But there are darker dimensions to this PhD experience. Nearly all graduate students flounder and suffer to varying extents and lengths of time. Sooner or later the grad student life gets to most of us. We’ve been startled when we have conversations with other graduate students whom we perceive as extremely competent. These brilliant students, however, often struggle with self-doubt, anxiety, loneliness and depression. This rather prevalent dark underbelly of graduate school is too often not openly discussed.
Grad student life is more of a roller coaster than we imagined. Most of us have a few shining moments of glory when we feel smarter than we’ve ever been before. But this is tempered with stretches of feeling like we know nothing or at least we are overwhelmed with all that we now realize we don’t know.
If you’re lucky and strategic, you might feel like you are changing the world with your work. More frequently, you will likely feel like your dissertation will never end, like filling a bucket that has a hole at the bottom with water. Sometimes you feel connected to many inspiring people who care and think about the same things as you do. Then there are the days when you’re convinced you’re alone in this world of your little PhD rabbit hole.
What makes a graduate school fun is also what makes it so challenging. The fact that we can work on whatever we want means that our identities gets wrapped up in our work. We perceive our dissertations as a signifier of our value. It’s too easy to think that if my research is not good, then I'm not good.
The freedom and flexibility we have also means that our productivity is our own responsibility. If we procrastinate, we have to take personal responsibility for it. Our academic supervisors tend not to breathe down our necks. They train us, their students, to be independent. Our advisers tend to be exceptionally academically intelligent, insightful and sometimes harsh with their critique and feedback. They are always busy, usually really busy (there’s intense selection processes relevant to who gets hired as tenure track and tenured profs these days. See this story with the following excerpt:"Peter Higgs, who won the Nobel prize for his work on the Higgs boson, recently said that the imperative to publish all the time would disqualify him from contemporary academe.")
|Wishing that our intellectual rabbit holes were wormholes
transporting us directly to scientific insight
In contrast to most work environments, professors tend not to demand greater output and faster deliverables. Motivation to complete a graduate degree must generally come from largely within ourselves. We have to motivate ourselves to do work that can be boring and repetitive, like data cleaning or transcribing. Add to this the fact that much of what we do is like searching for a needle in a haystack often without even knowing what we're looking for. We've gone down intellectual rabbit holes (wormholes would be way cooler) involving weeks and perhaps months of reading up on theories and topics that end up not being part of our theses or dissertations. These tangents tend to leave us with little to show for large blocks of time and a feeling that we're not useful.
|Going down academic rabbit holes feels kind of like this…
The result of this is that many people come out of grad school (particularly PhDs) with their egos grated down, dragging themselves over the finish line on their last legs.
In our time as grad students, we have not seen a single person go through the PhD process without moments of close-to or total-break-down.
Does this graduate school process have to be so destructive? See our next post for navigational tips on this master's or PhD journey, which tends to be through at least a few existential crises.