Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 1)

I still remember how hopeful I was when I started. I had come off a high-performance undergraduate career, with a rockin’ CV full of contributed talks (including one at Joint Mathematics Meetings and the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics), scholarships, and excellent recommendations from faculty who believed strongly in my mathematical ability. And not just that: I entered Oregon State University’s graduate program as one of the most highly recruited students in the new cohort. I had received the prestigious Provost’s Distinguished Graduate Scholarship, meant to bring students into the program who would elevate Oregon State Mathematics’ reputation as a school of excellence.

I had, as my friend and fellow grad student Sarah Hagen says, “been burdened with the love of analysis” quite early. I found calculus utterly beautiful when I took the first three courses in the sequence. When I transferred from Columbia Gorge Community College to Central Washington University in fall 2016, I stumbled upon some seniors in the math major and asked what they were working on. “Analysis,” they said. “It’s basically like proving everything you learn in calculus.” I knew instantly that analysis and I would share a special connection. When I finished all the analysis Central offered, I spent a term independently studying Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis. Baby Rudin became my all-time favorite mathematics textbook, and I cherish the memories I have of learning out of that text.

When I came to Oregon State, my identity was quite wrapped up in my adoration of analysis. Usually an introduction of myself, especially to others in the department, was quickly followed by how excited I was about learning more analysis, measure theory, and probability. I came to Oregon State expecting to work under one of the professors studying PDE theory.

So, yes, I was excited about embarking on the next step in my mathematical journey (with analysis in tow — for some reason I have always given the subject of analysis an almost human personality). I should also say that I was warned, repeatedly, about how soul-crushing graduate school can be. I was told that graduate school offered one of the highest rates of depression and suicide of any job. I had already deeply struggled to get through my undergraduate career and manage my stress while taking 17-18 credits of upper-division math every quarter. Certainly, I thought, graduate school can’t be as bad as my last year of undergrad was, when my grandmother passed away in the middle of the school year and grief hit me full force as I attempted to learn abstract algebra, analysis, topology, and numerical analysis at the same time? After all, I had my own office, I was surrounded by other people excited to study math, I was teaching, I was solving problems  — grad school sounded like heaven!

But somewhat unexpectedly, I found that I missed the community so carefully created by my wonderful professors, mentors, and friends. Many of my good friends were still students at Central, so I still got firsthand information from them about how things were going — and while this seemed a blessing, it was a curse in disguise. My heart started to feel weighed down, and I remember thinking that I felt like I was grieving all over again. One Sunday in early October, I left my apartment in Southtown Corvallis and started crying uncontrollably — and I couldn’t stop.

It wasn’t just for a few hours, either. I couldn’t stop crying for two weeks. And I don’t mean sniffling crying — I mean tears streaming down my face, wads of tissues in the garbage every day. My eyes were always red and burning from the constant tears. I had no idea the human body could produce that many tears. The weight of my unhappiness made it almost impossible to get work done, no matter how long I stayed at my office every day, how early I got up to start working, and how much I tried to stay on top of deadlines. For someone who had been used to being at the top of every class, acing all my homework, and being praised for my careful mathematical mind, the change was simultaneously shocking and frustrating.

As the term progressed, my frustration mounted. The mathematical maturity I felt that I had developed my last year of working on my bachelor’s degree seemed to have evaporated. I was struggling to build friendships and relationships with my cohort of grad students. In undergrad, my professors had been welcoming of me coming into their office at any time during the work day to ask questions. Now, I found it monstrously intimidating to go to a professor’s office for office hours. I was convinced I needed to know everything, and yet I simultaneously felt that I knew absolutely nothing. In a matter of weeks, I went from being the most highly-recruited member of the cohort to being certain I was stupid and incapable — and I convinced myself that my professors thought the same thing. (For the record, I have only known every single professor in OSU math to be caring and generous. Still, facts of life were passed over by my fear of not being good enough.) I thought I had suffered from impostor syndrome in undergrad, I thought that I had experience dealing with my (sometimes poor) mental health, I thought I knew how to study math. Now I felt like someone had ripped a rug out from under me and catapulted me onto a concrete floor.

My mental health eventually became so poor that my mom told me that I had to contact a local counselor. I was informally diagnosed with clinical depression in November. By this point, I had already seriously considered dropping out of the graduate program multiple times. For someone who expected to come into grad school and at least have a chance at acing everything and still being the best student in the room, my apparent inability to keep up with deadlines and get 100%s on exams crushed me.

No, this was not something I ever saw happening to me. And, dear first year, unfortunately, you can plan all you want and learn all the mathematics you can and strive to do well in all your classes — and you can still not be prepared for the biggest enemies in graduate school: Self-Doubt and Self-Criticism.

A few days ago, I was on a panel for incoming first-years about life as a graduate teaching assistant and graduate student at Oregon State. I reminisced with them that my first three months as a math grad student were the most difficult three months of my life. I told them that I was incredibly grateful that my first quarter of grad school would never ever happen again. But I also told them that I am living proof that one can make it through extreme difficulty, and come out triumphant on the other side. (More about that in the next two parts of this series.)

And I want to tell you that, too. I share an admittedly vulnerable story because I have been blessed by others’ vulnerability in the past, and I hope that you will be as well. If you are struggling, you can make it through. When I think about last year, I’m not quite sure how I lasted in grad school that long, when I woke up in tears and went to bed in tears. I do know that if I didn’t have an incredibly tight-knit support system in my family, mentors from Central, and friends, I may not have had the courage to return to Oregon State in January.

If you are struggling, know that you are not alone. Graduate school is tough. What is that quote from The Help? “You are smart, you are kind, you are important.” Regardless of your performance in graduate school, you are still a wonderful person, and you still have immeasurable worth. It may feel like mathematics and your accomplishments define you. They do not. You are smart. You are strong. You are important — and grad school does not have the power over you to change that!

I will end by sharing a meme I found from the Facebook page “grad school memes with relatable themes” (check it out if you’re on Facebook; I always get a good laugh about their posts, and I emotionally relate to nearly all of them):No photo description available.




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About Hannah Barta

I'm a second-year Ph.D. student at Oregon State University studying the analysis of PDE. When I'm not doing math, I love thinking about more effective ways of teaching, having thoughtful and silly conversations with my friends, and cuddling with my cat Martha.
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