Grad School Lonely

Tonight, as I am surrounded by my cat and a pile of stats handouts that attempt to explain the homework I’m finding impossible, I feel this unique kind of loneliness set upon me.  I am lonely, and I think it would be adequate to call it grad school lonely.  I am constantly surrounded by people, but yet no one gets it.  Maybe this is why my cohort is so strong.  Maybe that’s why we are all friends and want to spend time with each other.  We make the grad school lonely dissipate, if only for a short time.

Grad school lonely is where you have things you want to say like “I just got assigned to three new political psychology projects with these super amazing professors I’ve wanted to work with for so stinking long” but no one gets it.  I want to talk about this stats homework that is driving me nuts – 3-way factorial designs.  No one gets it.  I call my best friend from back home and my mom nearly every day, yet when I tell them about the things going on in my life, I hear crickets on the line.  When friends want to spend time with me and have girls’ night outs, they don’t understand that I work 7 days a week.  A night out cannot be what they want it to be.  Sleep is precious, time is limited, and I always feel like I have an avalanche coming strait toward me.  I try to outrun that avalanche, but it will inevitably consume me.  I will dig my way out only for another wave to bury me again. I want to scream every time someone asks me “what are you up to?”   WHAT AM I ALWAYS UP TO?!?!  I’m working.

Grad school lonely is the kind of lonely where you have this really amazing idea for a research project (or even two or three) and yet, you have no one to tell.  You try to explain it to your mom or best friend, but you stop yourself about 3 sentences in because you realize that you’ve already lost her.  No one understands what the hell you’re talking about, and those that would are the people you want to insulate your ideas from.  Don’t get me wrong, I love my department and my fellow grad students, but I don’t know whether or not I can trust some of them yet.  I don’t know whether or not they will steal my idea or if they will invite themselves onto my research.  So no – no one at all understands this, and it is lonely.

Grad school lonely is also the kind of lonely where your best friend or significant other feels like you are leaving them behind.  The feeling of being left behind is a terrible one.  I experienced it when my husband was in school and I had yet to finish my degree that I had so desperately wanted.  I felt like I wasn’t as smart as he was.  He was learning and growing every day, and I was stagnant.  I was jealous.  I know that feeling all too well.  Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I can feel his anger, resentment, jealousy.  We cannot talk about politics or about my work without having a major fight.  We cannot discuss feminism, racism, immigration, gender issues, the wage gap, sexual assault, activism, science, news (because there’s inevitably something political in there), or anything related to school.  He feels left behind.  When I try to talk to him about my research, he tries to show off how smart he is, which then makes me mad because he’s telling me what to do or what to consider.  I’m already 10 steps ahead at this point, so I get frustrated.  The silence is deafening, and the gap between us is widening.

Grad school lonely is the kind of lonely where you want to go out and be social, but you feel like wearing real pants can’t possibly be a thing.  I would live in yoga pants if I could.  I want to be able to go out and do things, but the opportunity cost is too high.  I need that time to sleep, to actually do some laundry, or to work on class work or research.  I have 100 things to do at any given time, and it is more comfortable to do them bra-less and in yoga pants and pink flamingo slippers.

Grad school lonely means giving up time with those you love.  I remember those moments when I wanted a break from my 5 kids.  Now, all I want to do is see them and tuck them in at night (which happens far less than I would like).  I used to have my kids constantly around me, touching me, sitting on my lap, offering me sticky kisses.  Now…I spend my evenings in an office that smells like asian leftovers – alone.  When I’m not at the office, I have to retreat to my room because I can’t work out in the common areas of the house.  My children now know that they shouldn’t disturb me.  So here I sit – alone.

I know in the end, it is worth every sacrifice.  I keep telling myself this.  Sometimes it is just a lonely road to walk.  You simply cannot understand it until you’ve walked that road.  I remember when my best guy friend was in grad school and his voicemail message was “…I am either in class or in a meeting at this particular juncture. To that end, my phone is either off or your call has been terminated without bias…”  The classes never end, the research never ends, the meetings never end.  I just added a new rotation of 3 new project meetings to my life.  That’s a total of 5 different types of meetings that I must regularly attend.  Others have made it through before me.  I will make it through.  The loneliness will fade, I hope.

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A Fist Bump

It’s a small, simple thing, but I just had to share.  Dr. Awesome gave me a fist bump today!

We were talking before lecture (I’m his TA), and he saw my “coffee cup” and stated that I clearly had my coffee as fuel.  I said “Nope, it’s hot chocolate, I don’t drink coffee.”

To which he replied, “I don’t either!” and gave me a fist bump.

