“Some people just don’t have what it takes.”
Those words cut like a knife, so carelessly uttered by my thermodynamics professor as I sat facing him. The door was shut; my exam sat between us, just a couple of red numbers splashed across the page amounting to the lowest score I’d ever received on… anything. Pages and pages of work were piled beneath that first page, all ignored because I had made the wrong assumption in the first problem.
I had just asked my professor for help, hoping he could explain what I could have done.
I don’t even remember how the rest of the meeting went. Did I respond? Did I just continue on, asking about the next question? Did I walk out?
If a professor had said that to me a year earlier I would have been indignant. If a teacher had said that to me in high school, I would have laughed and said, “Are you serious??” then brushed it off completely.
But in grad school, it was different. All of my confidence had been stripped away by slights, belittlement, and blatant insults to my intelligence within the first few months of my chemical engineering PhD program. Condescending remarks were slipped into each and every lecture.
“Obviously, you would then use separation of variables on Laplace’s equation.”
“Clearly, this problem is over-specified,”
“From kindergarten, you’ll remember that the P-V diagram looks like this…”
I shit you not, someone said that.
Guess what? It wasn’t obvious to me to use separation of variables. It wasn’t clear to me that the problem was over-specified. I didn’t learn P-V diagrams in kindergarten. But you know what I did learn in kindergarten? How to treat people with respect – something completely lost on the upper echelons of academia.
My classmates and I would work on assignments together and study together, thinking a collective brain would be better than one. It always was. I don’t think any of us would have done as well as we did without relying on each other for help. But as helpful as these group study sessions were, they tended to lower my self-confidence a little bit with each one.
Any time I felt like I was lagging behind, or needed someone to explain something I’d never even heard of, I felt like an idiot. Often my questions would be met with,
“You never learned [insert archaic engineering mathematical technique here]?”
“Oh, you just [something I didn’t know how to do] and then take the [something I’d never heard of].”
While my peers never meant to make me feel this way, it always amounted to me feeling completely unprepared and as if I didn’t fit in with this elite tier of engineers.
I was an imposter.
It’s not like I was completely unprepared for grad school, either. I went to the University of Wisconsin – Madison for undergrad (Go Badgers!), a top-tier program for chemical engineering. I did undergraduate research for 2 years, and had 4 internships in my field. I studied constantly, did my homework, and my grades were excellent.
So why did I feel like such an idiot? My grades were still good. I was completing my work. But it’s not really about the grades in grad school. It’s about becoming an expert in your field. Let’s just say I wasn’t about to call myself “Einstein.”
But then I think most of us felt that way. It’s to be expected from a PhD program like ours. They have to make it difficult or they wouldn’t get to keep their bragging rights. The suffering is a matter of pride. And that’s fine, actually. It wasn’t the difficulty of the work that made me want to quit my PhD. I could handle difficult to impossible assignments. What I struggled with most was feeling like I wasn’t smart enough, like I was an imposter. In reality I was, at the very least, a perfectly average student in the #2 ranked chemical engineering PhD program in the country.
Somewhere behind my newly acquired insecurities lie my old, confident self, who knew that I hadn’t cheated the system, and that I deserved to be where I was. That part of me knew that this was just something I had to get through, and that imposter syndrome was part of the deal.
But still, I felt alone.
I wanted to quit my PhD.
I felt like I was the only one who felt this way – that I didn’t belong. Over time I began to lose interest in science and completely lost interest in my courses. I wanted so badly to quit my PhD, but I felt like I had put in too much effort to throw it all away.
I would feign interest among my classmates and faculty and come home in tears. The first two years of my program I dragged myself through intense coursework and qualifying exams for a subject I had come to hate. All the while, I forced a smile on my face for fear of someone finding out I wasn’t a real engineer, that I was an imposter.
