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!