The voluntary incarceration of attending grad school

28 Apr

Your faithful blog author has an admission to make that you may consider funny: Conventions freak me out.

I find them distressing, vexing and worrisome in the extreme. This probably sounds ridiculous. You see, conventions and symposia trigger my anxieties about a far more common problem — the fear of graduate school. I’m writing this post because I returned yesterday from a conference that has basically sent my midbrain red-lining.  And more importantly, because most of you reading this are students coming to crossroads just like I am.

So let’s pick my panicky heart to pieces in the name of science, shall we?

I’m not particularly worried about the cost of grad school, or even the exams; it’s the question, the central thing I want to begin using the rest of my working life to answer. To me, this narrowing of inquiry seems a lot like preparing to jump out of a plane, especially since changing course in the middle of either one appears to be equally difficult. I see it as a path that will lead me inevitably, unquestionably to a Ph.D., which is my goal. But if I start down the path and decide that it was a mistake, it will be one that I don’t think I can fix.

It’s true that avoiding scary things never did much to stave off major regrets, but running toward a narrow specialization doesn’t strike me as something that can be easily stopped, failed or changed. To a strategist personality type like me, this amounts to a singularly terrifying commitment.

A certain fantastic visual is stabbing at my mind as I type this, so I will share it. Many of you may have seen this before:

The large circle represents all human knowledge. Education begins with primary school (in blue), and then expands in high school (green). A bachelor’s degree gives you a specialty (pink). You deepen that specialization with your master’s (light red), and then you read research papers (red) until you reach the boundary — the limit of current knowledge — and here is where you focus. For years. Then one day the boundary moves.

That tiny push to expand the sphere of scientific knowledge is the end result of a Ph.D., and it makes committing years of work toward a single end worthwhile. This pursuit is pretty much the defining act of science, and it is one of the most important and necessary things I can imagine. It is an inescapable siren song that has had me under its power since I was seven years old, snake hunting in the overgrown field behind my house. It’s what made me reach for the book that taught me my first Latin name (Crotalus atrox, for the record) and I will always be ashamed to have abandoned it during my undergraduate studies. I have no question that this should be the point of my work in life.

But with a doctorate comes a change in perspective. The world looks a lot different at that boundary line:

And frankly, I worry about what sort of person I will be when I get to this myopic point of intense focus. I particularly worry about who will be there when I arrive. The process is important, but there are a lot of hidden costs. Of course we’ve all heard stories. It would seem based on what I’ve heard and read recently that most fear stems from the shaky job market, and that the most disillusioned voices tend to come from those in arts and humanities. But some things are universal and I am not convinced of my ability to tolerate so much ambiguity. Nor am I certain that I have the sense of self-preservation necessary to get through relatively unscathed, or the grace to fail again and fantastically as Beckett encouraged in his final writings.

On a side note, I’m now approaching potentially self-indulgent territory, so my public doubt and questioning stops here. This, dear readers, is the most personal telling anyone has heard from me on this subject (or most any other); you will likely not read anything like it on this site again. Let’s hope it won’t chase any of you off.

As my good friend Choya has said, we sometimes have to be our own role models. I’d add that it’s especially true of uncertain journeys. Being a planner, I suck at those. So with this in mind, I welcome any and all discussion, insight, advice or short songs on the subject. I love collaboration, and I think many of us could use a roadmap.

8 Responses to “The voluntary incarceration of attending grad school”

  1. jessica mejia April 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Do what makes you HAPPIEST. We are going to work for the rest of our lives anyway, so you might as well do what makes you glow, internally and outwardly..*as for what to research (what field) in grad school, follow your passion and follow your heart. Future paychecks and jobs are nothing compared to living each day as an ASSIGNMENT here on Earth. We all have a purpose, sometimes it takes changing our direction a time or two, or three..just don’t be hard on yourself should you make the “wrong” decision…. ALL decisions eventually lead you to where your heart wants to be. I hated the way I was treated in my grad program, and 2.5 yrs later, it has lead me to see a side of the world I had never known. I thought I made the “wrong” decision, but it still lead me to where I needed to be….. (long story) but since I know my heart and soul best, my intuition and perseverance lead me to exactly where I should be, right here and NOW…. currently finishing my last semester and making a new life for myself… and HAPPY.

    • xylem_up April 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

      OK, so level with me. How indecisive / planning-oriented a person would you say you are? I don’t consider myself indecisive, but I am slow to move unless I’ve really thought through all eventualities. It’s easy to come out of a process like that with really unreasonable expectations for yourself, and it’s also easy to paralyze yourself trying to make a whole string of decisions instead of just making a few to get yourself started. Make sense? We should talk about this more; I’d love to hear more about your experiences and process.

  2. imajyn April 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    I feel like you’re missing an angle here. I fail to see how any knowledge acquired can become a burden. I understand that if you’ve invested a lot of money into school, you would feel an obligation to finish what you started, but you said yourself the cost wasn’t the primary obstacle, so I’m led to think it’s something else. I suppose there’s a lot of time that goes into that you could see as “wasted” if you abandon your studies for something else, but again, you’ve learned, and that’s never a waste. I know for sure it’s not intimidation or fear of failure that’s not holding you back, since I can’t even begin to imagine a challenge you would back down from, especially not something so tangible.
    Maybe there’s more to the thought of “who will be there when you get there” than you shared, but the people that are there at the end will still be the same people who were there at the beginning that really mattered

    of course, it stands to mention, I sit here never having finished school, so what the hell do I know?

    PS I use commas the way I wanna use commas cuz that’s how I roll… and also because I suck at AP english

    • xylem_up April 28, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

      First off, you are amazing, Andy. And I value your opinion. But a lot has happened since we last saw each other. As you know me from my days of cracking pool cues, I can see why you’d never expect me to back down from a challenge or fear failure. But those things are true. Maybe I’m too hard on myself, but you do make a point about learning. And like I said in the article, it sure seems like the scary thing is going to grad school for a non-science specialization. I suppose I won’t have that problem. And yeah… I shouldn’t trust a man with improper comma use, but I know you’re a smart guy. Can we go back to the days when your evil cat was my biggest fear in life? I’d like that.

  3. Seth April 29, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    In my experience I have found that you cannot steer the ship. You can only point it in a general direction and make periodic adjustments so the wind stays at your back.

    • xylem_up April 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

      Mr. TeBeest! I am pleasantly surprised to hear from you on this subject. I would imagine you know what you’re talking about since you’re in, what, LAW SCHOOL these days? Your advice sounds quite solid. Also, for the record, since writing this article I have tormented myself but also figured out that I know exactly where I want to go to grad school, how I will fund it, which major instructor I want to work with, and I feel I will soon have a good idea of my research question. Next fall, y’all!


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