I’ll be honest, I didn’t think the PhD process would be such an ordeal. I knew it would be difficult, but I’d always excelled in school. I’m not saying this to brag, because pretty much every doctorate hopeful has typically excelled in school. And in some ways, I believe we entered the PhD not just because we did well academically, but because that seemed to be the only thing we did well. If I take a look around my department, we’re chock full of anxious perfectionists with extreme OCD and more than one social inadequacy. Many of us take attacks to our work personally, because our work is the only thing defines us.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from having FMS, it’s this: no one thing defines the whole of you. When you begin to let one aspect of your life dominate and control who you are, that is when you lose. To give a FMS-related metaphor, the pain and the fibro fog does not dictate who I am; i.e. reduced output, quality of work, and productivity does not define who I am as a person. But perhaps this is something easier for me to identify and address than for others. Since a child, I’ve consciously struggled with outlining my identity as an Asian-American female. I use the word “struggle” not in the sense that it was an affliction, but rather a conscious effort to wrest control of my identity. I choose who I am and who I get to be. Even in the face of opposition, I have to be strong in knowing that the whole of me is not defined by what other people think of me.
In this way, I find the PhD difficult and tedious not because of the work, but because of the playground politics. Here, the environment is literally littered with colleagues who believe that it is okay to rip someone apart for really minor mistakes or harmless errors in judgement. They do this because they see their predecessors, the professors and their advisers, doing the very same thing and in doing so, they are perceived as smarter and more successful. I’ve seen favors demanded by students who believe they have the power to do so because their adviser holds power. In a sense, they do hold a portion of that power by proxy, but it is incredibly archaic (and not to mention unfair) that this is considered acceptable and the norm. I find myself appalled by the behavior of both professors and students, who still act as if bullying and hazing is an appropriate response to the mistakes made by fellow scientists and budding scientists. How can we progress if mistakes are not accepted as part and parcel in the pursuit of scientific knowledge?
I entered academia because I loved that thrill of gaining new knowledge (even if it was useless) and the satisfaction of being able to answer a long-bothering question. The ordeal I face now is not the struggle to answer those questions, but rather the attitudes of those around me and their arrogance. However, I know that this ordeal has changed me and helped me to grow as a person: I’ve learned far more about my abilities and my endurance in the face of a multitude of difficulties. I’ve also been pushed to the boundary of how much I can abuse my body before the FMS reminds me, ever so gently, that I must stop. Because of that, I’ve learned which sacrifices are bearable and which are not worth the effort. I’ve learned this lesson and many others a decade earlier than many of my colleagues and even the faculty.
It is worthwhile. If you’re debating whether to enter a PhD program, I will tell you this: It is worthwhile. While you may not gain the doctorate degree at the end, I still believe it’s been worthwhile. During this time, I learned how to rise above my FMS and how to not let it control my life. In learning to do, I’ve learned to distance myself emotionally from the boorish behavior that I observe and experience at school. These are lessons that are hard to learn but difficult to forget. I’ve grown as a person through this adversity and while I would never wish it on another person or willingly choose to perpetuate the system, I do encourage prospective doctoral candidates to seek out that challenge, even if you are struggling with a chronic condition like me. The most important thing to remember is that even when faced with failure (and most likely, the scornful pity of those who have succeeded), that your failure does not define your worth or who you are as a person. The most important thing is that you were brave enough to try.