For me, the answer was straightforward: I genuinely enjoyed the process of making discoveries and the luxury of working whenever and wherever I liked. However, what may sound like a straight road to success was paved with many setbacks – so much so that it made me question whether I am right for this. And I am not alone with these feelings – many findings speak of a mental health crisis in academia.
I had always been a really good student. I received good grades and the appreciation from my teachers throughout my school years and undergraduate studies. Consequently, academia seemed like the best career choice for me and I joined a PhD position with loads of excitement and enthusiasm. And this is where it all started.
In a matter of weeks, I was doubting myself.
I struggled with understanding even the most basic concepts, while everyone around me seemed to be excelling in their research. All these years of doing great in academics and now I was failing right along the line. This did not only have a tremendous negative impact on my motivation and excitement for doing science, but also made me question whether I was after all smart enough to be doing research. What started with a feeling of confusion, quickly led to low self-esteem – paired with the pressure in academia to constantly prove oneself, I soon began to suffer from mental health issues, every day falling deeper into what I perceived to be a dark pit. Here comes the tricky bit: objectively, I had no reason to feel like this. I was part of a great lab with amazing colleagues and a very supportive supervisor and this made me feel guilty for feeling depressed.
It took me a while to figure out what was going on. But while I was struggling, I ultimately made the decision to quit. The constant struggle with my inner self was impeding me from making any progress in my research and the goal of completing my PhD seemed just so impossible to achieve. But this is where it all changed. Before I could tell my supervisor that I was throwing in the towel, he approached me to talk about the struggle I was battling. I learnt how common this was in academia and, when we involved my colleagues in this discussion, I was surprised to hear how seemingly happy people around me were fighting the same demon on a daily basis. From then on, I became more open about my feelings. We started defining shorter goals in the lab and finishing them one by one made me more and more confident. Before I could realize, I hadn’t quit my PhD, but submitted my dissertation.
After PhD and two years of postdoc, I am now working for a financial institution. While many look at this transition as quitting academia, for me this time it did not feel as “quitting” or “leaving” anything. For me this career path seems more like continuation of my development journey which started during PhD. Apart from the skills I learnt, the most important thing I credit my PhD journey is the confidence it gave me. I came out of it as a much stronger and positive person.
Even if PhD was not necessary for my current career, I cannot see myself where I am today without having had that experience.
While I had a very positive PhD experience in the end, I understand not everyone gets that support and there are a lot of things needed to improve grad students experience. One thing which was the turning point for me was being open about my feelings.
I believe as scientists we must be open about our feelings of self-doubt and our struggles in our research. It is so easy to get lost in the universe of details over details of a concept or research design. Talking to colleagues and supervisors helps to stay focused and moreover, knowing that you are not alone in having these feelings can take off the burden over you. It is ok not to know everything and this will not make you less of an expert. And it is ok to still struggle from time to time. Science is not a smooth sail, it is a quest for knowledge and there are a lot of kind people around you; talk to your colleagues, your mentors.
But most importantly, know that you are not alone in this.
Thank you to Sabiha Majumder (@SanihaMajumder on Twitter) for sharing her story! Follow more of her life via this blog!