I did not know graduate depression was a thing almost a decade ago when I studied for my Master’s degree. I experienced a period of depression symptoms but I did not confide in or consult with anyone. I felt ashamed to talk about my problems. “Didn’t everyone survive and eventually graduate?” I thought to myself; it must be my poor ability that stopped me from making progress. Now I am halfway into my Ph.D program and I realize an essential element to motivate myself: the exercise in science communication.
When I finished my undergraduate, the transition to advanced research did not come easily despite continuing in the same research lab. At the beginning of the first year, I started to suffer from insomnia. Every night in bed, my brain would not stop emulating the worst scenario. I could get humiliated in public or get kicked out of the program for poor performance. Often I felt my anxiety so intensely that I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night. I screamed, silently, so that I would not perturb my roommates. I cried to myself, declaring my desire to quit. However, I did not dare to talk about it and acted normal the next day. I also avoided contact with my advisor. I would sneak out of the office when he came in, pretending to go for a walk so I wouldn’t have to talk about my research progress which was nonexistent.
My lack of motivation continued for a semester until I returned from a week-long holiday. During the break, I revisited a couple of critical journals relevant to my research which I had a hard time fathoming. I tried turning numbers into schematics and summarizing their work with my own words. My advisor was impressed that I was able to convey the project after a short period. He did not know what happened to me during the break, and neither did I. Without knowing it, I was learning to communicate science to a broad audience. Only, at first, that audience was me. With better communication with my advisor, my anxiety disappeared. I graduated in the expected period and began to climb the career ladder in my field.
Looking back, I did not know I was experiencing mental depression. I was not even aware that I fixed my crisis through science communication practice. Years later, I decided to accomplish a bigger goal: to earn a doctoral degree. What I have feared the most, is that the graduate anxiety which once hit me would not just resolve itself, even though I now felt more mentally mature. Doing my graduate work and living in a new country, the social and language barriers frustrate me in many ways. I felt the need to find a community where I can get support and also advocate for myself and others in my situation. I wanted to have a supporting network to protect me before the graduate depression had its chance to strike me again. I started searching for an opportunity to reach out, and that was when I met the Pipettepen and began my journey of science communication training.
To get my feet wet, I made a start on editing work. And then my first article discussing the effects of the nanomaterials on our daily life was published, a topic inspired by my research project. I remember I worried about failing to meet the expectations and any tough judgment. Thanks to the good and helpful suggestions from the Pipettepen editors along the way, my confidence in writing built up since the first attempt.
I am particularly fond of writing regarding effective communication. Science writing fuels me with the energy to keep on the track of graduate life. Not only is writing an independent activity which suits my personality, but the process also provides me with a safe place to develop my voice. The process of organizing an article also helps my professional work. It makes me less fearful of starting a longer and denser manuscript. More than that, I have begun to explore science and science communication in many aspects. I attended the regional ComSciCon workshop in Triangle this spring, an event that I would have been afraid to even think about if not with writing experiences in the Pipettepen. I set up my Twitter account and get to glimpse another side of scientific expression and events that I did not even know existed!
Graduate life can be very stressful. Sometimes I am in limbo and doubt my decision to earn a Ph.D., and still don’t know what I want. The truth is, I always know what I want, and that is to be happy and live my life to the fullest. Pursuing a Ph.D. degree is one of the life goals set in my early research years. I am approaching this goal while acknowledging the mental health crisis among graduates. By doing things I am good at and enjoy, along with the main work of research, the wheels of my graduate life can keep turning.
You might not find writing as enjoyable but remember, there are many channels to reach out and express your voices. Most importantly, it is to build a supportive network where you can transform your frustration or anxiety into something positive.
Peer edited by Gabrielle Budziszewski.
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