Whales of quals
Prioritizing my mental health over qualifying exams
This is my story of how I prioritized my mental health over qualifying exams. When I was studying for quals1, my phone kept autocorrecting quals to whales. I thought it was funny and poetic, because the stress of quals felt like a whale on me.
Before reading this, I want to mention that what you are about to read is MY experience. Your graduate school experience will most likely be different from mine, but if you have any concerns about your mental health, reach out to MIT resources (I put a list below) and ask for help. No matter what you are going through, your story is valid and you should make it a priority to feel better. But before further ado, I want to share my story and the story of how I got help.
I was not okay a month before quals. Quals are a stressful moment in your graduate career around your 5th semester, when your imposter syndrome gets to show its true colors. Quals stands for qualifying exams, and it has a different format for each major. However, the goal of quals in all departments is the same – to test if you can think on your feet and back up your scientific decisions with science. You need to be confident in your answers, which is hard when you are convinced you were admitted to MIT by mistake already. So in the days leading up to the exam, I was not okay. I felt like I was behind on studying, that I would fail, and all other lies you tell yourself when you are anxious. But I was expecting not to be okay and feel overwhelmed and nervous, because a lot of people had experienced the same thing and had warned me that this was a ‘normal’ part of the quals experience.
A year before quals I was diagnosed with OCD, which in my case presents itself more as obsessive thoughts than compulsive behavior. Riding on the high of finally knowing why my brain works the way it does, I decided to start with just therapy without medication as treatment and it was going well. I started studying for quals and I didn’t even think I was that stressed. However, the closer quals were, the higher the stress was, which I knew was to be expected. So I did what I thought was rational at the time and did some mental math. “Assuming stress levels increase linearly every day and the amount of time I have to address my stress is shorter because of studying, then I just need to survive until the day after quals and then I will have time to take care of my mental health, and I think I have enough stress capacity left.” Great.
Then an event scared me. I spent that entire day laying on the couch and “wasting” my precious study time on worrying about something I could not control, on a thought that would not leave my head no matter what I tried. “It’s just one day today, tomorrow it will be better.” But it got worse. I tried my best to distract my brain from the thought, but it was all I could think about. I couldn’t concentrate on studying, working with study groups, or even watching shows. I stayed for hours on my couch talking to people to confirm that my thought was not correct. A week into this trance state of not being able to stop thinking about the same thing over and over again and losing hope, my partner asked me to reach out to my psychiatrist. “I’m really not doing well” was a part of my message. At this point I didn’t care about quals. I didn’t care about anything.
We met 12 days before quals and it became clear that there was a need for intervention. However, I was terrified of medication. I knew some of my family members would not support my decision. I didn’t want to disappoint the people I grew up around who told me that antidepressants are a solution for the “weak” (IT IS SO NOT!). I was also worried about changing anything right before one of the most important tests in my academic career. I heard the thought, “Only two more weeks and I’ll have time to take care of it”, but I decided to start medication. When I was holding the medication in my hand on my way home from the pharmacy, I felt powerful.
I can’t pinpoint what made me change my mind about medication, but I suddenly didn’t see medication as a solution for the “weak”. Rather, I saw the choice of taking medication as a step toward personal growth; I was making a decision to improve my life now and not wait until later to address the issue. Twelve days before my quals my mental health became my priority rather than passing the quals. Even though I might not have had support from loved ones, I asked for help and got help from people who understood what was happening to me. I was the one who decided what was best for me.
In the end, I passed the quals. I wish I could say that my obsessive thoughts disappeared the moment I found out that I had passed. Honestly, I barely remember the day of quals. I remember being very nervous during the first oral exam and crying for a couple of minutes after. I remember feeling less nervous during the second one and even better during the third one. Perhaps, that was a result of knowing I did and learned everything I could and it was out of my hands. It was not easy, but the relief led to the volume of my obsessive thoughts being turned down. I felt calmer and more in control. Did the medication help with quals? In one sense – yes, I still had to study for months, but on that day I was able to concentrate on quals, not on my worry about them.
The past year was a really tough one for anyone’s mental health, and I can’t predict how the next year will go. So if you are struggling in any way, do not put off your health until you finish something (even something as big as quals). Consider starting now. It’s a long process, so don’t let it get worse. My advice is to reach out to medical professionals. They see folks like us every day, and they know what might work for a graduate student at MIT. Just know that there are many resources on campus and so many people who want to help you succeed.
1quals is short for qualifying exams, a necessary evil of becoming an official PhD candidate
MIT resources I highly recommend
MIT REFS: http://merefs.mit.edu/
Office of Graduate Education: https://oge.mit.edu/development/gradsupport/
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