Pushing through Post-Qualifying Exam: Recovery and Goal Setting
by Chrystelle L. Vilfranc
For me, part of being proactive about my mental health means doing more of the things that I enjoy, such as non-scientific based writing. My most recent non-scientific based piece was a feature concerning my journey with battling depression especially during graduate school; it’s titled “Depression and Grad School: A Narrative with Lessons Learned.” Thanks to all of you who offered support and encouragement on that last piece. This summer, I will try to share a few leisure pieces that offer more insight in what my journey has been like as a graduate school student struggling to maintain her mental health. I am looking forward to sharing as much as I can with you all. Follow me through this journey.
I passed my Qualifying Exam
The moment I had been waiting for had finally arrived. I stood before the qualifying exam committee for my program and found myself hanging onto the elected committee chair’s every word. I felt in my heart that I did okay, but you never know with these things. My biggest fear going into the qualifying exam was that I wouldn’t do well answering their questions under all of the pressure. Since starting graduate school, while under immense pressure, I struggled to answer questions orally.
From the start of my first year of classes, I worried that very weakness would lead to my downfall during the qualifying exam. Yet I stood at the front of the room and processed the chair’s words, “We really felt like you handled yourself well with all of the questions we threw at you.” Who me? Although, I could agree with him, my insecurities would not let me fully believe what he was saying. I continued listening and waiting, until he said: “Congratulations! You passed.” I just knew there was a catch, so I stared waiting for more instructions as they passed a paper towards me with their signatures. The faculty member closest to me, slid the paper on the table towards my direction, smiled and said, “No revisions. You’re done!” My eyes began to water, but I didn’t let any of the tears actually fall. I’m a boss, after all. I can’t let them see me cry!
“Qualified,” Now What?
That first week post-qualifying was one of the weirdest weeks for me. I was happy and felt a bit relieved, yet it was all still unbelievable. The qualifying exam in my program is yet another weeding-out process. My department’s qualifying exam has the reputation for being one of the most difficult exam processes within the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at my institution. After learning that I passed, I ran to lab, cried, prayed then contacted my family and friends. I cried for a couple of hours actually. I was shocked, yet proud of myself that day. However, the following day brought mixed emotions, but I did my best to reaffirm myself. My family and friends did so as well. Every one was extremely happy for me. Many of them have prayed with and for me, since the first day of classes. In a sense, this moment belonged to them, as well. Yet regardless of the joy, happiness and congratulations that seemed to swarm me, I felt a bit out of touch with my emotions and my feelings.
While I was happy to be “qualified” and I understood the milestone that I had crossed, I found it very hard to feel as much joy, happiness and pride as my family and friends.
That was odd to me. After all, throughout the school year I had convinced myself that I’d feel so much better after this exam, whether I got a complete pass or an incomplete. Somehow from the day following my exam it seemed that I was having what felt like an out of body experience.
I was so happy that this process was finally over; however, I was experiencing mixed feelings. I reminded myself and I continue to remind myself that I am happy for myself and very proud of myself for making it past that step. I was however looking forward to my depression and anxiety loosening their grips around me. Yes, I know how depression works, but for some reason, I hoped that the completion of my exam would spark a tremendous leap forward in terms of my mental health. I was not in a bad place, but I was — and still am — a bit out of touch with my feelings regarding my exam. One of my theories for this is that I am so tired from pushing myself mentally, emotionally and physically throughout the school year in preparation for the exam.
I cannot fully describe what it feels like, but my body and my brain seem to remain in recovery from my qualifying exam process. I have definitely declined a bit, especially in terms of energy and momentum regarding doing research.
During my exam prep, I barely slept or took care of myself physically. I basically had myself on lock down from the middle of August until my qualifying exam which was the last week of April. The only “break” I had in between then was during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season when I spent about two weeks with my family trying to recuperate from my last semester of coursework. From January to April, it had been non-stop grant writing, reading, studying and practicing for my qualifying exam. It definitely makes sense that I am so low-energy these days. When you neglect and mistreat your body and your brain, they will not be able to endure for too long. If they do, they will not be at their best, preventing you from feeling at your best, even if they serve you well by performing when you need them to come through. For this reason, I have been struggling to get back into grind mode with my research.
