Note: Norah Koch is a pen name. The Voices of Academia team have worked with the blogger to ensure they have a support network in place.
[Trigger Warning: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation]
I was seven years old when I read about a student who committed suicide because he failed his high school exams.
Back then, I used to read the newspaper daily. I was exposed to all kinds of information in the newspaper. I did not dwell much on thinking about the student. I didn’t know the person, and I did not feel any sadness. Newspapers usually have more bad news than good news anyway. I didn’t even understand what it meant. Someone died because he got bad grades. That was it.
I didn’t even bother to question why someone would commit suicide over bad grades. Let’s say that I was young when I read the news. Then again, I didn’t ask this question myself until I was a Masters student. Until I faced mental health issues because of academic pressure, I didn’t care about suicide. Now it sits in my thoughts.
To be a robot is to succeed
As I grew up, I noticed more news about suicides in academia. It was surprising to me. Why were these intelligent individuals, the leaders in their fields, feeling they had nothing to live for?
As I advanced in my academic career, I noticed how academicians like to take pride in seeming like they are intelligent, emotionless elites, tireless superhumans who should only work or study. To show any different is to appear weak.
The pressures at different phases of course, may be different. A high school student is perhaps studying hard to get into the best university. A college student, doing everything to gain knowledge, get years of experience and hone their skills in a three or four year program for an entry-level job. A lecturer may be struggling to gain tenure. Regardless of the goal, the pressure is the same. For me, the constant striving, trying to be perfect, that feeling that ‘I am not good enough’ became as common as breathing.
My first experience with the pressure of academia was in high school. In India, every science student has to take an engineering entrance exam if they want to get into elite engineering institutes of India. Like many students around my age, I also joined a coaching centre for the entrance exam preparation.
For two years, my schedule was fixed. I had to reach school at 7am. Around 2pm, I would arrive home. Then, I would change my clothes and eat as quickly as I could before heading to the coaching centre where I had to reach by 3pm. The classes would be over by 8pm. I would reach home by 8:30pm.
My day didn’t end there. From 9pm until 2am, I would study. There was separate study work for the school and the coaching centre. My friends and I used to compete over who could stay awake for a longer time and study longer. The focus felt as though it was on success at all costs, even if that success might be at the cost of my own life.
Of course, I never felt never good enough. There was always a feeling that I wasn’t working hard enough. If I did, why were there no results? If there was any improvement, the improvement was never enough. It wasn’t happening as fast as I wanted. People didn’t have patience with me, and I didn’t have patience with myself either.
I didn’t get into the university of my choice. All that hard work felt like a waste. Although I ended up in a good college near my home, I always felt as if I didn’t deserve it. Everyone was better than me. I wasn’t performing well. Then, thoughts of suicides crossed my mind.
Not good enough
I tried to commit suicide during my Bachelor degree. I wasn’t performing well and it felt like my life was ending because I couldn’t get good grades. I thought that my life was a waste anyway. My mother found me in time. Before that moment, I used to think that my family only cared about my grades. I wasn’t as important as success was. I was crying hysterically when she found me and everything inside me burst. My mother was shaken, but she told me that there was nothing more important than me in her life.
I found this hard to believe. How could my life be more important than some numbers or grade letters on a report card? How could it be more important than getting into the top university in the country or getting a job at a top firm? I had been told how important these things were, but not once did anyone stop and tell me how important I was.
For years, I thought something was wrong with me. Was it impostor syndrome? Anxiety? Depression? Everyone has fancy names for these issues. For me, it was a chaos that pulled me into an unending spiral of darkness, a black noise in my head that made everything way worse than it was.
Something did change after she found me that day. We communicated more. We discussed various issues. We genuinely talked. She made me believe that I was important. In time, she became my source of motivation. Because of her unwavering belief and support, I was able to change for the better. Over time, my mental health improved as well.
My life improved so much after that. I was afraid of failure, but it was not weighing me down enough to think about suicide again. I got into a Masters program and found my passion. I realised my love for physics. After a very long time, I felt that I was alive. I interacted with people more. I read books and started writing. I went to my dream organisations for internships. I made friends who also helped me grow. Those two years, although there were many frustrating and deterring moments, helped me find my passion and give me the courage to follow my dream.
Rejection after rejection
That high didn’t last long.
