For me, graduate school was supposed to be the next exciting life step after receiving my undergraduate degree, yet I could never have prepared myself for the mental fatigue and instability I would endure and continue to endure.
Since my doctoral degree began back in 2017, I have always felt like a “problem child”, whether that be in my lab, in my committee, or in my department. I typically point a finger at my imposter syndrome for making me feel this way; however, some people’s words and actions during my journey have merited considerable attention as to why I feel emotionally depleted.
What I mean by “problem child” is that I feel I cause inconveniences, errors, and unnecessary work for others simply by existing. You might also experience this, and I give a big virtual hug to whoever does. Likely, imposter syndrome is to blame. If you are unfamiliar with this term, people with imposter syndrome experience feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt continually, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. In my experience, this happens regardless of whether I really know what I’m doing, or even when I achieve awards and recognition for my work. Several examples come to mind of times I have felt like an “imposter” in food science.
A small error, a lasting impact
The first I want to bring up because it is so minimal yet weighs so heavily on me. A while ago I submitted an Institutional Review Board (IRB) amendment to change the populations of my study to add another group of children. It was such a small modification, but the IRB liaison for my school continued to send it back and said I needed to fix something. I fixed it. A week later we get it back saying to fix the thing I fixed. And this happened probably four times. Further, the IRB person was sending it to my PI who was then forwarding it to me. It was embarrassing. Was I dumb for not knowing how to further fix the problem? And why does all of the communication have to go through the PI every single step? PIs have enough emails going on, and they don’t need to hold our hands during IRBs that we created and are in charge of. It made me feel like someone was tattling on me to my PI. The problem ended up being that the IRB guy wasn’t clear enough in his instructions, but I finally fixed it. It was resolved on the site… but not in my mind.
This is probably a good spot to mention I was diagnosed with anxiety in 10th grade. So my anxiety in this situation made me question, “Why did I create this unnecessary problem for my PI?” and “I bet other students don’t require this much back and forth with the IRB”. This went back and forth in my mind for weeks as I ruminated through negative, anxious thoughts. The way these seriously miniscule situations manifest into your brain is fascinating, and I’m thinking of charging rent for how long they seem to stay.
Shortlisted but feeling like I fall short
Another potent example that remains imprinted on my mind is the time I was selected as 1 of 6 finalists in an oral research competition. This occurred during COVID-19, and it was quite interesting to set up a virtual presentation. I’m sure we all have the same anxieties about WiFi dropping out or having audio issues. What ended up occurring was I gave one of the best presentations of my research career. I also thought I did a decent job answering the two questions I received. The adrenaline was running through me, and I couldn’t wait until they announced the winners. I’m sure you predicted the outcome: I did not place. Not even an honorable mention. Whoa. Actually more like “woe”. I was extremely unwell after this occasion. And sadly I couldn’t get myself to feel happy that I even got to be a finalist. No. My brain was disgusted by me. My research isn’t “sciencey” enough, or I stunk at answering questions, or maybe people just didn’t understand my presentation. It didn’t matter how many friends, or labmates, or even my PI reached out to say how wonderfully I had done. Nothing mattered because I didn’t get validated by the judges and thus I wasn’t as good as anyone that won. This validation thirst is real. It also did not help that another person in my lab presented and won 1st place. I am everyone’s biggest cheerleader, but it’s hard because that added a component of “Will my PI compare us and our worth?”. I have the best PI in the world by the way, so he doesn’t do any of this. But big old brainy brain likes to create theater in my head, which are mostly dramas.
Candidacy – not cut out for it?
