I keep having anxiety dreams about graduate school. I think it was the first time in my life where I really failed and crash-landed.
I’d attended a state school for college, so graduate school was my first time being very far away from my family. It was cutthroat competitive. I was very lonely, and ultimately tired of being single.
I realize in retrospect how depressed I was. I really needed help. I was in a male-dominated field, so I had few close female friends. I struggled aimlessly under a terrible, negligent PhD advisor who did not feel any responsibility at all toward his students, and would disappear for years at a time. Some of his brightest students were stuck there ten years. Years later, he turned out to have had a slow-growing version of the same brain tumor that my father had–one whose symptoms for my advisor manifested as apathy.
I failed romantically. Lonely and depressed, I fell in love (I thought) with someone and held onto him as though he were the only raft in the ocean. Well, the “someone” turned out to have severe mental health issues of his own. Long story short it went as poorly as a romance could possibly go–and worse, it dragged on for several years. He never did marry anyone. Meanwhile my advisor has not managed to send a single PhD student into an academic career in fifteen years or so.
Anyway, I didn’t fail entirely. Despite it all I managed to publish a couple of useless papers, graduated with a shiny degree, and found a postdoc where I worked for a very good advisor and blossomed, and did very good work. The problem was that I didn’t start with a solid foundation from graduate school, and that made it hard to find academic jobs. I did find one, finally; it was unsuitable, and I left.
Looking back at it all, whenever I failed I always kept going. Writing it all out for the first time, I realize that maybe it wasn’t failure after all. I didn’t end up quite where I’d planned to go, but I did end up somewhere. Possibly somewhere better for me.
If I’d stayed an academic, I wouldn’t have been around for my parents when they needed me. I don’t know whether I’d have managed to get married and have kids. I’ve seen women do it all, but I’m not sure it would have worked out for me due to the timing, and due to various other factors.
Looking back, I can also see that although I blamed myself for not ending up quite where I wanted, a lot of the things that affected my life and career were pure bad luck and external circumstance too. One thing I’ve tried to learn is not to care what you look like from the outside. Nobody is as invested in your life and career as you are. Maybe somebody Googles you someday and says “oh, s/he succeeded,” or “oh, s/he failed” and for a moment they feel either jealous or schadenfreude. But that’s a moment. You have to live your entire life, 24/7.
So you may as well be true to yourself.