For this month’s Scientiae, Candid Engineer has asked for stories about overcoming challenges. ScienceWoman has already contributed an awesome story to the Diversity in Science carnival, but I think it does for Scientiae, too.
What about my own story?
Prior to my current job, my biggest soul-searching career-related moment was when I didn’t pass my prelim exam in 2005. Ugh.
In retrospect, I think I was taking the prelim pretty casually. I had written my ~100 page, 3 chapter research proposal document, and none of my dissertation committee advisors had raised a hair about it. I had never seen a dissertation proposal defense (as they were closed in my department, a practice which I think was actually illegal), so I just figured I’d lay out the main ideas, and then we would talk about the overall plan, they’d tell me to change the calendar as it was too ambitious, and we’d all leave to enjoy the rest of the day.
I was wrong.
Instead, we had what my advisor later called “blood in the water.” It was not good.
I started off with a quick literature review, and I moved on to describing my research questions — I confess we stayed on them for what must have been an hour. I got asked really really fundamental questions, like “what do you mean by ‘gender’?” and “how do you know what a ‘boundary’ is?” I had no good answers. I got more and more appalled by both my inadequacy and how much worse things were getting. With about 20 minutes left in my prelim time slot and still on slide 8, I realized to my shock that I wasn’t going to pass. I couldn’t believe it.
I held it together until my committee left. I didn’t know what had happened — my advisor had called me one of his smartest students ever, how could I have done so badly? I didn’t know if I had failed (no one had said that word, but I sure as hell hadn’t passed) or if I was in some kind of no-person’s land. My committee members left the room, and I started to cry — with shame, disappointment, humiliation, uncertainty, self-doubt, all of those things. And anger. A lot of anger — I felt my advisor had failed me by letting me go into this experience with so little feedback, when clearly I was unprepared.
One of my committee members then decided to come back to the room, and to my continued humiliation, caught me in the middle of my puddle of self-pity. She was very reassuring and understanding — I actually don’t remember what she said specifically, which is kind of a relief to me now. I eventually pulled myself together, took my stuff to my car, and then went to my good friend and former boss’s office — she opened the door, and I said “I didn’t pass.” I had another good cry in her office — she called my husband, and my dad (faculty member on campus), who was simul-IMing my mom (who was still commuting between Madison and Iowa at that point, I think). I think my husband came to pick me up in her office, and the 3 of us walked back to my car — on the way we bumped into ANOTHER of my committee members, who saw how upset I was and gave me a hug (rather to my shock). I was and still am vastly relieved that the two people who saw me in tears were women; not sure why it still matters to me.
I went home and crawled into bed for the rest of that day and much of the next. The thing was that it was the weekend of my mom’s birthday (a round decade) and she didn’t know it yet, but we had planned a massive surprise birthday party for her, including flying my sister in from Philly. I had to pull myself together for that, and in fact the surprise itself went off like a charm — my mom cried when she saw my sister. (There were lots of tears that week.) But then I had to deal with all kinds of people asking me how I was doing in my program, and I still didn’t know if I had officially failed.
The day after the party, my mom and my sister gave me some intensive counseling. They advised that I write a supplemental document where I answered all the questions my committee had asked me, and where I provided more references. They agreed that I didn’t need to justify the use of qualitative data analyses, and gave me some language to help me deflect such critiques. My sister was particularly helpful, giving me the language of “Such-and-such is a tool we can use to explain social experiences” or similar. (I use that all the time now.) We wrote actual text, and while I still cried a lot that weekend, in retrospect, it might have been rather cathartic.
I also emailed my advisor and my committee members. I just found this email:
“Dear [committee member], Thank you for your questions yesterday at my prelim. They were difficult and important, and I did not have good answers. I now have an opportunity to improve, which I will grasp with both hands. However, I would really appreciate some time to talk with you about how best to do this. I haven’t heard from [my advisor] since he left the meeting yesterday[…].
Would you have some time in the next week or two to meet with me? I obviously will try consider beforehand how to answer the questions you have already made, particularly the last one about whether I am more interested in what happens at the edge or about what ends up in the box.”
I also heard back from my advisor, who told me I hadn’t failed, just “suspended” due to lack of train. He also said, “I understand your disappointment. We will get there, but the trip will just be a little longer. […] So now we pick up the broken glass, determine how to glue it together, and move forward with the fixing. […] Keep your chin up. You are smart, dedicated and capable. You had your feathers ruffled, but no serious damage. Now we just get back up and move ahead.”
By the time the next week rolled around, I felt I was beginning to have a plan for what to do next. I scheduled another meeting, scheduled another practice prelim that my advisor could actually attend the whole time for, and buckled down to writing that supplemental document. I made sure I met with each of my committee members in advance of the second prelim — I think they had been so taken aback at how the first one had gone that they found time to meet with me. And my second prelim happened a month later, going much more smoothly. (Although I didn’t sleep at all the night before because I was too anxious.)
So. A story of triumph in the end. It was a defining moment for me in certain ways, and I’m glad I had my family there to pick up the pieces of me and help me figure out how to put them back together. I think it must be really tough for folks who don’t have academically-oriented families, or maybe they find people who can serve as extended-academic-families. I am convinced having such “family” is a critical component of graduate school: you MUST have people who can really help you when you are desolate, lost, full of self-loathing, who can help you put yourself back together.
When writing this post, I checked my email boxes for the actual dates (yes, I keep ALL emails), and was shocked to see this whole debacle was in 2005. It seems like just yesterday.