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.

How I Fail S02E03: Zoë Ayres (PhD’17, Chemistry)

For this How I Fail episode I have the pleasure of introducing Zoë Ayres, PhD. She is a research scientist in the water industry, creating and innovating new technology to ensure water is clean and safe for all. A passionate analytical scientist, her interest is in all things analytical, with a PhD in electrochemical sensor development and X-ray Fluorescence. She is also interested in improving mental health provision in academia, working as a mental health advocate in her ‘spare’ time. You can find out more about her on her website or on Twitter (@zjayres).

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

Hi Veronika, 

I am an analytical chemist by day and a mental health advocate the rest of my time. Although I left academia a few years ago, my mental health experience left a lasting impression on me, and I am still working in the space to improve academic mental health resources. I’ve aimed to improve awareness of common mental health issues people face with my poster series, as well as running campaigns and initiatives such as my #100voices project in order to normalise mental health within academia.

My scientific career up to this point has been varied, studying forensic science at undergraduate, before doing a master’s degree in analytical chemistry (and loving it), which inspired me to go on to do a PhD in electrochemical sensor development. I postdoc’ed for a year before landing my dream job in industry where I get to research and tinker with things most days!

I do, however, like to make sure I’m not all work and no play, so I have a range of hobbies and things I enjoy when off the clock. I like to go on walks, do field archery, and bake a lot (macarons are my favourite!) I’ve recently started doing wild swimming and I love it!

What’s a memorable failure for you?

I have two that spring to mind. The first, failing to get the grades to do straight chemistry at University. This was devastating to me at the time, with all my friends getting their results and crying with happiness whilst I cried with absolute misery in the corner. I ended up going to do forensic science which I loved. This ultimately led me to discovering analytical chemistry (which I feel might not have taken centre-stage for a pure chemistry program). I also felt I had something to prove and worked really hard, graduating at the top of my class, which set me up well for my future steps.

The other major failure was during my PhD. Even though I did checks before running my analysis, I managed to flood the X-ray Fluorescence instrument with water, damaging the optics. I’m to this day embarrassed by how much the repairs cost. It was a real low point for me. Ultimately this led me being put on another project which went much better than the other one I was on previously (as I had no equipment to use! Eek!), leading to a range of publications and even patents, which set me up well for my industry job, so I wouldn’t change it for the world!

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

I struggled with my own mental health during graduate school for the first time. It came as a real shock. As I slowly started opening up to my peers about it, I realised how common it was. It was a natural response as a researcher to delve into researching it, and it has become something I’m very passionate about.

One of the things that really compels me is that so often the onus of managing mental health is placed on the individual, yet there are so many similar themes that tie many peoples’ mental health stories together (impostor syndrome, failure, financial concerns etc), that there are clear patterns and behaviours. I believe institutions should be helping their students and staff manage these common themes for an improved (and healthier) graduate student experience.

My mental health work has largely taken the form of creating posters to raise awareness of the issues faced at each career stage of academia. I really got into (scientific) poster creation when I was feeling down and like a failure during my own PhD – it really helped me to channel myself into something creative – so it means a lot that I can use this skill now to help people.

Do you think (mental) health issues are associated with failure? What problems does this create for early career researchers?  

Yes – I really do. At undergraduate level we are often given scenarios or experiments which are designed to work based on pre-defined and well understood theory (provided we can follow the instructions properly!). When we get round to doing novel research in academia, it can be the first time we have ever experienced failure. This can be crushing as an early career researcher – it can lead us to question our capabilities and whether we belong in research at all. Because many of us don’t talk openly about failure, it can lead to early career researchers looking round at their peers, and only seeing their successes, further compounding feelings of inadequacy and making it difficult to speak to people about what they are experiencing. All of which can have a negative effect on wellbeing. 

Is the situation changing? And are there differences between different fields, countries etc (perhaps some are more open to change than others)? 

I think mental health provision for graduate students is at varying different stages across the world and even across institutions within countries. The variability and no available “best practice” is one of the things that I am actively working to change. This is also why I love Twitter as a social platform to distribute my mental health work. It allows it to reach different corners of the globe. I had someone recently contact me that was absolutely mind blown that I was talking about mental health in academia so openly because it is still not even mentioned within their research institution. There is still a lot of work to be done!

Have you had any negative responses about this? What would your advice be for researchers, who want to be more open, but are afraid it will have a negative impact?

Luckily, most people have been very kind to me, and I’ve had no major negative responses. I’ve had a few people tell me I should be more positive about academia – I’d rather be truthful.

It’s common to be afraid of opening up about mental health concerns for fear of negative repercussions. My advice would be to speak to someone close to you that you trust about how you are feeling – it’s much easier to share the weight of our feelings with someone else. Seeking medical help is also really, really important. We can often feel like how we are feeling is “not enough to bother the professionals with” or “others have it worse”. In reality, how we are feeling is just as valid as anyone else. You are deserving of help.

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

It would have once been not making the grades, not getting the publications, not getting my dream house. Now, I think failure to me would be not putting myself and my well being first. It’s often said, but I genuinely believe that you can’t look after or help anyone else if you don’t look after yourself first. I have so much more capacity if I prioritise myself first. 

