Guest Post: The Banality of Toxicity

My personal statement glows with enthusiasm. My commitment to neglected infectious disease and immunology, and thus academia, is abundantly clear. At twenty-one I am confident my self-declared global citizenship would be unappreciated in the sterile cubes of industry. At twenty-two, before leaving the hallowed halls of elite undergraduate studies, I am self-assured a PhD is the best way to become a game-changing expert in a world of inequitable health care. At twenty-four, mid-way though preliminary exams, I feel the same. My twenty-third year, I did not. What was different that year, was who I considered my mentor.

I was a mentor for the first time in 7th grade. I was bad at it. The guidance counsellors saw the obvious maturity differences between the newly arrived 6th graders and the departing 8th graders at our junior high school and devised a mentorship program to create a stronger community. While I can explain a lot of my shortcomings in the program by my universally shared social discomfort and the internal conflict between my desires to academically excel and rebel, my lack of training certainly didn’t help. I hadn’t reflected on the reasoning that we were fit to advise 6th graders because we had passed the 6th grade and the dismal results of my middle school’s mentorship program for years. I cringed when I remembered a few days after a heated conversation about expectations with my prior principal investigator and graduate school mentor. During the meeting, she explained one reason my training was going poorly is that she had no idea how to be a mentor and there were no resources for her beyond how-to books and websites, which she didn’t have time to read.

When I applied to graduate school, I applied for opportunities to work under excellent researchers and educators. I knew the relationship with my principle investigator would set the tone for my experience and should be my priority in the application process. I thought I had enough information to make the right choice. I thought I exhausted the list of mutual contacts and previous students I could email. I thought I read enough papers to comprehend what life using her expertise techniques would look like. I thought I asked the right questions during my rotation. After I left, I thought I didn’t do nearly enough. She loved her work and looked forward to what she could accomplish now that she had her own lab and a few graduate students. She spoke proud feminist statements about making sure I would feel comfortable having a voice in our male dominated field. I didn’t think she would try to silence me.

The second time I was a mentor, it went much better. I was seventeen and partnered with a nine year old at a program for young girls. We had mutual interests in art and visualizing the world. She immediately latched to scientific topics I was exploring in high school and was keenly interested in the social dynamics of such an adult setting. The program facilitated our relationship through provisions of crayons, paint, and playing cards, but most importantly, I had training and program directors to bring questions to. I knew from day one what the goals of the program were. I knew why I was assigned to my mentee. I regularly checked in with higher ups. They helped my mentee transition when I left for college. The objectives were clear.

I came to graduate school prepared to learn and prepared to make mistakes. The first year I learned through class and rotations. That summer, I selected a lab, created gigabytes and notebooks of data, and also made mistakes. I struggled to catch up on a rapidly updating literature. I confused the functions of molecules. I quickly understood asking for help was out of the question. I was told I was arrogant, disrespectful, and ungrateful among more colorful phrases. As fall rolled around I was told to blow off class and ignore other obligations in my life. Acknowledging my work life was unsustainable I tried to tackle the behemoth of our communication problems. I made flow charts, I made schedules, I repeated my expectations, and I said thank you. I can’t conceive of how many times I said thank you. I sought advice from other faculty and my undergraduate adviser. I was told my experience was normal. I was in graduate school now. I needed to rise to the occasion. I was determined to do so, even as the impact of a hostile workplace on my health and personal life crept up on me.

The third time I was a mentor I made unforgivable mistakes. My undergraduate adviser asked me to train a younger student the summer I was twenty, with no further instruction, and I failed to clarify the goals. I said horrible, untrue things, based on my own perceptions and no further evidence. My adviser was displeased, even furious, but she talked with me about where my misunderstandings and blatant f**k ups occurred and the following spring she asked me to train another student. We did not click, but he doesn’t know that. He said he wasn’t interested in research when we met, but his resume since then reflects otherwise. I forgave myself recently, maybe because of him.

I came close to leaving my first graduate school mentor on several occasions before I finally departed for the department across the quad. My partner, my friends, and my family all recognized I wasn’t doing well mentally, but wanted to support my resilience to earn my doctorate in the face normal obstacles found in academia. I stayed because I truly believed my life in science would be over if I left. I would have to start over at another school, if they would even admit me. I would be blacklisted. I would destroy the connections I had made in the community. In an almost manic state of anxiety I persuaded my partner to go with me to every used book store in the city one Saturday afternoon so I could prepare for my future life promoting community health though paperbacks and open mic nights. I didn’t recognize myself and realized the longer I stayed the harder it would be to leave while salvaging my degree.

The transition between labs and departments was smooth considering the circumstances. I become frustrated with my alarming anxiety over small hiccups in experiments in my new lab before remembering my recent experiences. I decided to write this because I was unable to focus for a week after reading about mentor-mentee relationships for a class. Writing is healing. There’s a good chance I’m not staying in academia after I earn my degree, but while I’m here I want to push for cultural and institutional overhauls emphasizing how to be a mentor.

Thanks for reading,

Still Here

Today’s guest post is by StillHere.  StillHere is a STEM PhD student in at a large research institution in the US.


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