Being honest about academic anxiety

It has only been slightly less than a year since I last posted, which is something of a record for me when it comes to attempting to blog. I wrote last year about what a graduate school summer was like, and I have to say that this summer is different. This summer separates my second year from my third year (eek), which is something of a definitive divider, school-wise. I’d argue that second year is the last chance you really get to flounder around in the vast pool of science with little direction or purpose; by the time you finish third year, you probably ought to have your shit together.

What this effectively translates to is that while last summer was a relaxed time to explore new ideas and go to the mountains every weekend, this summer is a time to cram in as much field/lab/writing work as humanly possible while studying for my qualifying exam in the fall. Many of my friends are in similar boats, but the timing of everyone’s field work/conference travel seems designed just so that nobody is in town at the same time. And during this busy but uncertain and slightly lonely summer, I have had to learn to deal with that elephant in the room – anxiety. For real, blown-up, anxiety. I suspect that I am not the only human in academia who deals with this, which is why I think it’s important to be candid about my experiences.

Struggling daily with anxiety was not something I saw coming. I have never been a particularly anxious person; I am lucky and academic pursuits have generally come easily to me. I started my PhD program because I thought it would be a fun thing to do. I didn’t explicitly think that loving science and finding it fun would shield me from anxiety, because the idea that I would struggle with anxiety did not occur to me in the first place. And yet here I am, with stomachaches that sometimes last for weeks and stress dreams that my entire qualifying exam committee is telling me that I am a terrible scientist without a creative thought in my brain. Anxiety comes in powerful waves; today I felt happy and strong and capable until about 6pm, when I left my office and just started crying for reasons I can’t put words to. An hour ago I bawled into a tupperware full of quinoa salad, and I mean bawled, like body-heaving, snot-running BAWLED. I don’t even know why! (As an illustration of how weird these feelings are, right now I am watching John Oliver while productively working on a meta-analysis. I feel fine.) There have been days where I have gotten no work done at all because of feeling crushed by the weight of my life pursuing what I thought I loved.

And I love what I do. I love my field sites, love my lab work, love learning new stats code even. I think writing proposals and studying for my qualifying exam are fun activities. Beyond that, I am supported in this endeavor – I have an excellent advisor, an amazing academic coordinator who has saved my butt with paperwork on numerous occasions, as well as a prestigious fellowship that guarantees me financial security. I work within a wonderful community of soil scientists, ecologists, and biogeochemists here at Davis, and my friends here are a vibrant group of humans who are, no joke, going to change the world, and we’ll have some beers and go backpacking in the meantime. I keep in touch with my family and old friends, who all supported my decision to move across the country. I live with three badass lady scientists who are the best friends I could ever ask for. I have a wonderful, thoughtful boyfriend and a kitten who is quite attached to me. I get enough sleep, exercise plenty, eat healthy and organic food grown down the street from my house. Outwardly, my life is the picture of health, and it’s not just a facade – many days I feel healthy and frankly quite blissful about existence.

And yet.

I think dedicating yourself to science invites anxiety and depression, to some extent. When you deal with questions and uncertainties all the time, it becomes hard to feel certain about anything. Couple that with not always being an expert on the techniques it takes to address your questions (I have learned an incredible amount of lab techniques this year, and really only use one method that I knew how to use before graduate school) and needing to keep up with literature because we are learning new information every day…well actually, that sounds great, that sounds like many opportunities for LEARNING, which is FUN…but what I have learned is that it is also a recipe for feeling very, very unsure of myself. And the earth system is hard to study! Especially when you are trying to study soil microbes and gaseous processes, which are both INVISIBLE. I feel like a clumsy giant trying to poke at tiny, invisible nature, but I am just crushing all of its subtleties with my oversized thumbs. Not to mention half of what we learn in my field is yet another way that humans are damaging the planet. And a PhD is so open-ended. I am writing a proposal right now for questions I will spend the next three or so years addressing. That’s a lot of time to have huge, amorphous goal in front of you (especially when you are used to the tiny achievements and rewards of the American education system…). All of this, and I am not even a principal investigator. I don’t have to constantly write grants or worry about funding or freak that if I don’t get a paper accepted into a high impact journal soon I might not have a job.

Tim Hunt would say that this new tendency of mine to burst into tears or feel the adverse effects of pressure is a reason that I shouldn’t be allowed to work in a lab with Important Men who are trying to work on Important Science. But I’d beg to differ. Caring about what I am doing so deeply that it sometimes wreaks havoc on my emotional well-being is maybe a bit extreme for my taste, but I would rather learn to deal with that in a healthy way than be doing something that I don’t care about at all. And I think that being forced to deal with anxiety and powerful emotions, although I’d prefer to not be, is kind of empowering in a weird way. I am learning a lot about what I need from my relationships, from myself, and from my environment in order to feel strong and capable (or hell, just able to get through the day). I am learning that I won’t always be perfect, that I will fail horribly sometimes, or sometimes just have days where I am not feeling great – and all of that is okay. What matters is that after sobbing into my quinoa, I went for a walk, snuggled my kitten, prepped some cold brew coffee for tomorrow, put on a show I like, and found a task I could manage. Tomorrow I will work plenty more hours and hopefully make progress on a poster for a conference, but I will also go to the climbing gym with my favorite sports buddies and then catch up with a friend who has been traveling. The point is that life keeps on going, and I am trying to keep up with it. Many days, I am even way ahead of it. But on the days where I just can’t run fast enough, I am learning to say “it’s okay, I’m a little bit behind but I will see you soon,” and love and trust myself all the same. There’s something that feels almost zen-like about working towards that kind of peace, and I like to think that wild, powerful loving and sadness can paradoxically coexist with inner peace.

So…thanks, grad school?

1 Comment

  1. Powerful post – as a fellow human who may not have been quite as far in the depths of academia as you – I can tell you I dealt with this same thing basically every day, and still do. You're not alone in this, trust me, you're just one of the few willing to be honest about it!

    Like

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