A Grad School Experience: From Disillusionment to Renewal

As I looked forward to beginning my graduate program within the life sciences at a major research university, I naturally looked forward to the far reaches of my future. I imagined life bright and happy out there post-graduate school. Having thoroughly enjoyed my term as an undergraduate at a Christian liberal arts institution, I envisioned myself someday in a similar position as my professors. I wanted to end up at an institution where the emphasis was on education, integration of faith and learning, and research as a teaching tool. But before that dream could possibly materialize, I would have to succeed in completing a PhD on the typical research track.

Most doctoral programs in the life sciences follow a similar progression. There are two to three years of coursework. I did a full two years of courses plus a stint as a teaching assistant. I found the time in the classroom quite enjoyable. Concurrently with coursework in the first semester, one tries out, or “rotates” through several laboratories, eventually settling on a mentor and general research area. I completed three such rotations. I was enthusiastic about joining one of the labs, didn’t love but also didn’t hate the next, and had a very negative experience in the third. The lab I was most enthusiastic about joining ended up taking another student, so I wound up joining the lab in the middle. I figured my passion for the research and rapport with the advisor would increase once I became a permanent member of the lab. Following those first years of getting established in a research lab is a series of comprehensive exams and a promotion of sorts to dissertator status if one satisfactorily completes the requirements. The final three to six years of a program are solely laboratory research under the guidance of one’s thesis advisor. On the surface, my progression through these last steps seemed to follow a normal trajectory. However, every step of the way involving time in the laboratory proved to be a tremendous and draining challenge.

I had a fair amount of research under my belt as I began graduate school. I thought I would be able to handle that part just fine. It soon became clear that I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The first problem was getting a project started. Like many graduate students, I found my advisor to be intellectually absent in regard to the project I was working on. Requirements and suggestions for the project shifted like winds in a storm. There was always an excuse for the lack of direction coupled with a promise for more attention and assistance once this grant was in, or that side project was completed. Coping with my colleagues within the lab also proved difficult. Several labmates were engaged in a power struggle and created a culture of fear for the rest of us. Others were outright depressed. Above it all, our advisor would occasionally step in but do more harm than good, often engaging in emotionally abusive techniques to quell the maelstrom. I found welling up within me not the fruit of the Spirit, but rather cynicism, bitterness, resentment, apathy, paranoia, and depression.

I became increasingly disillusioned as time passed. My project progressed at a glacial pace. I passed my qualifying exams, but was left with the impression that the faculty on my thesis committee were surprised at how little data I had. At the same time, some unrelated personal issues arose. I began to question my place in the graduate program and my fitness to see it through to the end. I questioned the clear call to a vocation in higher education that I had sensed from God as an undergraduate. I questioned why this was happening to me while others around me flourished and even seemed to be sprinting towards their degree. Depression and melancholy crept up on me to the point that I was crying multiple times a day and stumbling through life with everything grayscaled in hue.

Eventually, through the blessing of community around me, the help of a counselor, and the grace of God’s healing hand I was able to stand again and face the situation. The hard edge of the pain I was feeling was lessened. I found renewed commitment for finishing my PhD through a teaching assistantship for a large upper-level undergraduate course. All of this did not change the fact that day-to-day in the laboratory continued to be excruciatingly difficult. Long and grueling hours were expected and vacations discouraged. Simply putting in the amount of time required coupled with all of the emotional struggles involved left me completely drained for anything once I returned to my home. I would sit glazed-eyed in front of the TV and ruminate over all that was wrong with the lab. I begged and pleaded with God for him to change the situation or give me an easy exit, or even simply a clearer focus for my experiments. Instead, he gave me a partner to traverse the journey with.

I had met my future husband through our shared involvement with a campus ministry group. He is a scientist as well, sharing faith and many of my outside interests. In contrast to my graduate school experience, he found himself sailing along. Working hard, yes, but enjoying a great relationship with his advisor and tremendous success in research and publishing. From my husband’s vantage point, I was someone who had the potential to achieve great success in grad school, but was hamstrung by a terrible working environment. His support helped me to continue to pick myself up when I was down and struggle along in the marathon to the end.