It’s the little things.

I’m a Big Bear

Today was a very abnormal day.  Instead of having class, I had an on-campus conference to attend.  The Journalism department hosted a really great event on political communication (which is right up my alley).  We even had a professor from the department presenting late in the day.  An even bigger surprise was that a professor from a really great university in a neighboring state was closing out the conference.

This is simply not just any professor.  This guy is a badass in his own right.  He used to teach at my university but went on to greener pastures.  He has been published numerous times, and he knows my undergrad advisor, mentor, friend.  They publish a lot together.  They do a lot of projects together, and now I met him.  I met this really great guy.  At first I was sad because it seemed like he didn’t give 2 craps about meeting me (despite my saying that I was a student of ____).  Here I was – hoping to make a connection that may lead to research glory, but it didn’t seem like it was meant to be.

Apparently at some point during that beautiful 9 hour long conference, he had inquired about me to another professor in the department (one I don’t know well because she has been called up on high (administration)).  She admitted that she didn’t know me very well but that she has heard great things about me.  This was enough.

Following the conference, I found myself in the company of him, the chair of the department, the graduate chair, and a couple professors.  We were chit-chatting.  The visiting professor asked me about my interests and whether or not I knew R (the statistical programming language/software) and I was able to say yes.  I told him that I had been well trained and was interested in political communication.

I was then asked by the chair of the department to go out to dinner with everyone.  I said that I could but that it wasn’t necessary to extend the offer because I felt like I would be intruding.  He dismissed my concern and we all went to dinner.  We went to a fancy restaurant.  I ordered $15 chicken (which yes, I realize isnt all that fancy but in this state and at grad student pay, that’s expensive).  It was simply delicious and the most amazing thing I have ever eaten.  We had great conversation and laughed.  It was fantastic to be around these people.  I felt like I belonged.

I was asked to keep in touch with the visiting professor as we parted ways.  I hope that this is the beginning of a fruitful relationship that yields research glory.  In any event, I went out with professors as the lone grad student who was invited.  I AM A BIG BEAR!

Apparently, I’m hott.

Ever google yourself?  We all do, I’m sure.  It had been a little while for me, but I had finally gotten my act together and put up my info and picture on the graduate student directory of my university.  I’m official.  Because I felt like I was somebody, I felt like I should now google myself to see how cool I am.

I did.  And it was awkward AF.

Apparently a student decided that they needed to let a secret out in the world of the web-based app Whisper.  That secret was that “The grad assistant (insert name and university) is hott.”

I don’t really know how to feel about this new-found information.  I don’t know who would have written that.  It is very strange and weird.  I’m older (mid-30’s) and most of my students are 18-21 years old.

Until that moment of discovery, I had always thought I would want a chili pepper on Rate My Professor; however, I now understand just how awkward that validation of hotness is.

Campaign ads and…Incest?

The title cannot adequately describe what happened while teaching yesterday.  Clearly, an explanation is needed.

Yesterday, is one of the days that I teach.  I have 2 classes, and the professor I TA for was going to sit in on the classes.  This is not just any professor.  This is THE most badass political scientist in my field.  Yes, I may be a bit biased, but he is one of the two professors who made moving from the warmth of the South to the craptacular weather in the Midwest worth it.  He, of all people, was going to be sitting in on my classes to evaluate me.  Oh.My.God.   I was already a bundle of nerves and felt like dying.

The first class went off without a hitch.  My students were talkative and fantastic.  They enjoyed the exercises and the selected campaign ads.  I was able to speak and have a decent discussion with Dr. Amazing in the room.  Naturally, I felt confident going into the second class just an hour later.

I shall interject a thought at this point.  I have learned that whenever I begin to get confident, something usually follows to bring me back down a peg or two.  I must have done some really really crappy stuff growing up that I don’t even remember doing because this backlog of karma bites me in my ass every single time it can.

Class number 2 begins and I felt like I was rocking it.  I had pulled up the 5 campaign ads I was showing, I handed out the surveys I had lovingly crafted, and began showing the first one:  I Like Ike

Somewhere in that pause between completing that ad and opening up the It’s Morning Again in America (Reagan 1984) ad, the Campaigns circa 1800 theoretical ad began playing in the silenced audio-visual equipment land.  YouTube was on autoplay (apparently) and that short little ad had finished and went on to an episode of Drunk History.  For those who may not have seen Drunk History, its a show where they get Historians rip-roaring drunk and have them explain a story from history.  Naturally, it gets a little wild.

