Ask the grumpies: long term thinking and a mushy brain

Mushy brain asks:

I am a social science PhD who has been out for 10 years now.  I was on the tenure track and am now off it and location-locked in a big city, and unlikely to go back on the tenure track.  I’m currently on the first year of a 3 year contract in a soft-money research-only position.  This job is a mix of research and administration, without a lot of room for publications for me on the current project for the next year as we’re in the start up phase.  I currently have no papers under review and nothing in my pipeline other than this project that has just begun, which is an unusual situation for me.

I’m trying to think about some slightly bigger thoughts than just my current job on the current project.  My boss is supportive of my thinking long-term and thinking about what will come next after this grant.  Also, in a few weeks there may start to be time to work on more variety of things while the data roll in (over 14 months).

But all the ideas I think of sound hard and, while some seem very cool and interesting, they mostly require other people’s help.  I don’t know if I should pursue them.  Also I have other ideas that seem more doable but less interesting.

I suspect I would be kind of a sucky co-author this year, and motivation is very hard.  I currently don’t have any co-authors on anything I’m working on.  The question is whether I should start something and if so, what.  I sort of want to, but I’m not sure I’m able to be a great co-author right now.

Am trying to overcome the thing where my brain feels super mushy all the time.  Mush mush mush.  I wonder if there is a medication for mushy brains.

I dunno.  Do you have wise thoughts?  I would like to keep publishing more papers, but I don’t know how long it’ll be until I feel more capable of focusing on things.

Dear Mushy,

Whether or not you should start new projects is a question only you can answer.  Logically it makes little sense for many academics to work as hard as we do.  Once tenure has been gotten or the tenure-track has been side-stepped, what are the rewards, other than fame, knowing the answers to interesting questions, and an internal sense of well-being?  These are things only you can decide whether or not to care about.

We would encourage you to think about what your end goals are.  Are there interesting questions that you want to know the answers to?  Will more publications help you get your next grant or your next job?  Are there specific people you miss working with?  Does your cv feel neglected?  What is it that is driving this sense of unease?  Once you figure that out you’ll be better able to do a cost-benefit analysis and maybe find some motivation.

As to mushy brain, one of us finds that vit D helps her (her husband needs B-complex).  A friend needs the appropriate levels of thyroid medication.  Sleep is also incredibly important.  Caffeine, chocolate, etc.  If this isn’t a new thing, then perhaps you could get screened for adult ADHD.  Outside of physiological reasons that a doctor can test with some bloodwork, questionnaires, or maybe a sleep study, we don’t really know.  I mean, some people use prescription drugs for conditions like ADHD off-label, but we can’t recommend that in good conscience unless and until those drugs are on-label or your doctor recommends them.

Perhaps our grumpy readership has better suggestions?  Help?

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6 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: long term thinking and a mushy brain”

  1. Susan Says:

    I am in almost the same position except I am in life sciences & my position is teaching focused specifically on teaching undergraduate research.

    My thoughts for you: it sounds like starting a new project and pubs will be difficult right now & will take time to pay off. It sounds like there will be pubs coming from your job, just not for a few years.

    I would think about what you can contribute and see if there are existing projects you can jump on & add your contribution. There are often projects languishing that would benefit from fresh eyes to get out the door. I would start with your supervisor and go from there.

    Could you turn your project proposal (what you are doing now) into a review paper? For longer term, I would be thinking about what is going to come after this grant, and starting to work on that – with the aim to have at least 1 pub in the review stage by the time you are applying for the next round of funding.

    Another strategy that I am using is pivoting to publish in a different field. For me that is esucational research but for you maybe there are technical or applied aspects of what you are doing that you can develop. An example from a colleague: she does a lot of outreach in her NTT job & has published on her lesson plans & basic outcomes of this.

    Final advice: find people in your region who are successful in their NTT research life. It’s sort of a weird transition & helpful to have some other folks to bounce ideas off.

  2. Miser Mom Says:

    I second the suggestion for more sleep. In my own life, I have found that getting a bit of extra sleep makes a surprisingly astounding difference.

