Ariane Panzer, PhD

Immunology and microbiology enthusiast

My Mental Health and Graduate School

I gave my PhD exit talk on Tuesday September 13th, 2021, but afterward I didn’t feel like celebrating, I just felt burnt out.

During my PhD I never felt like I was making enough progress. This constant thought was heavily influenced by the fact that there was only one model of “PhD success” I was aware of, and my PhD journey didn’t adhere to this model. My dry lab data weren’t enough. The interesting wet lab results I got here and there weren’t enough. The only way I could graduate was by putting together a comprehensive, multidisciplinary research story.

I become increasingly stressed as my graduate school years ticked by. This feeling was further amplified by things like a lack of expertise in my lab for many of the experimental methods I was trying. While I was able to get some of the techniques I taught myself to work, other methods–like mass spectrometry–were impossible to teach myself how to do, and I couldn’t find people with both the expertise and the time to help me.

The more overwhelmed I became the more singularly I focused on my research. I didn’t give myself time to do or deal with much else. I knew there were other aspects of my life, and some were given attention, but most I decided didn’t matter as much as finishing my PhD. I put these other things–reading fiction, creative pursuits, nourishing myself properly, sex, processing my emotions–in separate boxes, taped them shut, and shoved them deep into the recesses of my mind. I told myself I’d come back to them but only after I graduated.

Some of the things I boxed up seemed small, but actually had a larger negative impact than I thought. When the chronic stress manifested in my having breakdowns every other week I went to see my nurse practitioner. I told her about my history with depression and was prescribed sertraline, which I hadn’t had to take in 10 years but which definitely helped. With the onset of the pandemic, I started having a much narrower definition of who I was and had fewer areas in which to find happiness. Then I had my first panic attack in December 2020 and decided to start seeing a therapist.

Finally–without that comprehensive, multidisciplinary research story–I graduated. I was out of the lab and out of academia, but I still was not OK. I was tired from constantly being asked to preform to prove my intellect. Tired of comparing myself and beating myself up for not being as successful as other UCSF graduate students who publish in Cell, Nature, and Science. Tired of judging the worth of what–if anything–I had contributed to science and questioning whether I even deserved my PhD.

I wanted to feel nothing and think nothing. So the first thing I did after graduating was nothing, and the kindest thing I did for myself was to not allow any self-judgment.

After a while of nothing my brain started turning on again, tuning back in to my thoughts and feelings. There were two thoughts that came up the most: “Will I ever love science again?” and “Who am I now?” I felt like graduate school had destroyed something I once loved and caused me to lose my sense of self. I was angry, frustrated, sad, judgmental, trying to figure out how things ended up this way. I took a moment to grieve (and still do at times).

Then I had to let go of what I was told success as a PhD student was supposed to look like. I had to let go of the PhD student I thought I should have been. I had to learn to appreciate the journey I went through even though academia made it feel wrong, made me feel undeserving of what I earned. Only then could I create space to celebrate the scientist I had become.

When I stopped beating myself up–essentially reinjuring myself–I finally started to heal. And I did three things that helped: A large coffee mug with a sun-yellow handle and interior. The outside of the mug is white with black font. The words “Miss” “Ms.” and “Mrs.” are crossed out thus the text reads: “It’s Dr. Panzer actually”. Dr. Panzer is written in a fancier, cursive font to add emphasis.

  1. I started just reading postings for science jobs. Over time, the more postings I read the more I felt that there were science jobs out there that interested me. Hooray, my love for science wasn’t dead!

  2. I updated my CV and when I saw all my accomplishments laid out over two pages damn did I feel good!

  3. I celebrated my graduation by buying myself a commemorative coffee mug.

I’ve slowly been digging out the boxes I hid away in my brain during my PhD, opening them, and facing what’s inside. It’s not easy. Negative thoughts from my past still reverberate like echoes in my mind, but I’m trying to replace those thoughts with kinder ones. It’s taking longer than I hoped to work through everything, but I’m starting to redefine my (often unrealistic) expectations, show myself more compassion, and be okay with where I am in this process. I’m not working, but I’m applying to jobs. I hope to return to science soon with some new endeavor which I think will help me continue to heal.

And now for some advice for current/future PhD students in the hopes it will make your experience even 1 µL easier:

  1. Try not to define yourself by your PhD. Being a researcher is not the only thing you are, it’s only one piece of who you are.

  2. Don’t put every other aspect of your life on the back burner. When you do this the failures you face during your PhD hit you harder and you lose other sources of success and happiness in life. I, for example, would have been even more lost without having science communication as an outlet.

  3. Every PhD journey is different. Don’t let others dictate what success should look like for you, come up with your own definition.

  4. Let yourself know that gradual progress is still progress and celebrate incremental successes.

  5. Clearly define expectations. Yours, your advisors, your committees, your PhD programs. And keep checking in about these expectations as they may change. If I had done this earlier I think I would have saved myself a lot of anguish.

  6. Listen to your body. Feeling hungry? Eat! Head hurts? Start by drinking water, you might be dehydrated (this was the case for me A LOT). Been sitting a while? Stretch and take a brief walk. Only when you take care of yourself can you do your research well.

  7. A PhD is a marathon with lots of stress inducing pit stops. Don’t shove stress down, release it with things like: a 3 min dance party (thanks lab storage closet!), a deep breathing exercise (thanks Headspace and Calm!), a laugh (thanks friends!), or a cry (thanks single stall bathrooms!).

  8. When things get tough, identify the parts of science you love and try to incorporate those into your schedule more. For me, reading or talking to people about their cool research always energized me and helped rekindle my love for science.

  9. Show yourself compassion. Would you say what you are saying to yourself to a friend? No? Then shut up, brain!

Hope this advice and/or hearing about how I processed my graduate school experience helped. And if you need it my Twitter DMs are open.

Image description: A large coffee mug with a sun-yellow handle and interior. The outside of the mug is white with black font. The words “Miss” “Ms.” and “Mrs.” are crossed out thus the text reads: “It’s Dr. Panzer actually”. Dr. Panzer is written in a fancier, cursive font to add emphasis.