Yet, the most agonizing part of graduate school for me centered around candidacy. Surprise, surprise. Please buckle up, this is quite the candidacy experience. I had two sections for the exam: a written exam that was take-home and an oral exam with my committee two weeks later. I thought I was being cute, as I set my candidacy oral exam for Valentine’s Day. Leading up to February I started struggling to fall asleep or sleep through the night. I’d say I was averaging less than 6 hours a night, and most of this sleep was not enough to energize me through the day. It became very concerning when I started having hallucinations and hearing sounds that were not there when I’d try to fall back asleep after being awoken at early hours (confirmed not real because my dog usually hears everything and slept through these “sounds”). Additionally, I experienced sleep paralysis, where I’d be aware that I was having a stressful dream but couldn’t wake up no matter how hard I tried. This was an intense experience to say the least. Finally I had had enough and my psychiatrist referred me to a sleep specialist. The sleep specialist revealed that she believed I have narcolepsy. Now narcolepsy is portrayed a certain way on TV, but what this meant for me is that I have excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and just felt unhappy with my sleep patterns. To confirm the diagnosis, I needed to take a sleep study where they would look at my brain as I slept. Yet here I am still without a definitive diagnosis – COVID-19 shut down the sleep study offices – but I digress.
Without sleep, I had little will to study (although I forced myself). My focused and typically innovative mind was not there; instead, I was a robot who just really tried to get through every day without an issue.
Time came to take my written exam at home. I had 72 hours but was told to only use 6 hours on each test. I had 4 tests, one from each committee member including my PI. Cool. So I hunkered down and finished these tests on time and actually felt proud of myself because 1) I was running on no energy and 2) I felt I did a good job synthesizing data to make my responses.
Two weeks passed, and it was the day of my oral exam, which was supposed to be two hours of my PhD committee asking me food science questions to test my knowledge. Not only did my imposter syndrome tell me I would never be prepared enough, I also just constantly questioned if my memory would hold from my lack of sleep. I arrived with false confidence, a box of coffee, and sweets for everyone to enjoy (which I was told to do by other graduate students as a courtesy to my committee). The first person to speak didn’t start asking about my knowledge, but rather asked how long I had spent on my written exam. I shared with the group that I probably spent 4-5 hours on each exam, but some took longer than others. That committee member then went on to say that it was apparent I didn’t spend my full time on it, as it lacked important details and was too broad. This was probably 3 minutes into my exam, and I already had a pounding chest and felt ashamed.
That is all it took to break me. I was living on little sleep, immense stress (as my dog had been attacked the night before, so I spent time in the emergency vet late at night – luckily he was okay!), and now someone was commenting that I essentially turned in a lackluster written exam. I started to tear up but tried with all of my remaining energy to stop. “Amy, don’t cry, it’s not professional”, I thought to myself. My eyes wouldn’t listen. I sat there sobbing and trying to explain to my committee that I didn’t have much direction given to me besides to only use up to 6 hours for each written exam, so I tried to synthesize information and not “word vomit” on my exams. I had been taught since probably fifth grade to be concise and to the point. Two committee members explained that usually people do “word vomit”, and that is better than being concise because it shows to them that you researched a lot. Damn. I had researched a lot, and I spent all this time condensing the information into a thoughtful yet succinct answer. The committee member who had made the first comment added that from my answers they weren’t aware of my knowledge. Oh, and that usually students use the two weeks in between their written and oral exams to go to each committee member and ask about their answers, which I hadn’t. At this point my self-confidence was gone and most of my makeup was running as I continued to break down.
My PI looked to me and asked politely if I’d like to take a moment to get a drink of water. I jumped at the opportunity to leave this toxic space and breathe, again trying to stop crying but to no avail. I took a few minutes, then returned. During the time I was gone he talked with my committee telling them of my sleep issues (I had kept him up-to-date), and when I came back proposed us to set a new exam date. I hadn’t failed, remember – in fact, I hadn’t even been asked a food science question. But nonetheless, I felt lower than low. I accepted the offer to plan a new date and thanked the committee for allowing it. Everyone left except my PI, and as they exited the one member who had derailed my whole exam asked if they were still allowed to take some of the food I had brought them. Really. Yes, please take the $30 worth of food I spent for no reason. Anyway my PI and I sat there for a while talking about life. He told me that he’s seen candidacy oral exams start this way before, and the confidence depletion typically ends with the person failing. I think he really did me a favor by asking everyone to reschedule. My PI has always been extremely supportive, and he had even previously mentioned to take my time with candidacy as my sleep problems were worsening. I didn’t listen because I wanted candidacy to be over SO badly, as many of us do. I ended up planning my candidacy for two weeks later, again because my anxiety wanted to be done with it. Once my committee knew about my sleep and other life problems, they were more compassionate.
