You are Worth It by Dom Sirianni

As members of the academy, we are constantly being evaluated: with exams, viva, job interviews, grant applications, tenure dossiers, etc. During each stage of our academic journeys, our peers, superiors, and sometimes our competitors pass judgement on our work, and by extension, ourselves. They judge how impactful our proposed research is; how many patents and publications we have generated; how satisfactorily we have completed program requirements; how well we have taught and mentored our students and trainees in the classroom or research laboratory.  In other words, our worth as academics is repeatedly judged by our productivity.  This is, of course, the easiest method by which to assess our worth, but it is also the most impersonal; why, then, do so many of us ascribe so much of our personal worth to these altogether impersonal metrics?  As academics, what exactly are we really worth?

Feeling Unworthy

I grew up in a tiny, rural Pennsylvania town, in a family of teachers.  My aunt taught second grade. My cousin teaches middle school life skills to students with special needs. My father taught history, world cultures, and philosophy at the high school, where my mother is the art teacher — and where I was lucky enough to have taken classes from both my parents. Growing up in this family was challenging in many ways, but it instilled in me a passion for learning, and a drive to help others to learn. Despite originally going to undergrad intent on entering the family business and becoming a high school chemistry teacher, I discovered that I wasn’t ready to stop learning yet, and I decided to go to graduate school to pursue my PhD.

At first, grad school was equal parts daunting and intoxicating. Every day, I realized all over again just how little I understood, and how much there still was to learn. I knew that I would love my teaching assistantship, but despite thoroughly enjoying all of my previous research experiences, what surprised me the most was how much I felt immersed in my research.  I found out that science is a constant expedition into the unknown, where my love of learning new things could roam freely and flourish. As in any relationship, though, the early bliss I felt with my PhD research did not last forever—thanks to exploring an exciting new research topic when preparing for my candidacy examination, and the hangover which inevitably followed. 

In my graduate program, admission to PhD candidacy was predicated on an oral examination before your thesis committee in which you discussed initial progress towards your thesis project and presented an original research proposal, which was to be separate from the thesis research as to be scientifically distinct and novel.  This exercise was meant to be challenging, and most students who successfully passed their proposal examination experienced a “slump,” characterized by trouble focusing, low motivation, and a drop in productivity, due to the cumulative stress and exhaustion from the exam.  Students would typically pull themselves back together within a few weeks or a month, at which point they would be steaming towards completing their thesis and defending their PhD.

Even though most students hated the candidacy exam—especially the original proposal—I loved it. It was an opportunity to go think about new science, and push the limits of what had been done, and it was fun.  It was so fun, in fact, that I almost didn’t make the deadline for submitting my proposal to my committee, because I just couldn’t stop adding new ideas.  Once I passed my exam and returned to my thesis research as a PhD candidate, however, I realized something: I was not as excited by my project as I had originally thought.  It was still interesting, but compared with the proposal I had just spent six weeks crafting and falling in love with, my thesis project seemed dull and formulaic. Instead of feeling excited and driven to explore, I was completely disenchanted and disinterested. 

These feelings coupled with the inevitable post-exam exhaustion paved the way to my quick descent into a deep, deep malaise.  I was constantly lethargic but unable to sleep, unable to eat regularly, and disengaged with not only my research but also my personal and professional relationships. Something was very, very wrong, and my productivity ground nearly to a halt.

I kept asking myself why I wasn’t making any progress towards my thesis project; why I wasn’t enjoying even my passions any longer; why all of my relationships seemed to be crumbling. All of my classmates were able to pull themselves together after candidacy, so why wasn’t I? Should I even be in grad school? Should I even be in science?  

Should I even be alive? 

After more than a year and a half of existing as a zombie, as an empty shell of a person wearing a happy mask but with no primordial spark of life, I finally took my wife’s advice to seek out professional help. I made an appointment with the counseling center on campus, and after a few sessions with a therapist, I was told that I exhibited traits of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  I was referred to a psychiatrist who confirmed my diagnoses and prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to treat my illnesses.  Even as my symptoms subsided and I continued treatment and therapy, I couldn’t shake the reality that I had at that point lost nearly two years of my life to a disease that I had initially refused to acknowledge.  Even more than that, however, I was two years behind on research productivity that I would never get back, a transgression for which I felt immeasurably guilty. 

As an academic, I had always been told that the ultimate purpose of a PhD is to advance human knowledge and understanding, even by the slightest amount.  According to academic standards, therefore, I had failed by not producing novel scientific results during the time when I was immobilized by my depression and anxiety.  I felt that I had failed my advisor, my colleagues, my collaborators, my classmates, my university, and even science itself by not being productive. 

According to the standards set by academia, I was worthless, and because I had accepted the perspective of academia without question, worthless was exactly how I saw myself.

So, why am I still here?

Looking back, I realize now that my guilt and self-loathing was fueled by an incomplete understanding of what Depression and Anxiety actually are—legitimate illnesses—and not a crutch, an excuse, a shortcoming, or a personal failure.  While Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder share their names with common emotions or feelings that everyone has or will experience at some point, they are wildly different in their severity and presentation (to distinguish them, I’ll capitalize the disorder, not the feelings). In my experience, the feeling “depressed” is like a temporary combination of sad and tired, where I just feel like sitting on the couch with a cup of tea and watching an upbeat movie, and is usually a response to a situation in my life not going as I’d hoped.  Similarly, feeling “anxious” is like a nervous anticipation or excitement for some future event.

Depression, on the other hand, feels like I am being smothered under a shroud of hopelessness, where I cannot breathe deeply, sleep, eat without nausea, or think clearly, all of which can persist for days or weeks on end, and which occurs without warning or precipitating event.  Similarly, Anxiety rapidly projects me into a state of existential terror, where I feel like I must either run away or freeze in place to avoid certain death, in response to a situation that does not reasonably warrant that response (my first full-blown Anxiety attack was in response to my failure to put the dinner rolls into the oven early enough so that they would be hot when my wife and I sat down to eat supper).  

At the time I received my initial diagnoses, I shared the common misunderstanding that like any other emotion, anxiety and depression were things that individuals could actively choose not to feel.  This falsehood had been fed to me by one of the most basic tenants of Western society and culture: that a person can achieve anything they set their mind to by simply wanting it hard enough. This edict has been used to attribute everything from drug addiction to PTSD and obesity to a lack of moral fortitude and laziness, but the truth is that life is always more complicated than it may seem. As it turned out, this was something I needed to confront before I could move forward to a life of my own making, rather than one made by my illness.  

As academics, our worth is constantly under evaluation from all directions. The truth is, however, that we—and we alone—have the power to define our own personal worth. I implore you, reader, to choose your definition for yourself, rather than to accept without question a definition set by anyone else, especially academia. 

You are worth it.

Dom Sirianni

Dominic A. (Dom) Sirianni, PhD, is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, USA, working to study chemical reactions with potential anti-cancer properties using quantum mechanics and high-performance computing.  Dom earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2015, and his PhD in Theoretical Chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in May 2020.  Outside of the academy, Dom is an avid hiker, bicyclist, guitarist, and clays shooter, who loves gardening with his wife Theresa in between (now virtual) visits with family.