The Dark Night of the PhD

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown

Sitting at my computer, I am seeping with shame. So much shame that even the thought of opening the current draft of chapter number three in my PhD dissertation causes my chest to tighten and my vision to narrow. I’m sitting there with nothing but dread. Who am I to be sitting in this chair, writing a dissertation? Who am I to be writing this dissertation?

My relationship with my PhD has been a conflicted one. I started out bright eyed and full of passion and looking for challenge. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to dig into the research and learn new methods and tools. I didn’t even make it through my first year before that all came crashing down. During year one, I was funded by a graduate teaching assistantship. I was teaching general biology lab for science majors. I was rotating between three labs and I had started a new project with completely new to me methods. Methods that required multiple approaches and good laboratory techniques. I was trying these techniques in a non-model organism that was less than cooperative. I felt pressure to be successful. I was taking graduate level classes. I was doing all of this with the belief that it had to be perfect. That I had to give it my all. I believed that failure, in any form was NOT an option. Perfection was the only option.

Then one day, I paused long enough to realize something. I realized that I was incredibly unhappy. I wasn’t getting enough sleep, I wasn’t exercising, and I was drinking way too much coffee. I wasn’t doing the things that I enjoyed in life. I wasn’t enjoying life at all.

I had to step back and reassess everything. I had to ask myself why I was making myself miserable and if it was all worth it.

It wasn’t.

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I had to change my strategy. Somehow, I found the courage to say, it’s not worth it. I had to remember that I was making an active choice to be a PhD student and that I could change my mind at any time. I had to give myself permission to quit. I had to realize that the degree didn’t mean enough for me to hate my life.

I continued along, and another life event pushed me a little farther. I had to ask again what it was that I really wanted. I had to expand my vision of what was possible for myself and I came back with wild vision of living out my passion. I had discovered that I strongly disliked laboratory research, but I loved teaching. It took all the courage I had to ask if the program I was in still fit that path. The answer that I got was yes, so I continued along again.

Years went by and I started building the life I wanted to live. I continued my PhD research and my teaching. I learned how to walk down my own path and to dream up classes and programs that combined science, yoga, mountain biking, self-exploration and self-acceptance. I dreamed up classes that would support and inspire people to accept themselves and teach them how to reconsider what was possible. I dreamed of classes that I needed and still need to take.

Something amazing happened. I went after things I had always talked myself out of. I went to yoga teacher training after a decade of dreaming about it. I started No Apologies!, a mountain bike coaching business with some amazing and inspiring women. I started a story night about failure. I pursued a certificate in teaching. At the same time, something else was happening: I became more and more disconnected from my scientific community. I started to feel that my graduate degree was at odds with my goals. I felt that I didn’t fit there. I felt so much shame for not fitting into the box of “science researcher.” I couldn’t find a way to combine these passions and felt the pain of living a divided life. I tried to hide these other pursuits as if they had no value. Instead of celebrating these achievements, I hid them. They didn’t feel welcome in my graduate school life. I didn’t feel welcome in my graduate school life.

Where can you go when you don’t feel welcome in such a large part of your life?

My answer was to sneak out of my hiding spot. For a brief moment, I had the courage to stand up and be seen as a whole person. It was terrifying and exhilarating.

Then I lost that strength. For better or worse, I came to the conclusion that I just needed out. I needed to let go of the part of my life that no longer fit.

That’s where I am now. I didn’t quit. I’ve come this far and the light is starting to seep in. However, instead of that light flooding me with relief and joy, it’s frozen me with shame. I again have to sit with that perfectionist. I have to keep pushing through; knowing that this dissertation will not be perfect. I have to convince myself that I can give what I’m willing to give and that it will be enough. I have to remind myself that I am enough, and believe me, right now it is harder than ever to do that.

I have to learn to sit with this shame and feel it. I have to be vulnerable and know that no matter how bad it feels, I will get through it. Brené Brown reminds us in her talk, “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count,” that the critics will always be there in the audience. Shame, scarcity and comparison will always be there. You have to be willing to say, “I see you and hear you, but I’m going to show up and do this anyway.” My harshest critic has always been myself. That critic is loud and mean right now, but I have to make room for it to sit down. I’m learning how to welcome that internal critic. I’m learning how to remind myself of my values. I’m listening to all those people in my life who believe in me, even when their kind words are nearly impossible to accept. I’m working hard to be brave and feel my way through this dark night of the PhD. I know that a more resilient self waits on the other side, but today it just feels awful and that’s okay. I’m not alone in this feeling and I have the strength and support to find my way though it one way or another.

Have you ever felt this way? When? How did you get through it? How are you going to get though it?

7 thoughts on “The Dark Night of the PhD

  1. I feel all of this stuff all of the time as a PhD student. Thanks for putting it out there; I think it’s more common than we are led to believe.

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    1. Seriously, the more that I talk about it with people, the more I believe that it is just part of the process of getting a graduate degree (and being alive, but it might be amplified a bit in grad school).

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  2. Hi! Thanks for this. My advisor and I talk about the imposter syndrome often. It’s this perpetual feeling of “I don’t belong”, “I tricked them into accepting me”. It’s way more common for female scientists than their male counterparts. I still feel this way a lot in my master’s program, I feel so lucky to have a kick ass advisor. She should be sending me some reading about it that I’d be happy to forward! I think you being a badass scientist is just one part of you, I say keep it up, but if you do decide you don’t want to, there’s still tons of badassness to go around!

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