Towards Resilience: Hard-won wisdom during my PhD journey

Submitted by Tony I Garcia on

By Meghana Velegar

It has been a little over two months, and I still can’t believe that my long and arduous journey towards my degree has finally culminated. Sitting in the departmental ceremony in one of the designated PhD graduate chairs felt so surreal, and yet so absolutely real. To say that my journey in Applied Math was eventful would be an understatement. I have navigated severe mental health challenges, personal loss and grief, a high risk pregnancy, new motherhood, postpartum mental health issues in addition to my ongoing mental health issues, caring for a child with special needs, along with the usual challenges of productive research. But each challenge presented me with an opportunity for growth, so along the way life taught me invaluable lessons. 

My journey started auspiciously on a high note. Coming from an engineering background, I started as a non-matriculate student, eventually being accepted into the graduate non-matriculate program, the Masters program, and finally I achieved my dream of being accepted into the PhD program. I thoroughly enjoyed the courses in spite of the hard work and the extra mileage I had to put in to make up the gap in my math background, and knew I was in absolutely the best academic environment with amazing faculty and a very supportive and intellectually engaging community. However, I had no work-life balance, and I ignored my worsening mental health due to fear of being left behind since I had to contend with a huge imposter syndrome. I had a major anxiety attack right at the beginning of my PhD program. From having it all together and feeling that I have made it, I went to a complete mess overnight. I learned that it is critical to stop and listen to yourself, and take care of yourself first and foremost, no matter how high the stakes. 

It took me a few quarters, but I got back on my feet after getting some help. AMATH coursework and qualifying exam preparation builds a solid foundation for the next step – finding an advisor and working on research in a multitude of applications. Even though my mental health issues were under control for now, I had a hard time finding a way to forge ahead. I would start work on a project with an advisor, but lose interest very quickly and really struggle to make progress. I was really hard on myself during this time, I could not understand why it was so difficult for me to stay engaged and produce meaningful results despite having the required skills and being competent enough to do it. I only recently found the answer when I was diagnosed with ADHD a few months ago. I now understand that I am neurodivergent and that is why I struggle with simple tasks and feel overwhelmed easily, but I did not have this understanding or coping strategies when I needed it the most. 

The department rallied around me and provided me a lot of support, but I was still floundering. I saw the professors whose opinions I valued highly start to lose faith in me, as surely as I was losing faith in myself. This is when I learned that you have to have faith in yourself especially when it is really hard to do so, and have a clear understanding of what you are really capable of and hold on to it. Advocate for yourself, even when the most valued and trusted opinions turn against you; trust yourself. I also learned the hardest lesson yet for me – self-compassion. It proved to be my biggest strength, and cultivated in me the resilience to give my PhD one last shot.

I am immensely grateful to Dr. Mark Kot, who was the Graduate Program Advisor at this time. He encouraged me to approach Nathan, one of my most coveted advisors. I am truly blessed that Nathan gave me a fair shake and took me on as his graduate student, advised and mentored me, had an unshakable faith in me and advocated for me always. Nathan has been applauded by his students for his mentorship (both academically and on the personal work-life balance front), enthusiasm, wisdom, the relationships he cultivates with them, his vast knowledge of the field and his work ethics to name a few. Along with all of these, I am also indebted to Nathan for the grace he had with me as I coped with learning to parent a special needs child. I am also very thankful that he gave me the opportunity to work and play with such an interesting atmospheric chemistry dataset. This data presented me with several research avenues to explore and exciting data-driven analysis methods to learn and apply. I was finally producing meaningful and impactful results, and finally seeing the research capabilities I knew I had start to manifest. My hopes and faith in myself finally started paying off, and my PhD came to fruition. I learned now that I can thrive despite my unique challenges. Yes, some challenges are much harder for me to overcome because of my neurodiversity, but I can learn strategies to cope better.

In the end, I know I could not have done this on my own. My network of support: my family, my advisor Nathan, my therapist, my healthcare providers, the wonderful faculty and staff at Applied Math, were invaluable in my journey. With work-life balance, self-care, infallible hope and faith, self-compassion and a network of support, I was finally a better adjusted thriving adult. One of my son’s favorite songs, Beautiful Day, comes to mind when I look back on my experiences: “Thank you for sunshine, thank you for rain. Thank you for joy, thank you for pain.”

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