When I entered the Entomology Ph.D. program at UC Riverside in 2012, I signed up for the Graduate Student Mentorship Program, a program designed to provide support and encouragement to new graduate students during that intense first year. I was paired up with a mentor, an advanced graduate student, to facilitate my transition into graduate school. We met regularly over meals and coffee breaks and discussed the various “how-to’s” of graduate school: how to manage time for research and classes and life, how to optimally plan the chapters of a dissertation, how to maintain positive relationships with faculty and with lab-mates, how to successfully apply for grants, how to prepare for qualifying exams and choose the best committee, how to make the most of attending a conference. My mentor’s job throughout my entire first year of graduate school was to make sure I was doing okay, that I was adjusting well to the expectations and demands of the Ph.D. program, that I was on track to succeed, and that I felt supported by my academic community.
That first year seemingly flew by. I acclimated to the program, I did well in my classes, I was awarded a great fellowship, and I tried out a lot of research ideas (most of them fizzled, but that was okay), I made several friends, and I got married. Meetings with my mentor were a regular occurrence, and as I look back now, I am ashamed to say that I took them for granted. I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and I had an entitled sense that I was important to science. I would not have admitted it at the time, but my ego swelled with self-importance: I had been admitted to join the ranks of the upper echelons of intellectualism; I was on track to have a Ph.D., to make important contributions to science, to discover something novel. Despite my obnoxious demeanor, my mentor never said an unkind thing to me. He offered positivity and encouragement, he took interest in my ideas and generously supported a confidence that perhaps he knew would waver as graduate school wore on.
And it did. My second year was filled with the anxiety of producing: getting experiments going after several failed attempts, collecting and analyzing as much data as possible, applying for grants. I spent untold hours preparing a research proposal that would satisfy five distinct faculty members into believing my ideas were good enough, all in the endeavor to be as prepared for my qualifying exams as I could be. The work progressed, data accumulated, and my research plans grew far beyond what was reasonable until a year-end meeting with my committee members deflated those ideas and brought me back down to Earth. My dog died, at home with my husband and I, following a heart-breaking month-long fade that left us devastated and our home empty.
My third year began with dread and a nauseating anxiety, followed by an exhausted relief as qualifying exams came and went with only a few tears, some humiliation and rattled nerves. The work progressed, data accumulated, I started analyzing complete datasets, started writing manuscripts instead of proposals. My grandfather died, Alzheimer’s delivered unto him a precipitous decline following years of slow degeneration. The year ended watching so many friends, colleagues, and my sister move away from southern California as I jealously stayed behind. I adopted a new puppy.
Year four began with a pipe dream of finishing early for a job that I was not offered. The work progressed, data accumulated, and I continue data analysis and writing. Halfway through the year, I learned that my mentor had passed away. He had given away everything he owned, cancelled his cell phone, and erased his online presence. He removed himself from all means of communication and wandered away, alone.
Following that first year, I would occasionally pass him walking through campus, we had mutual friends, we’d occasionally attend the same parties. After a year of regularly meeting up a few times a month, we mostly fell out of touch. Through mutual friends, I heard about how things didn’t seem to be going well for him. At nearly the very end of his own Ph.D., he had been offered a post-doctoral position, but then something happened and everything seemed to fall away. He moved out of his apartment and gave away most of his possessions. I accepted a foosball table and didn’t ask questions. I invited him to our Halloween party and didn’t ask where he was headed, both literally and figuratively.
This inaction, this failure to show compassion or concern, this willful ignorance – this is one of the deepest regrets I hold in my heart. I feel that I squandered an opportunity to return the generosity that he paid to me, to offer support and encouragement, to show kindness during an intense and difficult period. As I’ve grown from the exasperating newbie into an exasperated Ph.D. candidate, I’ve come to appreciate the extreme psychological stress of enduring graduate school, of finishing the Ph.D., of finding a job afterward – particularly if the job desired is an academic one. I’ve watched those who came before me traverse this path, watched them lose sleep, fall into depression, gain weight and gray hairs. Some lose friends and relationships to their stress and mood swings. Others manage, and are lucky enough to have understanding and sympathetic supporters.
I feel I should have known better, I should have been struck by what I knew; I should not have stood idly by. This regret stands in stark contrast to the view I hold of myself as a good person, it reflects an image of indifference and disregard that eats at me.