Trying to Get Back into the Swing of Lab/Research
After leaving the qualifying exam room, I was pumped to go forward and continue with the research that I had proposed, but I was almost on E (empty). Since qualifying, I have still been struggling to get out of bed in the mornings. Waking up so far has not been the big issue because I sleep better at nights post qualifying. The issue is mentally preparing myself for getting out of bed to face the day. This could be problematic because I have quite a few research goals for the next couple of months.
However, I feel that my motivation, ambition and drive have been dampened a bit since qualifying. I feel that I had put in so much regarding my qualifying exam that my fuel tank is almost empty.
My body and brain are still trying to readjust to a full-time research commitment. My passion for research is still the same; however, my drive to carry out my research at times seems low. This appears to be a form of burnout. However, my therapist and I have been exploring whether I am also going through a period of self-sabotage or avoidance. Either way, to get through this period, I try my best to take things day by day. Each day I take a moment to analyze what worked and what didn’t work for the day. I try to readjust for the following day. I give myself time to “have a moment” when necessary. I try not to work every weekend, depending on my experiments. In May, I enjoyed a weekend getaway with some of my friends in Miami (hence my feature photo). It’s hard to reward myself and convince myself that I am actually not an energizer bunny, but I know that I must do these things. One of my self-assigned mentors shared that it took her about an entire summer and some change to get back into the swing of lab post-qualifying. For some of us, we just need a moment to regroup. I have to allow myself to take my time to avoid becoming more burnt out. For you, it might have been a tough school year, first year in the workforce, or tough year at your job. Give yourself time and space to regroup. Most importantly, remember that this too shall pass.
Setting Realistic Goals
I realized early on that I need to set realistic goals in order to achieve them. Setting realistic goals prevents me from being hard on myself if they are not achieved. Setting realistic goals requires introspection. You have to be honest with yourself in choosing these goals. Challenge yourself, but be realistic with your time, circumstances, etc. Allow for wiggle room in case you don’t meet your goal exactly how or when you planned. For example, currently one of my realistic goals include getting to lab by a certain time every morning. Ideally, I would love to get to lab at 8:30/9:00 every morning; however, realistically, that won’t happen. I know myself and I know that I cannot commit to 9:00 a.m. every morning. Setting a realistic goal for myself allows me to not always compare my schedule with that of my labmates. I am no longer as upset or disappointed in myself when I make it to lab after 9 a.m. because I am accepting and committing to my own set time.
Honestly, I am still struggling with this goal, but I am working on implementing new night and morning routines that my therapist and I brainstormed to help me achieve my goal. I am being patient with myself and I am adjusting the conditions of my goals to fit my energy, my mood and my research goals.
I encourage you all to set realistic goals, as well, whether it be fitness goals, research goals, diet goals, writing goals, etc. Be realistic and be patient.
I realize the importance of maintaining my mental health. For this reason, I have committed to seeing a therapist every week. These posts are also part of my healing journey. I feel that getting help has definitely made a positive impact on my health. If you or someone you know is experiencing depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or any other struggles regarding your (their) mental health please understand that YOU ARE NOT ALONE! There are resources available. If you are a student, search for counseling and therapy sessions at your institution or at a local community center. Talkspace provides therapy for all. You can call, text or video chat with a licensed therapist at your convenience. If you are an African American who might be looking for a black Psychiatrist and/or a psychologist please visit this site. If you are experiencing a crisis, please refer to one of these hotlines, call 911, or visit your nearest emergency room. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO DO THIS ALONE!
I plan to update you all soon and keep you posted on the progress I have made with my goals including those regarding my mental health. Please feel free to leave your feedback, comments, tips or suggestions for me on any of our platforms. Until next time, maintain & keep your head in the game!
Chrystelle L. Vilfranc is a native of Brooklyn, NY. She graduated with a B.S. in Biochemistry and a minor in Mathematics from Oakwood University. Currently, she is pursuing her doctorate in Cancer and Cell Biology. Her lab studies BRUCE, a highly conserved protein that is a member of the Inhibitor of Apoptosis (IAP) family. BRUCE has been implicated in biological processes such as apoptosis and DNA damage and repair. One of her projects include understanding the role of BRUCE in DNA damage repair upon liver injury and its impact on liver disease progression.
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