This morning via twitter I was asked a question that I cannot, in good conscience, allow to pass without blogging an answer: “What are some things no one tells you about Grad School?”
Buckle those seatbelts, folks.
The fact is that this is precisely the question which keeps me blogging. There is so much that I didn’t know when I started this crazy thing (now my life) which I didn’t even think to ask about. You know it’s going to be hard work, you know it’s going to be a serious time commitment, but I continue to prove to myself (again and again) that even if someone could have possibly described to me how very much toil went into being a full-time graduate student, I would not have believed them.
I’ve attempted to portray a realistic picture of the life of a Grad Student via this blog; the triumphs, tribulations, successes, failures, and everything in between. But let me take a moment now to summarize these findings for you in hopes that it will help prospective Graduate Students, those spending their last “sitting duck” summer (i.e. have been accepted to a program and are making final arrangements to arrive and begin in September), or those who simply desire a better understanding of what it is that being a full-time Graduate Student actually entails.
First and foremost, consider yourself warned: you will work. In fact, you will do so much
work that you will become one of those people. Those people who cancel on social gatherings because they have to stay home and work. Those people who realize that they haven’t actually talked to a real person all day except for the poor undergrad library clerk. Those people who, when they finish their primary gotta-do-it-now list, start in on their secondary should-do-it-soon list. Those people who seem to subsist on caffeine and happy thoughts rather than sleep and positive reinforcement.
Prepare to become a machine. A machine concerned only with your research. How can you twist this weekend vacation into something you can write a paper about? What do you find interesting about your hobbies and are those elements at all related to your work? You will become single-minded; and that’s good. It’s important. Without a certain degree of tunnel vision, you would never be able to get through this crazy little thing called grad school.
You will become extremely stressed out about things that only a small subset of the population will comprehend. Things of utmost importance to you, things which define your very existence for a week, a semester, a year, will be meaningless to those whom you care about the most. They will not understand. You will try to explain it to them. They still won’t get it. Make friends with your colleagues, they are your only hope for salvation.
You will need to find ways to satisfy yourself with small victories. Most of the projects which you will work on will be long-term. What this means is that, unless you find some method of self-validating during the process, you’re in for many years of banging your head against a wall and losing sleep over something which will only give by millimeters in any measurable length of time. Without validation, you will not survive. Figure out what you need to do to make yourself feel happy and fulfilled at the end of a long, tiring day of doing seemingly nothing.
You will be expected to know things that you’ve never been taught. And no, it’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. Find a way to understand what these things are, and how you can at least keep yourself from embarrassment (…nobody will tell you what these things are, by the way, that’s also left to you to discover). Find a mentor. Find someone on the faculty with whom you can speak candidly and with whom you feel comfortable enough to ask the awkward questions behind closed office doors. They will understand exactly what you are going through and be able to give you the coaching you will desperately need.
This is a job. This is your life. This is what you are doing for the next two, three, four, five years. It’s worthwhile, and will get you somewhere that you want to be. If you don’t believe that with all of your heart; if that mantra isn’t something that you can turn to and depend on in your darkest, most stressful hour; quit now. If you’re not excited by your work; if this is just something you’re doing to see some letters after your name or call yourself by a fancy title; you are never going to make it. It takes passion, courage, creativity, the work ethic of Hercules, and the liver of Bacchus to survive grad school. If you don’t think you’re up for it, you’re right. If you’re lukewarm on whatever it is you’re studying, you will never be able to make it through the harsh times in store for you.
However, if you’re still reading this, if you’re still excited about buying books in September, if despite these warnings you simply cannot wait to get your hands dirty in the fall, you will find that Grad School is the most thrilling, fulfilling, and exciting adventure you can have.
And, in the interest of opening dialogue with my peers, I encourage you to blog, tweet, facebook, or somehow document your experience. Get your story out there. Answer questions. The more of us doing this sort of thing, the greater a resource we can provide for the generations after us (including, by the by, our some-day students). In the digital era, there’s no reason that we have to sit alone at our desks all day without anyone to sanity check for us. Let’s have coffee; let’s keep each other afloat; if (after all) we’re not cheering for each other, then nobody else is gonna.