University and depression: Part I, the undergrad years

Well, here it is, that post I’ve been promising to write, that post that I’ve been thinking about writing for the past few weeks, ever since I found out I failed my doctoral qualifying examination. Wow. There, I said it. I really did, I failed it. And this is not an experience I am used to, not really, no. But it’s been a long journey, these past 3 or 4 years of which that I’ve really been initiated into the specific discipline that I am in. And that whole journey led me to here, led me to this place where I am in grad school, in a PhD program, but I failed the quals, as we call them. So, what happened?

Depression. Anxiety. Self-doubt. When I really entered the field I am in, I experienced the beginnings of school being really, really challenging. In high school, school was easy. It began to get challenging when I started AP’s, but after I got the knack of that it was fine again. Then I started college, at a very prestigious university. I had come from a mid-grade public school system, and I wasn’t sure if I would be up to snuff with the other students, if I would be playing catch up, or what would happen. But during freshman year I learned that I was even an excellent science and math student at my prestigious undergrad institution. I put a lot of work into my classes, but overall it wasn’t that hard; I put in the time and I didn’t doubt myself. I didn’t doubt that the outcome of this effort would be learning the material well, acing the exams, and being at the top of the curve. And the outcome was just that, so in that first year I learned that even at a top school in the country, I could be a top student.

By sophomore year I had gotten used to the idea, and my perfectionism allowed me to accept nothing less. At the same time, though, I was dealing with an eating disorder, one that I’d had for years, since I had been a competitive athlete in high school. It continued in the beginning of college but I began therapy as a freshman, and by sophomore year I was really doing better, not using my disordered eating as a crutch for my emotions. I still had bad days and I wouldn’t say I was healthy yet, but I began to alter my thoughts and to free them from focusing on my eating, my weight, my body, and most of all, how I deserved to be punished for all of my mistakes. In my head I was just a horrible, failure of a person, and I had let everyone down. As I began to free myself from my eating disorder, I dealt more and more with a general depression, one that made me sad and listless…made the days stretch out and the future seem unbearably long and normal. But I soldiered on, and classes were still proving to be pretty easy for me. I had not yet really entered the core classes of my major, with the exception of a sophomore year intro class. I was just laying the foundations, and my foundations were strong, at least academically speaking.

Then, that spring, I met the man who is now my husband. The day that I met him in person was the last time I purged; I consider it the day I left bulimia behind forever. I continued to struggle for a while with altering my thought patterns to be less self-destructive, but having the support of Husband was so helpful, and I managed to keep up enough strength to refrain from going back to binging and purging. That summer, I began researching with a professor in the department in which I was majoring. I would say that was really the beginning of my initiation into the field. I loved research, even the mundane parts that the undergrad in the lab is forced to do, and the summer passed, full of joy and love at having found Husband.

Then the fall came. It was time to enter the core classes of my field. They are the sorts of classes that without having taken them, you can barely understand what the title is about. And they were hard. But it wasn’t just that, it was barely even that, maybe. My peer group changed. Now, the classes were completely full of the other students who had been on the top half of the curve in the foundational classes. And my new professors, they were not the hand-holding types. They didn’t welcome us to the field we were entering with understanding. No, they laughed about how low the means were on the test. The first test in one of these core courses, a “midterm” that was one of a few midterms for this course, had a mean in the 30s. As in, students knew about 30% of the material on the test. And this wasn’t unusual for this professor. I, as it happened, got a high grade on this first one, and the professor paid me what he thought was a compliment, something about how I wasn’t so dumb. Yes, thanks, let’s put that in the negative, like he really thought we were all dumb but hey, maybe I’m not.

As the semester went on, things got worse and worse. There was an overwhelming amount of work to do; I no longer had my bulimia as a crutch; and I had a playmate, Husband, who lived with me and had a normal job that didn’t require homework, just begging to distract me from studying. On the next test in that class, I panicked, and ended up with a below the mean grade. As the semester went on, I sunk deeper into depression. It made me feel like crap that I got such low marks on tests, even when the mean was somewhere around there. A grade in the 30% or 40% range was just so disheartening to me, being the perfectionist that I am; it made me feel stupid, like I didn’t have any understanding of the subject we were supposed to be learning. I couldn’t put myself in perspective; I couldn’t realize that being in the bottom half at a top school doesn’t make you a complete and useless idiot. All I could do was feel little and ashamed.