I’d like to point out, though, that certain committee members did not agree with that one person’s “unconstructive” criticism, as I like to call it. I ended up meeting with all four members to “talk about my answers” during that two week period, and I found that one committee member disagreed with having to meet with all committee members to discuss the answers, and they assured me that they thought I knew the knowledge but would use the oral exam to ask me further questions. This committee member also shared their troubles with sleep and showed a lot of compassion. I felt better. But meeting with some other members was more triggering, as they had been the ones who broke me down.
I want to take a brief moment to explain what I mean by “unconstructive criticism” from before. My thought is that in no way was any person going to take the comment about “not spending enough time or giving enough effort on the written exam” well and improve by it. It was a comment that dug deep, and there was nothing I could have changed because my written exam was already over. So tearing me down because of it was not constructive, and it could have and should have been worded in a different way. For example, maybe the committee members could have used my experience to create guidelines for future students taking written exams at home. Here, they could give students more guidance as to what they expect and don’t expect them to know. One of my favorite quotes that came up in research I conducted in undergrad about research ethics is, “I don’t know what I don’t know”. Or, more practically, they could have not said anything and just tested my knowledge during the oral exam, which is what it’s designed for! This could have been a teaching moment, but it turned into an attack.
Anyway, I passed. Hooray? Besides the Italian dinner I enjoyed with my boyfriend (shout out to him and his dog for helping me through one of the most traumatic months of my life), I felt little to celebrate. I felt like a nuisance, an anomaly, dumb, and that I was again the problem child.
I read on Twitter about post-candidacy fatigue and how once you pass, a lot of times people feel unable to focus or get work done for a few months. Try having that coincide with a pandemic… The fatigue and angst and self-deprecation are real.
The solution child
I write all of these experiences with imposter syndrome and unwelcome criticism to remind people everywhere they are not alone. Although I often overanalyze and make up scenarios in my head, I actively go to therapy, practice self-care (for me, that is painting my nails with designs and listening to music by Andy Grammer), and share my stories with friends and family AND other people in academia. You should not bear the weight of graduate school by yourself.
I’d like to leave off with a funny yet sad anecdote that happened recently. I was seeing a psychiatrist via telehealth for the first time and discussing my depression and anxiety. They stated, “I’ve seen students like you before. And let me tell you, it will get better once you graduate.” I sat there thinking, “Okay but lady I have one and a half more years to go, so how do I get through my current situation.” I also don’t understand why it has to be this way in academia.
Why did I get diagnosed with depression my first year of graduate school due to competitiveness and bullying from another graduate student? Why do I feel guilty for having the most supportive PI and still “causing” problems? Why are my friends who graduate shedding tears of relief because they no longer have to endure the sting and long-term trauma graduate school imposes?
I’m tired. Mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially tired. Yet recently I’ve realized that I am not the perpetual problem – academia is. This fatigue, however, will not stop me from sharing my journey, creating positive light in other people’s journeys, and literally fighting for this degree. And just know – if you are doing your degree now too, we can fight through this together. Let’s lead with kindness and be part of the solution.
Amy Andes is a PhD candidate at the Ohio State University studying food science and technology. Amy is passionate about her dog named Franklin, watermelon, her Jewish community, napping, and garbanzo beans. She has started her own food-allergy friendly startup and is changing the world one garbanzo bean (chickpea) at a time. She hopes her career after graduation is geared toward positively changing the food allergy market to offer more inclusive, nutritious, and safe snacks. You can find her on Twitter @amyandes.
If you have been affected by this blog post, help is available. Please see this link for local mental health assistance. None of the content is the blog post is meant to be professional or medical advice. For more details please see our disclaimer.