I used to love goal-oriented words like “achievement” and “success”, but after my experience with depression, they’re more likely to make me uneasy than swoon. An inordinate focus on what I achieved, rather than an appreciation for my nuanced person, is part of what led to my struggle with mental health. Having refocused the way I interact with myself and the world makes me never want to go back to my old model of measuring self-worth.
I want my life to be filled with a lot less of things like Jack Donaghy’s (30 Rock) Six Sigma seminars.
Earlier in my Ph.D., I lived for the feeling that came from a grant being recommended for funding or receiving positive feedback on a talk. There was a certain high that came along with external validation – particularly because I didn’t do enough to internally validate myself. In a sense, I was my accomplishments and my goal of becoming a tenured professor. I used my academic performance and future to justify my worth.
Without a strong sense of intrinsic value, I was easily punctured. If a funded proposal justifies your existence, a rejected one can be devastating. The worst harm, though, came from my own words, goading me to excel at any cost. Self care? Not for me. It was something I neither needed, nor indulged in. I got all the reassurance necessary from elusive academic successes.
It was untenable.
I’d rather my life be filled with moments like this.
A major component of my healing from back-to-back episodes of major depression, complete with visits to two hospitals, was a greater focus on myself. I learned to listen to what I really needed and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t another first-author paper. I started treating myself gently and cultivating positive self-talk. I took time to notice.
All of this self-assessment and noticing led me to a surprising conclusion: I no longer wanted to go into academia. I continue to think that science is fascinating and wonderfully weird, but I no longer have the drive to be the one doing the discovering. I also don’t envy the long hours of and high demands on pre-tenure faculty members. I’ve come to the comforting conclusion that I can continue loving and advocating for science without being an academic scientist.
Isn’t Biology grand?
These days I spend most of my time wrapping up my dissertation on the sex lives of incredibly promiscuous beetles, but I carve out chunks of time for my future career path of science communication. I write for SU’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department and I love it. I get to talk to scientists across the college studying topics ranging from climate change, to genetic disorders, to micro-scale physics. I get to indulge my curiosity and focus on improving my writing, a practice I adore.
I don’t like to ascribe utility to depression, but in my healing I’ve found a more sustainable way to live. I am not the number of papers I’ve co-authored, nor am I the latest feedback on a grant proposal. I am an artist. I write for fun and hopefully will write for a career, too. I love science and movies and cooking. I look for joy and intellectual stimulation in life. I am not my C.V.
As I close out my month of writing for metathesis I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my posts (if you missed any of them, check out my experiences with depression, thoughts on mental health and academia, and insight into what psychiatric hospitalization is really like). Depression dismantled my life, but with an incredible support network I was able to put together a new, more compassionate one. Open, honest discourse is needed to tear down the stigma associated with mental illness and hospitalization. As such, I encourage you to share anything that spoke to you as widely as you’d like.
As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.