Being a graduate student forced me to re-evaluate my life (for the better)

Submitted by: Lan HW

I stopped by the laboratory of a Ph.D. scientist, Dr. Y., earlier this year. We had not talked since my boss – another Ph.D. scientist – left the states to accept a faculty position at a university in the UK. The last time I talked to Dr. Y., she had already made her opinion known that she “felt bad” for me due to my situation. Three years later, Dr. Y. continues to “feel bad” for me, but she also managed to state so matter-of-factly to my face that “most of the students in your position are just not happy working in the lab, so it makes sense for me to find jobs in other arenas.” She could have easily said that most students like me end up giving up on their aspirations of becoming whoever they want to become as the fall-out of being in an inconvenient situation. In all fairness, I had mentioned to her that a job in academia is not my top choice. However, the knee-jerk reaction that seemed to be her response to my update warranted a clarification. 

After 5 years of graduate work, I still see my expectations of myself are more important than the expectations of my superiors. Ok, this sounds super cocky, but it would also be self-defeating to say what I truthfully wanted to say which was that I never met the expectations of my superiors because I did not think that I was good enough like the rest of my fellow graduate students. The trend in my line of work is that the most esteemed graduate students end up at a prestigious university like Princeton to do their post-doctoral work in the lab, doing research. However, I started graduate school to obtain the highest degree that I could to pursue a career in science because I love (and continue to love) doing science. I could have been a science teacher, a laboratory technician moving up the job hierarchy, or wherever I desired after I graduated with my undergraduate degree in biology. Instead, I continued my education because I knew that I would regret it if I did not continue it. In broader terms, I was happy because I have been pursuing a career that makes me happy and not what makes me merely financially sound or highly regarded by my superiors and fellow peers.

Regardless of the pre-conceived thoughts about the career trajectory of a Ph.D. scientist, my superiors at my university regarded me differently and some even lowered their expectations of me while they should have been modifying their expectations of me. Luckily, my boss and my thesis committee –Ph.D. scientists who are also kind-hearted and open-minded individuals – realized that they needed to foster a nurturing learning environment with ME in mind. Before my boss left, she had been doing just that. When she left, it was like part of that nurturing environment was up-rooted. For a couple of months, I lagged behind in my progression towards a Ph.D. degree. My thesis committee called me out by saying that I needed to communicate my feelings more to my boss about my situation or else my situation will get worse. However, no one thought that I should just quit because of tough circumstances. Actually, each of them pep-talked me into staying in the marathon. They were not crazy, and they knew that I could stay in it to win it even though I said to myself some days that I really did not know if I could.

There is no point in wondering about the “what if” when I can reinvigorate my love of science to give me a sense of direction and purpose. It never went away. I just placed it in the very back of my mind where the cobwebs and the boogeyman live. What human being never self-sabotages? The human experience is filled with trials and tribulations that are frankly self-induced much of the time. How come I was letting my self-sabotage become a habit? It does not matter how wonderful life may seem or how terrible life may seem at any given moment in time – there is no excuse for habitual self-sabotage. It took me a year and a half after the pep-talk from the thesis committee to stop my habitual self-sabotage which came mostly in the form of negative thoughts and terrible lifestyle habits like overeating and recklessly spending the money I just did not have.

Graduate school consumed my life to the point where I lost more and more control over my lifestyle habits. The fact was that I was not cultivating healthy lifestyle habits. I let the stress of graduate school dictate my life by making me eat out at nearby eateries out of convenience I really did not have the budget or the metabolism to keep up with the habitual eating pattern and usually high-carbohydrate meal (think of Indian food and lots of hoagies – I am in Philadelphia after all). In the beginning of graduate school, I made the short-lived habit of doing yoga and other exercises either solo or with a group of friends. When the stress took over, I lost the motivation to exercise and even made ample excuses to work out less or not at all. During the first half of my graduate work, I lived with my parents. While I was trying to cultivate better lifestyle habits, I was still gradually becoming increasingly stressed and increasingly worse at making the effort to cultivate better lifestyle habits. However, my mother definitely helped me keep a more nutritious diet whenever I got the chance to eat her delicious home-cooked meals. Without her saving grace, I would have probably failed to fit into my wedding dress.

