Monday, November 26, 2018

Career barriers, part 2: The enemy you can’t run from

By a graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

Note: if you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering.

“I’m probably too stupid to even get orgo…organic chemistry has crushed me.”
         -excerpt from my journal, while taking organic chemistry

I’m a Ph.D. student in organic chemistry, and while my students might tell you that I’m good at organic chemistry, I didn’t always feel that way. My path to this point hasn’t been a linear one, and it’s been challenging for reasons you’ve probably heard of: anxiety and depression.

Pretty much anyone will tell you that organic chemistry is difficult and demanding (especially when you’re first encountering it)—it’s a mountain of information, and it takes a ton of practice in order to develop an intuitive sense about the material.

When I started organic 1 as an undergrad, I was extremely intrigued by the material. As someone who generally processes concepts best visually, I enjoyed drawing molecules and thinking about their 3D nature. There was just one problem, however—I couldn’t seem to pick up the material as quickly as I was being bombarded with it.

The next few months began my journey in discovering that I struggled with anxiety and depression. I think I always had mental health issues, but, as is common for many people, I couldn’t see it for the longest time. Maybe I knew it was there and refused to accept it, or perhaps I was oblivious until it started having larger detrimental effects on my life—I’ll never know. What I do know is that the steps I eventually took to help myself literally saved my life.

I did not do well in organic chemistry—I skated by with C’s during both semesters (and nearly failed the first). But the worst part was that my anxiety and depression caused me to be trapped in a fixed mindset, which snowballed into a set of negative thought patterns and habits:

“I’m a f***ing idiot.”

“I don’t deserve to sleep because I failed my orgo quiz. I don’t deserve to eat because I failed my orgo quiz. I need to run more to punish myself for failing the orgo quiz”

“If I put 100% into it and still failed, why on earth would I keep trying to do this?...I suck at chemistry even though I love it.”

 “I might not pass orgo :/”

I struggled with sleeping too much, low motivation/interest in my major, and more…but was completely unaware that I was dealing with depression. Lacking a strong support group at both home and school, I felt lost, alone, and like my existence didn’t matter to anyone. Crying alone in an isolated bathroom of the science building was the norm for me, and on the surface people seemed to believe my excuses that I was ‘sick’ or that ‘my allergies had flared up.’ More than anything, I wanted someone to notice the small distress signals I was sending, and reach out.

The aftermath. Weak. Exhausted. The bully has just gotten done wreaking havoc in your mind. Everything is numb now. But at least at peace? The hurricane has passed for now. It's always hurricane season up in here. You huddled in a ball, scrunched up, weathering the storm until it passes. Feeling the brute force of it in the midst of it, hoping that maybe this time the bully will get tired of hurting you, that the hurricane will only last a short time.

Not sure what to feel. People ask what they can do to help, and you want to accept their help, but you have no idea what they can do to help... 

Exhaustion. Happy to have weathered another storm. Trying to pick up all the pieces and start again. Not sure if you can handle another storm. Trying to brace yourself just in case." 

I’m not sure how I passed that first semester—my arrow-pushing for mechanisms was illogical and I developed an intense fear of synthesis problems. I started getting testing accommodations for my organic exams (and eventually all my chemistry exams) because I had developed so much anxiety around them that I began having minor panic attacks before them. During the second semester of organic, my situation wasn’t getting any better—my negative thought patterns were imprinted in my soul and I felt completely trapped and hopeless. I started engaging in self-harm, beating my forearms with my own fists to the point where I bruised myself. I was so frustrated that I wasn’t good at a subject I enjoyed, and literally beat myself up for it. Eventually, I hated myself so much that I seriously contemplated suicide and was searching for ways that I could just make all the pain, isolation, and loneliness stop.

There's a set of railroad tracks outside where you live, and you've thought for a little while that it might be a way to go, escape. It would be sudden.

You had a nightmare at the beginning of the semester, where you were standing on those tracks, staring down the bright lights, calling someone on your cell phone, begging them to tell you to get off the tracks before the train hits you. 

You hear the deafening roar of the train whistle as it swiftly approaches. And it's terrifying and all you want to do is run but you just want it to be over and you're stuck and you cry and you're so afraid. 

You don't have the guts to commit suicide.

Trains don't really sound the same to you anymore.

Paralyzing fear. But it was just a dream. A sickeningly horrifying dream."

I can’t even describe the amount of pain you have to feel in order to consider suicide as an option—it’s unfathomable. Even as I write this, an intensely deep, visceral pain rises to the surface and almost takes my breath away.

