Moving On

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.


  1. So many jedi hugs to you, Keely. I’m not sure I’m as strong a person as you are. If I had the opportunity to “evaluate” someone who had treated me so unfairly, I really doubt I’d be as kind as you are, regardless of how badly I needed their recommendation in the future. But that’s something I’ve realized about myself–I tend to harbor a LOT of grudges against people who have done me wrong. It’s an aspect of my personality that I really dislike, but I digress.

    I’m glad that you’re excited about the future. You should be! You’ve got a master’s degree, an excellent education, and more importantly, you know yourself and your own needs. I think that kind of knowledge, that self-knowledge, is so undervalued. But in the end, it’s more imporant than anything else.

    I think that when you let go of an idea that you had for yourself, or a dream that you chased for a long period of time, you go through a grieving process. For x amount of years you worked toward your PhD and in your head you imagined the life you’d have once you were successful. That vision is gone now, and your future looks different now. It’s natural for you to grieve for that. You can’t force yourself to move on any faster than you’re already going.

    And, IMHO, you seem to have a very positive and logical outlook on what’s coming. You’re excited about the future AND you realize that your PhD wasn’t even NECESSARY to work in the areas you want to work in. Sometimes it’s hard to come to grips with the loss of a dream (I’ve definitely gone through a grieving process on a MUCH smaller scale after a few good interviews for a job and then not getting it), and it’s even HARDER to deal with the rejection. I’ve cried over being rejected for jobs I didn’t really even want (now I look back and I’m like, “WHY WERE YOU CRYING?”). It’s horrible to feel like you’ve failed, especially when you’ve spent so much time and energy trying to please the Powers That Be.

    I think the best thing to remember is that you’re opinion of yourself will ALWAYS be different than the rest of the world’s. The universe, the job market, academia–they’re all just fun houses filled with weirdly shaped reflections of yourself. What you see in the bathroom mirror will always be truer than what you (and others) see elsewhere. One rejection doesn’t own you, nor will it ruin your future, even if it changes your course.

    When I got fired from my job in Costa Rica (rather abruptly and unfairly), I grieved. And I felt like a worthless piece of shit. And I felt like I would never get the chance to work as a writer again. And I wanted to write mean things about my ex employer. But now, over a year later, I’m quite happy with how things panned out. Being fired changed EVERYTHING about my life, but it all changed for the better. And it took me a long time and a LOT of reflection to come to terms with the rejection and to grieve. And it still stings sometimes. But I’m over it. It gets better.

    This comment got long and way out of hand (i’m writing it in between answering phone calls. sorry!) I just think you’re awesome and I want you to know that you ARE moving on. I see lots of proof of that in your writing. It just takes time. A long time, probably. But you’re getting there.

    <3s to you Keely!

    • As always, I find it hard to do your comment justice.

      1. I hold grudges too, I honestly just don’t have the energy to sustain one in this case. Some days I hate her, some days I hate myself, some days I rage at the system of incentives that made this whole situation possible… but most of the time I just don’t want to think about it. Everyone made mistakes, but I don’t think anyone was a bad person, exactly. And anyhow, it isn’t really in my interests to try and hurt her even if I wanted to.

      2. Yay excitement about the future! I know I should be excited. Things are going to work out, really. Just have to keep on keeping on. And writing, cause that is lovely.

      3. Grief is a bitch, and I’m tired of it, but I begrudgingly agree: it is a process, and it will pass. Eventually. Rargh.

      4. Thank you for your empathy and support. *all the hugs!*

  2. Good grief, that is one hell of a story. I don’t think I could work under a woman like that; I certainly wouldn’t thrive.

    I hope you find a way to make peace with the evaluation request, and that you find a way to make known the worst of your concerns, without sabotaging the things you need from her. Also, that feeling, of being bored of your feelings and just wanting them to be over already, gorram it, is so aggravating. *jedi hugs*

    • Thanks for the hugs.

      I ended up replying to the email with a very short explanation of what happened (Roughly: I am not in [mentor’s] lab anymore because she asked me to leave. I disagreed with her decision but appreciated her support in at least leaving with a master’s. I don’t feel I can be objective in evaluating her because frankly I’m still recovering from the shock/loss). I got an email back apologizing for asking me in the first place and wishing me well. Heh.

      I do find it amusing that the department head wasn’t even aware that I was gone/that my PI kicked out a student. His office is literally right next to my PI’s, and I know for a fact that the gossip mill has been running despite my largely keeping the details of this to myself. Ah, to be a successful enough scientist to be oblivious to the lives of us little minions…

      • Well at least they knew how to be tactful after the fact, and kudos for being able to give an honest and diplomatic account.

