Story by Stephanie Castillo
I was already familiar with the lab as I participated in a summer research program as an undergraduate the year before. From what I experienced during the summer, the PI was pretty hands-on which would be a plus for me as I lacked a bit of confidence and specific skills. I solely returned to the university for graduate school so that I may work in their lab again. However, after joining the lab after rotations things appeared to start off on the wrong foot.
The project I was given was borderline outside the scope of what the lab specializes in. I was given a general idea of what the PI envisioned, but I had to come up with the general experimental design. I was finding it difficult to optimize the project, and couldn't depend on my lab mates as the project required techniques they did not practice. My lack of understanding resulted in me not producing results fast enough. I started to drown. The PI began to express their concern with my lack of progress on a monthly basis. Scared and intimidated, I would just apologize and reassure them that I would pick up the pace and work harder.
Yeah, that did not work because I still had no idea what I was doing and nothing was working. I was too ashamed to ask the PI for help because I apparently was not smart enough to figure it out on my own. My preliminary exams were fast approaching and did not have much work to show for it. The Pi continued to express their concern, and I proceeded to deflect and drown. It got to the point that the second I stepped on campus my chest would tighten, and my shoulders and neck would knot up. I was feeling constant anxiety as I felt like I was always being watched and judged. I found myself complaining too many times to my labmates about the whole situation and would cry out of frustration. I couldn't handle it anymore. It knew it was time for me to come clean to my PI about my struggles in the lab.
It's two weeks before I had to take my prelim exam. After getting the nudge from my lab mates to go and talk to her, I walked down the hallway and approached the PI's door. Trying really hard not to choke on the golf ball that's sitting on the back of my throat, I sat down in their office and couldn't hold back much longer. I know I should not cry as people say that it's not professional, but all my frustrations started to pour out. I was struggling. I did not know what I was doing. I needed help thinking through the problems and developing questions. I just need help. There was a moment of silence before they responded.
"Can I be frank with you?" they said. "Sure," I nodded.
"The way you talk is more master's material than Ph.D. material."
The tears I had welled up on my eyes just sucked right back into my skull. Uhh, what? What does that even mean? I was SHOOK (lol). This is not what I wanted to hear. I assured them that I did want to earn my Ph.D., I just needed more guidance. I don't think they believed me as they suggested that I should aim for getting a masters and see how I felt before deciding if I should push on for the Ph.D. I was given a new project (one that was in line with what their lab specializes in) and sent on my way.
Those words felt like the carpet was slid from underneath me. I took it really personal. Does this confirm that I am not smart enough for the Ph.D.? One labmate assured me that it was not ill intent and that's just how the PI is. Still, that did not fly with me. Instead of working on my project I decided to talk to the department grad coordinator about the whole situation and my plan to switch labs. I was told that the PI has very high standards and that I needed to be working more and asking other colleagues in my department for help as the responsibility of the PI are more important than the needs of a new graduate student.
Oh, ok [white guy blinking meme]. Cool.
I started seeking help from anyone that was willing to listen and whom I could trust about whether or not I should switch or suck it up. I got a fifty-fifty response from my sources, so I was back to square one. Note, all this is going on the week before my exam, planning for my wedding, teaching, taking classes, researching, and looking for a new mentor (not asking for pity, but merely stating the facts). I figured I am just overreacting and that I should suck it up and try again and focus on my prelims.
I ended up failing. Actually, I got a conditional past due to my lack of understanding of my project and progress. We would meet in four months before I would have to present again in front of my committee to determine my fate. I was a little butt hurt, but now that I'm working on a project that I actually liked with a clearly defined experimental design, I was able to push out data and make substantial progress to prove them wrong. I passed the second time around. However, when my PI and I met after that exam to go over the committee's critiques, I was told again that I should keep on with the masters.
That's not what I came to grad school for. I know I have what it takes and I was not going to let them take it from me. I just needed more guidance at the beginning so that I could get my feet underneath me. Instead, I was expected to have the skills without even being shown the ropes. I made my decision. I secured a new home, told my PI I was switching labs, wrote my masters, and changed labs. It sucks to start over as I feel like I'm never going to catch up. Hindsight, I should have spoken up sooner about my struggles instead of hiding, but that's not how the cards fell. I'm now in a lab where I am receiving the support I need, and that's all I could ask for.
What I took away from this experience is the power in advocating for yourself. If you allow someone else to limit what you can do, you will not amount to anything. If you do not speak up, then no one will know that you need help. This process also reinforced what I need from a mentor. Whatever the PI lacks you should find in other mentors to fill that void. I also learned the politics of grad school. Unfortunately, if your PI doesn't support you, there is high probability you will not earn your Ph.D. You need to find someone that is willing to put their hand in the fire for you and believe in your capabilities.
Stephanie Castillo, Ph.D. Student
Stephanie is the founder and curator of Phuture Doctors. Through her experience with switching labs she realized the importance of representation, mentorship, and advocacy. Her goal with Phuture Doctors is to increase representation in STEM by highlighting the diverse and talented graduate students at the forefront of STEM research. Make a space where we can take pride in what we do and support for our phuture endevors.