How I Fail S0204: Susanna Harris (PhD’20, Microbiology and Immunology)

Susanna L Harris, PhD,  believes in building communities through communication. As a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Susanna works in science marketing and engagement. Susanna founded PhD Balance to break the stigma around mental illness in higher education and create spaces where grad students can have open conversations around their most difficult challenges. She hosts and presents public speaking events about mental health, academic support, and science communication. You can also find her on Twitter @SusannaLHarris

Hi Susanna, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Hi! I just finished up my PhD in microbiology and immunology at UNC Chapel Hill, and was one of the first in my department to defend virtually. Certainly not the ending I’d expected after nearly 6 years, but I am thrilled to be done and to have started a new career in science marketing and comms.

What’s a memorable failure for you?

I’ve talked about it before, but the biggest failure I’ve ever experienced was failing my written qualifying exam. This was extremely demoralizing for more than just the fact that I had to redo this exam and face expulsion from my program – my personal life at the time was really unstable, I wasn’t happy with myself, and I was having serious doubts about my ability as a researcher. Failing this written exam was like proof of not being good enough for grad school and that I wasn’t very good at anything in my life at the time. No matter what people told me, I saw this as the badge of dishonor that told everyone I was a fraud in selling myself as a competent student and scientist.

What helped me is that I had a therapist with whom I met twice a month. Although I didn’t tell her the full extent of what I was dealing with at the time, it was still helpful to know I had someone to talk to.

You have been working on normalizing conversations about mental health in academia. Can you say a bit more about how you got started with this?

The third year of my PhD, starting with the failure of my written qualifying exam, was hell. Yes, rewriting a grant proposal in isolation again was challenging, but my mental health had always been unstable and this was just a new catalyst for my mental illness. I was fortunate to have gotten through that year.  I’ve dealt with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember (well before I was officially diagnosed) and began experiencing suicidal ideations in high school. I felt like I needed to hide my struggles throughout and keep it tucked away from everyone around me in academia. I knew that others struggled, but I had no idea that nearly 40% of graduate students faced symptoms of severe anxiety and depression until I read a Nature Biotech paper in 2018. Had I known about these statistics, I might not have waited so long to get help or felt as guilty in needing to take time off (something I didn’t do but should have). I started speaking so that others would know they weren’t alone, either.

Have you had any negative responses about this?

I’ve only directly gotten negative responses from people who knew me before I started speaking about my mental illness and preferred I keep on the always-optimistic facade going. They missed the “old me” that made them more comfortable, especially when they themselves had underlying mental health issues that they didn’t want to face. (Again, not all had mental health issues, but many who initially suggested that I was overreacting have since sought treatment and told me this was where their opinion had come from.)

Indirectly, I’ve gotten to see some private messages from folks who are annoyed by the press coverage of mental illness in higher education, because they feel that this problem is overblown or that students should get used to the system. To be honest, I’ve learned to accept that these people might never accept or appreciate the importance of supporting mental health and increasing awareness: I don’t do my work for them. I want to love academia, so I keep fighting to make it a better place for others. 

Why do you think mental health issues are associated with failure? Is it a general thing, or stronger in research/academia? Do you think this is changing? 

Mental health distress and failure are so often tied together – failures can affect our mental health, and failing mental health can cause us to not reach our goals. Thus, it’s easy to conflate the two. For me, the biggest differentiator is that someone with mental illness may fail more if they don’t have proper help and support, and failure might affect those with tenuous mental health more than others, nobody *is* a failure. Living with mental illness, whether I am currently struggling or not, does not make me less valuable as a person.

This is changing – we know that more people are speaking about their mental illness, their experiences with therapy and medication, and are championing change more than ever before. It’s a slow process, but every voice counts.

You are leading a platform, PhDBalance.com – can you say more how you got started, the format, and some future plans?  

I wanted to share my story and stories of others to break the stigma around mental illness in academia. To do this, I started an Instagram page (called PhDepression at the time) to allow people to talk about their struggles and triumphs while including a photo of themselves to show that mental illness doesn’t always look like someone crying in a corner. The page quickly grew and I brought on an entire team of amazing volunteers to expand into other platforms and collect resources. Going forward, this team is creating new content and formats to allow grad students to connect over shared experiences and talk about the struggles that so many face but are rarely covered in any sort of orientation. From in-person workshops to virtual writing sessions, we are hoping to create supportive structures for all types of dialogue.

What would your advice be for researchers, who want to be more open, but are afraid it will have a negative impact?

Start small. My biggest piece of advice is that everyone needs to talk to somebody, but nobody should talk to everybody. Share yourself and your thoughts with people you trust, and slowly expand outwards. This will allow you to grow your own support, which is crucial if you want to then support others.

What is your definition of failure – what things do others consider failures that you don’t, and vice versa? 

This is an interesting one, because my definition might seem harsher than most. For me, any goal I set or anything I “intend” to do that doesn’t happen is a failure. If I meant to finish writing an article by Friday evening and don’t get it done until Saturday, that’s a failure. If I applied for a position at a job and don’t get an offer, that’s a failure. If I wanted to wake up at 7AM but hit snooze until 7:05AM that’s a failure. I do this because it reminds me that 1) failure happens all the time, and 2) it doesn’t have to be a big deal. This mindset has helped to desensitize me against failure and allows me to try things where I am almost certain I will fail. I’ve already failed 5 times today, so what is one more?

What are some things about failure that people say, that you find absolutely untrue? 

I dislike when people say “failure is a great thing” – yes, it absolutely can be, but it’s also normal to feel sad or angry when we fail. I want to normalize being upset and demotivated by failure so that we don’t have to pretend we are always happy. Showing our disappointment and frustration allows others to connect with us.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

I’m doing a pretty terrible job of assessing how much I can accomplish in a day – somehow, even after 28 years of being a human, I think I can do much more work in an hour than is possible. And I predict I can work more hours in a day than I can over a long period of time. It’s setting me up to miss deadlines and underperform, and it’s a frustrating thing to try to overcome.

What types of things – successes, failures, habits – do you keep track of?

I keep to-do lists to make sure I’m accomplishing what I need to do. I track the amount of time I spend on different aspects of work. I journal a bit on how I am feeling. But I try to see these as ledgers, not judgements. I almost never look back unless I’m trying to remember what day I did something. It’s much more about being aware in the present moment and allowing myself to express how I am doing without fear of judgement.

Are there any resources you would recommend to the readers that have helped you? 

I love using Toggl (app and web-based platform) to track my time instead of tracking my accomplishments. Instead of saying “I need to write three paragraphs today” I say “I need to write for three hours today.” Maybe I write for three hours and get two pages, maybe I write for three hours and delete more than I write. Either way, I’ve accomplished my goal.

What would a ten year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

I think they would too-easily see the successes as my big moments and my failures as little stumbling blocks that eventually made me stronger. This is true, but my best advice for them is that the failures won’t feel good in the moment. Don’t feel like you need to see them as good things if they don’t appear to be yet. Trust that you are learning and growing, and that you will eventually appreciate them.

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