Monday, February 20, 2012

A Lost Dream - Un Sogno Abbandonato

Warning: Sorry, Folks, but this posting DOES NOT end with my decision to finish my PhD.

Last night I dreamt that I was having lunch with other students at the Imperial College canteen, as usual, and that nobody (supervisor included) could explain to me what "normalization" is and when is needed or not in an equation. Everyone looked so confused and lost at the table. I left the room totally frustrated, then I woke up. The memory of that dream (with the recursive Bayesian equations mentioned in the dream) was haunting me while I was feeding Tronk breakfast this morning.

Recursive Bayesian Equations

My Facebook Status:
I dreamt that I was working on the last chapter of my doctoral thesis and that nobody at Uni (supervisor included) knew what normalization is for. Painful dream.

You need to get back to studying...
You need to finish
You can do both, just have to wait until William is a tiny bit older and at school
There is no reason why Enrica can't finish once William goes to school. The first baby is most certainly not dead. Just hibernating. : )
4 solid hours a day over 6 months. I bet you finish

Here is my reply to these comments and to all the people who will ever raise the question why I didn't, whether I should, should have or will have to finish my PhD at some point in my life.

I'll start by telling you this. One month ago, a PhD student at Harvard emailed me to ask me to go to her office to talk about  "the state of the art in automated human behavior analysis", a chapter of my PhD dissertation, the thesis I never finished writing. Buried under negative thoughts, I said "NO", with all the pain resulting from that reply. To be frank, the sole idea of having to reopen and look through my ex PhD work was putting me in a state of anxiety and was making me feel bad. The reason is hard to explain.

Since I had William, for a year or so, I could not accept my decision to stop working on my PhD thesis. That PhD in Bioengineering was all it mattered in my life until I met my husband. I had already published three papers with promising results obtained from the analysis of 220 programs I wrote from scratch in Matlab and run on ten different subjects (of which three were real), with complicated equations of Bayesian Inference and of particle filtering.  And I had already completed four chapters of my PhD thesis, that my PhD supervisor had already read and edited. All I was missing was the last two chapters, the one containing the final analysis of the data sets (work which was killing my back) and the chapter drawing the conclusions. I had difficulties understanding some aspects of the complex wavelets that I used in my first year to implement the face detector but I was slowly overcoming these difficulties as I have overcome others. I knew on the other hand that without some foundations in maths, science or social sciences, with or without the PhD,  I could not go very far. See? The more I talk about this the more I feel bad. 

Before I had William, I was hoping to finish my PhD in Boston. Then, after talking to two Professors, one at MIT and another one at Brandeis University, I realized that if I had decided to finish my PhD here in Boston, practically, I would have had to start it all over again and I really couldn't bare such weight, both financially and physically. I have had enough with the four years spent working in the lab, sometimes until 10 pm, sometimes until later. I reached a point  all I wanted was to be done with my PhD, to recover from my back problem, to get a job, to pay my debts and have my personal life back.

But life took a different spin for me. At the end, I was forced to choose between two options: (1) to continue to destroy my health in London with an herniated disk, bank debts and a long distance relationship (2) to move to the US and have a family. I chose to have a family and by family I mean a husband, not a child. My initial plan was to recover from my back problem, get used to living in the US and find a job. I had not excluded, however, the possibility of having a child later in life.

Yet I became pregnant as soon as I moved to the US and this is the first question I had to answer: who is going to be always at home with my child? No doubts it would be me,
 as John was in full time employment and my parents could not help me from Italy. So I chose to give my child a full-time mom for as long as I can and I don't regret this choice. I am glad my child has a mom at home who feels the duty to take care of his needs and education full-time.

I often wonder what I will do when my child goes to school in two and half years time. I ask myself how my life will change. This is the scenario I often imagine:  me taking William to school, then going back home to hurry to prepare lunch to then go to pick him up and take him home to give him lunch. Then find things to do with him in the afternoon. In this scenario I really cannot see my thoughts going on Bayesian equations and on particle filters. 

I am only certain this:
I will not be that permissive working mom saying "yes" all the time to overcome the feelings of guilt from not being at home when my child comes home from school and this by itself is worth a thousand PhDs.

At the same time, when someone asks me what I do for a living, when I am thinking of going back to work or someone mentions something that even for few seconds brings my mind back to the PhD I never finished, there is a fire inside me that starts burning
. And I feel the urge of talking about my past research experiments as if talking about it could serve the purpose of making me feel better.  As a matter of fact, by doing this, all I accomplish  is make myself feel bad.

So, to make it clear to you, the PhD I have not finished is a bit like a baby that I have not been able to save, a baby who died. After that I had a second (far better) child and I am now responsible for taking care of this second child. 
Remembering the days (or dreaming of) when my first baby was alive no longer makes sense and it only makes me feel bad.


  1. Enrica no one was trying to make you feel bad. It just seems a shame as you spent so much time on it. You have to want to finish it. It's your choice .

    Your blog post explains exactly what your thoughts are and it's not where your focus is at the moment.Its obviously on William. The fact it's left so unfinished is the most painful for you. Sorry if I came across as being insensitive on Facebook.

    1. Don't worry. There is a personal and sensitive topic in every person. Ciao, Enrica