Friday, May 5, 2023

Season 2, Episode 9:

Transforming Failure To Joy-The Story of My PhD Journey and How I Got Over

In today’s episode, I’m sharing the story of transforming failure to joy on my PhD journey and how I got over to the other side.

Season 2, Episode 9: Transforming Failure to Joy-The Story of My PhD Journey and How I Got Over

by Dr. Joyee Washington


Welcome to the Public Health Joy podcast, the safe space for real and honest conversation about what building a public health research career is really like: the challenges, the triumphs, and all the lessons we learn along the way.

 I’m your host, Dr. Joyee, a Public health researcher, PhD survivor, and entrepreneur. In today’s episode, I’m sharing the story of transforming failure to joy on my PhD journey and how I got over to the other side.

 This is where research meets relationship and together, we will find our Public Health Joy! 



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0:00 Introduction

2:00 My first attempt at a PhD

11:00 My greatest failure

14:00 My next move

18:00 My second attempt at a PhD

20:00 My lupus diagnosis

23:00 My dissertation and COVID-19

25:00 Finding my greatest joy

27:00 Failure is not final

28:00 How I Got Over


0:50 Today’s chat is a special one because it has been 1 year since I graduated with my PhD. Now, many times people see the outcome right they see that you defended the dissertation, you got the degree, but what people don’t often realize is how much work, pain, and sometimes even trauma it took to get to the finish line. So today, I want to share with you the story of my PhD journey. And we’re going to get deep. I’m going to tell you the good, the bad, and some of the downright ugly truth behind how I got my PhD. And now, anybody who knows me knows that I do not like being emotional, but this is one of the times where reflecting on my PhD journey causes me to be a little bit misty eyed, I’m not gonna lie. The reason is I spent over 10 years in grad school but what a lot of people don’t know is that the PhD I received last year was actually my second attempt at a PhD.

2:00 My first attempt at a PhD I would have considered one of my greatest failures. See when I was an undergrad, I was on the track to go to medical school, but I had the opportunity to experience research and I fell in love with it and, so I decided, well you know what, maybe research is a better fit for me. I love being analytical, I love the detail, I love the process of exploring and discovering new knowledge, I think this could be my path. So as a rising senior, trying to figure out the next step of my life, I decided that medical school was not it, and grad school was going to be the thing that would take me to the next level. But what I didn’t know was that the transition from undergrad to grad school was a whole different beast.

In May 2011, I was graduating from my undergrad, excited for the next chapter in my life because I was getting ready to start my Physiology PhD program that summer. And in preparation, I had been informed by the coordinator of my program, the books and materials that I would need. So I got my textbook. They told me to read the first few chapters and thinking about it from my undergraduate perspective, I assume that of course I’ll read the chapters, I know they don’t expect me to understand what I read so I’m just gonna do my best and read these chapters and I know they’ll tell me what I need to know, so I’m ready. Yeah I was wrong, totally wrong. I walked in to the office of one of our faculty members, an older white male, the first day of my PhD program. I’m smiling I have my textbook the faculty member asked did you read the chapters? I say yes of course I did, and that faculty member started grilling me on everything in those chapters and I did not have an answer, I didn’t understand the material. I didn’t even know that I was supposed to understand the material. And as I started processing what was happening in that moment that there was a different level of expectation for me, I’ve started to feel the tears welled up and I am sitting there trying to hold it back because I’m saying I cannot, I cannot start crying in this person’s office it is going to make me look weak. It is going to make me look unprofessional. They are going to think all sorts of negative things about me, I don’t measure up, and the pressure was so overwhelming that I couldn’t hold it back and I remember sitting in the chair in that moment across from this white man and the look he gave me felt like “I don’t know why you are here if you can’t even do this” and I burst into tears.

And even now, just thinking about that moment, it brings tears to my eyes, because I’m thinking about the young black woman who was sitting in that office, not knowing what to expect, and the person on the other side of that desk, not showing any compassion, not showing any attempt to understand, but just assuming that I was in the position to move forward with his graduate program and that I knew everything that I needed to know, and how privileged is that mindset and that approach, especially when you are in a situation when you are in a department or in a school in an academic institution that is filled with predominantly white Males and being a young black woman in that position, I have never felt more inferior in my life than in that moment.