The whole semester was very rough on me, and by the end of it, I had completely retreated inside myself. I was worried to even be seen in the department office, worried that the professors would judge me as that stupid or incompetent girl, the one who doesn’t belong in this field, the one who can’t cut it. I stayed home from the department holiday party because I was too embarrassed to show my face. My grades came in, and I saw grades I had never seen before, even a C+, which was shocking to the perfectionist academic scientist girl who had made the dean’s list every semester previously.

To make matters worse, Husband and I were very very low on money, and this was a pretty new thing to me too at the time. I had not, before, had to worry about how much the groceries cost, or whether or not I could get a new pair of pants after the ones I had ripped a hole. And my peers, at this prestigious institution, so many of them were rich, with mommy and daddy buying them the newest Tiffany’s fashion or a brand new pair of Uggs. So I had other stressors in addition to school and classes, and I worried as well that I was a failure because I hadn’t managed my money well enough to stay out of debt and still eat full meals and do a few normal college student things like buy drinks and go to movies.

In the spring semester, things didn’t really get any better. In fact, they probably got worse, although I found the teachers to be more adept at teaching the subjects, so that kept me afloat a bit. But by mid semester I just felt like I was in such a hole. I would sleep ALL THE TIME. I mean, all day. I’d sleep through classes. A lot. And finally I wrote a letter to my dean of academic advising, asking her if she could help me. I met up with her, got myself a regular therapist (I hadn’t been to regular therapy since spring of freshman year when the eating disorders program was complete), and began to talk to my professors. I still slept a lot and got sad and cried and felt stupid, but at least I had finally reached out a little bit. With my dean’s help, we told my professors that I was having issues. I was so afraid that they thought I just didn’t care, that they thought I missed classes or homeworks because I wasn’t trying hard enough. That was really what led to my embarrassment: the idea that they might think I didn’t care. The thing was, I cared so much but I got so anxious. Thinking about this class, this subject, studying for this or that exam, doing a homework set, these types of things were things that sent me to bed, to curl up with my blanket and pillow and sometimes with Husband and just cry about how inadequate I was, how I couldn’t handle it at all. So just letting my professors know that I really did care but was having other problems, that really helped me. In order to get the help I needed, I knew I had to step up, and be able to show up in the department and meet with a professor or TA, so reaching out to my dean was a helpful step.

All of this leads to my discussion of failing the doctoral qualifying exam, and how it is that even though I did, I’m proud of all the progress I’ve made and I’ve really come to terms with my having failed. I’ll talk about that in the next post, in Part II. For now, let’s just say that the undergrad years were hard for me, and I dealt with a real depression. (Oh, and by the way, I’d been on prozac this whole time, but in the spring semester I saw a doc and had the dosage upped to the dose I’m still on now. I think it really helped). So, this was all about my junior year. I’m not going to go into senior year, but just know that it had similar themes of anxiety, depression, and worrying about not measuring up, plus some of its own ups and downs. Next post, I will talk about grad school and preparing for the qualifying exam, which in my program is normally taken in the spring of your first year of graduate school, and covers….dun dun dun….everything you learned in undergrad, yes the undergrad years: that time when I was a depressed and anxious wreck. Fun!

24 thoughts on “University and depression: Part I, the undergrad years

  1. I don’t know what to say. Your story makes me sad, except that I see at the end the progress you describe, the refusal to take external “failure” and internalize it, the refusal to judge yourself and find yourself wanting. Thank you for sharing this with all of us.

