporate into one's life.  I've also been taking time out to sleep in the shade of trees, and appreciate the summer weather, and spend time with friends.  Additionally, I've also been volunteering at the usual places, as well as reading books and listening to lectures on cognitive science and mindfulness. 

So that's that: the why and the what.  Now you know. 

EDIT: I forgot to include one important thought that has been with me through all of this.  I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to be in the position to even have this decision about school to make.  And even more, to have the luxury now to take this time off from work altogether (though I am picking up the odd day of work here and there).  My father calls this a "necessary luxury" which I think is a wonderfully oxymoronic, yet somewhat truthful, phrase.


Ainsley Lawson said...

I feel proud of you. :)

jon said...

Thanks Ains!

Carolyn said...

Maybe what you have to do is find a way to be while you're working on whatever comes after the break. It's tough. And I feel the muddling through the wilderness for something that ignites a passion in me. I hope you find a way through the burnout.

jon said...

Thanks Carolyn. Yeah, partly I think there is a question of the attitude I've been bringing to my academic life which I'm re-examining now.

I'm glad you're enjoying the muddling.

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