That moment set a course for the rest of what I experienced in that PhD program. I knew that day that I had stepped into a world where I did not belong, and I did not know how I was going to make it through. Every day of that program I was suffering in silence, I was drowning, and although there were people around me, they couldn’t see just how just how far I was sinking.

During my first year in that program, I remember going to class nearly every day, going to the lab nearly every day, always having my head in the books, always trying to meet the expectation that was set for me and falling short, and yet no one acknowledged the barriers that were set before me. I was expected to meet the same requirements, and to cross the same finish line at the same pace as everyone else, and yet no one took into consideration, my mental health and the systemic barriers that were preventing me from making it from one milestone to the next.

Throughout this program, I was spending every waking moment, studying, trying to absorb the information and try to understand the information and it never got any easier. It only got harder. And while there were several professors and faculty members, who offered to help me who sat with me, who who desperately wanted to see me win, they could not empathize with me, or understand what I was going through as a black woman surrounded by white faces, privilege, and power. Now, looking back at that moment, or those moments, I realize that privilege and power were insurmountable at that point in my life. I was at a significant disadvantage, and there was no one who could see that or pointed out or create equitable resources in order to help me navigate and move through that moment. Not only that, but I was also going through some personal challenges at home. In addition to the overwhelming academic pressure, I had suffered that the deaths of 2 close family members as well as facing self-esteem, confidence, and body image issues.

So I put all the pressure on myself because I thought it was all my fault. I thought that I had gotten myself into this, and there is no way for me to make it out, other than to push through the fire, walk through hell, get burned until my soul turned to a crisp. I was in a constant state of despair that seemed like it had no end.

11:00 By the time I reached the end of that first year, I was struggling to keep my grades up, and I was at risk for being let go from the PhD program. But I had a faculty member who had greatly supported me as best as they could who said that you know we’re going to give you another chance we’re gonna give you another shot and we’re gonna let you retake your final exam. As grateful as I was for the opportunity to retake the exam, I don’t know that I was really all that excited about it but I did what I knew how to do best I opened my books, I studied, I reviewed. I implemented all the techniques that I knew of to understand the material I talked through everything. I got to test day, I was sat in a conference room by myself. I took my time, I read each question and the requirement was I needed to make an A on this test in order to stay in the PhD program. I got to the last question. I reviewed my answers. I completed the test and I felt decent about it. I honestly felt better about this exam than any other exam the whole year, but the lingering uncertainty was unbearable. Probably a few days later I was called into to a faculty member’s office, and they were set to deliver the results of my test and they looked at me and they said I’m so sorry but you didn’t pass the exam so we’re going to have to let you go from the PhD program. And for me, in that moment that was possibly my greatest failure, but an even greater smile came across my face. I felt like I had not smiled in over a year. It was like the clouds opened up, and the sun came shining down, and I had finally found my escape, and that was the moment I felt pure joy in my life.

The faculty member looked at me pretty puzzled like you’re not sad you’re not upset and I remember saying “this is a relief”. I knew this wasn’t my path. This is not where I’m supposed to be. Now although, I didn’t pass the test and they had to let me go from the PhD program I did have enough credits to leave with my masters and they allowed me to stay and finish out whatever remaining courses I needed to obtain my masters of biomedical sciences.

14:00 Since I knew that I was not going to be in this place anymore with physiology and biomedical sciences I had to start thinking what’s my next move? Where do I want to be? Where do I want to go next? I knew that I had experienced some things as far as you know, talking to my family members about their bodies and them not understanding what’s happening, and I have the knowledge to be able to educate them on their health and their wellness, so I started searching what a field that I can go into where I can educate people on their health and wellness and that’s where I found public health education, and that’s what led me to the joy that I found in pursuing a career in public health. Now I attended, another university to work towards my master of public health degree and I can remember saying oh this is it, this is where I need to be I discovered a different path to research. I remember, discovering qualitative research for the first time in my public health program, and the research finally felt right, the path finally felt right. And I said you know what this is it, this is my final degree I am good to go. Whoooo that was that was that was a wild ride but I got it. This is cool all right. But I had a public health professor who said you know what Joyee I think you need to go get your PhD. I said no ma’am. Oh I’m not doing that again. OK I have had enough of that. I have been traumatized. I am not that is not in the future in my cards, in my destiny. Whatever you wanna call it it is not for me, been there, done that, ok. And she looked at me and she said Joyee you are brilliant you can do so much and a PhD would put you where you need to be for your career and all the wonderful ways that you can serve your community and I said you know what this lady she don’t know my story she don’t know what she’s talking about, because absolutely not, we’re not doing it we’re not putting ourselves through that again. But the more I thought about it the more I prayed on it, the more I slept on it, the more I meditated on those words of life she was speaking into me, I started thinking well I do love research and if I want to advance in my research career, may be a PhD is the right move but I don’t know I’m real hesitant about it real cautious.

