Reflections on Graduate School, Academia, and the Way Forward

This week, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, and added my name to a long list of Ph.D.s in biology – and a shorter list of those with a chronic illness.

title_ _Brain-body problem_ - originally published 10_1_2010 - Jorge ___
How a fibromyalgiac gets a Ph.D.!

As I have researched the case for disabled and/or chronically ill scientists, I realized that there may actually be more of us out there, all hiding our own plights (if invisible), so as not to be viewed “differently” at best, or ostracized at worst, by our colleagues. Many have quit science altogether because of its notoriously performance-driven culture, which allows little room to show “weakness.” Yet there may be many more of us who are still striving for our own goals in science, wishing to contribute our curiosity and intellect to better the world, and wanting to make a mark independent of our diagnoses. My thoughts are for all of us today.

Featured image: Distorted Reflections (8X10, oil on canvas)

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia halfway through graduate school. I have been tackling random aches and pains, migraines, etc. since my teen years, but sometimes I wonder if the grad school lifestyle is what triggered any latent tendencies for central sensitization, leading to fibromyalgia.

I have no regrets, however. I always thought that if mathematics and physics are what helps us understand the universe and everything in it, biology is what helps us understand why we can even think about it! So to be able to reach a terminal degree in biology, understand ourselves from a molecular standpoint, showed me that I am capable of not just partaking in this world, but also contributing to it. Here, finally, I could apply my logical and analytical thinking towards human health, instead of just using it to aggravate my parents who had no time to argue.

science_0
What NOT to say to a chronically ill person

I will admit that at times I thought of quitting, and I am glad that I did not. I was lucky enough to have projects that allowed me to be very prolific through the first couple of years, so I was well on my way towards a successful Ph.D. before FM even hit me. It would have been sad to see that work not reach fruition. I was also able to wrack up enough “karma points” by then, through my diligence and good reputation, that I could afford to slow down but still keep trudging. Luckily, graduate school in an academic institution affords the kind of flexibility that I may never experience in any other setting. So all the reasons to quit were psychological, nothing logistical.

Psychology can be powerful enough to transform us and shape our decisions. With some practice, and within reason, we can learn retrain our brains to think of current obstacles as future achievements. The hardest part about continuing grad school was not that I felt I couldn’t do the work. It was, instead, the loss of respect I felt at every turn when I could not keep up my former hours, or work at the same speed – the perception that I was now somehow weak or less than I was before. A large part of this was not necessarily just other people, but also “academic conditioning” that was haunting me from within my subconscious. But regardless of this general no-room-for-weakness atmosphere, or perhaps precisely because of it, I learned to see myself as quite the opposite of how they would have liked to paint me.

I realized that, because of my experiences, I was stronger and more than I was before!

87_anima
Anima (8X10, oil on canvas) — my internal warrior & heroine!

One thing I recognized since being more selectively open about my diagnosis is that everyone is fighting their own battles. But one is not made a hero for just fighting, or even winning, a battle. One is made a hero for how they fight it. I decided I was going to fight mine, and fight mine well. I felt increasingly that it was not enough, any longer, to just try to be a good graduate student, or strive for women scientists, or be a feminist voice for career-women in the conventional sense. I had to find within me to be more than that.

I decided that I will strive to be a better person because of my struggles, internally as well as externally. 

I will learn to be more compassionate (towards myself, as well as others who may not always be understanding of my condition); I will try to reengage in interests I may have lost touch with (so I am not beholden to the one deity, science); and I will be even more introspective than I was before, learn more about myself, so I can carve out a new identity for myself as I move forward.

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Drawn into the Light (7X14, oil on canvas)

Once upon a time, I used to be naive enough to think you can get whatever you want, be whatever you want, as long as you work hard enough for it. But life makes too many decisions for you, and often at very critical stages, so that is not always possible. Once upon a time, I had dreams of being able to follow my intellectual curiosity wherever it took me. The reality, however, is that if I did that, I would be potentially looking at 60-hour work weeks with little time for rest. I would be a flaring mess of pain and fatigue if I followed that route!

But it is not impossible to reimagine ourselves, our interests, our desires, and channel them into another path. The last two years of my life, trudging through grad school with FM, I have spent a lot of time focused inward. I have questioned what I like and why I like it, and how I can do it differently in a way that is conducive to a healthier lifestyle. I have also had to untrain my brain from thinking my intellectual pursuits are automatically married to academia. Once I did that, I could see the different possibilities that may still be out there for me.

recycled-art
Reimagine the possibilities!

So by no means is this the end of the road for me. I like to think of it as a fresh beginning. I have gained insights through my years as a graduate student with a chronic illness that I could not have gained otherwise. It formed a preface to my life’s goal, which is learning how to merge my health needs with my intellectual ones without completely giving up my ambitions. The next years will write the chapters on how (and if) I am successful in ever attaining it.

I look forward in continuing my journey forward, and sharing any insights with you. Thank you for accompanying me so far in this roller-coaster ride that led to my Ph.D.!

