its been a million years (ok, a few months) since I last posted. In truth, I’ve kind of been going through it. I’ve been grappling with a lot of things, and making a lot of money moves in the dark. The last time I posted directly about my #GradSchoolSearch, I was giving a postmortem on my choice to join Texas A&M University . Now, I’m writing to give a postmortem on my own postmortem; because I am leaving TAMU entirely to join a new program halfway across the country.
This isn’t to say that I lied in my postmortem or that I felt pressured to put on a happy face for the department. In that moment in March, things in my program were looking up. I had fought hard for transparency in the department for the other grad students, and I had gotten it. I had finally had a good meeting with my advisor. Things in the lab for the multiple projects I was on were clicking along and I was deeply devoted to my lab mates. I was cultivating strong bonds with ally faculty in the department, and everytime I hit crisis mode one of them was there to help me. I really thought things were finally looking up–I rememeber excitedly texting my undergrad advisor after my second whole good meeting with my advisor, in joyous tears, because I thought I was finally meshing into the program and PhD eight months into my first year.
This feeling was over about a month after sending that text; in fact, my entire relationship with my PhD at TAMU was irreparably broken by the end of April. There are a lot of reasons, and I spent most of an afternoon trying to think of sanitized ways to explain them. But the simple truth is that I did everything right in my #GradSchoolSearch; following who had the funding, doing all the interviews I could, asking all the right questions for what I wanted out of an advisor/program/department–and things still were never going to work out in my favor even if I wanted things to work out here at TAMU more than could be put into words.
So much changed from the time that I interviewed to the time I made my decision to leave that even though I made the best decision at the time, staying at TAMU would be untenable. Adhereing to my praxis put me in constant conflict with the overall culture of the department and school; and the end result is that I was in pain. The relationships which sustained me and gave me comfort were the same relationships that put me in conflict with those in power. The fieldwork I loved became a chore that destroyed my physical health. Even as I learned to control my PTSD in therapy, my mental health crumbled whenever I thought of my projects. In evey iteration of this blog that I tried to write–from the angry and vengeful to the sanitized and sad, what came out most strongly is that I was in a constant state of panicked pain. And while I had a pocket full of tremendous allies both in my department and across the campus, I still felt like I would be completely unable to succeed. Even as one of the most senior faculty in the department reassured me that he was 100% confident I would pass prelims and defend successfully, I was crying because I didn’t believe him. It was impossible to believe him when all my experiences told me otherwise.
Like with any university, there are plenty of issues with TAMU–you’ll know if you’ve ever scrolled through Twitter. My feelings of alienation happened at every level–from interactions with individual people in my department to the university as a whole. From the aftershocks of meetings crying in my office not knowing if I liked my field anymore, to the moments of dread going into the field and coming back, to the racist incidents that happened seemingly every other week on campus or Aggie Twitter, to hearing other LGBT+ students say they were advised against being “out”, to things too heavy and hurtful to enumerate in a single blog; it all left me running on fumes, on tears, on parts of lunches given to me by junior faculty or my lab because at one point I stopped eating normally. I could’ve forced myself through the remaining 3 years of my PhD–I could’ve forced myself to do anything for my lab mates and the faculty I trusted, and they were willing to do whatever I wanted if it meant I would stay. But, I didn’t think it was fair to use my ally faculty and lab mates to keep my head above water for another three years. I just didn’t think it was up to those people or solely myself to provide the resources, mentoring, allyship, and stability needed to finish a PhD in my remaining 3 years. It takes a community to raise up and graduate a successful PhD student; and while I am sure some students flourish in this setting, I couldn’t. I was profoundly unhealthy of body and mind, and this would only get worse if I tried to stay. Importantly, I acknowledge that part of my failure to thrive at TAMU is because of me and who I am.
To say I am devastated to make this decision is almost accurate. There’s a great line in a Fall Out Boy song that goes “I am sifting through the sand to looking for pieces of broken hourglass…to put it back together as if the time had never passed”, because I truly wish this moment had never come. My lab mates and my ally faculty, are truly some of the greatest people I have ever gotten to experience life with. From crisis to celebration, from allyship to advising, from professional collaborations to friendship–I trust them to the ends of my personal and professional coil. And I truly wish I had been strong enough and brave enough to stick with them through this. Their allyship was that of the most ideal kind; and I hope they know that they give me hope for the future of the academy.
To circle back to the end of my #GradSchoolSearch: I am not leaving academia, nor am I leaving the glory of the grassy biome. I am starting my entire PhD over again, with Lars Brudvig at MSU. Dr. Brudvig had been a great mentor to me from the moment we met at ESA2018, and I leaned on him often during my tumultuous year at TAMU. Sometimes, you get very lucky and meet someone with which you have a deep and implicit understanding of one another’s humanity; and I am glad to say that Dr. Brudvig and I mesh well in every sense. I am really grateful for the opportunity he and MSU have given me to start anew. My new lab is warm and welcoming, and has strong and centrally managed projects from South Carolina to Kellogg Biological Station. I enjoy my new department, and we are collegial and collaborative. And everyone I trust, including myself, thinks that I will be much happier and healthier in my new setting. Even as I pack my bags to head to MSU for this new adventure, I feel happy. I feel excited. I feel the way I felt when I first came to TAMU; except this time, I think the feeling will stay.
I have a lot of feelings around the way my life has turned out. Mostly, I am trying to hold on to the relationships here at TAMU that sustained me. I want to end by thanking the people I love at TAMU. The faculty who always had my back–whether that meant spending an hour helping me understand the literature or fifteen minutes sharing a snack with me. The friends who were always free to share a meal or drink with me. The staff kind enough to walk me through the maze of acceptance, registration, resignation and withdrawal. The lab mates who perpetually ensured I was okay, who text me before and after therapy to make sure I felt safe, who always got me home from late nights in the lab.
I don’t have the vocabulary to thank all of these people for their support, for their trust, for their strength, for their kindness, and for their respect of my personhood. In every moment where I felt the least worthy of love, you held me up. In every moment in which I felt my past trauma drowning me, you lifted me from the water. In every moment where I cried, you were all there to wipe my tears away. And even when I told you I was leaving, that I felt I was abandoning you for my own petty personal needs; you corrected me and told me you were happy I was making the right choice for me. You all took this problem, and you did the hardest part with me. I would’ve never made it this far without all of you.
Thank you so much for getting me through this.