Before my Master’s degree, I used to laugh at the idea of pursuing a doctoral degree. How could I be good enough for a PhD? Yet it was during my Master’s degree that I realised my love for research and physics under the guidance of some nice professors. I realised a PhD was exactly what I wanted to do.
However, reality slammed onto me like a giant truck after I graduated, and what followed was a prolonged period of rejection. I have forgotten how many times I have applied for a PhD position. I was stubborn about wanting to do a PhD. In fact, to increase my chances of getting into a PhD program, I chose not to take any regular job that would limit me. I worked as a freelancer and started applying for PhD programs.
I applied everywhere in India, but it was a rat race again. I heard about how I needed to have ‘links’ – an unspoken rule in academia that you have to know the right people and mix in the right circles. I e-mailed dozens of professors, but I never got a reply. It was funny how professors in India never replied to my mails, but I got replies from universities from other countries.
But I was set on doing a PhD in India. So, I kept trying. I was called for interviews from all corners of India, but nobody ever selected me, fuelling my depression. Somehow I would always qualify the written test, but I always did badly in interviews.
Because of my experiences failing interviews, I developed a fear of attending interviews. This ultimately led to experiencing a panic attack right before an online interview for a reputed university. I tried to get over my fear and face it, with the encouragement of my mother, but I couldn’t. It was again a dark time for me, where I deeply considered suicide.
When I started to think about how ending my life would be easier than attending an interview, I suddenly had a wake up moment. How could an interview be more valuable than my life? I was tired of trying and getting rejected, but suicide wouldn’t make it any better. Yes, I was suffering, and it always seemed like it was the worst moment of my life. Was getting into a PhD program more important than my life? The answer was “no”.
Even a PhD is not as valuable as my life. I remind myself every day that if I am alive, I can still get a PhD. I can do anything with my future, but if I am dead, I won’t be able to achieve anything.
Reader, I tried again. I can tell you proudly that I got into a PhD program in the field of my choice in a South Korean university. In a few days, I will start my PhD in Physics.
Looking to the future
Reflecting on my experience, I have found that it’s helpful to look at the younger version of myself as a stranger.
What would I say to a child who tried to kill herself because she wasn’t doing well in school? What about the girl who tried to do the same during her Bachelor degree? What about the woman who was facing rejections after her Master’s degree?
It’s hard to track our progress. When we are expecting too much from ourselves, we always want fast progress. But we must learn to have patience with ourselves. One thing I know for sure is that success is not worth more than your life.
We would never expect a toddler to take part in an Olympics. A Bachelors student can’t do as well as someone with five years of experience in research. A Masters student cannot exactly compare to someone who has a PhD degree or several postdocs. Learning takes time, and we must avoid comparing ourselves with others, and give ourselves grace.
I usually tell people that I am the dumbest person in the universe. A lot of people say that I am not. We can be our own harshest critics. Also, if I am the smartest person in the world, it’s likely I would become bored. If I know all the answers, what’s the fun in that? I like seeking questions and finding the answers. There is immense fun in that.
If we love the process more than the final goal, everything changes. It’s not that stressful anymore. If we apply empathy and kindness to ourselves as much as we offer it to strangers, it’s not as difficult to manage discouraging situations. Instead of comparing ourselves to other people, we can focus on ourselves and our progress.
In academia, I feel like so many of us have been running so much that we forget that there is also fun in walking. Sometimes, we should walk and look at what’s surrounding us. Once we have passed through a certain phase, we can’t ever go back to that time again.
I realised this when I was reading emails that my younger self sent me, something I started when I was at my lowest. Sometimes, these random letters from my younger self arrive in my inbox. I read them and find that the writer of those letters feels like a stranger. I have changed. I have grown. I often wonder what I would write back to the person who wrote these letters to me, even though I know I can’t go backwards in time?
Today, I want to tell my younger self, “Thank you for trying so hard and fighting through the depressing days. Because of you, I am where I am today. Because you kept yourself alive and kept trying, you made into a PhD program. Any success or failure is never worth more than your life.”
I am pretty sure that there will be many new struggles during my PhD. I will undoubtedly face depression again. But when that happens, I will take one day at a time, and remind myself of these words to myself: Nothing is ever more important than my life.
If we are alive, there is still hope.