I go to show the Reagan ad and un-mute the AV equipment and there’s good old Drunk History talking about INCEST!  And that guy is talking about incest in a way that only a drunk historian can.  Something along the lines of “Incest, just plain old incest” came out of the speakers as a boat calmly sailed on the harbor in the video they were supposed to watch.

“That’s not it!  THAT IS NOT IT!” came flying out of my mouth as I struggled to mute the AV Equipment quickly enough.  I figure out the problem quickly and in an effort to save face, I roll with it.

“I am so glad that this could happen when Dr. Awesome is with us today” and do my best Vanna White impression toward the screen.

Death would have been a welcomed friend.

I pulled it together, played the remaining ads (Reagan’s, Campaigns circa 1800, Daisy Girl, and Obamaville) and we had a lively discussion regarding all these fantastic ads.  We discussed the primacy of affect (Zajonc 1980, 1984; Lodge & Taber, 2005; Casino & Lodge, 2007) and how individuals make candidate evaluations more on their summary tally of emotional impressions (Lodge, McGraw, & Stroh, 1989; Lodge, Steenbergen, & Brau, 1995).  We talked about why attack ads are advantageous.  If an individual votes against Candidate A, then Candidate B basically has a free pass to do or say whatever they want.  A person voting against Candidate A will not be persuaded to change their minds.  Voting against someone is basically more resistant to counterattitudinal stimuli (Bizer & Petty, 2005).

As soon as class was over, Dr. Awesome bolted and on the inside I was like “NOOOO!  Wait!!”

I drug myself up to my office floor, stopped to my friend’s office (which is the first office beside the elevator), told her the story.  I then drug myself to my office, flopped down, put my head on my desk and told my office-mate (the guy one).  We all had a good laugh, while I felt like dying.

The only thing that cheered me up and made me feel okay was calling my professor, mentor, and friend from undergrad – Dr. Batman.  He got his PhD from this same university and knows all of the professors.  I explained the event and he cracked up.  He then said “If you get any trouble from it, remind him that you are my student, so what could he expect?”  Then he gave me about 10 insane stories of things he messed up working with Dr. Awesome that made mine pale in comparison.  Clearly, he wasn’t fired – so neither will I.

I can now laugh about this, without wanting to simultaneously die.  Who knows – maybe Dr. Awesome will like me more now.  Who knows?!

My Costa Rican Mountain called Grad School

The struggle is real, y’all.  This is the beginning of week 8.  There are 16 weeks in the semester, and Spring break is within sight.  It is so close I can almost taste it.  Spring break tastes like caipirinhas, chocolate, and sleeping in a hammock.  Three things I could really use right about now.  Google caipirinhas – those things are amazing.

So far, this semester has only brought me 1 panic attack and zero days where I either cried or seriously considered quitting.  The panic attack, like the ones last semester, came immediately after taking a stats exam for the professor I absolutely adore and do not want to disappoint.  I had a good reason to panic.  I made a 90 on that exam.  That’s barely an A.  I don’t make barely A’s.  In this case, I am going to just tip my hat and take the 90.  I simply cannot fathom taking that test ever again (we get a retake if we want it).

I haven’t cried because of school once.  I am up to my eyeballs in work and readings, but I have a plan.  I have great topics for my research designs.  I have a system and it works well.  I feel like I have done the impossible – I have found my groove.

December 2015 was the year I went to Costa Rica.  I had my first adult vacation without children and went to the beautiful country of Costa Rica (Pura Vida!).  It was absolutely spectacular.  While there, I hiked up a mountain.  I had not prepared to hike up a mountain.  I’m quite the curvy gal, and to be honest – I have no business hiking up a mountain.  I was not dressed for it.  I was inadequately prepared for it.  It was not even in the plan for the day.  Yet there I was staring up at a mountain.  In typical me fashion, I was like “I’ve got this.”  I did not have it.  I climbed up that sucker for hours.  I went up 600 (I counted) knee-height earthen steps.  Knee-height.  I drug my butt up that damn mountain in the middle of a freaking rainforest.  I was sweaty, out of breath, exhausted, and had considered quitting about 100 times on the way up.  Yet, there I stood at the top.  I looked out, and I saw the beauty around me.  I felt this amazing sense of accomplishment.  I hiked up a freaking mountain!  If I could do that – as unprepared and as unfit as I was – I could do grad school.  That was literally the moment where I realized that I truly could get my PhD, because if I wanted it, I could do it.  I made up my mind, on a literal mountain, that I could do this.

