What I needed to hear, but no one said

Currently, I am in the second year of my PhD program at Emory University. In 2018, after graduating from my undergraduate institution with a double major in mathematics and English writing, I began attending Wake Forest University for my masters degree. Three weeks into the school year, I sat down and wrote the following.

September 2018 – 1st Year of Grad School

“What is something in the image of φ that cannot be mapped to n/m in Q?”

A blank stare awaited Dr. Ferraro.

No, actually, it wasn’t a blank stare so much as an eye-watering gaze. He could have just asked me what two plus two was, and I wouldn’t have been able to answer him. He seemed to miss the eye-watering component of the gaze. He asked again: “What is something in the image of φ that cannot be mapped to by n/m in Q?” 

I merely gaped at him. The image of φ—what even was an image in math? Something to do with the mapping? Something to do with the codomain? 

“I don’t…” Was all I managed to eke out of the few brain cells seemingly left under my control. 

He took some pity on me, I guess, and said, “…it would be something irrational,” leaving just enough space at the beginning of his statement and between each of the words for me to jump in, in the unlikely event I would come to any glorious conclusions all on my own.

I didn’t. 

I looked down at my paper and nodded, noticing how the blue lines that usually ran parallel across the page had started to blur into a mess of segments which had moved firmly into the non-Euclidean part of geometry. 

“Right. Of course. That makes sense. I’ll just…write that down. I guess.” 

I never did. Tears which had been on the brink of falling for hours felt as though they were about to finally leak out there in my unsuspecting professor’s office. I put down the notebook containing its newly tangled lines abruptly and scrambled out with a jumbled “I need to use the restroom” thrown behind me. 

It’s funny that this is what my graduate school career had come to so quickly. Three weeks in and I was hysterically crying in a single-person restroom while questioning the choices that had brought me to this point. I love math. That’s how I got here—to get a degree in something I loved to do. 


Everyday I go to class, I do my homework, and I attend my tutoring hours. Everyday I stare up at symbols placed on the board in a way I do not quite fully understand, I attempt ridiculously difficult problem sets that contain words I have never seen before but am expected to know, and I struggle through tutoring and grading for a subject that I should have well in hand by now. Why am I here?

Everyone I talk to gives me reassurances. They know I’m smart. They know I’ll be fine. I feel like a cliche: a smart girl who doubts herself but will get through it in the end. Of course she will. Everyone says it. It’s the summary one finds running across the back of half the books in the young adult fiction section. There are variations, of course—maybe the girl in the story was in an accident, maybe a parent just died, maybe something unspeakable happened to her. Either way, they all end the same: she gets through it. Everyone knows, most of all the omniscient reader. Otherwise how would the character evolve? Otherwise why would anyone care?

I wish I had the amount of faith in myself that everyone else seems to have in me. 

My mom’s name is Faith. At home, among friends that know her, we have a running joke: Anytime somebody says, “Have faith,” or something similar, I respond, “Oh! She’s not here right now! But I can call her if you’d like? I’m pretty sure she’s at work, but I could definitely get her on the phone!” 

I imagine it’s not nearly as funny to the average person reading these words as normally is to us. I’m writing these words, and it’s not very funny to me right now. This week I’ve been told to have faith in myself or that others have faith in me countless times. This week I don’t think I’ve even made that joke once. 

I open my homework and it gives me anxiety in a way that homework never has before. Where there was once an achievable checklist of tasks to complete, I now see a bulleted list of reasons why I cannot seem to prevail. The words “group action,” “orthogonal,” and “orbit” mock me from my abstract algebra problem-set sheet. It’s probably because they know, as do I, that no matter how many times I ask, I will never get an explanation for their meaning that I am capable of understanding. Seven problems out of eleven I cannot complete this week. Next week will it be eleven?

God, I hope not. 

God, I feel alone. 


“Does it ever get better?”

Well, that’s a tough question to answer. 

Yes, it does, but when a first-year graduate student is standing in the break room looking at you imploringly, it doesn’t feel like an adequate response. I thought hard about what I had needed to hear three years ago, about what would make her feel smart enough and competent enough and motivated enough to overcome the steep learning curve ahead of her. I didn’t want to just say, “I survived; you’ll do it too,” when I had written what amounted to a dramatic journal entry about how unhelpful those words were just three years earlier. 

So I gave her the best answer I could think of at that moment: “Yes, but slowly.”

It’s a completely inadequate response; I’m aware. But I think I’ve determined why that is. 

The words that I ultimately needed to hear were not ones that needed to be said to me, but rather words I needed to say to others—I needed to speak up.

You are not alone, and looking back, the thing that helped to improve my situation the most was talking about it to other people. This included sharing struggles with other graduate students, who it turned out were having the same problems as I was (and forming a study group to combat this!). This included talking to friends and family about the pressures I felt all around me, and them providing moral support in the form of assurances that graduate school did not define me. Finally, this included talking to a therapist, and learning the ways in which I could deal with stressors I had never encountered before. 

For me, therapy was something that caused quite an internal battle. I’m a smart girl; I’m driven; things aren’t even that bad; people have it way worse; why should I need to go to therapy? 

Thinking like that was the reason that I benefited from therapy in the first place: I was able to get perspective. I was able to understand that talking about your problems and working through them is for everyone, not just those who have it particularly badly.

I spent most of my two years at Wake Forest University in therapy, and I think I’ve told about five people in total. So, I guess I’m following my own advice right now: I’m speaking up.

About alexisnewton

Alexis Newton is a second year Ph.D. student at Emory University studying computational number theory. She earned her master's degree at Wake Forest University. She is also an instructor for Emory Math Circle and a co-organizer for Emory's weekly graduate student seminar in algebra and number theory. Outside of the math department, Alexis enjoys reading, writing, and playing with her cat Alfie.
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2 Responses to What I needed to hear, but no one said

  1. Vayuputrii says:

    Hey I can relate with you.. much love and light💖

  2. Kai says:

    I’d ask where you were when I was going through the exact same thing in fall of 2017, but you’ve already been over that XD
    Now you’ve given me another reason to be sad I gave up – if I’d stayed on at Emory, we might have been friends. Good on you for sticking with it, and best of luck going forward!

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