Love,

Fibronacci

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17 thoughts on “Reflections on Graduate School, Academia, and the Way Forward

  1. Your artwork is so lovely. Congratulations on a great accomplishment! As a survivor of a long bout with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in my 30’s (occurring from stress after a family tragedy) and then residual health challenges, I had to learn to persevere but honor my body first. I was fortunate to find an excellent naturopath/acupuncturist that got me on the path to healing. As a scientist, you may not be willing to entertain this but being open might greatly increase your quality of life. Wishing you all the best on your way forward! (also an artist and a scientist)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Alanna! Thank you for connecting with me here, that led me to your beautiful blog! ❤ I really appreciate your reaching out to me with such a kind and encouraging comment. I am so sorry that you had to deal with CFS. I think the lesson to not forget our bodies when pushing on is an important one we all must learn, but esp those of us with chronic illnesses! I am glad you were able to find good healer who could help you! I think especially being a scientist, I recognize that there is much that we don't know, so I am not one to disregard alternative remedies. (At least they mostly honor the "first do no harm" rule much better than a lot of allopathic medicines that have really bad side effects!) I have been considering accupuncture for a while, actually – have heard lots of good stories about it! – but haven't been able to find a good affordable practitioner in my area. I will keep looking however, as I am really encouraged by your story! 🙂 Thank you, once again, for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are so welcome. It’s such a hard road to walk with these chronic illnesses. Keep pursuing a good alternative care practitioner. There is no better investment than yourself!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations on getting your PhD!!!! I really enjoying reading your posts on the revelation you have from having fibromyalgia – how you channel the struggles you have into a positive force and strength. I have been meaning to write a post about fibramyalgia. If I do talk about fibramyalgia, can I mention your blog and share your link as an inspiration for others with similar conditon?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much!!! 😀
      I am so glad that you enjoy reading my posts!! I would be thrilled if you would mention the blog, and share stuff that you think might be helpful for others. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help other chronically ill patients not feel so alone — esp scientists or grad students who are ill or disabled, because of the unsupportive culture within academia. So nothing would make me happier than if I could help others with my writings! 🙂 Thank you!!

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  3. Many many congratulations R for making it to the finishing line and with flying colors in spite of the odds. We are all stories, and your story of your PhD is an inspiring one that is about courage, perseverance and above all, about introspection and enlightenment. Of course the journey of discovery of self and the world continues for you and you will be many more thousands of stories, which I look forward to sharing in our course of friendship. But I will cherish and celebrate the story of your Ph.D. for the happy-ending victory story it is. ❤

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    1. Thank you so much!! ❤ I feel like at almost every major stage in life, I have been able to make some kind of self-discovery. And these nuggets of wisdom have been essential in shaping me and the direction I take in life. Not everything is necessarily all happy though. Even in a success story like a Ph.D., there are elements which have left me on an unsure footing (having your entire career depend on one person who may not be supportive of your life choices isn't the best scenario for instance), and some of these issues have left me overall kind of disillusioned. But I see that as part of "growing up" and maturing as well, learning to roll with the punches, and even stand up to them to some extent. So I do believe that in the end, ours is a story about growth and enlightenment. Neither is necessarily always very "happy" but they are both always "positive." 🙂

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  4. I just finished my first year of my MS degree, and I was also just diagnosed with fibromyalgia. (I found your blog by googling “fibromyalgia and graduate school.”) Thank you for sharing your experiences – reading your blog entries is reassuring me that maybe I can make grad school work.
    My advisor just started as a new professor and has a lot of pressure to succeed. With that, she is far from supportive and accepting of my chronic illness. She pushed me into taking a leave of absence this summer because I was unable to do fieldwork (and though I offered to do labwork for free, she gave one of the most important components of what was supposed to be my thesis away). Even though I pushed myself beyond my limits collecting data for this project last summer, she expects me to be a cog in the machine that is always working at 110% or is useless. It’s been hard not to internalize her treatment toward me, but everyone else in my life has been supportive and loving. Anyway, I have spent the last month assessing my situation, trying to decide if I’d be better off switching advisors or if perhaps I should just quit grad school altogether and try to go down a path that’s more accommodating for my illness.
    It’s difficult for me to remain positive, but it’s so wonderful to hear that you’ve gotten your PhD in spite of the physical hurdles. Congratulations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ana! I am really really sorry that your intro to grad school has been with a fibro diagnosis. It certainly doesn’t make the path any easier, especially with an unhelpful advisor. 😦 In advising another disabled grad student, and from my own experiences, I have learned that having a supportive advisor makes all the difference! It sucks that yours had her own career goals in mind and could not prioritize her responsibility to be a good mentor to you (academia can be brutal like that). As much as I can understand the prof’s perspective, I cannot condone that kind of behavior, and feel terrible about how you lost your project despite pushing yourself beyond your limits (physically as well as financially) for it. The leave of absence may actually do you some good to recoup and get away from the less-than-uplifting atmosphere, and give you time to think. But before you give up on grad school, I would definitely try with another advisor. Maybe be honest and upfront about your condition, and phrase it in positive terms about how you are coping with it, so you can still succeed in the program. If you can get on some kind of scholarship or teaching assistantship, so that the prof doesn’t have to pay you out of their grant money, that might help take some of the pressure off. I know how hard it can be to keep up the “positive” when you are surrounded by people who seem to think you are useless just because you cannot work an obscene amount like the rest of them can; I have been there plenty before. I will do another post soon talking about what kind of stuff helped me finish grad school with fibro, as well as my thoughts on pursuing an academic vs. non-academic career. I hope that will help you with your decision regarding whether to continue and how to move forward. Thank you for connecting with me here, and please feel free to email me @ fibro.nacci@yahoo.com or message me on Facebook (link is on the sidebar). I would be more than happy to help in any way I can. Take care of yourself, wish you all the best! ❤

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