Today I got an email containing this message:
“[My ex-mentoring professor] is being considered for advancement to Assistant Professor, Step IV which would be effective [date] and we would like to request your assistance with her case. Attached please find a request from Department Chair asking for your evaluation of [ex-mentor]. We are requesting your evaluation on or by April 15th, 2013.”
Initially, this email excited me, and later, it reduced me to tears. To get to why, we have to back up a bit.
As most of you know by now, I just left my PhD program with a master’s degree because of conflict with my mentor. And you also already know that I have um… complicated… feelings about that.
What you don’t know is the details. And I still can’t give you all of the nitty-gritty, but I will tell you a little bit more than I have in the past.
So here goes.
My lab and my mentor are incredibly young/new… me and the other student from my class I joined with were the first two graduate students in the lab. This particular professor, like most new professors, had very little experience managing and mentoring–she’d never so much as TA’d an undergraduate course. She also hadn’t worked with infectious organisms until the very end of her training, and she was booting up an ambitious research program involving multiple pathogens that can infect mammals.
And I was to be the grad student working on said organisms, along with a postdoc. I had worked in multiple infectious disease labs before, and I’m not even remotely squeamish about it. All the organisms I’ve worked with are BSL2 level or below, which is pretty middle-of-the-road when it comes to biohazards. My feeling about BSL2 organisms generally is that you follow the rules and otherwise just don’t worry about it (with one exception: if I worked with HIV, I would be extremely nervous about needles). Even early on, my boss did not like this attitude–she felt I didn’t take safety precautions seriously enough. Mind you, I FOLLOWED the safety precautions, I just apparently didn’t demonstrate the appropriate amount of fear.
But safety wasn’t the initial problem–generally, as long as I was pumping out data continuously, her concern was limited to a small comment every now and then–the problem was that I stopped producing.
See, in the first year of grad school in my program, we all did 3 ‘rotations’–we tried out one lab each academic term (UCLA has 3 quarters in an academic year). The lab I ultimately joined was my last one, and I seriously rocked that rotation, both because I worked hard and because of luck. Rotations aren’t usually that productive scientifically, because they’re very short periods, and often by the time you learn what you’re doing, you move on. But if you’re handed a project that is at the right point, you can really pump out data. Which is what happened to me.
But at the end of the quarter, things changed. During rotations, we also take classes, but as of the beginning of summer, I was in the lab full time. Unfortunately, I made the MAJOR mistake of not clarifying with my professor what was meant by “full time” before I joined… so I was working 50ish hour weeks + weekend animal checks. My boss started making comments about this– “you’re leaving alREADY?” (at 6ish)–around the same time as my project started stalling.
As I pumped out less and less data, despite putting in more hours than during rotation, the comments got louder and more frequent and I got more and more anxious around my boss. This, combined with the fact that I sometimes really had minimal lab work to do because I was waiting for something to grow or a reagent to arrive (and I HATE having to ‘look busy’ at a job more than just about anything), made being in the lab for 8, 9, 10 hours straight increasingly miserable. But I was trying, and thought I was doing as well as could be expected… when my boss sat me down at our weekly meeting and accused me of having “too active of a social life for a graduate student”, and informed me that the bare minimum number of hours to be successful as a graduate student was 60 during the week plus weekends as needed, and really most people needed 60-80 and 80-100 during crunch time.
After this meeting, I went home and sobbed. I’d worked like that in the past, and it had never ever been good for me… my mental and physical health deteriorate pretty quickly if I have to keep up 60+ hour weeks for weeks or months on end… which I’m told is true for most humans. All my friends reassured me that she was just being ridiculous and trying to motivate me, and that I shouldn’t take it seriously… but honestly, I should have known then that I was screwed.
Around this time, I suddenly got very sick. I woke up one night with a severe kidney infection. This had happened to me twice previously during my time in college, so it was a somewhat familiar experience, but an intensely unpleasant one. Kidney pain is the most intense physical pain I have ever experienced–like a knife lodged in your back. Excruciating.
Anyhow, an ER visit, some IV antibiotics, then a weekend in bed with oral antibiotics and narcotics took care of the acute infection… but unlike in the past, the pain never completely went away. Most of the time it was less intense than the original infection, but I went to the ER two more times convinced the infection was back, and I had to carefully ration the few pain pills doctors would give me in order to make sure I could both function at work and sleep at night.
During the initial infection my boss was supportive and sympathetic, but I tried to downplay the persisting pain because of the hours talk. On the days when the pain was too bad to work through, sometimes I went home early. (Grad students generally set their own hours and so long as the work is getting done, this sort of thing isn’t usually an issue.) But I couldn’t keep it up, and eventually I told my boss about the pain and the endless medical tests to try and figure it out. That bought me a brief respite from criticism, but eventually she basically told me to find a way to work the necessary hours or quit grad school/take extended leave.
My doctors and I never did get to the bottom of the pain issue. All that ever showed up on tests was a bit of idiopathic inflammation–effectively my stupid body overreacting to a problem that was long gone. They decided to just give it time, and that eventually helped. The extreme spikes in pain became less frequent, and the constant pain faded to a dull ache. Eventually, it went away entirely.
And things got better in the lab for awhile too, but I never really relaxed there again. I felt I’d been unfairly labeled a slacker, and I went through cycles of trying to push myself on hours to prove myself, then burning out and dropping back to 40hr weeks. I managed, but I felt like nothing I could do would let me be a normal lab member again… I was permanently the problem child.
