Being in grad school doesn’t exempt me from life. People pass away. Friendships are lost. Family stresses me. The unexpected happens. Sometimes they are spaced out. Other times they come back to back. Still other times they come simultaneously. This past month I was hit with a back to back/simultaneous combo. Read More »
This time last year, I began my 4th year as a PhD candidate displaced. I had no mentor, no lab, and no thesis project. I felt betrayed, bullied, and abandoned. I didn’t know what I had done that was so horrible to deserve this.
But I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. The truth is, my program had failed me. I did what I was supposed to. I talked to all the “right” people. I made the requested adjustments. And still, I was in jeopardy of leaving school without my PhD.
Never had Donnie McClurkin’s lyrics felt so real to me:
What do you do when you’ve done all you can
And it seems like it’s never enough?
And what do you say
When your friends [mentors, in my case] turn away
And you’re all alone?
Tell me, what do you give when you’ve given your all
And it seems like you can’t make it through?
Well, you just stand when there’s nothing left to do.
You just stand, watch the Lord see you through.
Yes, after you’ve done all you can,
You just stand.
I didn’t understand at first. You see, patience is not my virtue. In my opinion, standing always symbolized laziness or loitering, basically being unproductive. It never symbolized strength or silently fighting back. . .until now. This time last year, I had nothing else to do except stand and it was the most difficult thing to do. All I wanted to do was hide, lay in bed all day, and cry. I didn’t want to be seen, answer any questions, or explain the situation anymore. But I realized if I ran away from this, that would mean they successfully stole my dream without so much as a peep from me. I would have HANDED my dream over. And I knew I couldn’t do that.
With no energy left in me to fight the enemy, all I could do was stand in his face. So that’s what I did. I went to school every day and sat at my student desk. I’m sure those who tried to tear me down were surprised to see me, but there I was. . .standing in the fire without being consumed.
And sure enough, the Lord began to make a way! Soon I had interviews to find a new lab. My spirit wasn’t fully prepared to fight just yet, but God sent me a sign reminding me that I didn’t have to: all of the opportunities that required too much fight were taken away, leaving a single opportunity to take. Here was my chance to start over.
So in the spirit of starting over: this time last year, I began my 4th year as a PhD candidate on a new project, with new mentorship, and a new spirit. ”You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done”. In a single year, God took me from 0 to 100 (real quick, 😛 ). I am so excited and overwhelmed by the favor He has given/is giving me.
The countdown to graduation has already begun. T-17 months!!! Follow me on this journey to become Dr. Martin as I go through the ups and downs of school life, career development, and personal growth. I know I’m not the only one out there, so I hope my stories can help you too!
©2014 by Ayana Martin
“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. ” -Goldie Hawn, A Lotus Grows in the Mud
Well I must truly be that Lotus Flower Bomb that Wale was talking about because I have been slung through the mud so much in grad school that I’m convinced I now live there. I took a hiatus from blogging because an effort was made to end my graduate career early and I had to refocus and figure out how I would overcome this obstacle. I knew the actions were unethical. Post-prelims, it cannot be decided for me whether or not I can continue pursuing a PhD (unless I have failed to meet milestones after a cautionary probation). Yet that is what transpired. All of a sudden, I was an advanced grad student (4th year!!!) competing for space with new students. I was suffering. While sitting in my suffering, trying to figure out how I got to this point, I realized there were just as many advantages to my position as there were disadvantages, so I optimized those advantages.
1. Con: as an advanced student, a PI might not want to take me in because s/he would have a limited timeline for a project (translation: less free labor).
Pro: as an advanced student, a PI can get more progress and product from me because I have already acquired applicable lab skills and would not require much training.
2. Con: as an advanced student looking for a lab, I don’t have funding to support me.
Pro: incoming grad students also do not have funding to support them. I would require less $ due to less amount of time I need to complete my degree.
3. Con: as an advanced student without a lab, I do not have a project to complete in order to get my degree.
Pro: as an advanced student still fighting to be here, I have more dedication, drive, and perseverance to complete my degree, whereas a new student may end up not passing prelims or deciding to leave grad school.
This outlook gave me hope, for I could now see above the mud. Just before the close of 2013, I found a new lab home. I began 2014 very guarded and hesitant because I had been emotionally bullied and nearly defeated. But I continued to stand (in the mud). Little by little, I let down my guard and opened up my mind (one petal at a time). I received instruction and encouragement positively (growing and gaining wisdom). After 6 months, I think I’m finally on my way to becoming the most beautiful flower (lotus). I have accomplished more in these 6 months with my new mentor(s) than I ever did with my old mentor(s). I have finished my first aim, was accepted to TWO national workshops, and received travel awards to attend both. Not only that, but I am also applying to receive a Certificate in Global Health with my degree. Funny how that worked out: somebody didn’t want me to get a PhD and now I’m getting a PhD and then some!
