A Poem to My Future Lover

Let’s just get this out there:
I’m no good
at being one half of a whole

I will either be consumed by you
or I will not give you any part of me at all

(and neither has worked out for me so far)

I am fairly certain there’s an organ
in the vicinity of my chest
pumping blood through an aorta or something

It beats,
but it’s all Morse code to me
I have never understood what it’s trying to say

So I am sorry in advance
if falling in love with me

just feels like falling

Don’t say I didn’t warn you

On being good enough

Candidacy. This word has given me butterflies in my stomach since I started grad school.

Like most PhD programs, the Penn State materials science and engineering program requires students to take a candidacy exam at the end of their first year. This exam consists of a written paper and oral presentation that is meant to test your ability to problem solve and think creatively. Personally, I don’t think that writing a proposal on a subject outside your own area of research and defending it in front of a committee of professors who can ask you any materials science question they please as you flounder in front of an empty whiteboard (can you tell that I’m bitter?) is the best way to decide whether or not someone is “fit” to stay in the graduate program, but alas, that’s how it works. You fail twice, you’re out.


Last month, I had the pleasure of experiencing this fine tradition of emotional torture. All the older grad students who I talked to told me that candidacy was going to be the most miserable few weeks of my life—but they were wrong. For four weeks, I could think about nothing but perovskite solar cells. I spent my days reading papers about the moisture degradation of perovskites and spent my nights waking up to dreams about crystal chemistry. But it wasn’t these long hours poring over research papers that was miserable. It wasn’t the sleep deprivation or the paper writing or the practice talks that got me down.

No, the worst part of candidacy is not candidacy itself but waiting for the results after you’re all done.
I don’t think I’ve ever doubted my own intelligence as much as I did after candidacy. For the four weeks leading up to the oral presentation, I went home every day feeling tired, but determined. After my presentation, on the other hand, I went home and promptly melted into a puddle of blubbering and tears and heartbreak. The questions that my committee had asked me during the exam kept circling round and round in my head. I kept playing everything back, cringing at the stupid responses I gave. Why couldn’t I describe the synthesis of my proposed organic cation? Why couldn’t I think of better ways to purify a compound? Why couldn’t I give a better explanation of the Flory-Huggins interaction parameter? There was a moment during my exam when I was in the middle of giving an answer that I thought was reasonable, only to be interrupted by:

“Well, I thought that—”
“Wrong! Come on, you’re making physicists look bad!”

I remember freezing for a second when the professor said this—not because it was a rude comment, but because I was afraid that he was right. For the next few days as I waited for candidacy results, this line kept echoing in my head. You’re making physicists look bad! I honestly felt ashamed of myself.


As it turns out, I passed candidacy, but I still can’t help feeling that in some ways…I failed. I let candidacy get the best of me. I let a one hour and forty-five minute oral exam convince me that any academic success I’ve had in the last few years must have happened by luck. I let a professor’s small comment make me question whether I deserved my physics degree. I let candidacy make me feel like…I just wasn’t good enough.

One of these days, I hope I can look back on this experience and chuckle about how sensitive I was being, how easily I lost my confidence. I hope I’ll have become a tougher person. In the last few years, I think I’ve gotten better at the getting back up part, but my next goal is to work on not getting knocked down in the first place.

Watch out, world.

You’ve got a fighter in your midst.