Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I am all out of clever titles. I will call this one "&?"

It’s yet another late evening for me, but the urge to write about grad school permeates my every thought and that thirst must be quenched before I meet the sandman.  Graduate education is, surprisingly, a hard earned lesson in politics, which is not something I’m good at if you have not noticed.  I’ve become privy to a few observations made about my character over the last few days. To sum it up: I’m unapproachable; lacking in confidence as a scientist; possibly flippant (I believe that was the particular word chosen); and maybe a few other things that I’ve yet to be informed of. (Cue deep inhalation.) Really? Me? Flippant? Ha!

 I’m a first year graduate student who has been inundated with a constant barrage of articles, books, discussions and presentations that remind me every single day of just how much I do not know.  I approach everything that I do with an honest perception of the knowledge I possess and that which I do not, and how that will benefit or hinder me. I think being unsure of one’s current abilities comes with the territory. I’ve got a lot to learn and I’m prepared to do it. But if I don’t know it, I don’t know it and I’m not going to pretend like I do.  I came to grad school because I wanted to expand upon my pool of knowledge. When in lab, it is my purpose to absorb as much as possible and be taught. I contribute when I can, but, for the most part, I want to make sure that I don’t mess up thousands of dollars worth of materials and waste anyone’s time, least of all mine. (Time is a hot commodity for any graduate student. You must hoard it like a dragon and claw out the eyes of anyone that tries to take too much of it. Or, you could use your lab time to create a 28 hour period. Your choice. )

I had no clue how to respond to being told that I lack confidence and am seemingly standoff-ish, so I said nothing…well, as much “nothing” as I’m capable of saying.  I’m not sure I can respond without somehow alienating someone that could potentially hold sway over my graduate career. It is very difficult knowing how sensitive some people are to blunt honesty.  The last few days have shown me that people hear what they want to hear, no matter how careful I am with my word choices. I worry how many times I’ve “offended” a peer or professor or lab mate because I wasn’t enough of a politician.  Unfortunately, these minor things could morph into major, life altering issues. I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s happened – just look at our government or consider the recent media storm surrounding Juan Williams, former host on NPR.  Be careful of politics. You don’t have to play the game to be aware of it.

I’ve come to realize that for many scientists, perception is reality and, let’s face it, you can’t really call yourself a scientist if you don’t gather data, analyze it, weigh the evidence and THEN draw a conclusion.   So, audience, when you get to grad school (or are currently there trying to swim against the riptide), just remember who you are and try to stay true to that. Remind yourself every day of why you chose graduate school, and don’t let anyone’s “evidence” negatively influence you and detract from who you are at your core.

I am aware of who I am and what I am capable of, but maybe my sense of self-importance isn’t inflated enough for grad school.  Ah, well. Maybe in a few years I’ll be the pompous, arrogant bastard I’m supposed to be, but today, I’m just Neurosciencegeek. I can be honest to a fault and sarcasm is literally listed as second language on my resume.  I get excited when my boyfriend calls. I post in front of my television to watch Glee every Tuesday night. And I’m trying my very best not to drown in the flash flood that is grad school. I do not wear confidence on my sleeve.
I leave you with this quote: “That which yields is not always weak –“ Jacqueline Carey

Saturday, October 23, 2010 Company. I think you two would like each other.

So much has happened since I last wrote, but, yet, so little. The euphoria I experienced upon arriving in West Lafayette has long since evaporated and been replaced by little sprouting seeds of doubt. The semester is half over, and already I am tempted to call this journey done. I have been told on multiple occasions at this point that I am “supposed” to feel this way and that there are “many” others out there that feel the same as I. In all honesty, how does that help me? How does knowing that there are other graduate students out there that are just as miserable as me make me feel better? From that perspective, it actually makes me feel quite a bit worse.

I’m going to employ a tactic relatively unknown in this country and speak the truth. I know – it’s shocking. I beg you to read on, and to ignore the fear that that 5 letter word incites in you. I would like to be open and honest about how graduate school is affecting me for many reasons, the chief of which being that I feel that my peers are not being honest with anyone – including themselves. I also believe that if this blog is truly to be used to help anyone out there, even just one person, that I need to be honest about everything. So here goes…

I am doing very poorly in my courses. Some days, I can barely make sense of the articles I have to read for lab. Some days, my spirit is too defeated to even care. There have been days where I felt that I was not smart enough to be here. Not smart enough to contribute anything of note to intellectual discussions regarding lab experiments or legitimate scientific articles read for class. And I wonder, how in the hell did you make it out of undergrad? In addition to that, I wonder why the hell my undergraduate professors are even allowed to call themselves teachers. (Well most, not all.)

I am lonely. I miss my family so much sometimes just hearing a sad musical note in a song brings on the waterworks. I went home to visit my boyfriend and our friends in early October. I am sure I had what my boyfriend would classify as a nervous breakdown, and it was an internal struggle to put myself on the plane to return to what I now adamantly refer to as “Hell.” I’ve already written about the diversity in my program, but my loneliness is the result of more than just that. Are there no scientists that read poetry or science fiction? I’ll even take someone that’s read ANY classic novel and be happy with that. Is there anyone for me to talk politics and/or race relations with? Someone that likes to travel? That likes beaches? So far, the answer is a reverberatingly loud and emphatic – NO.

I am told that this is how I’m supposed to feel. That I am a first year graduate student and that’s just “how it is” during the first year. It seems to me that the status quo is not sufficient, to say the least. But, I am here. If they didn’t think I was capable of handling this program, they wouldn’t have extended an invitation to me to become one of the elite Boilermakers. So, at the end of the day, I have to remember and remind myself of that. I have to take the drive and initiative that I displayed in undergrad and double it. I have to lean on the shoulders that are offered to me, and take help wherever I can get it.

I’m sorry that I don’t have a better or more inspirational message for you, dear readers, but this is me being open and honest about my state of mind at present. Right now, there isn’t any light at the end of the tunnel. But maybe when I wake up tomorrow there will be. Graduate school is not easy, nor did I think it would be, but it is up to me and only me to maintain my status here and recognize that the knowledge that I do not possess in this moment will come in time. Everything takes time.

I can hear you screaming “Wait, what? That’s it!?” Don’t worry your pretty little head. I’ve ALWAYS got time to share. Do not be afraid to employ the resources available to you at your institution when you begin to have feelings such as these. They are there to help you. They want you to stay and, what’s more, they want you to be happy. My resource told me today that “graduate school is only a blip on the grander scale of life,” or something very similar to that. In short, when you start feeling like this (and thank God if you never do), remember that you can do it, that you are worthy and that you have the power to pull on some steel toed boots and kick that PhD’s mighty vociferously pompous ass. Smile while you make grad school your bitch and focus on the life you want to lead after graduating. What’s the worst that could happen? You fail. Then you get back up, dust yourself off, laugh hysterically when you realize that the seam in the ass of your pants split when you fell, and try again. I’m in the process of sewing said seam back together. I’ll try again when I’m done.