C of Shame

I was that graduate student. My first semester in grad. school, I got a C in thermo. This was a class I rocked as an undergrad and a topic that was fundamental to my research. I was incredibly ashamed. I tried to chalk it up to being in the lab 12 hours a day– wasn’t that why I was in grad. school– and to not spending enough time on the class, but it was still a terrible feeling. I knew that one could be asked to leave for a C, but everything else had gone so well. I had a published paper. I did well (ok, at least) in my other classes. That didn’t stop me, however, from feeling incredibly embarrassed and wondering whether or not this was for me. Still, I told myself, I could do this.

The grad. program director came to me to explain that I couldn’t take the qualifier and should leave the program. The best part was that he explained it to me in the hall in front of all of my fellow grad. students. My embarrassment exploded in to full on shame. I was a failure.

I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I could do the work– at least I thought I could do the work. When I wasn’t mortified, I couldn’t help but think this seemed like such a stupid reason to say I wasn’t up to the task of science. I went to my advisor. I worried about talking with him because I had just told him a few days before I thought I should change fields which would mean leaving his lab. He had every reason to wash his hands of me. I had announced I wanted to leave his lab, so why not grad. school?

I went into his office and explained that I had to leave. I didn’t know where else to go. He looked at me with one of the most intense looks I have seen. He walked out. I was sure he was disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me.

He came back. “You’ll take the qualifier. You’ll be fine.”

It turned out that he went into the grad. program directors’ office and explained to him that I had a paper, I could do the work, and I deserved the chance to prove it. From what my fellow grad. students told me, he was quite forceful. As one of them put it, “Your adivsor is a force of nature. Wow.”

I would have left the program and probably not gotten a PhD if it hadn’t been for him. He didn’t have to go to the mat for me, but he did, even though I was leaving his lab. I passed the qualifier, and when time came for my thesis committee, I couldn’t think of a better person to have on it than him. My new work was outside of his research area, but he graciously agreed and was an incredible mentor and colleague who always brought great questions.

50% of students who start PhDs in STEM fields leave without a PhD. How much of that is because people don’t have the mentor who will go to the mat for them, even after the student is ready to leave? Especially when they are asked to leave for things that do not represent their potential as an independent scientist. I was incredibly lucky. It shouldn’t have to come down to luck.


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