Curse of the Female PhD Student

It’s Friday night, 9:30. You’ve just spent the last eight hours setting up an experiment for the third time. You haven’t eaten since noon and you must admit that even though it’s a bit lonely, you’re kind of glad nobody is around to witness the grumbling of your stomach. If you remember correctly, you might have some leftover pizza to eat once you get home. Just when you’re starting to wonder when exactly that might be, your timer goes off. You gather up your things and walk down the hall to the developing room to wait the minute and a half it takes to see the results of your day’s work. And, surprise! The film is blank, your experiment has failed and you walk sadly to your car knowing that you get to do it all over again tomorrow (yes, that’s right, on Saturday). But hey, nobody said graduate school was going to be a piece of cake. The problem is, nobody said that it was going to be this difficult either. And I’m not talking about the science, folks.
More than once, I’ve considered ditching graduate school and moving on to something, well, happier, but ultimately I decided that I’ve put in too much time, too much effort, too many years to walk away from it all. Forgive me if I have a hard time dealing with perpetual stress, criticism and failure – all-the-while trying to be a good wife and maintaining some semblance of a social life. Such is the curse of the female Ph.D. student and all too often, it’s largely overlooked by family, friends, faculty mentors and even by students, themselves.
A survey of graduate and professional students conducted by the University of California Berkeley in 2004 reported that “female respondents were more likely [than males] to report feeling hopeless, exhausted, sad or depressed.” In addition, 67 percent of graduate students surveyed reported feeling “hopeless at least once in the last twelve months” while 54 percent reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Despite feeling this way, only 27 percent reported seeking professional help.
Earning a Ph.D. requires spending long hours in an extremely isolating environment for very little pay. For me, it doesn’t matter how many hours I’ve worked, how many weekends and holidays I’ve spent in the lab, I still feel guilty when I’m not there. I feel bad asking for time off. I feel guilty about leaving early. There is, of course, no reason for me to feel this way since I work more than sufficient hours to get my work done.
Braddie Dooley, Assistant Director of clinical services at UCI’s Counseling Center says this feeling of insecurity is not unusual. It’s called the “Imposter syndrome.” Many really intelligent, highly capable graduate students feel like “fakes,” like any day now someone is going to discover that “there was a mistake”, that they aren’t supposed to be in graduate school.
Oftentimes, they are also faced with the insecurity of family, friends and even total strangers. Consider this: I was getting my hair cut the other day and the stylist asked me what I do for a living. When I told her, there was an immediate and predictable change in her expression. I, as usual, felt like a real showoff as if I’d said, “I’m way smarter than you are,” instead of, “I’m a graduate student getting my Ph.D.” I should be proud of this. I’ve worked exceptionally hard for it. And yet somehow it has become a source of embarrassment instead of pride.
Female graduate students are particularly prone to these kinds of feelings. A recent analysis conducted in 2004 by the National Organization of Women found that while the number of women receiving their Ph.D. has increased in the last 20 years, women in the sciences and engineering generally account for only a small percentage of academic professors and are generally ranked as assistant and not tenured faculty members.
Women must also consider some more personal issues. Right next to that timer on the lab bench I mentioned earlier is another kind of clock that nature herself has concocted­—the biological clock. In today’s society, many women have managed to balance work with motherhood and the needs of a family. But when you consider that getting a Ph.D. takes five to six years and that once you’ve got it, it takes another five or so years to complete a post-doc, you realize that you’re going to be in your mid-thirties and only beginning your career. If you do decide to pursue a tenure-track faculty position, will you be successful? Will you get grant funding? Will you publish in top-tier journals? Will you ever get tenure?
So how then do we reconcile these negative feelings, validate ourselves as intelligent, capable graduate students and feel pride in our achievements and ourselves without walking away from or discouraging others from pursuing a Ph.D. and a career in science or engineering? As I mentioned, only a small percentage of graduate and professional students actually seek professional help.
The UCI Counseling Center, I’m told, is more than willing to assist. There are many services available to graduate students in the form of group therapy, individual therapy and couples and family therapy. Group therapy includes graduate student-specific and even women-specific groups. Students for whom time, cost or willingness to seek help is a hindrance should consider reaching out to their peers.
Often, the problem can be that the only time graduate students actually see each other is during symposia and seminars. To help overcome this obstacle in our department, we started a Grad Girls Night where once a month, girls in the department could get together outside of work and do something fun like bowling, rock-climbing or board games. Not only did we get to know each other and share our frustrations as female graduate students in the biological sciences, we actually had a good time, which is a big deal when you’ve been feeling depressed and lonely.
As my Ph.D. experience comes to an end, what I want to share with those just starting out is that not only do you deserve to be where you are, you should be proud and confident that you are a capable and intelligent individual. You don’t have to feel insecure, sad, isolated or alone in what you are doing.
Depression and anxiety might be difficult emotions to avoid while pursuing a Ph.D., but realize that you do have resources to manage these negative and painful feelings and I encourage you to reach out and embrace them.