So why didn’t I just quit my PhD? It would have been easy. I could have gotten my masters, gotten a job at one of the companies I’d interned with in the past, and lived my life. Even without a masters I would have been just fine. Chemical engineers were in high demand. But I couldn’t quit my PhD. Every time I considered it, I felt like I had suffered through the worst of it, and that it had to get better from there. And if I quit, then I would be proving my insecurities right. I would have been an imposter.
Then after passing my qualifying exams in my second year, I suddenly felt free. For the first time in grad school I had validation that I belonged. That I was good enough. Free from the obligations of my coursework, and a hefty research plan ahead of me, I eagerly jumped into my research that would consume the remaining 3 years of my PhD.
After several months, the excitement and satisfaction started to fade. My projects started to pile up and I began to run out of solutions to the endless string of research disasters. New challenges turned into continuous failures as nothing seemed to go right. I was losing interest, even in my own research as I realized nothing would ever work the way I had hoped and there was little chance my research would have an impact beyond my own lab bench. Apathy set in.
I started dreaming of other things.
Again, I felt like I didn’t belong in engineering. Around that time, I started this blog. I’ve told the story of how it all began, but I never really told the backstory of what I was going through at the time.
The truth is, this blog brought me back to the person I used to be and the person I wanted to be. I went from feeling apathetic at work and binge watching episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” with a glass of wine every night to waking up at 6am and staying up late just to squeeze in a few more hours of blogging in my free time. I loved it. This blog brought me satisfaction in my work and gave me the drive I’d been missing for so long.
I’d like to say that this helped me cope with the pressures and feelings of inadequacy in grad school, but the truth is, it made me realize what it felt like to be truly driven by my work, and only highlighted the issues I was dealing with during my PhD. I dreaded going into the lab even more, because I had something else pulling me away – something rewarding that made me feel like my efforts were valued.
But the end was nowhere in sight.
By my fourth year it seemed that nothing was working with my research, I had been delayed over a year by an equipment failure that destroyed my entire cell-line and forced me to isolate and expand a whole new lot. That new cell line then got contaminated with mold, thanks to a facilities failure reversing the air flow in the ducts throughout the building, sending contaminated air into the cell culture room.
My bioreactor had suddenly and irreversibly started killing anything I put inside it, and no toxicity test or control experiment could provide a shred of insight. The surgeon I had partnered with for my pre-clinical studies had permanently left for Singapore half-way through the study, and his replacement had come in like a tornado, nearly destroying my chance at publishing our results.
I watched my senior classmates enter their fifth, sixth, and seventh years of grad school and wondered if I would ever get out. I had been told the five year plan was pretty typical, but I was quickly realizing that there were no guarantees. I wasn’t sure I could pull this off for another 2-3 years. I dreaded that my advisor would secure more funding, which would have sealed my fate for an extended tour of duty.
I was incredibly depressed. I started gaining weight, drinking more, losing interest in doing things with other people. I felt hopeless, and I thought I would never finish.
I wanted to quit so badly, but at the same time I couldn’t bear to think of all of my hard work and suffering the past four years going down the drain. I couldn’t let that happen. So instead, I cried myself to sleep. I called my parents and could get a few words out before I choked up and started crying. I’d open up a bottle of wine, and try to think about other things. I distracted myself with tv shows, walks with my dog, food, facebook. But every few months, I’d break down again, and spend the night sobbing, wondering what I was doing with my life. I was destroying my self confidence and my mental health for a career I didn’t even want. To top it all off, I felt incredibly guilty for feeling so miserable, for snubbing this opportunity to get an advanced degree and get paid a monthly stipend in the process. I should have been more grateful I was accepted into this program, had the opportunity to learn from the best and conduct pioneering research. Instead I just felt awful.
I wanted to quit my PhD.
My husband, Garren, thought I should quit. My parents said they would support me. I had everyone’s blessing to kiss that chapter goodbye after four years of misery – but I didn’t.