I have often thought of that mountain.  My first semester was like that hike up the mountain.  I felt ill-prepared.  I felt like I wanted to quit 100 times.  I had to struggle for each and every step forward.  Some of those steps were re-freaking-diculous.  But right now, I kinda feel like I am at the top of the mountain looking out.  I feel like I’m experiencing that “I am here – look how far I’ve come” feeling.

I certainly understand how much further I have to go before I reach the end.  I’m on my second semester of ten.  Just like on that mountain in Costa Rica, the top is not the finishing point.  Oh no, I had a lot of things to do to get to the bottom.  I ziplined 17 different times.  I rappelled twice (which is the second scariest damn thing I’ve ever done in my life).  I had the most terrifying moment of my life trying to unattach myself from the zipline*.  The top was just the beginning of what would be a scary, exciting, sometimes terrifying, and fun trip down the mountain.  There were plenty of times when I was scared out of my mind and felt like there was absolutely no way in hell that I could do what I needed to do to make it down the mountain safely.  Yet I did.  That is very much how I expect the rest of grad school to go.

I expect that this moment of tranquility and victory I feel at the top of the mountain, after having struggled with wanting to quit all last semester, will be short lived.  I will have other moments to experience.  I am certain I will have fun moments.  I will most certainly have moments where I feel like I may fall and die.  I will have moments where I am uncertain and very cautious about what I am doing.  But at the end, I am sure I will look back on this experience with a great deal of fondness.  Just as I do that ziplining experience in Costa Rica.  For now, it feels nice to no longer be struggling, dragging-ass up the mountain.  I’m just going to enjoy the view.

*here’s the story from above:  The platform was literally a chain link fence on its side.  A freaking fence. Because of the way the tree and fence came together, there was a 1 foot (MAYBE 2 feet if I’m being generous) space between the line and the end of the platform.  I had to jump up to get myself off the line and land back within that 1 foot space.  Terrifying!!  I also had to rappel from that stupid rickety platform.  They need to inspact that crap in Costa Rica.

 

Praise

One of the things people failed to tell me about grad school is that nobody praises you.  You could have an incredibly insightful reaction paper, a fantastic research paper, and amazing research ideas, but it doesn’t matter.  I was given an amazing piece of advice this past summer from a professor in another department.  He said that it was the one thing graduate students did that set themselves up for failure and strained relationships with professors and other students.  He said “Every single person there is a badass.  You are not special.  Sure, you got into grad school, but so did everyone else in your cohort.  You are all used to being the big dogs, but you’re not. Not yet anyway.”

That is so true!  Keeping this perspective made the first semester survivable.

In undergrad, I was praised – probably too much.  I know I was that student who went above and beyond what was expected.  I took my work seriously.  I wanted to learn everything I could in each and every class.  My undergrad professor, mentor, adviser, and friend would basically praise me until he was blue in the face.  It was exactly what I needed to convince myself that grad school was something I could and should do.  There were times when I was clearly the only person prepared for class, and I was praised for it.  I was held up as the shining example of what a student should do in class.

Grad school does not work that way.  At all.  I received a “good job” on a final paper and wanted to shout it from the rooftops.  In one class, the highest I could get on a reaction paper was a 9/10 because he had only given out one 10/10 for a perfect paper in his career.  It is very clear that no matter how good you are, it’s not great.  You might be good, but eh…so is everyone else.  I spent last semester in tears and stressed out because I was having praise withdrawals.  I needed someone to tell me that I belonged there.

Semester 2 – I have been praised.  One of my professors, who is the nicest guy on the planet, stopped into my office one day.  In front of my office mate, he praised me in regards to my work and my participation in class.  Once I picked my jaw off the floor, I thanked him and he left.  My office mate spun around in his chair and was like “wow…what did you do to get praised?  I’ve been here 4 years and have never had a professor say anything like that to me.”

A few days later, that same professor praises me again, this time in front of my office mate and another student (a year ahead of me).  They have the same reaction.   In the subsequent weeks, I hear from another student in class, that this same professor praised me (and her).  Today, I was also praised when asking a question.

I really don’t know how to handle all of this praise and attention.  What was once commonplace, but then became scarce, is now abundant again.  It is the weirdest thing on the planet.  I keep telling myself to take the praise, but I’m worried that I will soon get a target on my back.  I absolutely LOVE my cohort, but I’m worried that they will start to resent me if they, themselves, are not getting this sort of attention as well.

In all fairness, maybe they would if they actually read and participated in class.  I honestly think that’s why I get the positive feedback.  I do the work.  I speak up in class.  They sit there looking around, hoping someone else will answer the questions.  Well, now I feel justified.  Look at how great cognitive negotiations are.