Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Get over yourself.

Rising to the challenge. That's the topic of this month's Scientiae Carnival, as put forward by Candid Engineer.
At first I wasn't sure what to write about because as a scientist, I feel like I face challenges almost everyday. Granted, they aren't all huge or difficult to overcome, but more than enough of them are. While contemplating the topic, I ran across a post by Sciencewomen about her MS experience, and inspiration hit. I'll write about one of my biggest, and unfortunately on-going, challenges: myself.
Like many people I possess qualities that are self-destructive. Particularly, I hold a grudge, I am quick to judge and bitterness and resentment come a little too easily. Making it through my masters program brought all of these qualities to the surface and in doing so, it also made me realize that I needed to change.
In the beginning things were fine, even though I applied for the Ph.D. program and was offered the M.S. program as a consolation prize. Since my undergraduate degree was not in science, math or anything analytical, I thought this decision by the admissions committee was understandable. I decided that since I wanted to complete the Ph.D. program, I would just enter the M.S. program but approach it the same way as a Ph.D. student, taking all the same classes, etc. The first half of the fall semester, proved difficult, but then I hit my stride. I started doing well in classes and in the lab and I started to realize that there was really no significant difference between the Ph.D. students and myself. The faculty in the department noticed this too and inquired with the graduate school about transferring me into the Ph.D. program. Unfortunately, the graduate school would NOT budge on this. They were worried that this would start a trend where undeserving M.S. students entered the Ph.D. program through the “back door.”
FINE! What. Ever.
Over the next few years, my fellow Ph.D. students took their qualifying exams and became Ph.D. candidates while I toiled away on a shitty project that was going absolutely nowhere, all the while getting more and more frustrated. What finally broke the barrier from frustration to out and out bitterness and resentment was: (1) figuring out that the graduate school was more than happy to bend plenty of rules, and (2) understanding that the amount of work required to get a M.S. varied wildly from student to student.
The graduate school bent rules for everyone, everyone but me it seemed. For example, students who were making horrible grades were given probationary period after probationary period even thought the rules clearly stated that they should have been kicked out. Furthermore rules regarding time frames for qualifying exams and graduation were routinely ignored. I didn’t particularly care if the graduate school was flexible on these points, but I felt that if one rule could be bent (and in some cases totally ignored), then why couldn’t all of them. If you aren’t going to follow the rules, then get rid of them.
In addition to feeling like I was the only student in the school that had to follow any rules, I also felt like I was being held up to a much higher standard than the other M.S. students. (Granted, there was only one other M.S. student in my department, but bitter people don’t really care about the statistical significance of their sample size.) The incident that finally pushed me over the edge was finding out that the M.S. student (who worked in the lab of one of my committee members) who started the program 2 years after I did, was going to graduate one semester after me. Not because they had enough data, or an awesome project that went smoothly, but because they threatened to quit the program. They claimed they were having a nervous break down and just couldn’t take it anymore. What was the solution? Offer the M.S. degree in exchange for one more semesters worth of work.
I was fucking livid when I found this out. This person's PI was on my committee, and they were also actively campaigning for me to put in yet another semester of work a mere two weeks after the incident with their own M.S. student. I refused and thankfully the rest of the committee felt it was unnecessary. Thankfully, I graduated at the end of the semester.
Once I finished the M.S., I went straight into the Ph.D. program and took my qualifying exam within a year in an effort to "catch-up." I tried to leave the M.S. experience behind, but I couldn't. Every time I heard about rules getting bent for a student or encountered Ph.D. students without the ability to learn or think about science, I would feel the bitterness and resentment rising up inside, making me want to explode. To make matters worse, I dwelled on the fact that I was behind everyone else.
I was miserable, but why? I was in the Ph.D. program and doing well, so what the fuck was my problem? I was the problem. Holding onto all of those negative feelings and constantly reminding myself of every misfortune that I encountered was making me unhappy and I needed to stop.
Since then, I try to take things with the proverbial grain of salt. I also try very hard not to complain about unfair situations because when I complain, I get too upset and too caught up in the negativity and, as a result, all the self destructive feelings rise to the surface. I am by no means perfect. I still complain, but I try to avoid carry things around with me the way that I did in the past and I am finding that I am a lot happier.
So, my M.S. taught me that I needed to get over myself. I needed to change my behavior before it took over my life and made me a miserable person that no one wanted to spend time with or work with. This realization was the most important thing that came out of my M.S. program.
Changing your behavior is one of the most difficult challenges in life. It takes constant work and self critique and unfortunately the progress is painfully slow, but it is rewarding when you find success.

16 comments:

chall said...

very nice post. Some things are hard, like getting over yourself or - in my case - "don't dwell on it forever" (cut your losses you know!?!) You seem to have the tools to do it though. And it is good for me to be reminded! (look forward, not backward and to the sides....)

