Failure is Possible: My Last Steps to My MA

One of the last things I need to do before I leave my PhD program is my comprehensive exams. Doing this will ensure I can leave with my MA. After completing six semesters, I want to come away with my MA, even if I will not be getting my PhD like I originally planned.


Part of the reason I’m leaving is because the academic life has severely aggravated my anxiety and OCD and a big source of that is these periodic events.

I don’t like putting my self worth as an academic (which generally extends to my self worth as a person) on the line every so often based on how well I do one thing.

Comprehensive exams is like being graded for an essay or project but on a large scale. I have exactly ten days to write six essays of around 15 pages each.

After a week I will face my three person committee in my defense. For several hours, I will verbally defend my essays, why I wrote or didn’t write something.

This is one of my worst nightmares. Defending my years of intellectual development distilled into 90 pages and a few hours of a question and answer session.

Furthermore, not only is writing 90 pages in ten days difficult mentally, but it’s going to be strenuous physically. I have been getting books out of the library for weeks in order to reference, but I have had to do it in stages.

Not only have I requested the books from other libraries, which takes time, but books are also really heavy. I would love to be able to access all books and texts via my computer, but it’s not always possible or particularly practical.

I’ve been reading so much and I’ve been dealing with the rising anxiety at the same time. I’ve had to develop ways to manage this kind of project. I’m so close to being done, which makes me ready to get it over with, but also puts a lot of stress on me to do it well.

I am scared of failing and having to re do it or leaving without my MA or just looking awful in front of my professors and fellow graduate students. I also don’t want to fail for my partner.

Sometimes I question why I want to even go this far, instead of just leaving. It would have been so much easier and a lot less stressful.

But it would have felt cowardly, even if I would never have judged anyone else for leaving at that point. So I don’t know why I am judging myself!

However, now that I’m in it and am so close, what I have to remind myself is that if I don’t do well—need revisions or even fail—I will not be a failure. I will just have failed.

Failure is possible.

And that’s terrifying. I hate failing. I feel like it’s a referendum on me. And it’s not. Everyone fails. Failure is a sign of trying and learning.

This is my current mantra. I’m still trying to believe. Maybe if I write it here, I will begin to believe it a little more.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel as terror ridden as I normally would. I’m not having constant panic attacks. I’m not unable to sleep completely. For some people that might not sound like progress, but for me it’s huge.

And that’s what managing an illness looks like. It’s not dramatic or easy. I will never be cured. But episodes of less anxiety compared to what I’ve felt in the past makes me feel like all the work I’m doing is paying off, at least a bit.

But I also know that the decisions I’m making are the right ones. The relief I feel knowing that soon I’ll be leaving this life of constantly being judged and tested tells me that it’s right. Not feeling the kind of crazy panic I often do before academic milestones tells me that.

So no matter what happens next week I keep telling myself that I’m still a smart and hard working person, good partner, and caring friend. Failing at this one test won’t change any of that.


Photo by Eli Francis on Unsplash

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