succumbing to peer pressure

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

I hate graduate school

Ok, clearly, not really, or why would I be here? But it is what I was thinking while listening to my friend crying over the phone this morning. You see, academia is a mind fuck. Somehow, they (whomever they may be) convince you that every decision you make is monumental, and will determine what you will do for the rest of your life! They start early. Better get good grades and take honors and AP courses in high school, because that will determine whether or not you get in to a good college. Better wrap up those core courses in a hurry (seriously, what a drag, who needs to be a well-rounded student?) and declare a major, something good, because that's what you'll be for the rest of your life! Now get in to graduate school, latch on to some really well-respected professor and hope and pray that he or she will agree to be your advisor, because s/he will shape the rest of your life! Choose something ground-breaking and publishable as your dissertation topic, but you better love it, because it's what you'll get the pattern. And it's all bullshit. Granted, I am quite young (and arguably naive) but in my limited experience, very, very few things in life are permanent.

Poor friend from this morning is struggling with her research, and has become convinced that she is a FAILURE who will surely never get a job. Because, heaven forbid, one should still be learning and making mistakes. It's the academic culture* that does this to us - that has us comparing how many hours we worked against the hours logged by everyone else in the department, that has us convinced that we're just big fakes, about to be unmasked at any minute.

Which is why I feel the same way about academia as I do about gymnastics. Hang in there, I promise to bring it all back around. I don't regret any of my 14 years of gymnastics, but it was in many ways reflective of those negative stereotypes you see on nightly news programs. Parents of small children will sometimes ask me if I think they should enroll their daughter in the sport. I always say it depends on her personality - if she's tough and stubborn, she'll do just fine. Otherwise, better choose something else. Sure, gymnastics brought out and exacerbated some of my lesser qualities, but if it hadn't been gymnastics it would have been something else. And meanwhile, I was always a punk, driving my parents (Mom, mostly, after I threatened to un-invite her from all future competitions at the spry old age of 8) and coaches crazy, until at 14 I finally changed gyms and the new set of coaches essentially threw up their hands and let me coach myself.

But that advice applies to academia too - if you let it, it will crawl inside your brain and whisper how worthless you are in your ear every night. Yes, of course, some departments (fortunately, mine) are warmer and fuzzier than others, but that's also part of the rule about being tough and stubborn. I chose a friendlier department over a colder, but higher ranked one. Every single one of my undergraduate professors was convinced that I was making a huge mistake and would transfer within the year. Now that I'm in grad school everyone smiles knowingly and assumes either a) I'm going into academia (perhaps someday, certainly not right away) or b) Big Pharma (thanks, but no). It's not all that difficult logistically to pave your own career path in academia, but it's pretty scary emotionally. You are, after all, barely done being a kid, so how could your ideas about research and career carry more weight than the advice of your faculty? Hopefully you're lucky enough to find some well-intentioned faculty who will at least hear you out, if not fully agree with your positions. But it has the potential to be a lonely, challenging road if you want to both earn an advanced degree and do something even vaguely unconventional with it (read: not immediately jump into a tenure-track position).

I know, I sound bitter (not to mention defensive), and the more work I do** the more bitter I get. I love my field, and (most days) my department. And my field is, in reality, very applied and collaborative. But the academic version of my field is so screwed up that it makes you feel tremendously inadequate if you don't spend all your time in 'theta-land' (the name my friend made up for always doing theoretical work without ever actually testing your ideas out on, you know, data).

I'm just really, really tired of watching my friends get chewed up and spit out by The Institution.

(for another take on things that suck about academia, see AWB's posts here and here)

*yes, of course, academic culture offers lots of nice things too, like geeky comaraderie, debating tough ideas, expanding mental horizons, etc. etc. There are reasons we end up here.

**the good thing is I'm actually starting to feel genuinely good about my work, and as an added bonus, I'm starting to see through a lot of the inadequacy bullshit, but that just means it pisses me off more frequently


Anonymous Anonymous said...

we are with you sista. Fellow gymnast's in grad school. Thank you for your thoughts.

3:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you. Just what I needed to read =) Especially appreciated the balanced tone.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. We`re in this together. I hope I can manage to see the silver lining like you have. One thing I did not expect from graduate school is the loss of self-esteem. It's terrible but somehow you have to work through it. Thanks to your post, I`ll try to keep my head up :).

6:29 PM  

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