I often feel in academia that we are meant to be at our apex of only one subject area and be the ultimate expert in one area. I pride myself in having different interests – not all science related. I’m sure that is seen as failure to some. 

Some might see success as getting the most publications or getting a big grant. For me I see success as putting people first. Get that right, everything else follows suit.

Often people say “the only failure is not trying” – do you agree with this, why/why not? 

Absolutely not. There are a range of situations where continuing to “try” can be really damaging. I think some people regularly have to deal with trying to survive in academia, be it due to bullying, harassment or systemic racism, ableism (to name just a few). Sometimes the biggest show of strength is acknowledging that the situation is not conducive to our mental health and getting out of the situation. I wish this wasn’t the case and that academia was a space for everyone to thrive, but sometimes this simply isn’t the case.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

I try not to think I’m “failing” at anything, and that everything is a learning opportunity. I also try not to be hard on myself – if I’m not willing to fail, due to being a perfectionist, I can find it hard to try new hobbies because I am scared of being “rubbish” at it. I try and push past this and do it anyway.

Now I come to think of it – there are a pile of books under my bed collecting dust that I’ve been meaning to read…a challenge for the future I guess!

What types of things – successes, failures, habits, mood etc – do you track regularly?

I try to keep a list of my successes (academic and otherwise). I find this to be a really valuable way to help combat impostor syndrome when it raises its ugly head. 

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

I think, for me, it’s that there are so many stories that normalise failure – I think it is this collective set of experiences that helps highlight just how common failure is. By having all the stories there to access it amplifies that failure does not define us, but we shouldn’t miss it out of our narrative either. It is part of us all, just like mental health is.

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

I think they’d be a bit sad (I didn’t become a world-famous archaeologist). But in all seriousness, I like to think that I’ve turned out okay and that 10-year-old me would be happy with how I’ve turned out.

If I could teach me anything at that age, it’d be to worry about what others think less. I’ve learned that you can be kind and still irritate people, be gracious and still grind someone’s gears, be accommodating and still have it thrown back at you. I honestly think we can’t please everyone and we can be much happier if we accept that early on. 

I’d also say to find happiness in other people’s achievements as well as my own – our own achievements are all too often few and far between. It’s good for our own mental health to find joy in other people’s success. Lifting others up rather than scrabbling to compete is a much happier environment for all involved!

*****

Thanks again Zoë!

How I was diagnosed as bipolar

If you read this blog more often, you might have noticed that it went silent in March 2019. I’ve taken breaks from blogging before, but no break was quite like this, and in this post I explain why.

Although I never wrote about it in detail, I also never made a secret out of the fact that I have been struggling with depression since my postdoc. I had therapy for some of the time and was in general managing things quite well – doing my job, blogging, doing sports, having a social life. The current me almost can’t believe I was able to do all those things. 

In the second half of 2018 things started getting worse. After my cat Buffy passed away in October 2018, I was at an extremely low point and finally decided therapy alone wouldn’t do. My GP prescribed me antidepressants and I started a period of sick leave (full-time at first, part-time later) to adjust.

The antidepressants seemed to be doing an amazing job – the start was slow, but then I started feeling better and better. I soon went back to working full-time, was getting a lot done and had a lot of fresh ideas. I realized I was probably depressed for longer than I thought, and that I was now returning to the “normal” me. This was exciting for me, but somewhat confusing for many people around me, many of whom had not known me that long. 

Eventually – around March – I started feeling a bit too good. The ideas were coming at me so fast I couldn’t keep up, and neither could people interacting with me. My partner recognized this as hypomania, and following a GP visit I was told to stop the antidepressants. The GP also gave me a referral to the psychiatrist, but I ended up on a waiting list. Meanwhile, I was getting more and more out of balance.

The grand finale was a psychotic episode, during which I was convinced that people I’ve never met were giving me clues I had to follow. To top it off, this happened while I was travelling alone. After a few days in a psychiatric facility in France, I was able to return home again, going back on sick leave full-time. The bright side of this episode is that I could see a psychiatrist immediately, who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder.

Now I am getting used to the new medication to stabilize my mood. Although the effects were noticeable straight away and I feel “normal” again, it has been difficult to go back to my regular life with work, blogging, sports, etc, feeling like an impostor in everything. I’m trying to accept that this is normal, and slowly building things up again. I am therefore not sure when the next post might be – but I’ll celebrate that this post is a win.

My goals for 2018 – blog, exercise and mental health

Last time I wrote about my most important goal for 2018 – writing. In this post I share a few other goals I have with regard to this blog, running and mental health.

Blogging

I’ve been blogging once a week for over a year, and I definitely want to continue this in 2018. I do have to admit it’s tough to do something every week. This year I would like to schedule more posts in advance, batching the writing, scheduling and other tasks on the blog.

But next to writing which is a process goal, I also would like to have a performance goal of some kind. Number of readers, number of comments… you get the point! Next to just “showing up” every week, I think this would motivate me to write better, and follow through with sharing my posts. For example, I am somehow scared to share posts on Facebook, even though the posts are public and I know they will be read by people who know me in real life. If I want more readers, this is something I’ll have to address.