        I can’t believe the dept. head didn’t know a PhD student had been kicked out though; That’s terrible! But then, the UK system is very different. Everything here goes through the head of the dept./ Institute, including for example the case where I was put on probation. I guess it helps here that the Research Councils are so dead-set on getting completion rates as close to 100% as possible, and limit the funding accordingly. It makes the Unis pay attention.

        I like your idea about having separate tracks that can lead to professorship. Credit where it’s due. A good lecturer makes a hell of a difference, and being a ‘good’ scientist is no guarantee of good lectureship. Again with the US/UK differences though – the top universities here (the Russel Group ones) are top because of their research but many have a policy obliging the staff to teach at least a certain percentage of modules to the undergrads, regardless of the time they spend jet-setting and writing grants.

        • Yea, it’s possible the Department head had to sign some paperwork, but he’s a busy dude… he has a company and he’s president of ASM currently. It also probably helps that I wasn’t actually “kicked out”, I “chose” to leave with a master’s degree instead.

          Most professorships here have teaching requirements too, at least early on (you can eventually get out of it by taking on administrative tasks instead, or by being super famous, or I suppose by refusing to teach once you’re granted tenure?). But no one really cares that you’re good… you just have to be not awful. In fact, my PI told me to have the same attitude towards my TAship… do as little work as possible without drawing attention to myself. Which was frankly pretty selfish of her–what if I want my career to include teaching and I want positive recommendations from people I taught under?

        • That makes sense I suppose. Still, I guess mastering out makes the dept look slightly better than the alternative?

          Wow, that was unkind of her, and super unfair on the undergrads. I know it’s traditional for the PIs/professors to look down on them as an inconvenience, and that it feeds into the debate as to whether universities are there for research or for teaching, but still. I mean, can you imagine the uproar if it was standard for school teachers to despise their kids?

  3. I know you may need your ex-PI’s endorsement later, but please don’t lie in the evaluation. Academia will only get worse if everyone feels like they need to protect their abusers. You can phrase things in a way that is measured and true, and even if she finds out about it, there’s no way she’ll argue with facts. Say she said her students needed to work 80 hour weeks. Say she became angry when students hit hiccups in their projects and was unwilling to negotiate around students’ other life/health issues. There’s no way she doesn’t know these things about herself. Universities more and more want to be seen as inclusive, and this PI would not be able to have as a student anyone with a family or a life – which is something the university should know.

    Also, I’m aghast that someone can be hired at a prestigious institution with NO teaching experience!

    • I didn’t lie in the evaluation… I was diplomatic and brief, but I didn’t lie. And to be fair, my PI would probably argue that she did TRY to negotiate around my issues, and that I just didn’t improve enough for her to feel comfortable keeping me in her lab. Which is shitty, but it is her right given the current structure of academia + my university/department’s policies. If I felt she accommodated my issues insufficiently, I could have fought her through the appropriate channels, and chose not to do so, and that is on me.

      As for the lack of teaching experience… most professors at major research universities are hired with TAing experience at best, and very few have ever taken a full teaching course or designed a class from scratch. Teaching is just not a priority for most research schools in hiring full professors. That’s what adjuncts/lecturers are for. The job of a science professor in most research-oriented departments is to bring in grant money and publish well. Teaching is an afterthought. It’s bullshit, and I think the answer to it is to have multiple tracks (research only/teaching only or teaching+research on teaching/research and teaching, all with equal opportunity to achieve something resembling full professorship)… but no one is asking me, are they?

      • Sadly, “teaching is an afterthought” is not what I was aghast at – that is a given, these days – but with academic posts so hard to find, I’m surprised that you can land a good one with NO experience. My understanding was that you at least needed to have halfheartedly TAed a section of Bio 101 once. I mean, heck, they’re getting hundreds of applications for each job opening! Shouldn’t they use “zero teaching experience” as an easy first-pass filter?
        But yeah, no one’s asking me either.

  4. (late reply, but just followed a link here) It can take a long, long time to process grief and feelings of failure especially when they are bound up with your identity and letting go of hopes and plans. While I’m dealing with my own depression/grad school/medical leave funtimes right now, my undergrad thesis also comes to mind here.

    I didn’t handle the transition from “premade labs designed to work and build skills” to “relatively independent research” gracefully–I didn’t spend much time in lab, I tried to scale up a procedure 100-fold because I had no idea synthesis didn’t work like that, I had nothing new to show at the end of the year. I graduated and went on to kick ass at a job in that field, but for years I would mentally cringe when I thought about my thesis work. Three years after I graduated, I was asked to contribute to that professor’s tenure evaluation, and I was finally able to peel back my layers of blame and shame around that experience and write a fair response. (He got tenure, and I’m glad.) So hell, some weeks before they ask you about a much more traumatic experience? Ugh. I’m sorry.

    Also, wtf to the department not knowing that you’d been kicked out.

  5. Pingback: keely the science writer | a little dose of keelium

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