  2. I failed my quals the first time too. It was very depressing and I felt like a failure, and that made it nearly impossible to study for them the second time round. But somehow I passed the second time, and made it through the Ph.D. program, not coming out at the top by a long shot, but rather, as the best second-rate mathematician in the world! πŸ™‚

  3. I’m so sorry you had to go through all of this, but very glad you shared it. I just finished undergrad last year and it was… just like that for me. I’ve never heard someone else decribe so well the way it hurts to think your professors might believe you don’t care. I suspect a lot of my professors didn’t have a clue how much I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning, to turn anything in, to speak up when I had a question, because I WAS a pretty good student, most of the time.

    Anyway, it’s always good to hear that one is not alone. Thanks for letting me know that.

  4. Pingback: University and Depression part III, or: How my 3rd semester is (not) working out « A Cat Nap

  5. You know, I have always seen a student failure at the PhD level to be the fault of the *student’s committee.*

    Why didn’t anyone take you aside and say you maybe weren’t ready? Who was coaching you for this?

    You are absolutely right to be proud of how far you have come. Don’t let this little setback stop you!

    You might also like to read my post:
    also in the open lab 07 list of posts.

    Hang in there!

  6. Pingback: The Return of the Quals…dun…dun…dun… « A Cat Nap

  7. u r brave to share all your experience with us.
    do not fear of depression, concentrate on what’s caused your depression and find ways for that, there’s always way, u can improve little by little when u find where’s your problem, but that’s enough for getting better.
    remember, always be positive

  8. I’m in first year of university and i am finding university really hard. I also messed up on my midterms which also lead me to a bit of depression. I am trying to change my study habbits to make them work better but honestly i am confussed how to study for tests and exams as doing well on exams was always my weakness. It would be nice to get some advice from upper year in how to study, how to deal with this depressing feeling and such.

  9. Well said. I’m currently in a situation similar to yours, but if that is the case then it really must have been much harder that you descibed.

    I started my Bsc degree in Chemical Engineering at a University in 2007 (in South Africa by the way). At my high school I was a top student (4th highest matric exam results at my school) and I had high hopes for myself. I decided mid-2005 that I wanted to do Chemical Engineering and since then I’ve never felt that I’ve ever desired anything more.

    I passed my 1st year at varsity without too many problems. Fine, so I had to write a supplementary for engineering maths 1, but that simply coz I was taking things easy and enjoying life. 2nd year began and things started changing for the worst. I was still working very hard, but for some reason I couldn’t concentrate nor remember things correctly. I also started getting severe cramps and my bowel movements were irregular. Then there were times when I would feel confused, slow and passive.

    First semester ended and I obtained the lowest mark in my 1st single semestor course. My examiner told me I got 18% for my exam whereas the lowest mark in the class was about 35%. I remember writing the exam. I was confident I had studied well enough to get at least 70%. I even understood more of the course than my friends did. They were all saying things like “You’ll definitely ace that paper.” and “What are you worrying about, you got 76% in the class test, there’s no way you’ll fail.”.

    Then while I was writing the exam, my brain felt like marshmallow. Answers formed in my mind, then simply melted away. It was like I had tunnel vision, except it was in my head. Sometimes 5 word sentences took more than a minute for me to read and understand. I later learnt that it was “brainfog” and it was caused by depression and anxiety. I managed to get through half of the paper when the examiner told the class that there was 30 mins left. For the 30 remaining mins I managed to READ through 1 question, since each time I read it, I would forget what it said.

    Anyway, bla bla bla. So I failed all my 2nd year courses, and I mean ALL of them. I was given a concession to redo my courses the following year (2009), but then I only managed to pass half of my courses. The funny thing is that I was averaging 60-70% throughout the year, but when exams came, the pressure brought on the “brainfog” and I ended up failing the finals.

    Now, I’m a drop out student who spent 3 years at university and all I obtained was a cash debt for my bursury, a ton of lecture notes that won’t help me get a job, a few well learned lessons regarding life, and 2+ years of depression.

    However, I’m going to take a year break (2010) and then hopefully return to studying at another university in 2011.

    I just want people know how easily your university life can be turned upside down. The worst and saddest part of it is that you can’t really blame anybody else, since it’s YOUR body that’s really causing all the problems. It’s like your mind is set on your goals and deep down in your heart and in your mind you know that you are can achieve them, but then depression comes along like some kind of inner demon and says to your mind “Your body belongs to me now! You are weak and pathetic so why are you resisting the inevitable?”