Prior to grad school, I had never struggled with depression, never dealt with such insecurities, and had never been faced with such an existential crisis. I hated what had become of myself. I hated how I felt about myself. And I knew that I was stronger, that I was better than that. That is why I could not quit. I couldn’t quit my PhD because then I would be giving in to the weaker version of myself. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want to continue in engineering. It didn’t matter that I had lost interest in my research. I couldn’t let that be my story. I knew I was stronger than that.
I’d been hiding my true feelings (as best I could, at least), but part way through my fourth year I came out of the closet, so to speak. I sent my advisor an email, a heavy email at that. Most of our exchanges had been curt, straight, and to the point, not to be hindered by pleasantries, or personal feelings. This email was different.
I spilled my guts out, in the most professional way I could muster, and told him everything I was struggling with. I told him I had been unhappy in the lab, that I felt like it was impossible for me to succeed, and that I was being spread too thin. I admitted that my performance was suffering, and I was losing hope as I realized that success was impossible regardless of how hard I tried.
I went on to explain the existential crisis I was going through in engineering, and my loss in confidence and passion for the work. I felt my ability to continue was threatened. I did not want to give up, but I needed something to change.
It was the most terrifying email I have ever sent. I still can’t believe I sent it. It was 700 words completely outing myself, with no guarantees as to what the repercussions might be. I was a crumpled mess on the floor, my laptop on the desk above me, my email drafted and proofed, just waiting to be released into the world. Tears streamed down my face as Garren encouraged me on to just hit send. I knew I had to do something, or I’d never make it to the end.
I can’t really say that much changed after that. A few of my responsibilities were temporarily shifted around, and a few tasks were cut from my to-do list. But the unexpected outcome from me sending that email was that I suddenly didn’t care if people found out how I’d been feeling – how I still felt. That Friday, at a department happy hour, I told some of my friends that I’d almost quit that week. I shared my disillusionment with my labmates. They were surprised.
But then, they started to tell their own stories.
So many of my friends were going through a lot of the same issues I was facing. They felt incompetent most of the time. They were disillusioned with their work. They felt guilty for not being better scientists, or for not caring more about their research. They were overworked and undervalued by their out-of-touch advisors. They wanted to quit their PhDs.
It was something we had never talked about. No one had mentioned it. But so many, so many of us felt the same way. As sad as it is that an entire group of people can stifle that kind of baggage, and keep it bottled up, it made me feel better to know that I wasn’t the only one. I found some support knowing I wasn’t the only imposter, and it made me feel somewhat normal again. I’m not sure how I would have made it to the end without that.
So I kept going.
I accepted the fact that I was not going to be the best version of myself in grad school. I accepted the fact that I couldn’t handle it all. You may have noticed, I stopped posting regularly on this blog. My sister helped me this past year with some incredible guest posts from her travels with our dad through Argentina. Once those were out, I stopped posting altogether in April. I had to dedicate my time to two things. My PhD, and taking care of myself so I wouldn’t quit my PhD. Sometimes that meant giving in to a night of feeling shitty and miserable. Sometimes that meant staying up until 4am trying to make a thesis out of the mishmash of experiments that had plagued my existence the last several years.
I spent my fifth year toeing the line of insanity as I tried over and over to make my experiments work. I dreamed of wrapping up my experiments cleanly and neatly, tying little bows on each data set. I wrote and rewrote a manuscript to finally get my pre-clinical study published. Eventually it all got done, without the bows, but done. I was feeding my samples and tending to my bioreactor in my graduation cap and gown but somehow I got it all done. Oh yeah, and somewhere in there I wrote my thesis, defended, and I passed.
So I didn’t quit. I got my PhD in chemical engineering. What I’ll do with it, I’m still not sure, but I am so glad I did it. If I had quit my PhD to end the insecurities, depression, and misery, I’m afraid it would have been followed by just one thought: that I really didn’t have what it takes. Even if it weren’t true, I would have always had that nagging virus of a thought in the back of my mind. Now I will never wonder.
I guess I’m not some people.
If you are in a PhD program and would like to share your experience, please feel free to share in the comments.