I will never forget my PhD journey in STEM, although it hasn’t ended yet. I still need to finish writing my dissertation and defend it. Everybody can agree that pursuing a doctoral degree in STEM is far more intense than any other academic journey before it. The years devoted to the PhD can become a plethora of adjectives. In other words, a roller-coaster of emotions and experiences. Although the previous could be a generalized feeling among all PhD students, every student has a unique story with different struggles and motivations. Here, I will narrate a little bit about my personal struggles and motivation to keep going.
I want to start by acknowledging my ethnic and cultural background proudly. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico (a beautiful Archipelago in the Caribbean), and I identify as Afro-descendant. My PhD journey started with moving to the US while my family and friends stayed back home. My goal is to succeed academically and return to Puerto Rico.
Once I started as a new PhD student with coursework, research, and meetings, I noticed how the graduate school atmosphere felt different from what I experienced during my Master’s back home. I never felt so alone while being in school. In this new academic environment, I felt out of place and developed self-doubt. I felt like I needed to do more work than my white men colleagues. Those with more self-confidence, comfortable with the language (while I am a native Spanish speaker), and less pressure to be perfect. I felt more competition between colleagues, rather than collaboration. All this happened during my first years into my PhD. Later, I started to experience what is now widely recognized in academia as the Impostor Syndrome. I experienced a lack of self-confidence more than ever in my career path as a scientist (environmental microbiologist). For me, it was an exhausting emotion. An emotion that made me question if I was doing what I really enjoyed and was good at.
Unfortunately, I was processing this emotion simultaneously with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the latest Black Lives Matter movement. For me, 2020 was a year full of uncertainty and fear. With its constant news and statistics, the pandemic was and still is overwhelming. Violent events and crude expressions of racism were, and still are, infuriating at the maximum level. All together, it was too much for me.
I became obsessed with reading and watching the news. I felt helpless being away from home and loved ones. I found myself unable to focus on my research in isolation while so much was happening out there. Injustices, white privilege, and disinformation. For me, it was challenging to “snap out of it,” as some people may say, but I could not do it so easily. This came to me as a difficult challenge since I had to write my thesis proposal and defend it before the end of the year to become a PhD. Candidate. I felt unable to focus as required in order to accomplish this in a few months. I wanted to quit. To leave everything. To go back home. I did not feel motivated to continue my research and my degree. Indeed, the quarantine lifestyle made my PhD journey even more lonely. It was then when I discovered what accountability was all about.
One day, a dear friend from my bachelors invited me to join her accountability group, which met almost every evening via Zoom. In the group were all women from Puerto Rico pursuing their PhD in different Institutions in the US and Puerto Rico in various STEM disciplines. The group is a support system for thriving in our PhD journeys while in a pandemic and working on the computer all day. Everyone in the accountability group was very welcoming, even though each one was basically on the same boat that I was.
While joining their study sessions, I felt the solidarity and support I’ve been long missing from my peers.
Suddenly, working after hours was fun and less lonely. This accountability group boosted my productivity and my motivation for my research and to keep moving forward. It is a support group and a safe space where we can also express our feelings towards our PhD journey. We all feel happy whenever one of us has good news to share. We also listen to each other whenever we have a bad week and encourage each other to keep going.
Now, long into 2021, they are more than my accountability group; they are my friends. My good PhD journey friends. A sisterhood, but also PhD students that understand my struggles as a Latina pursuing a PhD in STEM. We see ourselves as a community, and we are successful when we do things together and support each other. Based on our experience, I think that part of the general academic success conversation should be about having people you can call friends or a close accountability group during your PhD journey.
Thank you so much to Lizbeth Dávila-Santiago for sharing her story.