So I finished my undergrad at a small university (I’ll write a detailed post at some point) and moved back to my hometown to go to a big and well respected university for my masters. I was excited! I made it to grad school! I was completely ready to work really hard and do some cool research and collaborate with brilliant people and have that grad student-supervisor respect level relationship. Boy was I in for a doozie of a wake up call.
I moved home in April, and I was sad to say goodbye to my friends and professors I had gotten to know and love over the past four years. On the other hand I had a sweet summer research job lined up, I was happy to be able to spend more time with my grandparents, and I had kind of mostly forgotten how bad living at home could be. So the summer job went okay, I visited my grandparents every weekend, and I started going to the gym to spend less time at home and try to be healthier.
In September 2014 I started classes and working with my supervisor. My first semester was focused mostly on classes so I didn’t see her much. I was taking 7 classes at the time which is a heavy load but I figured I was handling it pretty well and it was under my supervisors suggestion that I take these courses. In September my mother’s father died from brain cancer. I didn’t have a close relationship with him (which in some ways I regret) and the fact that I knew he was becoming more ill made this something that was not terribly hard to deal with. I didn’t go to the funeral, class and doing well at school was more important to me. So I carried on and things at home got a bit crazy and so I spent as much time at school or the gym as I could. Then at the end of November my father’s father died. This was a surprise and someone I was close to and something I did not handle well. I was supposed to have gone to visit him and my grandma that day but I didn’t make it over, and I regret that to no end. I know that realistically me visiting would probably have not made a difference in what was to happen, and I know that he knew I loved him dearly. But being a human I feel like you go through the stage of thinking “if I just did ___ things would have gone differently”. I attended classes that week although I’m not sure how much of it sunk it. Going to the funeral was a very sad experience for me, I saw my grandma cry for the first time. Shortly after this I had to write final papers and exams. I did not do as well as I normally would have, which is upsetting to me because grades are important and your transcript doesn’t tell the story of losing two grandparents in such a short time period. In December I was still strung out trying to deal with the grief, my home life being not great, and my grades being not what I wanted. We had a lab lunch – myself, my lab mate that started the same degree as myself at the same time, my other labmate that was working on a different degree, and my supervisor. We were invited to go to a thai restaurant, which because of my food preferences and allergies (no seafood, no coconut) was not an ideal choice but I went. Finding something to eat was a somewhat stressful ordeal but I thought I handled myself okay.
When I got home from the lunch I had an email from my supervisor asking me to meet her before the Christmas break, and I assumed it had to do with planning my thesis topic even though I had a bad feeling. To my surprise, my supervisor wanted to talk to me about my behaviour and how she felt I was unhappy in her lab and at the university. She made reference to me being under-motivated. She suggested to me that since I made many comparisons to my undergraduate time that I might be happier at a smaller university where I could get more attention. She suggested that I should change programs and that I might be happier in Psychology since that is what my undergrad was in. She knew that I wanted to be an S-LP, but she said that I should not apply to top-tier schools and instead focus on other programs.
I was mortified to say the least. For one thing, as a graduate student I expected to be given some respect and be allowed to call my supervisor by their first name, however to this day I still must refer to her as Dr. ___. To call me under-motivated is a huge slap in the face. Not only was I taking 7 graduate level courses (which is insane by the way), I was going to the gym, dealing with home life, visiting my grandparents, volunteering about 4 hours per week at the hospital, and volunteering in another lab to get more experience. Throughout this as well as dealing with the deaths in my family I still upheld A & B level grades. I was by far the hardest worker in the lab – I was there daily and submitting things to her before the other girls. Of course I compared my current experiences to my undergrad – my undergrad was all I knew and it was a way for me to accept and adjust to the change (and it was a big change). She made these judgements after 3-ish months of barely knowing me. I had a tough choice to make, which was do I follow her suggestion and leave or stay and prove her wrong. See, I had the option of moving into the Psychology graduate program at this university because I had been accepted into it, I chose this other program because it was a more direct route to S-LP, and at that point I regretted my choice heavily. But I still firmly believed that this was the program that would get me into S-LP and the stubbornness inside me made me want to stay and prove this supervisor wrong. So I stayed.