I have to finish my post this week I guess.... dear me, I need to phrase it well since it is a rather delicate matter. And now I have to do it even better since it is rather similar to what you have written. I don't want to be called a copy cat ;)

Have a good rest of the week!

Ambivalent Academic said...

Great post - I think that this is one of the MOST difficult lessons to learn...and even after having learned it, it can still be hard to execute. There's all kinds of stupid shit inflicted upon grad students of any level...and they have little to no control over it. I carried a bunch of bitter bitter resentment around for over a year. It gave me an ulcer, and the situation that caused all this anger never has and never will be rectified. It still makes me mad to think about it, but I try to let myself be angry then LET IT GO. Not worth having holes in your stomach lining.

PS - we should get together for happy hour sometime...next week?

Transient Reporter said...

Great post...

ScientistMother said...

awesome post, totally true.

Candid Engineer said...

This is a really good post, we are so often our own worst enemies, resistant to change and holding ourselves back. So glad you realized this and were able to move away from it.

microbiologist xx said...

chall - Thanks. I thought your post was awesome. Some of the things you write totally remind me of myself. It must be the left-handed microbiologist thing. :)

AA - Thanks! I totally feel like graduate school just amplified every bad character flaw I possess.
I am all for a happy hour! I sent your BH an email regarding this. It sounds like you could certainly use one. Let me know what is good for you guys. :)

TR and SM - Thanks!

CE - Thanks! Although it totally sucked ass to realize that I had become THAT person, I don't regret it since it gave me the opportunity to change. At the time though, the realization was like a kick to the crotch.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I totally feel like graduate school just amplified every bad character flaw I possess.

Well, I don't know about you, but this is absolutely positively 100% true for me. Ugh. There have been times in grad school when I really didn't like me - that's a pretty new experience for me. Nothing like having to face your flaws.

Laura E. Mariani said...

Great post. I think it's very difficult to explore the aspects of my own character that are less-than-perfect. It took a lot of self-awareness and courage for you to write about this.

I, too, am working on how to deal with situations out of my control that are totally crappy and unfair, and how to manage my reaction to them and maintain a positive headspace. It's hard.

Clarissa said...

This is really very well-written, and a motivational post too! Like you, I too need to get over something, but that "something" isn't myself. I need to get over my Advisor, who sometimes thinks that I am just another grad student who can be ordered to do things whenever and wherever (because I oblige, and because I don't know how to say no to her).

So I am going to learn to say no to her. I am going to learn to tell her that weekends are what they are for. I am going to learn to tell her that I do not enjoy running her errands for her because everybody has a life, I have mine, and she has hers, and I think it's best that we respect each other's lives :)

Thank you for the eye-opening post! :)

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

I have that same problem. I tend to dwell over things that I feel are unfair or "not right." I do need to just let it go and let other people be. Besides negative attitude is just not a good color on me.

microbiologist xx said...

Laura E. Mariani - Thanks! I wish you luck in dealing with your own battles while trying to stay positive. It is hard, but you will be happier for it.

Clarissa - Thank you. Wow, that is a difficult situation. I know a lot of graduate students have difficulty saying no to their boss. However, I can't believe she is asking you to run errands for her. That is insane! I hope you can put that to a stop. Good luck!

Amanda - Things that happen (to me or a friend) that are unfair tend to be my biggest trigger. Sometimes those situations can still get the best of me.

GirlPostdoc said...

Kudos! This is a fabulous post. It's true that life is not fair. But realistically, it's never fair for anyone - always a matter of perspective. While I think it is admirable to let go, it is important to honour how you felt and you have done this wonderfully in this post. I still struggle to find ways not to dwell on the "stuff" of me.

Curious Computer said...

I'm near the end of my PhD and feeling an increasing bitterness myself, due to supervision issues. Your post is an excellent reminder for me to keep that under control and remember that plenty of people are helping me (though not the ones who are meant to be). Thanks for sharing that.

microbiologist xx said...

GirlPostDoc - Thanks! Good luck with your own battles. I don't know why some of us tend to dwell so much. It is a constant battle for me.

Curious Computer - Thanks! Good luck finishing your PhD. That is such a stressful time and it makes everything that much more exasperating. I am glad that you are able to find help from somewhere. Hopefully it will all be over soon.

Rhea Miller said...

MXX somehow I missed this as I was trying to update myself on my fav bloggers....

Wow. Thanks so much for sharing...i sure couldnt put it better. -> At first I fought for my dept..now i feel like the leadership in the dept is def SUBpar...for the exact same reasons. which is totally uncalled for. It isnt easy for you to put away your frustrated feelings...and i admire you for valuing the importance of positivity.

I sure hope you don't mind but I plan to link this post.

Thanks again MXX...hugs.

microbiologist xx said...

rhea - Wow! Thank you so much for the kind words. I am honored to be one of your "fav. bloggers." Hells yeah!

Please feel free to link away.

I hope to see more blogs from you in the future. ;)