This has been my process. It has not been easy. It has not been pretty. But the bullsh!t dealt to me I have turned into fertilizer. So the grass is finally starting to look greener on MY side.
©2014 by Ayana Martin
And I come bearing a title: PhD Candidate!! Did you miss me? 🙂
I apologize for the extended absence. Life was put on hold while I studied for my PhD qualifying/preliminary exam (aka prelims). Prelims determine whether students have the necessary background knowledge, research logic, and communication skills to be a scientist (didn’t I do that when you accepted me in the first place??? #imjustsaying). They usually consist of some written exam (a grant or objective test) and an oral exam (defending a project you designed). Prelims are the brutal hurdle that all students must jump to advance from PhD STUDENTS to PhD CANDIDATES.
I am nowhere near the first to complete this process, but I also know I am not the last. This process was difficult and I didn’t have much support. I started this process way behind my peers: I was a whole year late; the semester prior, I was actively seeking a different lab; that didn’t pan out so I had to stay and work it out; the semester of, I was diligently generating data, but I couldn’t reasonably catch up to my peers; my position seemed impossible and some people had no problem reminding me of that.
At times, I found it very difficult to be motivated. I found myself taking comfort in the idea that if I sabotage myself and just don’t study enough, then I’ll know exactly why I failed; as opposed to studying my tail off and still failing because my committee collectively decided I didn’t know enough.
But then I realized, “If I sabotaged myself and go home with my master’s, so what? So what if I know the reason. . .they still won!” And THAT just could not happen. So I prepared to fight. What little support I did have, I used them as much as I could. And with their help, I passed my prelims on the first round with ONE data slide! #ButGod #wontHedoit
For those interested in pursuing a PhD or currently moving towards prelims, don’t be daunted. Believe me when I say, YOU CAN DO IT. To help encourage you, I am leaving you with the 5 things that were crucial for me.
1. Give yourself time. Select your committee early. Start organizing your best data as soon as possible. Give yourself 2-3 months to write, review, rewrite and rewrite your proposal as well as study background and tangential materials.
2. Know your committee. Identify their area of expertise. Try to anticipate the questions they are likely to ask. My first committee meeting to approve my proposal shed A LOT of light on the focal points of each committee member.
3. Know what is expected of you. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of HOW MUCH you “should” know to pass. Meet with each committee member to start an open dialogue about what you’re expected to cover. The best advice I received was, “If you can’t trace back to your project while you’re reading and studying related topics (i.e. how did I get here?), then you’ve gone too far.”
4. Practice the process. 4 weeks prior to my exam, I had mock exams where I stood in front of various lab members, collaborating mentors, or anyone who would listen and answered questions. This was brutal because I left each mock exam feeling defeated and near tears. But when the tears retreated, I set out on a path of redemption (and possibly vengeance because I know my stuff!). The mock exams toughened my skin, prepared me for criticisms, and offered teaching moments on how to better address curveball questions.
5. R.A.I.N. Recognize. Acknowledge. Investigate. Non-identify. When the actual exam is proceeding, it is easy to feel like you’re under attack. RAIN is a mindfulness meditation technique to help keep your brain clear and operating at its maximum while under pressure. When you start to feel the meltdown:
- Recognize it. Be aware that you’re feeling emotional. This allows you to pause and check in with yourself to see what’s going on.
- Acknowledge it. This doesn’t mean you have to give in or react to it. It’s simply accepting that the feeling is there; it’s happening; you’re experiencing it. This allows you the potential to change course.
- Investigate it. Pay close attention to your physical reactions and what they may mean, as well as your thoughts/interpretations. Tight chest = deep sadness = He’s saying I’m dumb. Ears hot = grief or tears = She’s saying she doesn’t like my project. Jaws clenched = anger = They don’t believe in me. (of course these are just suggestions)
- Non-identify with it. This could be strictly mental or even physical. These feelings don’t reflect YOU. They merely reflect whatever is there. Sometimes taking a step back or grabbing a sip of water can help detach from the trigger. This frees you from the attachment and opens up space to let the triggers and feelings pass without incident.
I hope these tips are helpful and encouraging to those interested in taking this road. This road is less traveled, especially if you are a Black Woman. But it’s difficult for everyone. These 5 things saved my grad school career and I can proudly say I am a. . .
©2013 by Ayana Martin