The book I wish I had when my self-esteem was in the toilet

by | Sep 21, 2022 | Author | 0 comments

When I was at my lowest point in graduate school, swimming in a sea of self-doubt and feeling totally adrift, I desperately needed to know that I wasn’t alone. Writing my dissertation on medieval religious history out of my apartment in Washington, D.C. was such a solitary process, and as I watched other classmates appear to immerse themselves in the writing process and move through revisions with ease, I wondered what was so wrong with me that I was stuck in place. These thoughts played out on a horrible loop that kept me up at all hours of the night:

Are you ever going to finish?

What will you do if you drop out?

Are you going to be able to get a job?

You’re not getting anything done that’s worth showing to your professors.

What if the department recommends you leave the program?

You’re going to fail.

The department is going to find some way to quietly encourage you to leave.

You’ll need to explain to everyone that the Ph.D. didn’t work out.

Through therapy, medication to treat my newly-diagnosed clinical anxiety, a regular running routine, and a supportive network of family and friends, I got through this rough patch on two feet. I successfully earned my Ph.D. in medieval history in 2017, and more importantly, I learned effective strategies for how to work through my feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome. 

After I defended my dissertation, my professors, many of whom I had worked with for years, were surprised to learn that my self-esteem had been so low during graduate school, to the extent that I considered walking away at multiple points throughout the program. “Vanessa, we would’ve told you that we believed in you if you had ever said this!” But I had kept it all to myself.

I never wanted others to feel like that, so I recalled all of this in my memoir, “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and Ph.D.” I took up running as a coping mechanism when I first started my masters program and it became an important complement to my education. I soon got into running marathons, and even qualified and ran in the Boston Marathon on two occasions. Running allowed me to find a physical release for all of the stressors associated with grad school.  It also served as a confidence booster. Even when I was feeling discouraged, I could slip on my running shoes and blow off steam, putting aside my schoolwork for an hour as I breathed in the fresh air. I relied on running to provide a physical and emotional release from the tumultuous aspects of my studies.

I wanted to write a book that I wish had existed when I started graduate school and was feeling out of my depth. Beyond people either starting an academic program or taking up running, this book is for anyone setting out to begin a difficult journey. I write extensively about the bumps I tripped over (both literally and figuratively) along the way, and I hope those stories will offer a sense of solidarity and relief for those in the middle of a difficult endeavor.

The book came out in March and I’ve been thrilled to hear from a lot of graduate students that it resonated with them and has helped them navigate through some of the challenging parts of school. It’s also been popular among runners, who have enjoyed hearing what it was like to qualify for and run in the Boston Marathon – the most competitive amateur race in the world. I’m an avid reader myself, so to know that this book is giving people a lot of enjoyment means a lot. 

In addition to the topics in the book, I have also gotten into writing about parenting, as my daughter Lucy was born in May 2020 during the first and terrifying wave of the pandemic. My next book will be a collection of essays, framed as pieces of advice I’d like to pass onto Lucy.

Beyond writing, I also really enjoy teaching medieval history at Georgetown University. I’m currently getting ready to teach a class on the history of pilgrimage, and look forward to studying some of the holiest cities in the world, including Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca. Given that the pandemic brought traveling to a standstill, preparing for this class has definitely heightened my interest to explore some of these fascinating places, even just as an “armchair pilgrim” reading about them in my office!


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