My grad school “crisis of faith” and how I got through it

8 minute read


A few years ago, I was pretty unhappy in my PhD program.

I started off wanting to be a high-profile academic researcher. I was enticed by the glory of being a big name scientist and making earth shattering contributions. But once I started the PhD, that vision started to overtake my other interests. Successes in my classes and research became the main source of my self esteem.

That’s how so many of us get to graduate school in the first place: we put so much effort into schoolwork that it becomes a big part of our sense of self. But when we start to struggle instead of succeed, our self esteem suffers. To make matters worse, I was having a hard time in my personal life and instead of dealing with those things head on, I compartmentalized them and poured myself into the PhD work instead.

I lost interest in my hobbies and spent all my time working. Before starting the PhD, I would go to the farmer’s market every Saturday and cook myself elaborate meals just for fun. Eventually, I stopped cooking for fun and ate the same meals every day to save myself time. My nights and weekends were spent reading papers. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was putting all of my eggs in the academic basket.

Around the middle of my second year, I started to lose my footing. Grad school is a struggle for everyone, no doubt, but it’s even harder when you are questioning whether you belong. This was the first time I really felt that I was a woman in a male-dominated field.

I felt inadequate because my research interests weren’t as “theoretical” as most of my classmates. At least anecdotally, men tend to enjoy more theoretical work while women tend to prefer applied research. This was certainly my experience. It wouldn’t be a problem on its own but it became increasingly clear that projects I found interesting were not ones that would be publishable in the top journals or would be considered when applying for faculty positions. I really enjoyed things like writing software packages, but you don’t get much academic recognition for doing it.

I felt out of place because I didn’t carry myself with the same confidence as my (male) colleagues. There’s a big confidence gap between men and women: many men won’t hesitate to say something or volunteer, even if they might be wrong or partially qualified. Many women do the opposite. I never spoke up in discussions for fear of being shot down and talked over by arrogant or unforgiving colleagues. And often, I simply wasn’t interested in the minutia of the mathematical theory anyway. My imposter syndrome was at an all-time high.

I presented my early stage research in one of these seminars and got totally ripped to pieces. I didn’t know the whole body of literature on the topic and instead of helping me out, a few of the poeple there berated me with questions I couldn’t answer on the fly. It felt like the opposite of the collaborative environment that drew me to Berkeley and really exposed the “old boys club” mentality that I was immersed in.

I thought I wanted to go on to be a professor — essentially doing more of the same, as my career — until it wore me down too hard.

Are your values in alignment with your work?

One week later, I was at a beer garden in Portland. I was having a drink at 2 in the afternoon with my best friend in the PhD program on our spring break trip. I chose not to think about my research project for a few days while I regrouped. With the taste of IPA on my lips, I realized “I don’t even want to do this.”

Talking it through with her, I realized that it was not my incompetence holding me back but my motivation. This lifestyle was not in alignment with my values, what I think is important, or what makes me happy. I don’t feel driven to compete to be the smartest, or to do math for math’s sake. To feel fulfilled, I want my work to directly impact the lives of others, even if it’s in small ways. Playing the academic game is not for me.

I was in the middle of my PhD when I realized this. I could have quit and done something else, but I didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, I adapted.

I’m fortunate that I was in a position where I could mold my lifestyle and my work to better fit my values. And I’m so glad I did. My physical and mental health are way better than they have ever been, and my research is taking off despite putting a little less energy into it!

A few months ago, I organized a lunch for the women students, faculty, and staff in the department. The discussion was centered around honoring your values and defining what success means to you. Woo woo, yes, but the discussion was uplifting.

I read this book about the history of women in science posited why women in STEM might compromise their values more than men.

In this we see two sides of the image-making coin: [the media] deliberately had shaped Curie into a maternal martyr who had used science for womanly ends; but this portrait also evoked an image of a superwoman, too smart, too dedicated, too focused, and too talented to be emulated by ordinary women…Institutional sexism remained unchallenged, as women told themselves simply to work harder or publish more.”

I asked the participants to pick 2-4 values that resonate with them and to reflect on whether they uphold those values in their work life. If the way that “success” is defined at work doesn’t match up with success as determined by your values, then maybe something is off.

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What did I do?

Well before I thought about my values explicitly, I started changing the way I approched grad school to better align with them.

1) I started giving myself nights and weekends off. No sense in working 24/7 on something for which you aren’t getting paid much and don’t really enjoy. Besides, taking breaks makes you more focused and creative when you are working!

2) I worked with my advisor to find research projects that I really wanted to work on. I had to find my voice to say no to things I didn’t want to do and find the courage to dive into new problems.

3) I sought out opportunities outside the PhD to do things that matter to me: teaching workshops, writing blogs and science articles, and consulting with people doing food research on campus. Having side projects has been a lot of fun, expanded my skill set, and created opportunities for me in the future.

4) I’ve been proactive about seeking research funding, so I can really focus my energy on the projects I want, and seeking travel opportunities related to my work (hello, Italy 2018!!)

5) I stopped caring so much. After realizing I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia, I stopped worrying about how my work appeared. No more pressure to publish in top journals, and with that there was a lot less pressure to do the kinds of work I don’t enjoy. Without my perfectionist tendency in the way, now I actually do better work because I’m not afraid to make mistakes along the way.

Working towards a better grad school experience

Over the last ten years, 95% of male students have completed the PhD in my department while only 75% of female students have. There might be a small numbers game at play (in that there are never very many women in my program), but I’d posit that something else is going on.

I think that many students go through a crisis of faith at some point in the PhD. But perhaps the female students are having a harder time getting through this difficult period.

Unfortunately, people don’t tend to talk about these feelings openly while they’re going through it. It’s scary to be vulnerable and share the feeling that maybe you don’t belong. It’s no good if we all suffer side by side, but silently, when we could lean on each other for support! In sharing my story, I hope others will reflect on what really makes them happy and have the courage to speak up and demand it.