I met my husband before pursuing my Ph.D. degree. During the first few years into our relationship, I was by his side as he finished his graduate work. Once he finished, I was by his side as he landed his first post-graduate full-time job at a company. Less than one year later, I started graduate school and pursued my studies while we were both still living with our parents in two different counties 30 miles apart. Two years ago, we got married. We have seen each other at our very best (i.e., when he graduated with his Master’s degree, when I got accepted into my Ph.D. program), but we have also seen each other at our very worst. He had been failing to keep a healthy diet while he was living with his parents whereas I had started to do the same thing. Both of us were kept from getting our situations worse by eating home-cooked meals made by our parents. Whenever we could see each other during our dating and engagement years, we would try our best to do one healthy activity even if it was to walk around the neighborhood and enjoying each other’s company. A year before we got married, my boss moved away. So, from most of our engagement and through the first half of our first year of marriage, I became a wreck and started my downhill slide towards becoming the person who I started to hate.

Last year was a roller coaster, and not the ones that I usually like. In fact, generally, I do not like roller coasters. During the first third of 2017, I was spending over $400 on clothes. Ironically, over time virtually all of these purchases were given away to various groups of people who wanted or needed them. It turned out that I did not love the clothes, I was just coping with my stress by spending aimlessly on things that I did not need. Then, I spent a much-needed long weekend partying with my favorite travel companions in Las Vegas. If I had to do it again, I would make sure that I did not max out my credit cards before heading to Las Vegas. All I had was the cash that was in my purse (luckily, all of the important things had been paid in full by the time we got to Las Vegas). During the week after coming home from the lovely weekend, my husband and I were eating food exclusively from Target because that was the only store where I could shop. My Target credit card was not maxed out yet. Amazingly, I am sitting here with you today with no credit card debt. 

How did I turn my life around? It did not happen until August 2017 when I was finally on a faster track to complete the bulk of my Ph.D. thesis work. Yes, my graduate work continues to stress me out, but I finally took the first steps in August 2017 to cultivate better lifestyle habits despite of the stress that wanted to overtake my entire being. One wise person once said that “when life puts you in tough situations, don’t say ‘why me’, say ‘try me’”. I took that to heart and ran with it! I became more optimistic about being at the specific stage of my graduate work. My support system in graduate school kept me grounded, and that truly helped with my becoming more optimistic. I started running on the treadmill out of convenience of time and of the fact that it was collecting dust in our home with no one using it for years. Both my husband and I started figuring out how we wanted to formulate our workday lunches and how we wanted to eat out smartly and not too indulgently. All of these occurrences were stepping-stones to who we have now become today: healthy, happy, and more reflective when things go wrong.

By taking better care of myself, I took control over my career. Instead of waiting to finish working on the publication that will grant me permission to graduate with my Ph.D., I accomplished more “small victories” in parallel with working on my grand publication. These “small victories” have come mainly in the form of blog articles that discuss technical aspects of my work. If I had re-activated my LinkedIn profile a little later than I did, I would probably not have serendipitously received a message from a biotechnology start-up company that wanted researchers like me to help them test their novel platform. My work with this company led me ultimately to my passion, which is science communications. It was like my passion found me!

Should I call it a coincidence that there is a direct relationship between the way I feel when I did my graduate work to how I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally as a person? Of course not! When people ask me how graduate school is going, I state simply that it is exactly like going to work as a non-student and with all of the trials and tribulations that one encounters while working. Work consumes our lives, and if we let it chronically consume us without any limitations, how could we take care of our loved ones and, most importantly, ourselves? Cue the snowball effect. While others still look at me like I have got my whole life ahead of me because I am still in school, I have challenged that generalization by making no excuses to stop cultivating the healthy lifestyle habits from which both I and my husband will benefit. Like any graduate student, I am constantly faced with multiple responsibilities that require my full attention. Also, the pressure of graduating always lingers and sometimes yells in my ear. Graduate school might as well be mirroring LIFE. I think that in many ways it does. A person is defined by how he or she handles situations and not defined by the situations themselves. Yes, my train of thought sometimes ends up thinking about the “what if’s” and it would take me more time to better control that side of me. Working on my Ph.D. does not automatically mean that absolutely everything needs to be put on hold. I deserve to be happy, and I AM happy with a pending manuscript submission date and a pending thesis defense date.