Reclaiming my state of mind: Why I’m leaving my PhD program
(And things I would consider if I could do it over)
I was admitted to Oregon State University’s Physics PhD program this past fall. By Fall 2020, I intend to graduate with my Master’s degree.
Coming to the decision to switch tracks from a PhD to a Master’s wasn’t difficult (in fact, I felt the desire to pack my bags at the same time as I was settling in to my provincial life in a small college town), but coming to terms with it (and coming out with it) was. Feelings of failure and inadequacy mixed with stubborn resolve and other unhealthy coping mechanisms meant months of digging, with the help of a therapist, in order to make sure that the decision I was going to act on was being made for the right reasons.
In February, I delivered a keynote for the 10th Annual Pacific Northwest LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation in STEM) conference at the University of Washington, and it was the first meaningful opportunity I had to begin to process my situation. The first set of challenges came from the lack of a sense of belonging, challenges commonly faced by students of color, particularly Black students, in predominantly white spaces. I was the only Black person in my department, one of two women in a cohort of twelve, and as a first year nontraditional student, I was older than the majority of my fellow graduate students. These were all things I was aware of during the department’s spring open house, and they were all things I felt I could simply work away — but it turned out that working alone was just as hard as assimilating would have been.
The second set of challenges are ones, I think, all graduate students share — graduate school is hard and the academic system is exploitive. We’re often moving to a new city/town, away from our family and networks, on top of navigating a new set of expectations, downright awful textbooks (Jackson, anyone?), in addition to teaching and/or research duties. Structural and cultural issues within academic departments are not new, and are certainly not unique to any one program. And the idea of using coursework and exams as a way of weeding out “weak” students is as common in undergraduate programs as they are in graduate programs (some of whom, I’ve been told, sometimes admit more students than they can actually support long-term).
“It gets better after the first year.” -A Graduate Student proverb
Between taking more courses than I could handle, balancing TA work and research, and contending with negative impacts on my mental health, I ended the year with a 2.92 cumulative GPA, just shy of the Graduate School’s 3.0 requirement. For the first time in my academic career, I was questioning whether I was cut out to be a physicist, much less an astrophysicist.
My first year of graduate school was an isolating experience, though some of the efforts I took during my first two terms at OSU helped to mitigate some of it. My friends, family, and partner — all of whom are long distance — were incredibly supportive. I was sponsored by the Oregon NASA Space Grant to attend the 25th Annual Southern Regional Education Board conference, the largest gathering of minority PhDs in the country. I found a WoC therapist who was also great fit, I connected with student groups even though I was time-limited and couldn’t be an active member, and I was fortunate to have access to faculty members and senior physics graduate students I could trust.
Being able to name challenges and accept the L’s are important, but so is the practice of turning them into lessons. Here are four pieces of advice that I’d give to students, particularly students of color, seeking to apply to graduate programs:
1 If you can manage, take the extra year.
This is a tricky one. For me, opting for another year as an undergraduate would have meant another year to strengthen my application for astronomy graduate programs (I completed my first astrophysics internship at NASA Goddard the summer I graduated), but it also would have meant another year of student loans. Opting for a gap year could have offered me a break and more work/research experience — as well as student loan payments. Consider your options, but sometimes taking your time is the better strategy.
2 When looking at programs, consider factors beyond research.
Research programs/groups/advisors were stressed as the number one thing to consider when I applied to schools. I wanted to constrain myself geographically (the West Coast is, after all, the best coast), and having done by undergrad degree at a PWI with programs like LSAMP, Trio, and McNair, I had no way of knowing how isolating taking the next academic step was going to be — graduate students of color at PWIs often have to do the extra work of building the communities and the spaces we need (but sometimes we simply don’t feel like being the “trailblazer”, or the “exceptional minority student”).
Changing tracks here. The power of collective bargaining makes a difference in a system that would prefer to overwork and underpay their graduate students. At Oregon State, the Coalition for Graduate Employees (CGE) has worked to increase salaries and healthcare benefits, as well as reduce the amount of fees we have to pay out of pocket. If you land at a university with a union, it is critical that you become a dues-paying member!
Take a holistic look at the institution, department, program, potential advisor, and city/town. Do they have what you need? Are there mechanisms in place to protect graduate students from exploitive and abusive work practices? What resources are the departments putting in to recruit and retain, with intention, students of color?
3 Find your tribe, and your allies.
A sense of belonging is strongly tied to the ability to persist. While I had tapped into student groups my first term on campus like OSU’s Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA), Physicists for Inclusion in Science (PhIS), I didn’t feel like I had the time to devote to the relationships that would have helped me during those critical first months of graduate school where I spent a lot of time alone. Furthermore, developing relationships with trusted faculty, both in and outside of your department, as well as with administrators (e.g., the Diversity Officer), are critical especially when direct action and support are necessary.
Talking to current and former graduate students is a great way to start to get a sense of the departmental climate.
4 You have more power than you think.
The transition from undergraduate to graduate student feels like a step up in some ways (you transition from student to some superposition of student and employee). But going from paying a university to get a degree to having my tuition covered and a monthly stipend had a way of skewing my sense of empowerment. I was hesitant to advocate for myself until I was desperate.
In my final year of my undergraduate career, I had a groove: two upper-division Physics classes was optimal, and allowed me to fill in the rest of my time with research and honors thesis work. The roadmap I was handed during first year orientation required three classes each term (on top of teaching, and whatever research you felt you could take on). By Spring term, I insisted on doing it my way: 1 Physics/STEM course, 1 non-STEM course, and research. My GPA reflected the difference it made: I went from a 2.42 GPA in the fall to a 3.7 GPA by spring term. It took for me to take my education into my own hands to realize that I am a capable physicist — I just needed the right environment.
Does the program you’re interested in offer an individualized academic plan? If not, insist on it. They are investing in you, and only you know your worth.
Those who are familiar with the story of my academic journey know that this isn’t the first time I’ve faced a transitional challenge in academia. In 2010, I dropped out of my undergraduate program as a sophomore. This time around, I knew I wasn’t prepared to drop everything outright — I was going to finish strong.
I decided to take on an Ethnic Studies minor, which has given me the space to create my first Medium articles. I performed a tribute to Beyonce’s Homecoming as part of the WoC dance group DAM Diverse Dance (whose mission is to “break Western ideals of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and race”), and will continue to dance with them through my final academic year. I will be serving as the 2019–20 Vice-President of BGSA and as a representative of the Physics Graduate Student Committee — and I will be using these platforms to address the challenges I’ve faced at this institution.
Now that it’s summer, I’ve been taking the opportunity to commit to self-care and recovery. I am feeling empowered and, most importantly, optimistic about the year ahead. I’m engaged in exciting computational research (gamma-ray bursts and neutron stars!), while exploring a different sub-field of astrophysics through a side project with my NASA Goddard mentor; I get to dive deeper into creative outlets (writing and dance), and will continue to use my voice to try and leave this place a little better than I found it.
Bonus: I’ll be leaving with a graduate degree in Physics.
Will I get that PhD? Eventually. Till then, I’ll be taking my skills to the tech world — and can use all the transitional advice I can get!
You can find me on Twitter @astrophisacist.