The drama in my working environment and struggles with my advisor continued until virtually the week prior to my thesis defense. So it also was with my doubts and insecurities that I was no more than a fraud in this PhD program.

The doubts, insecurities, and pervasive cynicism I experienced in myself I heard as well from many other graduate students. So many new graduate students enter their programs full of joy and eagerness at what they see as a pursuit of pure knowledge, only to succumb to the cynicism of many of the more advanced students and faculty around them. Cynicism exists for a multitude of reasons. Graduate school can be a very isolating time with long solitary hours at the lab bench. Finding time to get out and have a social life is difficult. Advisors often fail to advise their students. Students are often disappointed and frustrated by the lack of guidance and infrequency with which they meet with their advisor. Some students are accepted into programs that do not have enough top quality advisors to mentor them, and are seemingly accepted only to fill teaching assistant positions. Some students out of necessity join research groups they are not fully invested in and, without good mentoring, find little motivation to do the self-guided work. For all these reasons, cynicism and bitterness are pervasive, and in my experience, the cycle perpetuates itself, to great detriment to the grad students and programs involved.

I left my graduate program feeling deflated. I was convinced that my personality had changed forever. Prior to the six years spent in grad school, I would have described myself as happy-go-lucky, cheerful, and excited about learning new things about God. Now I experienced little joy and wasn’t sure I would ever again experience a growing season in my faith life.

After completing our PhDs, my husband and I moved so that he could do postdoctoral research. I had sought a teaching position, but openings were few and so I took on a postdoctoral position myself. I had some cause for concern. After all, we were moving across the country, far from family, friends, and our support networks. Would this be a repeat of the experience in my previous lab?

But somewhere along the journey to our new home, I woke up early with a sort of energy I hadn’t experienced in years. My husband looked at me and said, “What’s gotten into you?” I thought for a second and replied that I was excited to get going for the day, that we had some sights to see and miles to cover, and that best of all, at the other end of that day would not be another day of graduate school. The more longitude lines we crossed, the more I felt the metaphorical dawn of renewal. It was a shift in attitude, one that would take many months to fully embody. But for the first time in a long while, I had hope for the future.

As I started my new postdoctoral research position I found that I actually enjoyed the challenges of research in this new environment. My new advisor runs things differently, simply by being present in the laboratory and willing to discuss our research. In the attitudes of my new colleagues there is a greater hope and excitement for the science. This began to rub off on me, and before long I embraced my new identity as a researcher. I feel supported and confident. Some of this has to do with being a postdoc versus a student. I know that I have my degree and thus many pressures to perform are removed. I have also made a conscious decision to not engage in the pervasive academic cynicism. Through this, I have re-discovered the joy that I had for science as an undergraduate. I even feel that I might continue on in research. I have found that I enjoy mentoring graduate students and undergraduates in a lab setting, and could see myself as an academic scientist. Though I would never wish the trials I went through on any graduate student, having gone through those times myself has given me a unique perspective as I assist in mentoring students who feel like they are alone and ill-advised in their graduate school projects.

At this point, I feel that it was only by God’s grace that I completed my PhD program, and only by his grace that I have now been healed. Released from the weight of my graduate school circumstances, I have been able to grow beyond the spiritual plateau that I had been stuck on for several years. I have recently been convicted of the next step for me in completely removing the bitter root which still grows in my heart as I recall my graduate training. Several months before I finished my PhD, a friend from church asked me if I could consider forgiving my advisor and academia for what I had gone through. I was surprised to hear myself saying I couldn’t see myself doing that in the midst of continued trials. But now time has passed. God has healed me in many ways. I see that I have used the wisdom gained through experiences I’ve had to assist others in their times of hopelessness. And I am working to forgive.

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