Tag: The Downside

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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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.

First Semester

What was my first semester like?

A fire and brimstone lake of eternal torment and woe would have been a day at the beach.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was rough.  I did manage to pull out a 4.0 for the semester, but I will tell you – I had to work for that sucker.

They say the first semester is the worst because of the adjustment and all that.  I certainly hope they are right.  I cannot even imagine things being worse than that.  Don’t let this deter you if you want to go back to school or get your PhD.  I’m still here and doing it, you can too.

But for real….y’all.  They are not playing when they say it is tough.

The first adjustment was living in a whole new state that gives me 100 degree summers and -8 degree (or maybe worse, Idk) winters.  It’s windy and hot and cold and stupid.  It’s just stupid all the time when it comes to the weather.  I pulled out my Tennessee winter coat in October and people were like “I like your jacket” – Jacket??  This is my coat.  They laughed.  I bought an actual coat.

The next adjustment was having no support network.  When you have 5 kids, you need warm bodies to help watch them on occasion.  I will go ahead and say, although we were separated, their dad picked up and moved from Virginia to Nebraska to help us out.  He knew I couldn’t do this alone.  He was so right.  I would never have survived if he hadn’t been here with us.  But even with his help, there is a huge benefit to having a community – that whole village thing.  Having to build that while being a student is tough, but it is doable.  I now have friends – people who I can count on to help if I need help.  I have several friends and it feels so great.  That’s one thing that should make this second semester easier.

A third adjustment was, of course, the workload.  SO. MUCH. WORK.  Tons of reading, especially journal articles, tons of books, tons of papers, tons of meetings.  Okay, so side rant – what is up with all of the meetings?  Why are there SO many meetings in grad school?  We have research group meetings and department meetings and training meetings, and lab meetings.  I know how to use an fMRI machine that I will probably never ever use, but by golly, I am trained to do so.

I took 2 stats classes last semester – thinking it would be a brilliant move.  It wasn’t.  Maybe it was.  I’m not sure.  It kinda got me out of taking a class other members of my cohort were dying in, so maybe it was good.  In any event, those classes sucked up a lot of time, but now I know what I’m doing when it comes to data analysis.  That’s a win.

Another adjustment is realizing that I am not the biggest, baddest, badass around.  In undergrad, there was a point when I could look around and realize that I was leagues beyond other students.  This is not the case in grad school.  Everyone in grad school is there because they are badasses.  Most of the time, I feel like I am stupid and don’t belong there.  It’s this weird balancing act between realizing I’m smart and belong there but knowing I’m not smarter than anyone else around me.  It’s weird.

The last huge adjustment was missing time with my kiddos.  I felt like I was behind all semester, and I pushed myself to be perfect.  Grad school isn’t about being perfect – it is about getting it done well enough.   I would often spend 7 days a week on campus.  I missed out on a lot of family time.  People (mostly those without kids) would tell me, “you need to make time for your family.  You shouldn’t be here so much.”   While I know they were well-intentioned comments, I still wanted to poke them in the forehead and say “NO”.  It is easy for someone without kids to give that advice.

Having said that – my children are never ever ever my excuse to not do what needs to be done.  I may choose them over nonessential things, but I will go 3 days without sleep if it means I make my deadlines and do my work.  Being a mom is not an excuse.  It is the reason to do something.  I let my children see me struggle because it shows them that the best things in life are worth struggling for.

Despite how bad it seems from this post, grad school is really one of the best things in life.  It’s one of the best things in my life, and it is one of the best things in my children’s lives.  They are proud of their mom, and I am proud of me.  I think I wanted to quit at least once a day, every day for the entire first semester.  However, seeing that 4.0 was enough to make me go through Winter break without wondering if I should quit.  I will not quit.

The first semester was a success.  Now, on to the second semester.