After a discussion on the Academic Blogging group, I thought I would try AdSense income as a performance goal – hence the (hopefully not too annoying) ads you see on this page. The income is correlated to the number of readers, but with a “real life gamification” factor. So far I have earned a “grand total” of EUR 3. You could say it’s not worth it, but to me it’s an interesting metric to keep track of.

It would be great if I would get to EUR 25 or so, past the break-even point of the direct costs of this website. I feel a bit guilty about this, because I can afford it and, from what I hear on Twitter, I’m in a better financial position than many academics in a similar career stage. But at the same time I feel I shouldn’t apologize for what I find interesting to do – and spend a lot of time on.

 

Exercise

Last year I went from a cautious “just go running, anything counts” goal, to running two 10K races in reasonable time for somebody with my history of starting running and giving up again. Next year I will go for running 5-10K every week, and running 10K in under an hour. I don’t really want to run longer distances, but motivated by @Felienne I will also do the 15K Bruggenloop in December.

Maybe more importantly, I became more comfortable with talking about exercise. Similar to being scared of sharing posts on Facebook or wanting to have extra income from my blog, I have been somehow scared to share any goals related to fitness. If the topic comes up, I feel either embarrassed by my laziness (because the other person exercises every day), or embarrassed by my “first world problem” (because the other person is not able to exercise for whatever reason). I think we can agree that this is stupid and nobody should apologize for trying to be healthier.

 

Mental health

To continue on a similar theme, I would like to feel less anxious about a lot of things. Part of this is that I just need to do less things, so I should say no more often.

Another part is that I should get my brain to stay focused on one thing at a time, and not to overthink everything so much. Reading books, the Headspace app and journaling are helping with this, but there are definitely more things I could do, such as using my phone less and only checking email at fixed times of the day.

At this point these are more resolutions than goals. But I do see how most things can be turned into goals – maybe something to explore in another post?

 

Less

As I was writing, I realized there was a pattern in seemingly unrelated things like blogging and running. In her post about 2018, @DoctorPMS talked about having a theme for the year, and I kind of liked that idea, but couldn’t find a word. But now I think I’m on to something…

My theme would be “less“.

Less projects and distractions, less apologizing for what I want, less fear and trying to make everyone else (except myself) happy. To make space for more writing, blogging and being healthy.

5 strategies for saying no more often

5 strategies for saying no

“I should say no more often”, I often say to myself, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. For me the hardest part is not actually declining the request, but deciding whether to do it. There are just so many interesting opportunities and I would love it if I could accept all of them! As a result, often other projects (cough writing cough) tend to suffer. Then I start feeling anxious and guilty about all the things that I need to do, and it’s a vicious circle from there. Since the demands on my time are increasing, I have been (proactively) thinking how to approach this. This post covers a few strategies I have found helpful so far for saying no.

5 strategies for saying no

 

1. Does it help or hurt my goals?

Sounds logical, right? If you can do this well, you wouldn’t even be reading this post. But for me this is the most counterintuitive strategy. The things I say yes to always end up being helpful, perhaps even in ways I cannot imagine at the time of the request. By that logic, I should say yes to everything, which is of course not a viable strategy.

I’ve started realizing that the problem is that my goals are not defined clearly enough. I recently read “The Productive Researcher” by Mark Reed, where he gives several examples of his goals. One goal is something along the lines of “[important research thing here] while not being away from home more than 2 evenings a week”. Very specific and actionable, so I’m definitely adopting this one.

 

2. Data, data, data!

Keep track of how much you are doing already. For example, I always felt I couldn’t decline a review request – it was an interesting paper, an important journal, a nice editor, etc. Then I realized I was reviewing WAY more than my “share”, roughly defined as three times the number of papers you submit yourself. Now that I’m aware of this number, it is easier to say no.

It hasn’t been an issue yet, but I imagine that in future I might impose similar quotas on other types of activities, such as committees or travel.

3. Keep a list of things you’ve said no to

Next to my CV of Failures, this year I have also started keeping a list of opportunities I have said no to. This includes things I didn’t feel I should do (such as too many reviews), but more importantly, things I wanted to do but decided not to overschedule myself.

Just as the CV of Failures felt rewarding to put together, this list too helps me feel better about declining opportunities. Now, it is just a list of things I declined, but in the future, I might add “did I regret it”, to convince me myself it’s OK to say no.

 

4. No Committee

Get a few people together to join your own personal “no committee”. When you are doubting about something, your committee votes whether you should say yes or not! For a more in-depth explanation, see the post on Get a Life, PhD, where I first found out about this concept.

I find that it is not actually necessary to interact with your committee about decisions. You just have to imagine talking to them and think about the advice they would give.

 

5. If it’s not a hell yes, it’s no

Heard this one through Tim Ferriss (either his podcast or  “Tools of Titans”, which I highly recommend). Basically the idea is that if you are doubting already (it’s not a “hell yes!”), you should say no.

 

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That is all I have so far – do you have any other strategies you find helpful? Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

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