I arrived in Akron in the August of 2012. I arrived with a Masters Degree I had no use for, a broken heart, a recently dead grandparent, and no social connections whatsoever. But I was starting my PhD in Integrated Bioscience, and I was going to be working in a lab with my system of choice.
It was a disaster.
My advisor did not get me. He liked to leave students with more than enough rope to hang themselves with, and utterly lacked the empathy to appreciate why we might end up hanged if he left us alone for months at a time. The type of work I wanted to do and the type of work he wanted to do, and wanted me to do, were at loggerheads. I wanted to examine and understand the evolutionary transitions that lead to the origins of spider silk glands and novel silk gland types, and his focus, especially by the time of my arrival in the lab, was primarily on the biomechanics of the silks themselves in an evolutionary context. He would push research ideas I wanted nothing to do with, and would do nothing to support of validate the types of research I wanted to try. I wasn't being given support in the things I wanted to do, nor prompts on how to even go about the things I needed to do. I didn't have a committee, I didn't have a project, and I didn't have much going for me.
This was the first four years of my PhD.
The first year is usually pretty light, you're busy with the mandatory courseload the program starts with to get you introduced into things, and typically by the end of the first year the only real tasks at hand are to build a committee. I did not have a committee at the end of my first year. The second year usually is the beginnings of you really developing your research project, and preparing for your comprehensive exams and proposal defense. I did not have a committee, a developed research project, or comps scheduled by the end of my second year. The third, fourth, and fifth years are then just you digging deep into your research, getting lots of work done on it, and eventually spending much of your fifth year writing up your dissertation. I got to the end of my fourth year with nothing to show but fruitless preliminary work on a number of failed project ideas, no committee, no comps, and no feedback. Things were going poorly. My advisor didn't seem to care very much when I communicated how my anxiety problems made certain things difficulty, if not impossible, and how I needed help if there was an expectation for me to succeed. Pressure was mounting with the department chair and my advisor for me to make progress. To top it all off, I hastily managed to finally assemble a committee, which I didn't particularly care for, and had scheduled my comps less than a month away (and by the week beforehand, had only received materials from one of my committee).
And then, for the first time since my arrival, someone was appointed the director of the Integrated Biosciences program. Within a week she had begun scheduling meetings with students, starting with those furthest along, to see how things were going from case to case. Within five minutes of entering her office, I was sobbing, and soon the cogs began to turn. By the end of that meeting, I had conveyed the sorts of things I really wanted to do that hadn't gotten any traction, and the idea of me changing labs had been put forward by the director; by the end of the next day (which coincidentally was National Coming Out Day), I had made the decision to get out of that lab. The program director had already begun to tap into the existing channels to see what my options were, and some of the members of my committee (the ones I liked!) were all being contacted about their future roles in my dissertation. By that Friday I had written up a formal exit letter, which was then delivered by the Director to my former boss. I was FREE!
The Integrated Bioscience program's core tenet was that research performed in the program was multidisciplinary (and we could have a lengthy discussion about the differences between multi-, trans-, and interdisciplinarism). I was a biologist through and through, a zoologist really, with a background in cell phys and biochemistry, and a masters in biotech I had no intention of using, and the research I'd been trying to get off the ground had been straight up evolutionary biology. I had come to Akron to study my system of choice; the nature of the program wasn't even a factor, although I suppose it should have been. So during all this, these pushes and pulls, conflicts with my advisor, growing issues with anxiety and depression, motivation and self-confidence, I was constantly fighting against this seemingly arbitrary demand that a portion of my dissertation fall outside of the bounds of the biology department, when I had finally put together a skeleton committee, my outside-the-department member was in Mechanical Engineering, to provide some additional resources on understanding mechanics of nonwoven textiles (YAWN). It was tooth and nail.
But that changed when I changed labs, it was touch and go for a while as I courted my new committee members and advisor(s), I needed to show what I was about, and the director showed lots of support as I worked to present what I wanted to do, and the passion behind it. It took several months, but eventually I had locked in my new advisor, and it only took a little longer before I started recruiting committee members proper. My new advisor was a member of my previous committee, and one other member, from at the local Natural History Museum, stayed on as well. The director was my third, something I was and am thrilled about, as they've constantly been a great source of motivation and push. I started looking around, and soon I got in touch with an informal ed person in the curriculum and instruction department in the college of education who was a perfect fit. Finally I threw on a final fifth member from within the department who always showed enthusiasm and energy, who would help round off my team. It took nearly six months, but I had done it, I had built a new comittee in a reasonable amount of time, and things were moving along.
My projects were starting to resolve into focus, my committee members all had varying overlapping expertises, and for the first time in a WHILE I was being supported, and feeling like I could actually do the things I wanted. And here's the funny bit: I was INTEGRATED AS FUCK. Education, psychology, environmental education (which is a whole different thing), and even bits and pieces of the evolutionary biology I'd finally left behind were all coalescing into the components of my new research, examining understanding of biological science using social science tools. My connections suddenly touched into numerous disciplines, departments, fields. I've spent hours and hours reading about diachronic thinking in children, number perception, opposition to evolution from the religious right. I've become integrated almost seamlessly.
Suddenly, the thing that I had been dreading, and fighting, and resisting, was just happening. Suddenly everything was just working. Academia can be toxic. It is more often than it is not. It shouldn't be. It should be supportive, warm, caring, compassionate, understanding. It took me four years to get to a place where everything suddenly seemed how it always was supposed to be. It's hard work, and it's always going to be. Academia is supposed to be hard, but it's also supposed to be healthy. I'm in a position where positive stress is suddenly my major stress instead of negative stress. Things are going my way, and I have discrete persons and events to thank. I have friends, colleagues, and professors who have my back, and I'm making rapid progress in things that before now were merely a pipe dream.
Change isn't easy, but stagnation is worse.