    I’ve always wondered if there’s a disease that would make you feel more miserable than depression can, but then depression is probably the only illness that can show you how fragile life is, and also show you how beautiful it can be. I’m hoping that in the coming few months, I will get to see that beauty with my own eyes. Then I would have proved to everyone, including myself, that anyone can archieve something if they put their mind to it, despite how much their bodies reject it.

    Anyway, that’s just my story. I guess it’s kind of rude to post my own story on someone elses blog. Sorry about that. I was kinda in the spur of the moment.

  10. Hi Grant,
    Thank you for sharing your story. It is my hope that by sharing stories like this openly, others who suffer in these ways may come to learn that they are not alone, and that they should not be ashamed.
    Sometimes taking a break is an excellent way to collect yourself again. One thing you didn’t say was if you are getting help now, or if you are trying to fight this on your own. You don’t need to do it alone to prove to yourself that you can overcome it; in fact it is often the act of asking for help that is the first step for which you will gain confidence in yourself and your own abilities, for you had the good sense to overcome the debilitating emotions are do something.
    Hopefully you already know that because you are getting help.
    By the way, I’m quite familiar with that area of study. πŸ˜‰
    Hang in there,
    Flicka Mawa

  11. Wow…. I just typed “depression and university” into google and came across your post. And I’m glad I did. I’m going through a similar thing and I almost thought I was the only one.. But turns out I’m not alone. A lot of people have had the same experiences, if not worse.

    I’ve dealt with bad relationships, heartbreaking events such as my grandfather’s funeral, a surgery right before the fall semester began and lots of other things over the last few years. All of this triggered some really bad feelings of worthlessness in me and eventually resulted in clinical depression.
    I used to be the best student everywhere. I was a perfectionist. Anything lower than a B upset me because I was used to studying hard and doing my best. But now, after all that’s happened, I have become so distracted that I have failed a lot of my undergrad classes and I feel absolutely lost.

    I think that, just like you, what hurts me the most is when people think I don’t care at all and that I’m a total slacker. I have piles of homework and exams to re-take again and it feels like a burden. I am so scared of failing and becoming a drop out that I can’t even concentrate on anything anymore. I basically live in fear every day. What sucks even more is that my parents are paying for my education, and I feel like I am letting them down. My mother keeps reminding me every day how I should not fail and how embarassing it would be if I dropped out… It’s all so stressful and I feel very pressured.

    I seriously don’t know how to deal with this. I haven’t seen a psychologist/therapist either. My university doesn’t even have one. And I’m scared of telling any of my professors about my mental condition because I’m afraid they won’t take me seriously. In my country, a lot of people don’t acknowledge mental illnesses like depression, it’s almost like a social stigma, so I feel embarassed about it.
    I have apologized before for being absent or turning my papers in after the deadline, I have tried to explain, but all I ever get is a harsh reply that makes me feel even worse. It’s almost as if I’m speaking to a wall or a robot because some of their reactions are so inhuman that I wonder if they forget that I have feelings too… So, I just don’t know what to do. *sigh*

    I’m sorry I wrote such a long comment. I got a little carried away. I think I was just partly relieved to read about someone else’s experience. I truly felt like I was alone.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Suz,
      Thanks so much for writing. No need to apologize for the long comment! This is a forum for expression, and I think the more people that come and talk the better. You are definitely not alone. I’m sorry to hear that your school doesn’t even have a psychologist! It sounds like you would certainly benefit from some support. Feel free to send me an e-mail at if you would like to talk more!
      Flicka Mawa

  12. I had a similar experience. It’s taking me 7 years to get a BSc in engineering. 6 more months to go. I still freak out during all my exams. The more I study, the more I fuck up. My transcript looks like a train wreck.
    Half the people that graduated from engineering that I know are unemployed now. Could never find an engineering job because of low GPA issues and no connections.
    This is just school. Imagine what real life does to you when you are depressed.

