I have a confession to make.

I’m not actually 23.

Shocking as it may be to imagine given my extremely legit twitter bio and past assertions to the contrary, I am, what the Gen-Zs call, “old af”. The fact that I’m currently only in my second year of my PhD should be some indication of the stumbling blocks between the bright-eyed and curious 5-year-old gazing up at the stars and the Master of Earth Science™ here before you today.

This is the story of those failures, the grace I’ve been offered in spite of them, and how they led to the person I am today.

My struggle with academia and the education system began surprisingly early. Although I initially breezed through elementary school[1]and was even identified as “Gifted”, though thankfully I’m not quite enough of a square to actually lean on that as an adult, by Grade 6 I was already encountering the first of my many difficulties in public school. It was an English assignment, dead-simple on the face of it: write a journal entry in the voice of a character from a book we were reading in class. But for some reason, when I sat down at the kitchen table and opened my notebook to begin writing, absolutely nothing came out. I stared at that blank page for what felt like hours, and even in reality was probably still longer than would seem reasonable for any other 11-year-old. My mom eventually came home from work to help me and give me little nudges, trying to ask me questions, but for some reason I just couldn’t get anything out. I went to school the next day, my notebook still shamefully blank, and my face fell as I received the bright red 0 on the assignment. It would be just the beginning of a long line of colourful, painful grades.

There was a common refrain that ended up being established beyond this point: I’d be a star student and a favourite of my teachers for the first few months of any new school year, until eventually an assignment came along that I struggled to complete (or even start), would blow past the due date, and then, if I was lucky, would manage to submit extremely late; often, I’d end up just not submitting anything at all. This came to a head in my final couple years of high school, where my inability to complete assignments would have seriously impeded any possibility for me to even apply for any universities. I was put in a special ed room to try and give me some time and space to complete assignments, but usually they would still only be handed in months after their due date.

In fact, the good graces of a few of my teachers were the only thing that stood between me and failing completely out of school. I vividly remember the last assignment I had to complete for my World Issues class, which I (of course) missed the deadline on, and it was now the end of the school year. After a tearful discussion with my teacher, she graciously offered to come in on a day after the summer break had started for me to give my final presentation, and I ended up getting a decent grade in that class. If it weren’t for these acts of kindness and the teachers who believed in my potential despite my inability to live up to ordinary academic standards, I may not have even gotten my GED.

Of course, in the midst of that final crushing year, I had to submit my applications to university, even though I was doubtful at the time of the likelihood I’d be going anywhere beyond high school at all. My mom only had enough money for the three basic applications that most students submit in Ontario, and so squinting and summoning up my courage I applied to McMaster, Queens, and the University of Toronto.

McMaster I was sure from the start would be a write-off. I had a neighbour who’d gone through their Integrated Science program, and it seemed like the perfect combination of features for my style of learning: small classes, a diverse array of interesting subjects of study, and courses that focused on interdisciplinary learning and application through complex projects. However, this came with a catch: they only accepted 60 students per year. So, that was clearly out.

I kind of sabotaged myself in my application to Queens, as after submitting the initial application they required you to send in an additional personal essay detailing yourself and your interests in studying at the school. Essays, as we’ve now well established, were my Achilles heel, and I couldn’t bring myself to write one before the deadline passed. (As I would soon learn, university professors have much less time to deal with their large undergrad classes, and they would not be wasting it giving individualized extensions for every promising-but-not-quite-good-enough student.)

So that left UofT. I waited, and waited, and waited, as I watched the acceptances start rolling in for my fellow classmates and I continued to fumble many of the courses I was still finishing. Finally, in late May, pretty much the latest time possible for an acceptance, I got the large envelope with the fancy, crisp-printed letterhead: I was going to university.