    I also find that when I’m feeling ambivalent about a large, ill-defined project, that one of the best ways to find both motivation and direction is just to spend 10 minutes a day doing SOMETHING about the project. Ten minutes isn’t enough that I have to worry about wasting time unnecessarily, and it’s a short enough time that it’s mentally easier for to jump in. Sometimes, I just read a paper and mark it up. Sometimes, I sketch out a flow chart. Sometimes, I write an email to someone else in the field asking them for some information. But doing a little bit, day after day, often helps me to get an idea of where I actually want to take the project, and also gets me jazzed about doing it.

  3. Cloud Says:

    When I’ve been faced with having to decide “big picture for my career” sort of questions, I find exercise helps me clear the cobwebs out. Nothing high intensity- things like a long walk (in my case, usually on the beach), going kayaking, going rollerblading… I think the key for me is that there is some aspect that engages my immediate attention and then the back of my brain can kind of chug away on the question. And I think the increased oxygen intake when exercising helps, which is why just sitting somewhere pleasant and letting my mind wander doesn’t have the same effect.

    In my most recent bout of this, it helped me to break down the questions into steps. First: What do I want out of life overall? Then: What do I want out of the work portion of life? Honestly, once I’d answered those two questions the “what should I do about this particular career choice” was sort of obvious, but if it hadn’t been, that would have been the third outing (or actually the 5th outing, because the other two questions each took a couple of outings to figure out). Because of how my life/work flows, my exercise outings were about one week apart. I suspect that downtime in between was helpful.

  4. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I can only speak to mushy brain which I get pretty frequently due to the fibro.
    YMMV! Walking helps, going outside helps, hydrating a lot helps. When none of those help, I take 15 minutes to do something creative and/or for someone else – cards for the migrant kids, organizing donations, sending a note to a friend, planning to bake something (gathering ingredients or brainstorming, not the actual baking).

  5. becca Says:

    Depression and anxiety (or their subclinical counterparts dysthymia and low-grade-worry-precipitated-by-realistic-appraisal-of-the-state-of-the-everything) are my most common sources of mushy brain. They interfere with long-term thinking. Also, there is a sort of existential angst with not knowing what the next “step” on your career ladder is, and it can be exacerbated by being on soft-money and not having longer term projects available. A few people thrive on variety and getting to change projects (and I like novelty a fair amount, so I get that), but I think in general it’s counter productive for long-term thinking.

    Things I do:
    *Get therapy or pharmaceutical treatment if applicable
    *Get more sleep and more exercise. Exercise that uses my brain to learn new things (dance and martial arts) seems ideal lately. I used to do more swimming laps and running.
    *Take note of my general state of physiological arousal- how ramped up I am. Manage that both upward and downward depending on what I need. I think you need your brain engaged enough for planning, but not starting into worry/what-ifs. Learning to notice this can also help you e.g. identify the best time of day for thinking for you.
    *Care out specific time for planning and unplug- for me, all electronic things interfere with contemplation. It’s hard to do, but useful. Getting out into nature is also particularly good- some people really need walks, there’s some psychological tricks with more open landscapes, ect. Walking with a friend can also be good, if you have someone who is a good sounding board!
    *Get hugs. My kid now knows how to handle my “hug battery recharging” state and can also asks for his own battery recharge and it makes me all mushy in a good way.

    • Sandy L Says:

      Love the above ideas. I’ll also add a few more:

      1. Try to figure out when your head is most clear. For cloud it may be after a walk. For me my most lucid time is the very first thing in the morning at like 5 am. I sometimes keep a notepad handy so I can remember the things most pressing on my brain.

      2. Brainstorm with a friend who is most unlike you. I always had a couple good friends who would always identify things that didn’t even enter my mind.

      3. Try to figure out why you care in the first place. Sometimes I can’t get to a solution because I haven’t accurately defined what the problem is. Once the problem is well defined, then identifying tasks to get to the solution get easier. This to me is often the biggie…not to focus on the symptoms but the root cause of why you feel the need to do more.

      4. Vacations can help. Time away from day to day responsibilities can also help clear the head.


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