Earning my PhD and the Emptiness that Followed

I defended my dissertation and earned my PhD in Neuroscience from one of the top research institutions in the world. I had envisioned myself here -- being done with my graduate studies -- so many times, but somehow, I imagined it differently; in my mind this moment was shinier and more fulfilling than how it turned out. Maybe it’s because getting the PhD, somehow, somewhere along the line, became the goal and not a means to an end. When I first decided to be a neuroscientist, the goal was to contribute to the understanding of psychiatric disorders. Therefore, a PhD would serve to equip me with the tools necessary to address critical knowledge gaps in the understanding of psychiatric disorders. At least, that was the goal around fourteen years ago, but right after I have earned my PhD I felt myself having to reconnect with that original goal and it didn’t feel quite the same. Maybe the journey there was so emotionally and mentally draining that the pay-off – being done – didn’t bring the relief nor the closure that justified putting myself through so much. To a certain extent, it’s obvious that my views would differ from when I first started, but I didn’t expect it to feel so empty either.

My journey towards obtaining my PhD was hard and trying – as expected. Little of which had to do with understanding scientific background or mastering experimental techniques in order to address scientific questions, but more to do with the constant fight against one’s natural need for reinforcements, and for such a long period of time. From a survivalist or adaptive standpoint, it would not be advantageous to persistently make attempts that are not rewarded with at least some regularity. Pursuing a PhD means conducting experiments that often fail and writing publications that often get rejected to eventually have a chance at being considered for a job that most people won’t get (e.g. becoming research faculty). Therefore, pursuing a PhD could be considered an active denial of fundamental aspect of human-nature. At the very least, this is what most graduate students deal with.

Without dismissing anyone’s hard journey, I would say that I endured a tad more than most; I had to give so much of my self/essence/humanity/soul that I had to borrow from anyone that would spare any of theirs in order to get through. The messed-up part is that maybe I didn’t have to. If I had believed in myself and trusted that I was capable, I wouldn’t have let fear dictate so much of my graduate school career.

My curiosity and drive to understand mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder -- both of which my younger sister has been diagnosed -- gave me the impetus to pursue a career as a neuroscientist, but it did not make the journey any less hard to travel, or even initiate, for that matter. Every step in this journey took me longer than the average person to either initiate or complete. For example, I started undergrad back in September 2001 and officially completely my last class December 2007. I probably could have gone into a graduate program immediately after undergrad -- I had a decent GPA and a lot of research experience -- but I didn’t feel good enough to put myself out there. So, I did a post-bac program and worked as a lab technician for 2.5yrs before finally starting grad school. Graduate school was not any different; I enrolled in June 2010 and did not defend my dissertation until December 2017. I first got involved in neuroscience research fourteen years ago and it has taken me that long to finally earn my Ph.D., but why? Fear; ever-present and at times, paralyzing fear; fear of not succeeding if I tried and fear of what comes after if I succeeded. But why was I so afraid if I have overcome so much and I’ve shown myself to be capable time after time? Well, for many reasons, mostly related to abuse and trauma (I won’t go into here), but mostly because the result of all of that was that I had never felt good enough. This is a feeling I’m constantly battling against, but at times, found myself defeated by.

One way of coping with self-esteem issues was to suppress the full range of human emotions and tried to focus on reasoning and logic. At some point, intellectualism became my only justification for self-worth; being praised by educators and superiors for knowing something most didn’t know or understanding something faster than most were often times the only positive reinforcements I’d receive. Before being praised for being intelligent I had physical appeal, but that empty form of self-validation didn’t last long; at fourteen years old I gave birth to my daughter. After, I found myself overweight and suffering from post-partum depression. Although I couldn’t name it that back then, I remember spending up to three days in bed with little to no human contact. There was just an almost complete and sheer absence of true social support; I simply didn’t have any guidance or support at home. I’m not bitter over it, but I do feel compassion for my younger self because no one deserves to feel that lonely for  as long as I did. My mother is a lifelong survivor of abuse and I understand her shortcomings, and she, therefore, has my undying sympathy, forever. Then there was my father, who vacillated between being physically absent and abusive. Growing up poor, migrating to the U.S. from a developing country, and being that neither of my parents had finished high school, the importance of education was not something that was stressed to me or my two sisters. Neither of whom would graduate high school.

