I have three remaining research assistants who have been working as volunteers for me, not receiving any credit. As part of my moving forward I emailed them today to explain and apologize for my lack of communication over the last two months. Typically, at semester's beginning and ending, I'm very much in touch-- planning for the coming term. It felt important to explain to them that I'd had an academic delay, and that that had caused some depression. It feels necessary to talk about this here too, as well as the role my health has played in my work. I always aspire to be an example to my students, and as part of that example, I need to humbly admit when things go wrong.
I hope my students know that in a career in science-- or any other career or course of study-- things may go wrong. And it's also normal to have reactions to and feelings about these events. Some of these events will be out of our control. Some of them will be our fault. Some may be some combination. And, while unpleasant, it's all perfectly normal to have setbacks or make mistakes. And, as I've mentioned before, "Scientists are people"-- so it's also ok to be sad or frustrated or angry about these setbacks-- or to not know how to handle them at all.
These setbacks- and our reactions to them- won't be found on a CV, on a description of a scientific career trajectory, or a funding schedule. But they exist, even if many of us don't want to admit it.
My delay was prompted by my dissertation proposal needing extreme edits-- essentially, an entirely new question being needed (and, likely, a new method to go with it, although my stimuli may be salvaged). The timing of this information-- the night before I was to present my proposal to my committee-- blindsided me. I took the criticism well, but questioned my ability to complete the project (both physically and mentally). I questioned my desire to complete the Ph.D. I questioned a lot of things, actually. And I mourned. I liked my project. I'd worked hard on it. I'd struggled to come up with a topic with my advisor, but had thought we'd succeeded at last. I designed my experiments carefully. I created stimuli I thought were interesting and fun. I ran a norming experiment to test the stimuli and solidify the feasibility of my design. I had worked painfully hard and had been proud of the product of my labor. In comparison to my previous work, and in light of past criticisms about my scientific writing, I felt that this paper was my best-- my arguments were stronger, I connected the literature and ideas in a deeper way, I was more critical of the existing literature, I proposed ideas I thought were novel. And I'd done it all with very little help.
For over three weeks, I worked long hours, often until 2 or 3am, operating on little sleep-- something I know I cannot physically do for more than 4-5 days without serious repercussions for my health. I should not have done it. I should have delayed the presentation. But I wanted to have the proposal complete before the semester's end-- wanted to use Winter break to recuperate and finish setting up the experiments to be run, so I pressed on.
Instead, I used Winter break to hibernate and try to snap out of feeling depressed. I used it to decide if I should finish my degree or leave the program, if I should continue now or take a leave of absence. I used Winter break for all the existential crises that came after suddenly having my project derailed, lying in ruins around me. The holidays were a nice distraction, and I enjoyed them. But I did, to some degree, alternate between ignoring the problem and lapsing into all the negativity and questions and sadness and feeling like a failure.
I continued this semester partly because I never made the decision to take the leave. (And because I had dragged my feet looking for other job options-- and I need money to live. And health insurance.) But I'm glad I persisted. I love the class I'm assisting with this semester. I'm learning a lot. I have gotten back on track, to some degree, in pursuing a new question. My graduation will be delayed a bit, but I'm hoping to collect data this summer. I'm still looking for jobs for the Fall, although my search has changed a tiny bit. I'm feeling hopeful on a more regular basis, although life still feels really difficult most of the time lately. I've been depressed and I've been embarrassed and I've been worried, but I'm coming back. And part of that means facing my students and facing my readers and being willing to tell the truth.
*If you're experiencing depression or anxiety about your research or life or anything else, please don't be afraid to seek help. Talk to your family. Talk to your friends. Find a counselor or a mental health professional or a support group. Bad times pass, sadness gives way to hope eventually- and it's ok to need a little (or a lot) of help in the meantime. You are worth it.