18:00 But I looked at my timeline. I looked at my career goals, and after I graduated with my master public health degree and also realizing that my GRE scores were about to expire and that it was the real deal I said if I don’t go for this PhD now I’m never gonna do it because I’m not taking the GRE again, so I made the decision that I was going to pursue a PhD for a second time, but trust me I had a better idea of what I was getting myself into so I put up all the shields, all the armor, I was protecting myself at all costs and I said I will not allow myself to be put in the same position as I was the last time so I started searching for PhD programs. And I found a PhD program that would allow me the flexibility to pursue the career that I wanted, to learn the information that I wanted, to provide the opportunities that I wanted, and I decided to apply and I got in. I started my PhD program and the difference from my first PhD program was undeniable. I learned that all PhD programs are not created equal. I felt supported I felt, like I was in the right place. I felt like I had the confidence that I could do this even if there were barriers in place. I felt like I had the right environment and the right support system that would allow me to make it to the finish line this time even if there were some failures along the way.

20:00 My second PhD program, the experience wasn’t the same and was actually a much more positive experience. However, there were challenges that I faced that I didn’t know how I was going to make it through again. After the first year my second PhD program I started, noticing that there was a little bump in the middle of my forehead, I didn’t think anything about it. I figured you know what it was probably a mosquito bite or something but that little spot in the middle of my forehead never really went away and then I started noticing other spots on my face, my neck, my back and the spots started growing. They were turning red and seemed to get worse when I would go outside.  About six months after that first spot popped up. I finally went to the doctor. The doctor took one look at me and said well it looks like you might have lupus I said “wait, what?!” he matter of factly said we’ll do a biopsy to check. I remember trying to hold myself together while they cut a little piece of skin off my back and said we will have the results in a couple of days. Walking out of that doctor’s office, I felt the tears ready to burst, sitting in the car after that biopsy I was by myself, and I was bawling because I didn’t know what was coming next, I felt like my body had failed me with something I couldn’t control. I didn’t know what to do next. I didn’t know if this was a life or death situation, and I had finally felt like I was getting the hang of this PhD program and now I have to deal with this. I got the call a few days later and the results came back positive. I had discoid lupus, a chronic autoimmune condition where my body was attacking my largest organ, my skin. Suddenly, I had to learn how to live my life in a much different way than I had planned, but little did I know being diagnosed with lupus actually made me a better researcher.

I’ve learned more about lupus research, how the body is affected, and the different ways lupus can affect people physically, mentally, and emotionally. Living with lupus has taught me the importance of patient-centered research. Being on both sides, as a patient and researcher, I strive to prioritize the needs and experiences of patients and communities to ensure that our work is meaningful and relevant to those lived experiences. I’ve found support in others who have lupus or care for others with lupus. Having people around me who care makes a difference. I have become passionate about advocating for patients and increasing awareness about lupus and other chronic illnesses. Managing my lupus has also taught me about the importance of self-care and taking care of my own. But lupus was only the first of many challenges that continued on this PhD journey.

23:00 Fast forward to the first week of March 2020, I had learned to manage my lupus diagnosis, I felt healthy and happy, I had finally gotten to the point where I was ready to propose for my dissertation. I had written my first three chapters, I loved the direction that I was going. My committee members were all on board, I was set up in a room with the projector. All my committee members had shown up. I had given a wonderful presentation, oral defense of my proposal, committee member said great. You can move forward and then we all know what happened next, Covid-19.

