By Sean T.
This might be a rule: If someone buys a kayak and has never communicated any previous interest in water sports, they are going through an existential crisis. It’s textbook escapist behavior: I want a boat, a one-person boat, so I can paddle out to the middle of a lake by myself and sit there, bobbing up and down until it gets dark out.
My photo communicates that I’m just an outdoorsy guy that is now going to go out on all these cool adventures because I’ve got casual living all figured out and authentically enjoy solo paddling. This was a part of my stoic façade. I was actually spending most of my time in my room with no energy or motivation to leave my bed. I must have watched a thousand hours of Netflix between January and June of 2014.
I was 22 years old and about a year into my master’s program, and it was obvious that I was not going to graduate. I had lost a good chunk of self-esteem in the process. The staff running my lab, I later found out, was unusually blunt when it came to criticism. They did not let you fail without feeling like a failure.
The purpose of my position was to demonstrate critical thinking and scientific expertise (basically, seem like a smart person), but everyone thought I was undeniably incompetent. I felt like dead weight. My lab meeting presentations were a disaster, my experimental designs were poked to death with holes, and I felt like I was drowning in a pool of insignificant data.
I was experiencing a positive feedback loop of stress: My work was harshly criticized, it stressed me out, it made my next attempt worse, and so on. How did I even bring myself to keep going in? Stoned, mostly. Some days were good, some days I cried at my desk in front of everyone.
“My photo communicates that I’m just an outdoorsy guy that is now going to go out on all these cool adventures because I’ve got casual living all figured out and authentically enjoy solo paddling. This was a part of my stoic façade.”
So, here I am, going through the imposter crisis that many graduate students face. “Everybody wants to be the person they are already pretending to be,” I repeat again and again to reassure myself.
I’m so down, asking myself every day if this is worth it. Do I switch labs? Am I actually an idiot? Maybe I’m not as motivated as I thought, and that’s why I can’t translate passion into the effort my lab wants to see?
In the midst of all this, I started seeing this girl. I had moved to Michigan for grad school and didn’t feel like I had any close friends, and I had just ended a three-year relationship a few months before. This was the only person, I felt, who actively wanted to see me outside of work, and, of course, I got way too attached. She became my world the first day I met her.
When you are that into someone, you don’t really realize how truly not “cool” you are playing it. I was definitely trying to recreate the relationship I had just lost. In all honesty, she had the biggest ego I’d ever experienced — she still referred to herself by nicknames she had in high school — but I didn’t really care as long as I had someone to go get dinner with. Eventually she didn’t want to see me anymore, I got sadder, said mean things to her and lay in my bed some more to work on the fifth season of “The Office.”
I was hurt particularly badly because I desperately needed to have this one positive thing, this relationship, in my life during that time. I had stressed my brain into a raisin, and I was scared that I had become irreversibly unsociable. I was petrified that all these bad things that were happening were because I just had no idea how I was coming across. I felt like I had lost all perspective.
“I got way too attached. She became my world the first day I met her.”
My mom and brother, Jim, definitely helped me out of this slump of failure and loneliness. I would call them every other day and complain about everything. My mom knew the names of everyone in my lab who I thought were jerks. She would follow up about things they had said to me that I had forgotten I told her. My brother even flew out to hang out with me for a week during a particularly low time. He knew I couldn’t take off from work, so he would sit around every day until I left the lab at 4 or 5 p.m. I can’t convey enough my appreciation of how supportive they were.
I did eventually quit. I decided to apply for jobs, work for a while instead of continuing grad school, and focus on myself. In the end I knew I had to make a significant change for my happiness. The day I walked into my professor’s office to tell him I was done was one of the best days I remembered having in a very long time. It was like I was being given a second chance at life and I could be anyone I wanted to be. I was in control of my circumstances again.
For a long time I tossed around the idea of quitting, but I thought that I could battle through and laugh about these experiences after I graduated. I came close to quitting a few times, but the weekend before I decided to leave was the final straw. I was at a conference presenting a poster when I received an email from my professor saying that my final draft of that poster, that I had already printed, was “not acceptable.” I remember reading the email in my hotel bed, and I think I said, “Oh, go fuck yourself,” out loud. I’d had enough. These people don’t respect me and I don’t respect them; I don’t want to spend another day in that lab.
This whole experience was one of the worst and definitively “20-something” life trials I’ve endured, but it empirically taught me to never settle for anything less than what makes me happy.
I ended up selling the kayak for gas money to move out of Michigan. I only used it twice.
Sean T. is a plant scientist in Madison, Wisconsin.