Miraculously, I landed a summer research position in an organic lab the following summer—I usually attribute it towards the ‘aggressive enthusiasm’ I had towards organic lab work, which I did well in, but at times I’m still not sure how I got in. I enjoyed the research I was doing, but felt more like a fraud than ever (what kind of prof takes a student that got C’s in organic lecture???). This was exacerbated by a male colleague of mine, who, unbeknownst to my PI, was treating me in ways that caused me to doubt myself even more—constantly asking ‘why are you doing that? Why would you do it that way? Why can’t you just look at the spectrum and analyze it on the computer; do you really need to print it out and analyze it?’ At the time I didn’t realize that it wasn’t okay for me to be treated that way, and my PI honestly had no idea it was happening until a year or so later. But at the time, it just provided more fuel for my anxiety and depression to feed on: find an isolated bathroom, cry as quietly as I can, hit myself for being so weak, put my mask back on, repeat. All the while wondering if it was worth it.

The steps I took to help myself did not all happen at once, nor did they help immediately. I started getting counseling consistently, but my counselor seemed inauthentic and invalidating of my emotions and experiences. The year after I took organic chemistry, I began medication for depression, but it made me so tired and exhausted that I had no motivation to study and would accidentally sleep through my classes. It takes trial and error to reap the benefits of seeking out resources to help yourself—but I’m eternally grateful that I’ve made a habit of going to counseling, because it’s helped me work through some of the toughest moments of my life. I also finally found a medication and dosage that has decreased some of my anxious/depressive symptoms and helped me work at my greatest potential.

My passion for organic chemistry never faded, thankfully, and it was through TAing organic labs and discussions that I realized I wanted to obtain a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and then pursue an academic career. I still struggled with self-doubt, anxiety, and depression, but I had the overwhelming support of my PI, who told me just before I left for grad school: ‘If I thought you weren’t capable at excelling in grad school, I would have steered you another direction.’

The first year of graduate school was not without its strugglesevery  day I'm here I have to face the triggers that ultimately caused me to consider suicide in the first place. I had a panic attack after the first time I was quizzed at the board in group meeting, and I’ve escaped to the bathrooms a few times to let myself work through the trauma responses I’m experiencing. And when my depressive symptoms started to show again, I accidentally set my hood on fire and subsequently learned that it’s okay to take a mental health day. I still go to counseling consistently, which has helped me address and work through the trauma I incurred upon myself in undergrad. I’ve been working on mitigating my trauma responses to organic exams (and especially those synthesis problems…), and I’ve gained a lot of confidence my first year. I’ve been so fortunate to have a PI that is aware of my situation and is patient enough and willing to give me the support and mentorship I need to get through it. Now, as a second-year graduate student, I’m working on cultivating my growth mindset further and learning as much as I can while doing the best I can at research, teaching, and coursework—which is all anyone can really ask. And even though I still shed tears as part of a trauma response to my past circumstances, it’s not a sign of weakness—it’s a display of immense strength.

"My ultimate goal? Becoming an organic professor one day.

I. Won't. Give. Up.

...And that, Rage Journal, is all I've got for now. Until the next time my emotional rage paints itself in words across these pages (which hopefully will be a very, very, VERY long time from now)...or maybe until my next musing of life's intricacies occurs."

Wherever you are in your career path, if you struggle with mental health issues, know that you are not alone. While everyone’s experience and struggle with mental health is unique, there are aspects of the struggle that several people can relate to. And please always remember: You are loved. You belong here. We need you here. Science benefits the most from teams of diverse people working on problems together—and your experiences give you a unique perspective of the world that we all benefit from hearing. You should never feel afraid to get the help you need—just as an athlete heals an injured muscle through physical therapy, someone with mental health can generally heal injured thought patterns through counseling. Needing medication for mental illness is also not a sign of weakness—it may take a bit of time to find what type/dosage works for you, but it’s completely worth it if it benefits you. If you need help, there are resources you can look to:

If you have not struggled with mental health, try to take some time to learn more about it—chances are you already know someone/will encounter someone who has these struggles. A place where you can find personal accounts of people sharing their experiences with mental health (and a variety of disabilities as well) is And watch out for the people around you—you’d be surprised at the number of students (and others!) that are sending out small distress signals, waiting for someone to notice them and reach out.

