A Story Of Challenge : My Tryst with Failure and Triumph

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We ask you to “share a story about a significant challenge you faced during your Ph.D.” Here is Vaishali’s story:

I was faced with umpteen challenges during the entire of my Ph.D. Each year brought with it a new set of problems which tested my patience and resilience slightly more than the previous year. But by far the most difficult challenge I faced was coping with ‘the imposter syndrome.’ I don’t know when it got triggered, but ‘I am not good enough’ was a very unpleasant feeling to deal with.

Somewhere in the middle of the 4th year I distinctly remember asking a colleague ‘I have zero confidence’ what should I do? I also remember googling frantically to find out if someone else doing their Ph.D. also felt the same way, but found nothing substantial. I didn’t even know that it was called ‘the imposter syndrome’ at that time. There was no one particular reason why I felt that way, but failed experiments and harsh words from my advisor made it worse. During my second year, I initiated two thesis projects, so a lot of groundwork had to be done in the 2nd and 3rd year. Needless to say, there were several technical problems which took many months to resolve. Despite all the hard work, till the end of the fourth year, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The pressure of publishing also played a huge role in me feeling like a failure. Seniors Ph.D. students from our lab had several publications to their credit and had consistently published throughout their Ph.D. Thus the same was expected out of me. However, the technical difficulties associated with my projects significantly delayed my publications. Therefore, although, I had come up with novel projects, having no thesis related publications by the end of the fourth year made me feel inadequate, hopeless, frustrated and powerless.

I coped with my misery by enduring it and giving myself the hope that things will be better towards the end of my Ph.D. I gave myself a pep talk every single morning and mentally prepared for the day’s challenges. Also, yoga and meditation helped me to blow off some steam. Thus towards the end of my Ph.D. I was slightly more optimistic and happy. Although things weren’t exactly as I imagined, they were much better than before – I was accepted for a postdoc position in a lab where I really wanted to go, and things looked hopeful on the personal front. However, after my defense, there was a disappointing turn of events in my personal life. Besides, immediately after that, my paper was rejected for the fourth time in a row. Having endured uncertainties for 5 years with patience and resilience, I wasn’t ready for the personal setbacks yet again. My optimism very quickly turned into sourness, anger, and misery. The graduate school hangover was also difficult to overcome, and it took me almost a year to regain some perspective and make a fresh start. Since then, I have been sincerely committed to taking care of myself both mentally and physically. I exercise, meditate, read and draw inspiration from people who have turned their lives around under extreme circumstances.

I am sure most of us have at some point in our Ph.Ds have been miserable. Be it the pressure of publishing or not living up to your advisor’s expectations. However, is it normal to suffer like that during Ph.D.? If yes, why is suffering considered normal in academics? Is the Ph.D. process designed to make you feel like a failure? Why don’t we discuss our feelings of inadequacies openly with our peers? Are we ashamed of these feelings or we fear being judged? These are some of the questions I am still trying to understand and with more Ph.D. stories; hopefully, there will be some answers. Also, more often than not we underestimate how much personal life situations can affect our mental capacity to go through grad school and in upcoming stories we wish to throw some light on that as well.

So, this was a part of ‘my’ PhD story – but I like to call it my tryst with failures and triumphs. The journey ahead is probably not easy, and the path will still be rocky, but I know I will deal with it – because I have in the past 🙂 ‘KEEP CALM and U SURVIVED Ph.D.’.

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