Beating the first-year grad school blues

I’ve decided to return to blogging in 2014 with a short reflection on my first semester over at MIT. Grad school here has been excellent in many ways: the course material is engaging (I particularly enjoyed a class on great power military interventions), the other students in my cohort are fantastic, razor-sharp people interested in the same issues as me and there is a great cooperative spirit among us, and I get to bike along the Charles River every day from home to the department. I even have a window office – what more to ask for?

Of course, it’s not all sunshine, and if it was it wouldn’t be interesting to write about. So, after one semester, what have I got to say about being a graduate student in political science in the U.S.?

The most obvious thing about the first semester – a warning to anyone contemplating the leap into a PhD program – is that it’s hard, stressful, and very, very time-consuming. Seriously, I have no idea how people manage to get through a program like this with young children, or while taking a bus to New York every weekend to spend time with a spouse. I suppose these people are simply much smarter than me or incredibly disciplined with their time, or both. I am in awe of them. Between the endless reading lists and the Sisyphean-like problem sets for the quantitative methods class (lots of regret for not taking more maths in undergrad), I ended up feeling guilty just trying to make time for exercise 3 or 4 times a week, or going to the grocery store to buy real food and actually cook. And weekend socializing? Hobbies? Dating? These things are possible in theory, but in practice are easily forgotten or pushed aside.

As a result, and at the risk of sounding dramatic, graduate school can become something of a unique personal – even spiritual – challenge to a person’s sense of identity and ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance.  I suppose the effect is similar in competitive law or medical schools, where the pressures to succeed are probably even more intense. As Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, David and Goliath, points out, the pressure on grad students to succeed in competitive universities can be an overwhelming, disheartening, and profoundly negative experience for a lot of students, discouraging them from pursuing their interests in subjects that they love. Going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small or medium fish in a big pond is indeed a painful adjustment for people – myself included – who have grown used to a self-identity based in part on doing well at school.

So, how does one stave off the existential anxiety and maintain their confidence, passion, and vitality? I don’t have any good or definitive answers for that, but a few things did help me get through the worst of it:

1)    Feed your exercise addiction. When the pressure starts to build and work becomes overwhelming, everyone needs something to help them escape mentally. Sometimes these addictions are harmful (smoking, drugs or alcohol), sometimes they are mundane (lousy TV shows), and some have positive spill-over effects (running, sports, meditation). I’ve taken to all of these things at some point or another – jogging is probably the favorite, and certainly it is less destructive than other options.

2)    Maintain perspective. There is a certain degree of self-absorption and narcissism that goes with graduate school – surrounded by peers doing the same things and having the same problems as you, it is easy to forget just how privileged and lucky you are to be able to learn for a living. Ultimately, who really cares what Professor X thinks about the comment you made in class, or whether your paper should really be controlling for variable Y. Nothing you do is going to be perfect, so take setbacks with a sense of humility. Remember that there are plenty of people out there with real problems.

3)    Remember that most people around you are pretending to understand everything a lot more than they actually do. It’s frightening to listen to a complicated lecture, have the professor ask the class a question, and feel like everyone’s hand shoots up but yours. You’re also likely to overhear people talking about how well their thesis project is going, how they are already planning elaborate field research or experiments, or have started co-authoring complicated papers on subjects you don’t even understand. Don’t panic. Consciously or not, people say stuff like that because they want to be overheard; they want to be respected and admired, or even to intimidate others. Chances are, they aren’t anywhere near as prepared or organized as they sound. Also, try not to be the person who talks like that.

4)    Do things outside of work/school. This complements number 2 above. The best way to maintain some perspective and preserve connections with the ‘real’ world is to actually spend some of your life in it. Keep in contact with or get to know people who don’t go to university anymore, or who never did. Play on a sports club, volunteer for a cause that’s important to you, attend a local religious service on the weekends, whatever your thing is. The pressure and anxiety of grad school will be lessened if you can maintain an independent identity for yourself outside of your studies. I’ll admit this is one I didn’t live up to enough last semester, and I intend to make it a priority in the future.

5)    Resist the temptation of viewing professional ‘success’ in ridiculously narrow terms. The socialization pressures of a PhD program can be extreme and all-consuming. I knew it was coming, but it’s been difficult to resist anyway – everything and everyone around you are geared towards making you think that the only way to ‘succeed’ is by becoming a tenured academic at a prestigious university. Don’t get me wrong, that would be a swell fairy-tale ending, but it’s not gonna happen for everybody, and in all probability it won’t happen for me. Luckily I am OK with that, in part because I have some policy-world experience already. I continue to believe this is one of the largest benefits of taking a “buffer year” or two before starting a PhD program.

6)    Hold onto your important values. As mentioned, there is a good dose of egotism and vanity which infects the annals of graduate schools. There is pressure to start cultivating a professional ‘profile’ or ‘image’ for yourself – in other words, you’re supposed to spend a lot of time caring what others think about you. Given that reality, it’s amazing how quickly you start to worry only about yourself, lose incentive and energy to give up your time for others, and start feeling afraid to say or do things which might threaten your ‘credibility’. In my own case, I have felt some pressure to self-censor my personal belief in pacifism, lest some people think I’m naïve, anti-military, or some kind of radical who shouldn’t be taken seriously. Resist these pressures, and make time for doing things for other people. You’ll be much happier for it.

Ultimately, none of these strategies are going to totally eliminate the stress and pressure – it’s something that just has to be lived with. But, with any luck, they might help to slow or stall the process of identity and motivational degradation that can easily creep in if you’re not careful. At least, that’s my theory.

By Philip Martin

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2 thoughts on “Beating the first-year grad school blues

  1. This entry is so true! I’m in my first year of grad school (English lit – crazy, I know) and I’m feeling the stress. I’m a working, single parent on top of this, too – oh my! Anyway, I love this blog entry. It was just what I needed today. Cheers!

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