Category Archives: Grad School Trauma

On trying not to burst into flames of rage…

I spend a great deal of time trying to calm myself down. Today I was talking to a friend about another friend’s dissertation defense. The friend who was defending and I have the same adviser. Apparently, for this friend our adviser threw a party after his defense. For me, we had a glass of wine. I know that I receive different treatment than hir other advisees, but hearing these stories only rubs it in. Upon hearing this story I had to focus on not becoming enraged. I was also having lunch with another friend today who told me that she wished that someone would read her dissertation and tell her what to do with it. Then she told me that one of the faculty members, who is a very prominent expert in her exact field, read her dissertation and gave her several pages of comments about it. I was lucky that I got a cursory read by my committee members and that’s all the help with it that I have gotten. It seems like some people are handed keys to the kingdom and others have to fight tooth and nail to pry the door open a sliver. And the crazy thing is that they don’t even seem to realize that things are being handed to them. Just writing this I am becoming infuriated…and I must calm down.

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Dreams of My Advisor

My advisor and I don’t have the best relationship, but it’s not the worst either. Toward the end of my years in grad school s/he basically checked out. S/he wouldn’t read anything until about two weeks before my defense and s/he didn’t give me any advice about the job market. Towards the end of grad school I saw the differential treatment between me and hir other students through conversations I would have with these other students whose committees s/he chaired. Anyway, I don’t look back fondly on working with my advisor and really I’m happy to be free from hir. So you can imagine my surprise about having a dream with hir in it last night. I dreamt that we were in a car and I was in the back seat. I’m not sure if s/he was driving or who was driving. We were talking and I said that I missed having my meeting with hir at the beginning of the semester. But I was only saying that because I thought it would be a nice thing to say, not because I meant it. Then, hir eyes got a little teary and s/he hugged me and then I got out of the car.

If I was on television or a character in a novel maybe that would signal the closure of a relationship that dominates my current thoughts and that almost infuriates me when it comes to mind. I really wish it was closure because I’m pretty sure that I spend way more time thinking about hir then s/he does thinking about me. I should just take the cue from my dream and get over it. However, at the moment I need to email my advisor for a letter of recommendation for a program, so clearly my interactions with hir continue. Part of me fears that this dream signals not the closure of the tense part of our interactions, but foresees a continuation of my acquiescence to hir shenanigans in order to make hir feel better.

Reading Academically

I love academic novels. They illuminate academic sensibilities and behaviors I found (and still find) odd upon entering graduate school. I wish I would have begun to read academic novels earlier (like day one). Of course I read other novels. I can’t wait for Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, to appear at my door. But part of living academically is reading academically. For me, that means academic novels.

I just finished The Small Room by May Sarton and I highly recommend it. It’s short, well written, and contains lively dialogue. One of the passages that jumped out at me is on pg. 211. Lucy, a new professor at a liberal arts college is talking to her student, Pippa, about a paper she had to rewrite due to plagiarism.

Pippa’s paper on Emerson and Thoreau turned out to be more than credible and Lucy was delighted to be able to tell her so.

“I got absorbed in it, I forgot about everything else,” Pippa said, blushing to the roots of her hair with pleasure. “Though for a while it was like being in a thicket. I had so much material I didn’t know how to get out, how to make a plan; I used to sit at my desk and think my head would burst.”
“What did you do then?” The way people thought things out had always interested Lucy, how a mind works, process.

“I did what you said. I kept making outline, discarding wonderful stuff because it wasn’t necessary. You said, ‘Keep the center clear.’ And you said, ‘If you get into a panic spell things out 1,2,3.'” The solemnity with which Pippa repeated these simple pieces of advice made Lucy smile. “You smile, but all that helped. Sometimes people take those obvious things for granted, professors, I mean.”
“I suppose there’s some value in not being brilliant. I can’t take anything for granted.” Lucy was thinking aloud, at ease with Pippa now.

This passage resonates with me for a couple of reasons. As someone who has had great difficulty becoming the productive and prolific writer that I would like to become, this simple advice to make outlines, spell things out, be clear, and make a plan makes sense. I have a stack of books on my shelf about writing help, but I find that the most simple and practical advice has helped me the most. I am constantly making outlines and writing things out by hand.

As a visiting faculty member, I attended a seminar for faculty on productivity. The speaker presented her tactics and strategies for about two hours. I came away with one useful thing that has been worth it’s weight in gold for me: Make a plan that is doable. Meaning, when you make a list of “Things to do today” don’t write something like dissertation chapter 3 or book proposal. Break everything down into achievable steps for the time you have. This is so simple, but it changed my life. Now I make lists saying, “Print out latest draft of article,” “Read draft and mark changes,” “Make changes on computer draft,” “Describe data from magazine article on topic.”

I drafted my dissertation in 500 words a day. Maybe I’ll write more on this later. These simple techniques have buoyed me in the ocean of academic life, which is why this passage touches me.

Also, I like how Lucy says “I suppose there’s some value in not being brilliant. I can’t take anything for granted.” I feel that way all the time. In my grad program, it seemed like all the grad students were too cool for school and the faculty were somewhat aloof. Whenever I told my adviser that I was having difficulty managing the reading load or writing my diss she would stare at me blankly. I remember her telling me that when she has a deadline she retreats to her attic for a week to complete her task. That was not helpful. Sure, everyone is different and grad school is tough. But I realize that just some simple steps, that others appear to take for granted, would have been a great help to me. I think my adviser did the best she could, but it would have been helpful to have Lucy as well.

Being a Graduate Student

So thanks to this person, I got to see this movie about being a graduate student. As a recent PhD grad, my eight years in graduate school have become the subject of my thoughts of late. While watching that movie I could identify with all of the grad students. I also saw the PhD comics movie, but I must say that this documentary captured the ups and downs of the PhD process quite well. The theme that stuck out to me was failure. The grad students in the documentary worked in the laboratory sciences and they seemed to experience failure on a very regular, even daily, basis. I couldn’t relate to daily failure as a social scientist because we’re not doing those kinds of experiments. The failures I felt were probably more intermittent, but they felt like huge failure nonetheless. For example, when I did not receive a large grant for my research funding I was crushed. I still look back on that and see it as a deficiency in my CV, even though I got outside grants for dissertation writing. But some of the quotes from the students really sum up grad school, at least for me, in very succinct ways. One of them said, “You learn so much from failure. You learn almost nothing from success.” When they were talking about their relationship with their adviser, the conversation went something like: “You want them to pat you on the head. It’s kind of sick – you’re like a singer that needs that applause.” I can definitely identify with the need for affirmation from my adviser. It seemed like the more I progressed the more detached from me she became. I will blog more about that later. I have become obsessed with this PhD process and really understanding it and what happened to me.