    • Hi there,
      Have you received help from your school regarding your challenges? In the US you can often negotiate different test taking situations. I never tried because that didn’t seem possible for The Big Qualifying Exam, but I did know people who had other arrangements for regular courses.
      I’ve been out of school for 2 years now, and I miss it dearly. As much as I struggled while I was there, sometimes it seems like a cozy little cocoon compared to the world of office jobs and professional responsibilities. But I also know part of that is rosy hindsight.
      Best of luck as you continue to work through it.

  13. Thank you so much for this. I can really relate to your second last paragraph, it’s exactly how I feel like now in my 4th year of vet school. I’ve been through problematic long distance relationships, death of a friend, and having to deal with my closest friends graduating. I don’t have many friends in my course, and that coupled with my poor grades have really made me feel like giving up at times. I used to get straight As no problem before going to university, and now I just feel like a failure.

    My family and friends back home think I’m really happy and enjoying my time at uni, but really I just feel miserable. I don’t feel the motivation to go for classes at all. And then I feel guilty about it after because I really want to do well. I keep thinking about how the lecturers must think I’m just being lazy, and they always call me up about it. This just makes me feel worse, and I feel even less motivated. It’s like a horrid cycle.

    It’s funny though because whenever I go back home and do internships at vet clinics, I can feel my passion for the subject coming back, and I actually do much more studying and revision at home. It’s only when I go back to uni that these negative feelings start to come back. I’ve thought about maybe taking a gap year to sort myself out, but I know my parents won’t understand.

    Anyway, reading your post just gave me hope that I should keep persevering. I’ve made an appointment with the school counsellor. Hopefully talking to someone will help me out. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks! (:

    • Hi Melinda,

      Sorry for the delay, but I checked in on my blog after a long absence today, and I wanted to say thank you for commenting. I hope that the counselor is helping. What you describe sounds so familiar to me. I know that you can feel better than that, and that what you are going through is not because you are lazy. Please keep going, and talk to someone about it. It can get better, but it rarely gets better on its own.

      Best wishes,
      Flicka Mawa

  14. I’m so sorry that this was your experience… I’m not particularly good at expressing my empathy, but I just want you to know that you remind me entirely of myself in almost every way – I know I’m only in first year, but I encountered the crippling effects of depression, anxiety and disordered eating in my last year of highschool due too, my overachieving and perfectionist ways combined with the stress of such a large workload and pressure to perform well. I still did relatively well, and over the holidays before I started University I thought I’d be okay, I thought I was so much happier. I had a boyfriend who loved me and supported me.
    But I put on 15kg+, most of my friends went to other schools, I had no friends at University and suddenly I had entirely no work ethic or motivation. I spend most of my time crying in my bedroom or sleeping. I take medication, I see a therapist weekly but it isn’t working.
    I’m so scared I’m going to fail my first year arts degree (how pathetic right, I can’t even pass an ARTS degree). Then what? I let down my family and it just confirms how much of a failure I am.
    I just needed to express this, sorry, I don’t have anyone who really gets it at all.
    But thank-you for expressing your story, it did make me feel slightly better knowing that other respectable, and obviously incredibly intelligent people do feel similarly to how I feel. Thank-you, and I hope everything is going well for you now c: x

  15. You are so brave to share you experience. I had exactly the same experience and inner feelings as what you had in college. I also think my depression in college had a negative impact on my academic performance in grad school.

  16. I am just going through it right now. Especially the sleeping. I have to fake smiles at school all day, and come home and be sad by myself. I can’t quit, the shame, my parents, I have not failed before I do not know how I would react. I feel like even if I speak to someone, no one would understand. They’ll just find me weird and say ‘U’ll be fine”. I think loneliness is the saddest part of it all.

  17. Pingback: Does my course suffer from semester droop? | Kate Walker || ICT and Pedagogy

  18. This is so incredibly relatable to me right now. Thank you for sharing this.

    I honestly just think academia can be a toxic environment all around, with a warped view of reality. It’s designed to judge you, and it’s very hard to grapple with that for so many years.

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