Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 2)

For Part 1 of “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” click here.

We like to think that our life stories have happy endings, perhaps that we can carefully partition our lives into fourths of each year, and successfully say, “Well, after I learned this, my life was great!” But anyone who has lived life — so, I suppose, anyone reading this — knows that that is not what life is like. Life is a continuous (not discrete!) story with continually changing hurdles. The gist of this series called “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” is that if anything has, grad school has shown me how much truth the quote “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” holds. Every quarter of my first year had some unexpected obstacle or victory and sometimes both, and sometimes the victory turned into an obstacle. The following is the story of my second quarter as a math Ph.D. student at Oregon State University, along with some thoughts that stay with me from that time.

The day I turned in my Partial Differential Equations final, I left my first term of grad school to visit my analysis mentor at my alma mater, Central Washington University. I returned to Corvallis in mid-December. Naively, I hoped that I’d come back and feel “normal.”

It has been nearly fourteen months since I started graduate school, and I am still learning that normalcy doesn’t exist.

I thought “back to normal” meant returning to my thinking processes and mathematical maturity level of my undergraduate days. I thought it meant returning to the childlike joy I found in the concepts of analysis. Instead, I came back to Corvallis to find the bitterness of the last three months still chipping away at my heart. I still felt only frustration and oppression when I tried to study analysis. I was disgusted with myself and my inability to focus and work long hours.

I was meant to take my first crack at qualifying exams in April. I had started studying in September, before I was overcome with depression and barely had the energy or time to complete my homework assignments, let alone anything extra. Because qualifying exams were coming up all too soon, I should have spent December deep in the grip of linear algebra and real analysis — but I was angry with mathematics and the hand life had dealt me, and I threw in the towel on studying, telling myself I needed to recuperate from fall quarter.

Classes started again in January. The early days of winter quarter were highly reminiscent of some of my better days in November — going to bed pretty sure I was going to tell the graduate chair I was dropping out in the morning, knowing I wasn’t good enough for grad school, and wondering why the hell I was here in the first place.

In December, I spent a week strictly Paleo. I’ve done bouts of the Paleo/Whole30 diet before, and found it to be tremendously helpful in controlling my anxiety and depression. The problem is that Paleo can be really difficult to maintain long-term and take a lot of prep time — and time isn’t something one has much of in grad school. I wanted to go Paleo completely, but it didn’t seem feasible, especially when one of the major stressors in my life was a shallow, manipulative roommate who I avoided as much as possible. I spent about fifteen hours on campus daily to prevent myself from crossing paths with her. (It can be surprising how much those little irritations and anxiety-inducing moments wreak havoc on your well-being.) So instead I took a step I didn’t think I’d ever be willing to take: I went to the student health clinic and was prescribed anti-depressants in February.

The effect was almost immediate. The change wasn’t enormous, but I slowly started to find more joy in my work again — until the week I found out I failed my PDE II midterm (which is still my favorite of all the classes I’ve had at Oregon State — any other distribution and Sobolev space fans out there?) . . . and my real analysis midterm.

Yet more crushing than the fact that I failed my PDE II midterm was the fact that my PDE professor was the woman I wanted to be my Ph.D. advisor. In late November, I had walked into her office and asked her a question on my PDE homework. I walked out of her office with a sense that I understood her — and that I would do anything to be her student. In January, I asked her only other Ph.D. student about working with her, and subsequently set up a meeting with her to chat about her work and let her know about my interest in being her student. Barely a week later, I found out that I failed my PDE midterm.

I tried to talk with my professors about my exams and figure out how to put in more hours of work. I started forcing myself to be more disciplined (getting up at 7 a.m. and basically working all the way till 11 p.m. if I could muster it), but couldn’t keep up sixteen-hour days for very long; I was too mentally and physically exhausted, and having chronic insomnia didn’t help matters any. Like many have, I found that the more I forced myself to try to be perfect, the more poorly I managed to do a lot of things, but my inability to do everything well only discouraged me more. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. I started skipping a lot of classes, especially real analysis. I had very little hope that I could understand enough to do well on finals.

But if nothing else, I had to really try in PDE, because I knew I ultimately wanted to work in analysis, and I knew I wanted to work with my PDE professor. So on Friday, March 1, after my PDE class ended at 1:50, I asked her a question about the proof of the Mean-Value Property, and then blurted out, “I really want to work with you but I was afraid my exam score would affect your decision.” She looked at me and said, “No, it was one exam score.”

I reread the above couple of paragraphs, and think that subconsciously, I must have been astonished that anything good would happen after I had decided I was a failure. But yes, it is true that even if you are not perfect, people will still accept you. I have heard all too many horror stories of advisors who lack patience, empathy, and tact, and mine has exhibited only kindness and understanding. “She has to be the calmest person in the department,” said my graduate chair at one point to me — me, probably the most consistently high-stress person in the department.

You might call that irony, or coincidence, or a miracle — and no, I didn’t end that quarter with the best grades in my life, and no, life still was not perfect after that. I don’t think I did very well on my PDE final either. But I did find an exceptional advisor, successfully start medication, and make some amazing new friendships — and I did start walking out of the intensity of the flames of mental anguish into a valley where the smoke had begun to clear. It won’t ever clear completely, I’m afraid, and such is life — but I wouldn’t trade the refinement of this fire for a valley with less putrid air.

I said in the first part of this series that I served on a panel for incoming first-year grad students and that I shared with them that I was so happy I would never have to survive parts of my first year again. I also told them that I am living proof that one can make it through. You might have failed an exam or two (or many). You might feel you have disappointed people you respect. You might be overwhelmed by how much life has thrown at you. You might be exhausted and trying to be brave. But just because you don’t meet a numerical requirement on an exam doesn’t make you a failure — and I know that sounds trite, but it really is true. I have failed more exams than I can remember in grad school, and guess what? I passed my real analysis qual in September — and that’s the exam that actually matters! You are probably harder on yourself than anyone around you is. If you are overwhelmed with how hard life is, know that there are others out there who know what that feels like — and I’m one of them. It might not help you feel better in the moment, but it does mean you’re not alone. And I don’t know what you think, but living as a grad student is the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. Get some sleep and if no one else tells you this today, you’re one of the bravest people around. Oh: and when you’re struggling, don’t force yourself to be better. As my dear friend and office-mate said to me once as I agonized over my impending thesis/reading meeting, “You are enough as yourself.”



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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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2 Responses to Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 2)

  1. Avatar Joshua Noria says:

    I hope that I can make you feel better with what I’m going to write here.

    I don’t know you, and I already admire you. Take a look at yourself, you are a Ph.D. student in Math. Do you know how hard Math is for the majority of people? Even if you were to ‘fail’, you would still be an awesome person because you’re studying something that’s insanely difficult, so difficult that just by being there you’re successful.

    Maybe you don’t see it because you’re inside, but from the outside you look like a hard working person, a genius, a lunatic. You feel like an impostor because you’re comparing yourself horizontally, with your peers, but vertically, you’re at the highest.
    Whenever you feel like you failed remember that if you failed it’s because you tried, most people don’t even get to the ‘I’m going to give it a try’ part. Most people fail because they don’t try; you’re winning because you’re sometimes failing because you’re always trying.

    I admire hard-working people, and mathematicians, and you’re both. So no matter how you feel today, I feel you’re a successful person.

    • Avatar Hannah Barta says:

      Hi Josh,
      Thank you for your kind words. My goal with this series is to normalize, at least in some sense, the feeling of impostor syndrome/feelings of failure that many grad students face in their time in school. I know they will be comforted by your comment also!

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