We could have never expected what was going to happen with Covid, and I definitely could not have expected how or anticipated how Covid would have impacted my PhD journey. But the pandemic caused me to spend a year and a half stalled on my dissertation. We were on lockdown, everything was in chaos, I said you know what, the whole world is failing and this whole dissertation feels like a failure too. All of these things are outside of my control. I feel like I’m drowning again and no one can hear me scream because I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this, but the reality was I had come to far to give up. So I decided you know what I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to do this dissertation in the same way that I had planned, but come hell or high water, I’m getting to the other side.

25:00 I know I changed my dissertation plans about four or five times just trying to find something that will work amidst the Chaos but is always seemed like nothing was going to work so I took a little bit of a break and I said you know what let me figure out what my life is going to look like because I don’t when or how this PhD thing is going to happen. So I started thinking you know what would it look like for me to serve in the best way I know how and to just start my own business what would starting my own consulting business look like if I can’t depend on anything else that’s around me what would it look like I mean you can’t be that much of a failure than what I’ve already experienced, so what do I have to lose, so I started researching I started educating myself on how do I start a business? How do I get this thing going and within a couple of months I had a fully operational business that I was ready to start and Grow. If it had not been for Covid and having that time to process and think about my journey, I might not would have my business today and my business is one of my greatest joys in my life right now. I love waking up every morning to work and serve community through public health research, and I made it through the fire. I made it through the failure. Eventually, I was able to create a dissertation plan that worked. In May of 2022, I walked across the stage and was hooded as Dr. Joyee Washington.

27:00 See I grew up in Mississippi, in the south, and if you don’t know anything about the south church is everything to us. I grew up as a Christian, Southern Baptist in the Black church and so I had a pastor growing up who would always say “failure is not final”, and while I didn’t quite understand what that meant then, I totally understand what that means now and a lot of times our greatest failure can lead us to our greatest joy. The failure is not the end. Sometimes the failure is not even our fault, but sometimes that failure can feel so overwhelming that it seems like there’s no possible way to survive it but when we start thinking about how our failures are necessary to lead us to our joy, we can begin to appreciate them in a different light. The failures are a season, not a finality.

28:00 There’s a gospel song by Mahalia Jackson and it’s called how I got over. In the song she sings,

How did I make it over? (Oh yes)
Tell me how I made it over, Lord? (How I got over)
Had to cry the midnight hour (how I got over)
You know my soul look back and wonder
How I made it over? (Oh yes)

And I wanna thank him for how he brought me
And I wanna thank God for how he taught me
Oh, thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause He never left me

As a Black woman, the journey to getting my PhD has been unpredictable to say the least. I’ve felt everything from shame, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, hurt and everything in between all while trying to make this one educational achievement that is supposed to set me up for life. Well guess what I learned, a PhD alone doesn’t set you up for anything. The things I have experienced impacted my physical, mental, social, spiritual, and financial health. In addition to dealing with social and environmental factors that impact me as a Black woman and lupus patient trying to navigate health and wellness, racism, injustice, disparities, inequities and just trying to survive is exhausting. So many days, I wanted to give up, but something in me knew I couldn’t. I often thought about my ancestors. How much they sacrificed for me to have this moment. I knew, no matter what, that if I gave up on me that would be giving up on them, and my spirit wouldn’t allow me to do that.

I cried a lot of tears on my PhD Journey. Now looking back, I wonder sometimes how I made it over. My faith carried me through those failures. My loved ones carried me through those failures. My resilience carried me through those failures. My failures taught me lessons that I will never forget.

If you’re still listening, I want you to know this: No matter what your faith or spirituality is, you are welcome in this space, all are welcome in this space. I’m just sharing my story, my testimony, and my song. But if you don’t get anything else from this chat, remember this, don’t give up on yourself because just when you think it’s all over, your greatest failure can be transformed to your greatest joy.


I’m so grateful for this time we got to spend together. If you enjoyed this episode, I need you to subscribe, rate and, leave a review. For more information on transforming public health research into positive community impact, visit! This is where research meets relationship and I’ll see you next time on the public health joy podcast.



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