Tuesday, August 4, 2009

So you think you want to go to graduate school

Lots of people toy with the idea of going to graduate school, but as we know, only a self-selected few actually do. And those who do wonder constantly if it is the right thing to do. I'm no exception. I think about whether I've done the right thing with my life a lot. I've been chasing this Ph.D. for 8 years now. In January 2001, I began to make up the deficiencies I had in my undergraduate record. I thought I'd get my masters. If all went well, I'd get my doctorate.

I wondered if I was smart enough. (I am.) I wondered if I had what it takes to stick with it. (I do.) I wondered if I would enjoy the job I got when I got out. (I believe I will.) I wondered if it was as bad as some people made it out to be. (It is.)

About a year ago, when I was in the middle of one of my blue funks, I conducted a survey of graduate students (which I still haven't properly analyzed), and got input from the people who've been here about whether they would do it all over again. Most would, but most were unhappy about some facet of the way their graduate experience had gone. More than a few were disillusioned with academia. If I can be given a little room to extrapolate here, I'd say that most clearly loved with the work, and clearly were not in love with what it takes to do that work. And that made me realize something about the people who do succeed in graduate school. We don't give up when the going gets tough, or when the going gets really tough, or when the going get ridiculously, unbelievably, inconceivably tough, or even when you-really-should-have-brought-a-lawsuit-over-this-shit-already tough.

Graduate school reminds me of marriage that way. The relationship starts off in this idealized, I'm-just-crazy-about-you way and over time it becomes more and more strained until one day you come to your senses and realize that the way you're being treated isn't ok. Not in your book. Not in anyone's book. So yeah. An ability to tolerate the intolerable because there is no other path leading toward your goals--that's what it takes to be a successful grad student.

I understand now what J meant when he said he would tell people to do something else if you could, but if you can't do something else, then, dig in and get comfortable.

So, yes, people in grad school are smart. Being smart is the least of your worries. Do you have the other traits necessary to succeed in grad school?

Are you tenacious? Can you stick with it when you hate your advisor, when nothing is going right with your work, when your committee is convinced you are a moron, and when nightmares of having to pay back those student loans wake you up in the night? If not, stay away.

Are you self-motivated. No one is going to hold your hand in graduate school. No one is going to make sure you are working. If you need a coach just to get out of bed in the morning, join the gym. No one is going to cheer from the sidelines to spur you on. Maybe your mama, but certainly no one you work with.

Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are? Self-awareness is extremely helpful. If you don't know already, graduate school will gladly point your weaknesses out to you.

Are you thick-skinned? Can you stand people yelling at you? Because professors will. They will say things to you that cut to the bone. You will be amazed that these people can say these things and live with themselves. Trust me, their comments may hurt but they are doing you a favor by saying them.

Can you work alone? Graduate education is, by its very nature, singular work. No one is going to be there when you are in the lab night after night after night. This is your path. Remember?

Confidence. In fact, I would say that most graduate students border on narcissistic personalities. We believe in our abilities. Usually, we have the stuff to back up that faith.

Are you ready for the hard realities of life? Because I'm going to tell you, you aren't nearly da shiznit as you think you are. Most smart people are used to being the smartest person in the room. In graduate school, everyone is smart. Most of them are smarter than you. You will feel stupid around these people...for a very long time.

I have heard many people say that a graduate degree is "just a piece of paper" and "it really doesn't mean anything". I can't even address how wrong these people are. Graduate school is a gauntlet and you really can't begin to understand how much that paper represents until you have done it yourself.

I'm still wondering 8 years later whether I did the right thing.

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