Uncovering the unexpected within

I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I’d always worked hard and succeeded — not only succeeded but excelled. Now there I was: I had just finished my second year of graduate school, and I had been told that I had failed my qualifying exam. I was devastated.
Not only was this the first time I had worked hard and failed, but it also meant that I could be asked to leave the program, derailing my dream of becoming a scientist. The more I spoke with my committee members about why I had failed, the more I realized that my failure stemmed not from my intellectual ability but rather from my inability to cope.
I had thought that sleepless nights and paralyzing stress were normal for a graduate student. What soon became evident, though, was that they not only were not normal but were a serious problem called severe panic attacks; and if I didn’t get the problem under control, my own psyche would derail my dreams.

‘You must get this under control!’

Graduate school is a whole new stage in a scientist’s development. Gone are the undergraduate days when you work hard to memorize facts so that you can regurgitate them for exams. Instead, you are expected to learn concepts and apply them to real-world problems. The ideas are no longer someone else’s that you have to learn; the ideas are yours that you have to defend. Information comes fast and furious, and you are expected to balance class, laboratory work, journal clubs, presentations and, yes, life.
The increased expectations and workload can bring out problems that you might never have realized existed. Or if you realized these problems existed, maybe you were able to control them just enough to survive. For me, this new stage in my development attacked my self-confidence. I had always suffered from a lack of self-confidence (I still do, in fact, but I know how to manage it now); however, up to the point when I entered graduate school, I was able to deal with this problem, or so I thought. The new demands fueled this negative psychology, fed it like oxygen to a raging fire, ultimately leading to my debilitating and paralyzing panic attacks.
Fortunately, I had a stern yet understanding exam committee. To this day, I remember the wise words of the late John Scocca (a man who scared the heck out of me as a student but whom I remember now with extreme fondness and the utmost respect): “You will always be faced with pressures at every stage of your career. If you want to stay in this profession, you must get this under control!”
Taking these words to heart, I began therapy through the student health program, and over the next year I got my panic attacks under control, which allowed me to demonstrate to my examining committee my true capabilities.

‘A transformative moment’

When I look back and read what I wrote for that exam with the eyes of experience, I see just how horrible that exam truly was. What I now realize is that it was a transformative moment in my life, a hard realization that made me reevaluate myself and rededicate myself to my dreams and goals. Through the ordeal, I learned about my shortcomings. I learned that it was OK to admit that I had a problem and accept other people’s help. I learned how to lick my wounds and fight for my ambitions.
Many students look at me today and see a confident and secure faculty member. Little do they realize that I nearly failed out of graduate school and suffered a lot of pain (and a lot of therapy!) to get to this point in my life and career. Now my experience serves as an example for students – to let them know that they are not alone, that the hard times they are experiencing will help them realize something new about themselves and that from these experiences they can grow in unexpected ways to succeed in ultimately realizing their dreams.
Andrew D. HollenbachAndrew D. Hollenbach (aholle@
lsuhsc.edu), author of the book “A Practical Guide to Writing a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Grant,” is an associate professor in the genetics department at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.