Right before I started graduate school in 2013, a person told me that it would be the best time of my life. And in all honesty it was, especially in the latter years when you have complete control over your schedule and the freedom to do whatever you choose. Now I must add that my graduate school experience was atypical for a black woman, I had a very supportive PhD advisor and Department at Michigan. Aside from that, graduate school affords the opportunity to explore different scientific concepts and theories, engage with people from different backgrounds and places, be creative in both professional and personal endeavors, and most importantly complete freedom over your time and schedule. On top of that, the latter years are when you truly become the expert in your area and are usually the most productive. In other words, by the time you defend, you are on top of the world and living in a bubble that you spent at least five years cultivating and filling with all the things you love and breathe life into your soul. And when you leave that bubble, the feeling of emptiness and isolation is heavy. In other words, you become intellectually homesick.
This is exactly what happened to me when I left Ann Arbor. I was extremely excited to be moving to DC and starting the next phase of my life. But when I arrived at my post-doc, I was given a different project than what was previously discussed. A project, that was complete opposite of everything I loved about research. I absolutely hated it…… it was an important topic but did not utilize any of my strengths or allow me to grow intellectually in the ways I wanted. After months of feeling lost…..I became depressed. And it was tough. There were days that I couldn’t function because I hated the work so much. I felt like a first year PhD student which is the absolute worst year of anyone’s graduate career. And I really tried to like it but I couldn’t force myself to. The depression manifested in many ways, I was extremely short-tempered, moody, low-energy for things I used to loved, negative speech/thoughts, and extreme imposter syndrome. It was the worst time of my life. I felt completely disconnected from my body and the person I was in graduate school. My post-doc lacked community which was hard for me because I have always had a very large and supportive village in my life.
To make a long story short, I advocated for myself and was switched to a different project that I absolutely loved but the depression did not leave immediately, it lingered. And it was hard to move past. It affected my marriage and friendships. DC was difficult to find a therapist in….the waitlists were ridiculously long. So I felt stuck and it took a toll on my mental health. But just like many women of color….I am a professional at swallowing feelings, putting on my brave/confident face, getting things done, and suffering in silence. So to the outside world, I was killing it but on the inside I was really struggling. So a few months ago when I learned that Miss USA 2019, Chelsie Kryst killed herself due to depression…..I knew exactly how she had been feeling leading up to that fatal day. Her story is tragic but it is the story of many black/brown women.
In retrospect I should have asked to be switched to a different project sooner but I did not want my colleagues to think I was not smart enough and as a perfectionist who has never quit a single thing in my life it was hard to admit that I wanted to leave the project. It should be noted that leaving something that doesn’t make you happy or is unhealthy does not make you a quitter or a failure. Another challenge was that because I was very productive at the end of graduate school, it was hard to transition into an environment where I wasn’t productive and where I did not have a support system or community. It is important that as you interview for post-graduate positions that you ask questions about the culture/work environment. That is just as important as the technical part. I would encourage you to be honest about your struggles with close friends and family but be selective. Thank God for my friends Ciara, Alexis, and Sheridan because they really helped me through a very difficult time in my life. It doesn’t make you weak or maybe what I should say…is having a PhD doesn’t make you invincible. There is a transitional period from graduate school to the real world…. and it can be hard and difficult. I would encourage anyone struggling with depression to seek professional help. It is not something you can swallow. It eventually leaks out.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I wanted to share my story with all of you.
From Aeriel, With Love