This is the first in a series of posts where I’ll talk about the different strategies that I used to keep it together back in the day during graduate school and some cautionary tales of things that I could have done differently. In looking back I’ll see which became strategies that I’ve brought to my post-PhD career in academic administration. We’ll start off today with one thing that I wish I had done: paid attention to the warning signs that my body was sending me that I needed to make a change.
That time I thought I was lactose intolerant…
Starting in the third or fourth year of my PhD program, I began having unexplained abdominal discomfort. Instead of talking to a medical professional I did what many of us do and consulted Dr. Google. It usually appears in adulthood, is more common in people of African descent, and is often self-diagnosable. That was all I needed to hear. I took Lactaid every once in a while to no avail, but that wasn’t enough to convince me that something else was going on.
It turns out I was just anxious about my dysfunctional relationship with my advisor!
It wasn’t until after I’d switched advisors in the middle of my fifth year (a story for another day, I promise) that I realized my belly ache was permanently gone. My new advisor was invested in my success, gave me constructive feedback in regular face-to-face meetings, and recognized my strengths. I was fortunate to have other positive mentors during graduate school, but this was the first time I was getting the mentoring I needed from my PhD advisor, and it made a real difference in my life.
There were other red flags, but I didn’t pay attention to them
I’ve never been a morning person, but before I switched advisors I would wait until the last possible moment to get out the door in the morning and into the lab. My husband worked out of a home office in our tiny on-campus apartment, so it was impossible for me to stay in bed all day. It was tempting and I pushed it as far as I could. In hindsight, I was clearly avoiding the situation that was causing me stress. I wish I had put all of these things together soon. After the switch, I never had a problem keeping a regular schedule in the lab.
Lean on your support system as a default, not just in times of crisis
If I could do anything differently, I probably would have told more people how I was feeling. Working it out with other people and seeing a different perspective on my life might have helped me see the patterns that I was determined not to see, in a misguided effort to be strong and self-sufficient. Even though it goes against my nature as an introvert, I’ve learned that it is really beneficial to share my inner life so that I can get help from the people around me that care.
- Ask for help, even if you’re not sure what kind of help you need
- When things feel off, resist the urge to retreat into yourself and over-communicate instead