And then my project stalled again. And again. Since I’ve left, several of the species I was working on were entirely scraped from the project as ‘dead ends’. The more problems I had with my project, the more pressure was on to work more and more hours (though the stress of a stuck project probably meant I needed MORE time for relaxing and social support, not less). There were a few bright spots in that time–I wrote and published a review article in my field, my first committee meeting went quite well, I enjoyed TAing–but none of them were related to benchwork. I fought to change my project a dozen different ways, add a side project, ANYTHING…. but got no where.
And I burned myself out. I got sick a lot, and then was afraid to take time off to recover because everyone ELSE in the lab worked through miserable colds and migraines and serious injuries, so I had to as well. I got depressed. I had panic attacks. I had trouble sleeping, even though that was often all I wanted to do. I made stupid mistakes in lab, including a few that were legitimately a big deal, either because they created a potential safety hazard (leaving a bunsen burner on unattended for hours) or because they set back work.
Eventually, this got to a breaking point, and I tried to come out to my boss about my struggles without appearing weak or uncommitted. She made me a deal that was effectively probation… for X months, I would work 9 hour days with strict arrival and departure times, change some things about how I was organizing my work, and report to her daily.
I never got my X months. Despite the reduction in hours taking some stress off, the extra scrutiny made me more anxious than ever. I made one more mistake in the lab that wiped out a week of work on a Friday afternoon. Monday morning, my professor asked me to leave her lab.
She told me she highly respected my intellectual abilities in science–I could analyze papers, synthesize information, write, teach, and present quite well. But I just wasn’t cut out for the practical side of things. She argued that she was really doing it for my safety and that of the lab. And that was it. Either find a new lab to take me in or write my thesis and GTFO.
So now… back to that email.
Initially, I was excited at the chance to review my professor, because I have dreamed of writing a letter listing her faults.
But I know I can’t actually do that. For one, I don’t blame her completely. I DID make mistakes, and she’s also brand new at this managing-people business. On a more cynical note, despite the supposed confidential nature of these evaluations, I know she would find out, and I still need her. She’s a rising star, and her willingness to endorse my intellectual abilities is valuable for my job search.
That’s not why the email upset me though. The email upset me because this still fucking hurts.
Guys, I know I wasn’t perfect, but I also know that I worked my ass off for that woman and that lab. I know many people who have made much more consequential errors at the bench than I ever did who are either still graduate students or who have successfully graduated. Many, many people have their projects fail or stall and still go on to recover and finish–that’s part of the scientific process. I know I wasn’t an ideal graduate student, but I wasn’t a bad one either.
This also hurts because in a way I am choosing to break my own heart. Because damn it, I could have fought this. I could have tried to convince her to let me take medical leave instead. I could have tried to get disability services on my side, seeing as my clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder did play a big role in this whole saga. I could have told this whole sob story to anyone who would listen. I may not have been able to force her to keep me, but I could have tried.
But damn it, I was done. I was fucking worn out. And I was tired of being in the lab of someone who didn’t want me there. I couldn’t take one more day of that silent but constant rejection. It was eating me alive.
Frankly, after I ran out of tears on that day I got ‘asked to leave’… I felt somewhat relieved. Because the thing I had feared and fought against for so long finally happened… and I was still alive. I could finally stop fighting a battle I’d been barely staying in for so long, and move on with my fucking life.
Intellectually, I am totally ready to move on.
In the many months I’ve had to process this, I’ve come to realize that a) leaving was really the only option, and I shouldn’t be ashamed for taking it and b) I’m probably better off not finishing my PhD anyhow. In the areas I’m considering working in (science writing, medical writing, teaching), a PhD can put you at a disadvantage in some hiring situations. I actually always knew that, and getting the PhD was an end in itself more than a shrewd career-minded move–because getting to do science and read papers for a living and getting to be a real scholar, yay! It’s something I can totally live without, as much as I would have loved to do it had the circumstances been different.
And I’m EXCITED about my future. I’ve missed writing, and now I am finally finding the strength and time to work on it and share it and improve. I’m excited to [soon, hopefully] make a little more money and maybe not feel quite so broke all the time. I’m excited to move out of graduate housing and in with my girlfriend. I’m thrilled to not have to feel guilty for taking the time to exercise, sleep, meditate, have fun. I’m nervous about the future because uncertainty is inherently anxiety-provoking, but I have high hopes.
But despite all of this, I’m struggling to move on emotionally.
I’ve always been a person who feels things very intensely, and quitting at something you’ve spent years of your life to get to, and not entirely by choice, is a pretty intense thing to feel.
I’m also a person who is capable of getting a fair bit done despite my intense emotions–after all, I kicked ass in school and work for years despite fighting depression and anxiety along with some pretty serious interpersonal stressors. So I’m not exactly sitting on my ass waiting to get over this. I’m still working hard on multiple jobs and personal projects, and eventually one or more of them will lead to a career.
But god, I am so tired of feeling hurt. It’s boring. It’s uninteresting. It’s over, lessons learned, can I just move on now? I want my confidence back, and I want to talk about grad school without wanting to cry. It’s all such a waste of emotional energy when I have so many other things I’d rather be doing. I’m tired of being reduced to tears by innocuous emails.
I’m trying to accept that I’m just not there yet. That if I just keep focused on moving forward, eventually the emotional salience of this whole mess will fade.
But damn if it doesn’t suck pretty damn hard in the meantime.