For the first few weeks in the new semester things were tense for me, I felt strongly that I had to prove myself. When she brought up ideas I didn’t like about my thesis I fought her on them. When it came to my ethics application I did not have access to it, and so she got final say on methods and everything else which I felt was unfair. I tried multiple times to get involved but she dismissed me and my ideas, it made me feel like I was unworthy and invalid. I decided to try to stop fighting my supervisor on things in hopes that it would be a smoother process, even though it killed me inside – maybe she had been threatened by my questioning her. I told the other girls in my lab the things she had said to me in December, and they said that she had asked them if I was an emotionally unstable individual – what kind of crap is that?!? It was so inappropriate and unprofessional of her to say something like that to my colleagues. In March 2015 I decided I needed a job, not only to get out of the house but to save some money and feel validated outside of school. I continued with my volunteering and visiting my grandma – I wasn’t taking courses anymore but life was full-on busy with thesis writing. When I submitted any writing to my supervisor it came back as something unfamiliar to me, my writing was not good enough for her. Over the summer we had a bit of a break and I got to go to Europe for a few weeks, it was much needed time away from home and school. When the fall 2015 semester started I finally had control over things when it came to recruiting and running participants, I was in bliss! I felt like our relationship had levelled out and I had won her over because she took my opinions and didn’t shoot them down. I asked her to write a reference letter for my S-LP applications that were due in January 2016, I figured we were in a good place and it would make her look bad to write a bad one. Then in the new year it came time to analyze the stats, and she ran the results before I even had a chance. I was devastated again. We are on version 7 of the results section now (in April 2016) and starting the discussion, I have been picking which battles to fight but leaving most things alone.
Last week was when I heard about my S-LP applications. I had applied to the university I am at right now and another university farther away, both of which I was waitlisted at last time. I saw weaknesses in my application when I got waitlisted, and so I worked really hard over the two years to fix the weaknesses. It wasn’t enough. At my university I was rejected, and at the other university waitlisted (I am still hoping I get called off the waitlist this time). These programs are extremely competitive, about 410 people competing for about 35 spots. You get told that you can’t expect to get accepted from one year to the next because the applicant pools change and every year is a really strong year of applications. When I found out I got rejected from MY university specifically I couldn’t bear it. How could I not at least get waitlisted?!? I had a MASTERS degree in a related area. I had good grades, especially for the pre-requisites. I had over 400 hours of volunteer experience in both child and adult populations. I knew the professors on the admittance committee from being in their classes and TAing for them. I had already taken a class in the S-LP program, done well enough, and was set to TA a class in the S-LP program. I had put together an amazing application with tons of great stuff on my CV. I just really couldn’t make sense of it. Neither could my friends or the people I volunteered with that wrote me a reference letter. I was sure it was the worst April fools joke ever, but no matter how many times I loaded the page it still said “not accepted”. I tried to avoid a certain line of thought and explored all sorts of options as to what could have been wrong with my application, but the line of thought that kept coming back and making the most sense and that was brought up by my friends was “your supervisor threw you under the bus”. So I decided to meet with her to discuss my application. Of course she had not reviewed it herself because it would have been a conflict of interest, and so she claimed she could not comment. So we talked about what the most important parts of the application were and specific aspects of my application that could have been weak. We started with my letter of interest, and she described some of the content she expected to be in a good one and I thought I addressed all of that and also avoided content she thought was inappropriate (i.e. grandparents needing an S-LP). Then she asked me if my clinical (volunteer) reference was strong and I said yes and she asked if I was sure and if I had read it. I said that no I didn’t have to (you see, the lovely people I volunteered for sent such supportive emails of shock and dismay and they had never given me a reason to doubt they would write a nice letter). So then I asked about grades and she said that they look for someone with either consistently strong grades or that maybe had lower grades in first year and got better after that. She also threw in that they look at the school that someone went to, so if they went to a top-tier school and had good grades then they were basically in the accept pile. I was livid at hearing this, having gone to a smaller university I felt she was basically re-telling me in different words that I wasn’t good enough. That I didn’t work just as hard as those people to get my grades. I was always told to not let anyone tell me that I wasn’t good enough because I went to a small university, and I never thought anyone would but there I was, hearing it. I don’t know for sure whether she wrote a bad reference letter for me or told her colleagues to not let me in or if I just wasn’t up to snuff with their standards simply because I didn’t go to what they called a top-tier university. I’m trying to move on, but its really hard to get past this – what if this one lady has not only depleted my self confidence in the academic world but also ruined my chances of getting my dream job.
So now here I am, waiting to see if I got into the other program (please call me please), applying to research jobs just incase, and looking into taking extra courses so that I can apply to other schools next year that have different pre-requisites if I don’t get a call. I feel terrible and empty inside and like I let everyone down. Rejection is a hard thing to deal with, especially when you try your absolute best. I hope that if someone reads this and is going to grad school that they are very careful about who they choose as a supervisor. It is not a good feeling to have someone be so unsupportive and tell you that you are not good enough. No matter how many people that you respect tell you that you are, it gets harder to believe them after someone tells you that you are not. At this point I am just trying to finish this degree in one piece so that I can be done with and part from everything bad that has happened to me over the past two years that now seems for nothing. Maybe my supervisor is right and that I just don’t fit in here, and the way things have worked out for me in this city I am okay with that. It is a difficult time for me right now but I am trying to stay positive, and think of the good things that come out of this for me. These include: I have no reason to stay in this city and live at home to save money, my boyfriend and I can move somewhere with a better job market, I would have probably been miserable in the S-LP program here with my supervisor as a teacher, I get to start somewhere new and fresh where I do not feel like a shadow of myself.
“It’s alright to be an other” – The Zolas (Fell in love with New York)