The author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous. If you would like to communicate your thoughts or let the author know how this story has impacted you, please leave a comment here or email them at

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Career barriers, part 1: "I can't"

When you look ahead on your career path, do you see nothing but open road to be traveled, or is there a big brick wall in your way that feels insurmountable? Do you feel like you’re skipping along, or like you’re struggling to make any progress because of the heavy weight you’re dragging? Do you even know what path you want to be on, or are you still working to discover what direction you want to travel?

If you are facing down a wall, dragging a weight, or still finding your direction, you are not alone. I’ve been there, and in many ways, am still there. Same for most of the people around you, even if they don’t show it. And, this series is for you. While there are some common themes among career barriers, no two people face the same challenge, and there are no universal answers. So, this series of posts will highlight stories from a diverse group of people who have dealt with a wide variety of career barriers and can each offer a unique perspective and advice. Hopefully some of these stories will resonate with what you’re facing, and maybe some will help you to understand and encourage someone around you.

My biggest career barrier is one I alternately faced down, wrestled with, and ran from for 10 straight years. As I entered my senior year of college, I had been working as an undergraduate researcher for two years and was applying to graduate schools. When people would ask me about my career goals, I would lie and say “I don’t know.” It’s perfectly okay (and quite normal!) to not know what you want to do at that point, but that wasn’t my story.  I knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I desperately wanted to be a professor at a major research university, but I couldn’t bring myself to say this because I was convinced that my goal was completely unattainable. I looked around at the professors at my institution, and was convinced that because I was not as smart or creative as them, I could never do their job.

Fortunately, I stayed on the path, went to graduate school, and pushed myself hard to accomplish as much as I could.  I was able to do this because I just love research that much. But, the whole time, I struggled with the notion that I was working toward an end goal that was impossible. I had wonderful and supportive research advisors, but I was afraid to admit my goals and corresponding self-doubt to them. As I was preparing to leave for my postdoc, I finally broke down and admitted my struggle to my PhD advisor.  That turned into one of the most impactful conversations of my career.  It went like this:

Me: I so desperately want a career in academia, but I look at what you do, and I just can’t do that.
Advisor: Of course you can’t…
Me: ?!?
Advisor: …not now, but you’ll get there.

My advisor then went on to explain how as a graduate student, he could not have done all of the things that are required of a faculty member, and that even as an assistant professor, he could not do what he could as a full professor.  But, careers are all about growth. And, if you are willing to push yourself and grow a little bit each day, by the time you get to each stage, you will have the skills and knowledge you need to be successful there.

When my advisor said this, it struck me that I had been experiencing this phenomenon for many years without even realizing it.  I thought back to how little I knew as an undergraduate researcher and how many mistakes I made, and compared that to what I could do after earning my PhD.  As an undergrad, I struggled to write even a short honors thesis and present that to my class of 15 fellow students, but by the end of my PhD, I felt confident drafting manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals and presenting at conferences. As an undergrad, I struggled to even grasp the concepts behind my project, but by the end of my PhD, I was designing entirely new projects. As an undergraduate student, I had looked at the senior graduate students and thought to myself “I could never do what they do” and here I was doing exactly that!

This realization was the first step in starting to dismantle the brick wall of self-doubt that had been blocking my career path for so many years. I still faced a consistent struggle with whether I could be successful as a professor, but for the first time in my career, I had some hope that I might be able to get there.

I’m now in that job that I dreamed about for so long. And, as I’ve continued to unpack this wisdom over the course of my career, I’ve realized that much of the struggle boils down to a very cruel fallacy that our brains can sneak into our thought process. I’ve sketched this out below.

Here’s me – I’m kind of small and pretty smiley:

Here’s someone I look up to. (x-axis = career stage; y-axis = capability):

Now this is the cruel trick my brain plays on me.  This where I envision that they were in ability at my current career stage and how they got to where they are now: 

So, if I want to eventually get to where they are, I need to wake up tomorrow with that same level of ability:

I know just enough physical chemistry to be dangerous, so I know that this is a “disallowed transition”:

This is where I was stuck for so many years. If I couldn’t instantly get myself to the knowledge and skill level of my mentors, then I could never get to being a professor.  But, of course, there is another option:

At this point in my career, I can look back over the past 20+ years since I started as an undergraduate researcher and clearly see the consistent growth that has brought me to where I am now. Yet, I still catch myself looking at people who are ahead of me on the career path and thinking “I could never do what they do.” Yeah, my brain is my best friend and my worst enemy.  But, at least now I have the logic I need to coach myself through these moments and realize that if I set a goal and consistently work toward it, there is a very good chance I’ll eventually get there, or I’ll at least grow a ton from where I was.