In high school, I had decided I’d become a psychiatrist to understand my sister’s mental health issues. While at CUNY – Hunter College, I learned about being a neuroscientist and realized this was a better fit for me. I transferred to Hunter after my third semester at a school upstate New York. Along with my curiosity to learn about mental health, I really wanted to life a different life from mine. Therefore, I left my daughter and the city to experience a life I thought most normal folks lived, which I thought was the opposite my life in a Brooklyn housing project. I wanted to meet people of diverse backgrounds from mine, which meant not poor and not Black or Latino. My curiosity soon turned into feelings of isolation. After three semesters I went back home, to the projects, to help my mom deal with my sister’s deteriorating mental health as she prepared to give birth to her first son, still a teen. I hadn’t thought about it, but that decision marks the day I (unconsciously) decided to make the wellbeing of all of them my responsibility and sometimes burden. Although no one who knows my story would deny that I was trying to help, I now realize that, to a certain extent, these responsibilities gave my self-doubts and fears valid cover-up stories for why I couldn’t do my absolute best throughout my studies – be it in effort or timeliness. So I came a dollar short and a day late more often than I want to admit, not because I didn’t have what it takes to do the work, but because I was deadly afraid of finding out any justification of what I already thought of myself: that I wasn’t good enough. Being overburdened with responsibility meant I had a valid reason just in case I couldn’t deliver that would absolve me from others’ judgment, but mostly from myself.

The only times my self-doubts relented was when I was so overwhelmed with responsibilities that I had to immediately perform because there was no time to think. The first time I took on way more that I should have was during a period of time when my sister gave birth to her second son, that I was the only person supporting the household; while attending college full-time, I received a monthly stipend to participate in an undergraduate research program and I also worked at the language center part-time. In the short-term, it was invigorating and self-affirming – I could work hard and not feel worthless. However, this was exhausting and unsustainable. I wish I could say I learned a lesson after that incident, but I did something similar in graduate school; I moved my mother, sister and her three children out of the Brooklyn Projects all the way to Michigan to live with me in university housing while I was working towards my PhD. Again, I felt invigorated by the amount of responsibilities I had to fulfill that I had no time for the self-doubts or fears that often plagued me. Of course, I couldn’t keep up with taking care of a seven-person household alone for too long; it was not meant to last. After two years, I was burned out, but more consequential than that, my family ended up living in a homeless shelter, back in NYC, for three years because of my distorted and misguided attempt to provide immediate help without considering the bigger picture. The amount of suffering they had to endure and that I had to endure because they were going through that knowing that I inadvertently caused it all… As I mentioned above, I sought ways of receiving some gratification that was missing from the work I was doing (or avoiding) in lab. The ironic thing is that it was never the actual lab work that I dreaded, but the minimal payoff, the isolation, and the lack of positive interactions or empowerment from those tasked with teaching and mentoring me. However, throughout graduate school I didn’t see it that way; I only blamed myself. I hadn’t realized the truth about myself; my ever-present sense of emptiness and worthlessness could be shaken away, at least temporarily, by overburdening myself into unawareness. This was a form of avoidance and, like all forms of avoidance, it could only make things worse.

Now that I have finished graduate school and have had time to start healing, I’m realizing that it was not that “hard” (out of my depths, intellectually) and I could do it all along; I was, and still am, very much capable. The feeling of emptiness comes from self-resentment for, in a sense, “creating a storm in a glass of water” or for the unconscious attempts at self-sabotage. Instead, I’m trying to understand that my fears were real; they were just not entirely based on the possibility that the work was too challenging for me, but more so based on my doubts that I am capable of success, or worse yet, that I would get confirmation that I am inherently not good enough: not to be a scientist, not to be cared for, not to be loved. That feeling of being somehow inherently undeserving of love and care is at the heart of all my self-doubts and it was borne out of lonely and traumatic upbringing followed by a long journey trying to figure out why would I deserve it, with no one and nothing telling me that it wasn’t my fault. A few years ago, I decided to train my inner voice to be less mean and more positive and encouraging. I’m still trying to undo all of sequelae of trauma; I’m trying to find self-love while refueling my passion for science and research after finally earning my PhD as I combat this feeling of emptiness that tells me I could have done it better. I know that I don’t have to be White, rich, thin or come from a life devoid of challenges to belong or to deserve. I am combating the feeling of emptiness by reminding myself that I am a research scientist because I worked hard to fulfill my intellectual curiosity and because I was always enough.