This was only the beginning, however, of yet another 6-year Sisyphean ordeal that would very nearly end my time in academia. I failed out of more than half a dozen of my undergraduate courses, and had late withdrawals from half a dozen more. In fairness to myself, this was when I was in my initial stages of coming out and transitioning, and also when I went through some of the worst experiences of my life. But still, on some level I felt like this was my fault, my (lack of) responsibility, that had gotten me to this point, even though I was agonizing over coursework and studying through increasingly diminished periods of sleep, or even no sleep at all. I scraped through my final few courses over the last two years while working minimum wage jobs, until I finally limped across the finish line in 2017.

It’s actually only through a significant contortion of the rules that I’m even here, doing my PhD, right now. When I went to apply to a Masters program at UofT, my GPA was actually below the minimum cutoff they normally allowed as a baseline for domestic applicants. In order to even submit an application, I had to get two letters of recommendation written on my behalf from my undergrad supervisor and my Accessibility Services counsellor. Through some miracle of leniency[2]The real reason seems to actually be that they had more spots available for domestic applicants than they had applications, so they could accept a little trash without bumping somebody else… 🙃, I managed to be accepted, and the few courses I completed in my Masters thankfully were able to somewhat reset my GPA by the time I was applying to come to Western.

It may seem odd, but despite all of what you read before this, one thing remained true: I was absolutely obsessed with learning, and it occupied essentially all my time. I loved every course I took, and voraciously devoured the textbook material and then took to the internet to seek out more, and make connections beyond what we were directly introduced to. I relished every opportunity I had to conduct research, and although none of it got published in the end, I felt fairly proud of my abilities to absorb, synthesize, and then creatively spin out into new ideas a vast amount of planetary science literature. At our weekly lab meetings, I was often the first to suggest potential solutions or make connections to other things I’d read when the grad students were giving an overview of their research progress, and I ate new programming languages and the necessary mathematical background of numerical modelling for breakfast.

So what went wrong? Well, I’m sure someone trained in psychology or some other relevant field would be able to break down the complex web of intersecting causes more thoroughly, but at least one major revelation snapped into focus in the summer of 2017: I was diagnosed with ADHD. Unfortunately, despite the visible difficulties throughout my childhood[3]up to and including getting a psychological assessment when I was 18!!!, no one had made that connection until well after it had nearly (or actually) cost me dearly in academic opportunity.[4]There are probably many reasons for this, but one that stands out in hindsight is that I did not display the typical symptoms associated with ADHD in boys: I wasn’t disruptive in class, I didn’t have trouble sitting still (although I did and still do to this day have an unstoppable compulsion to tap out rhythms while I work), and I seemed, for the most part, capable of engaging with a wide array of complex subjects and grasping them with ease. Of course, it would turn out later that I wasn’t a boy, and when reframed through that light many of the symptoms I did display (getting lost in thought, hyperfocus, and decision paralysis/”the fear of starting”) were extremely typical and diagnostic. But, such is life. After 2017, my life didn’t completely turn the corner into normalcy, but it finally started a slow, agonizing crawl out of the pit it had been in since before I was a teen.

This has only been a short sample of my journey to even get to academia—this isn’t even counting the many, many failures in research and award applications once I was there! To give a flavour of some of these:

  • Rejected from my first NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award
  • Missed my Masters defence date twice
  • Had my ESA Young Graduate Trainee program application rejected two years in a row
  • Failed my first NSERC CGS-D application (and may be on track to fail my second! :D)
  • Didn’t publish on my first undergraduate summer research project, final-year undergrad thesis, or my Masters thesis research; the first two obtained inconclusive results, and the second is… still ongoing

And that was just the stuff I did apply to. There were many, many other scholarships, grants, etc., that my abysmal transcript made me think I shouldn’t even attempt. But despite this, I kept trying to pick myself up, put myself back together, and continue to try—to the point where I’ve finally finished my first draft of my 1st first-author paper![5] Many, many months after I said I would have it… Of course, none of this would have been possible without the many, many second chances and benefits of the doubt that my teachers, mentors, and supervisors have given me over the years. To them, I can only express my undying gratitude.

Keep striving towards your dreams, and reach out for help wherever you can along the way; you may be surprised who responds. ❤️

-xoxo gossip grad