Midterm season: two words that send a chill down any student’s spine. I have survived this Fall 2021 midterm season; however, I cannot say the same for my grades or mental health. The number of tears I have shed in the span of a few weeks while studying, taking exams, and contemplating my life is enough to flood the streets of Houston, TX for a day or two. This midterm season got the best of me, so let’s reflect on what led me to this point and my plan going forward.
Let’s start at the beginning, the beginning of 2020 that is. I am not the same person as I was before the pandemic. I completed my master’s program with no fanfare, no graduation, no closure. Then, I participated in a summer program to prepare me for a Ph.D. program that was supposed to be held—all expenses paid—at Brown University, but was switched to virtual instead. Due to a combination of the amount of work and immense screen time required via Zoom, I was burned out and Zoom-fatigued. After which, I entered the first year of my Ph.D. and was met with a toxic department. So, in addition to the normal first-year stressors—moving, classes, qualifying exams, coping with a new environment—I also had to deal with racism, sexism, misogynoir, sabotage, inappropriate behavior, and more. I knew I couldn’t stay, so I had to advocate to be transferred to my current department. The summer after my first year, I reviewed materials and did a bit of research, so it was a fairly relaxing summer. However, it was not remotely enough time to reflect on or even consider resolving my burnout and trauma.
Entering my second year this semester, I didn’t feel ready to take on another year and a new department. I came in skeptical of everything and everyone. I opted for the online option for everything I could, so I would rarely be on campus. I would feel scared to attend class and office hours. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out to professors. I did all my assignments and studied alone. It felt like too much effort to spend time with friends even though I knew I would enjoy it. I would procrastinate on leaving my apartment to even buy meals or groceries. The bad experiences of my first year left me only feeling safe when I isolated myself.
In addition, I started the semester working on a statistical consulting project that went awry causing me to fall behind. Falling behind led to an unsustainable schedule loop. I have two assignments and prep work due each week. One assignment on Tuesday, one on Thursday, and my prep work is due Friday. Monday and Tuesday I work on my Tuesday assignment for around 10 hours, turn it in, and I’m exhausted. Wednesday and Thursday I work on my Thursday assignment for around 10 hours, turn it in, and I’m exhausted. Then, typically 12 – 2 AM on Friday (or Thursday night if you prefer), I work on my prework, complete it, and I’m exhausted. I have class on campus 9 – 11:30 AM on Friday, and I’m exhausted. At this point, I go back home and sleep, take Saturday off, and struggle to work on something on Sunday. Rinse and repeat. Did you notice a trend or two here? I found myself in a situation where I was completing my work, but I always felt behind and exhausted. So, when it came time for midterm season, I had nothing else to give. It also didn’t help that I had an assignment due the same week as the exam in each class.
In general, I have gripes with the concept of exams and their execution. I had a timed midterm in one class and a take-home midterm in the other. For the timed exam, I only finished two-thirds of my exam in the time allotted. I dislike timed exams because they add an unnecessary element of stress. It feels like the opportunity to show what you learned is dampened by requiring that you do it quickly. Especially when professors underestimate how long they believe it should take a student to complete their exam. For the take-home exam, the concept of a take-home exam is good, but in practice, they tend to be unpleasant. Giving students an extended time to work on an exam is great, but most professors use this extended time to extend the length and difficulty of the exam. My professor told us the exam is equivalent to a longer assignment. We receive a week to work on each assignment, but we were given about three days for the exam. Overall, exams are rough in general even if you are on top of your game, but they can be devastating when you are not.
Going forward, I am still trying and that is all the matters. I’ve reached out to professors to receive help, and I will try my best to turn this unfortunate semester around. However, due to me falling behind, I’ve realized the impact that your mental health can have on your work. I have many steps to take when it comes to unpacking my trauma not just from my first year as a Ph.D. student, but all my years in academia. In my academic career, it has always been go go go—next assignment, next exam, next semester, next degree. I’ve never really had a chance to really take a second to process my experiences, accomplishments, failures, and emotions surrounding these events. I didn’t realize how I carry past, good or bad, with me into everything I do, but I’m ready to make a change. It’s time for the healing to begin. Looks like I have my next therapy session topic lol.
How is your semester going so far? 🙂