“Are you OK?” my principal investigator (PI) asked me. I had just broken down crying in his office during one of our meetings. “It doesn’t seem like you’re OK.” He was right. But I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable with him, so I evaded the question. Later, I wondered why. When I mentor undergrads, I make a point of connecting with them on a personal level and reaching out to them when they seem to need help. For the past year, I had been yearning for someone to do the same for me. So why hadn’t I accepted the gesture when it finally came?
Things had started to go downhill for me during the third year of my Ph.D. My science wasn’t going as planned, and I was in the midst of a long-standing conflict with a colleague. I was dragging myself into the lab at 1 p.m., my face hidden beneath my hood, headphones on to drown out the chatter around me. I stopped speaking up in meetings. The quality and quantity of my work dropped. With my downcast eyes, slow gait, and slumped posture, I tried to signal that I needed help—but nobody reached out. To my labmates, I may have just seemed stressed or tired. As for my PI, he seemed to not want to pry into my personal life. I felt alone and helpless, hesitant to share my struggles because I wasn’t sure that anyone cared.
For a while, my undergrads kept me functioning. Their curiosity spurred me to plan experiments and read papers. My duty to them forced me out of bed and into the lab, where I set aside my own distress and put on the disguise of an encouraging mentor. I enthusiastically asked about their classes and weekend plans, their extracurricular activities and postgraduation ambitions. Mentoring offered a consolation: If I couldn’t make my mark in science, at least I could have an impact on my mentees’ career trajectories and support them through their own challenges.
When one of my undergrads began to act lethargic and distracted, for example, I reached out to ask whether there was anything I could do. Though usually reticent, she opened up. She thanked me for checking in and offering a sympathetic ear, and we adjusted her lab workload to accommodate her needs. Why was it that I could be there for my mentees, yet no one could be there for me?
Soon enough, I lost the high I got from mentoring. My patience gave way to irritation. When my undergrads made simple mistakes, I had a harder time being understanding. I knew that I couldn’t wait any longer to seek help. I finally contacted the therapist I had connected with at the beginning of grad school and started medication for my now-diagnosed anxiety and depression.
Then came that meeting with my adviser. Because our relationship had always been strictly professional, I wasn’t sure he really wanted to know about my troubles any more than my other colleagues seemed to. I also worried that he would think less of me if I told him I was having a hard time.
Yet concealing my struggles from my closest colleagues hampered my ability to be my true self in the lab—the place where I spent most of my waking hours. Eventually, I worked up the courage to tell close friends and supportive labmates. Many listened and empathized, and I realized that just because they hadn’t reached out didn’t mean they didn’t care.
Concealing my struggles … hampered my ability to be my true self in the lab.
In the end, I told my PI too. It was incredibly awkward at first, but with time, we became more comfortable having frank, candid conversations. We made arrangements to minimize the conflict I had with my colleague and devised a plan to balance my scientific interests with my graduation timeline. I’m still working on my mental health, but I finally feel like I’m headed in the right direction.
The experience has taught me that when I need help and support, sometimes I need to ask for it. And when it’s offered, even from an unlikely source, I should embrace it.