Thursday, June 24, 2004

On being a Grad Student, part one

I'm still clearing out my stockpile of unblogged bloggables. This is something I wrote several months ago, March maybe, and toyed with submitting to the "graduate voices" column of the graduate school newsletter. I decided it was really much too whiny and a little embarrassing. But that's a little more okay on a blog, which is not going to be stuffed into the mailboxes of uninterested strangers, and it does have some virtues as well. It accurately conveys the mood I was in for most of the last year. It's not as whiny or embarrassing as some things I said or wrote before I wrote this, in which I wondered whether girls who write equations all day ever meet boys, and live happily ever after. At the time I thought this might be a barrier to women in the sciences generally, but now I'm pretty sure it was just my ordinary insecurity, and nothing to do with feminism. I also wondered for a while whether there was something wrong with the whole enterprise of academic life, which might explain my unhappiness. A lot of it seems more like play than work, and perhaps I'd find more meaning in honest labor... Whatever that means, these days. Eventually, though, I diagnosed myself with "too much school."

I'm gonna paste it in here, and then I'm gonna do a seperate post about how I feel now.

There can be something monastic about graduate student life, particularly in the sciences. It's such a focussed, self-contained community, and it can be isolating.

Those of us who have come directly into grad school, having spent our whole lives in education from nursery-age on, may feel the remoteness and smallness of the world we've chosen to enter especially acutely. Or perhaps it's just me. I've been all together angst-ridden on the subject since before I started filling out applications last year. What's been bothering me is the sense that, by entering graduate school, I was really just hiding from the real world.

This does feel unreal, still. I worry that I'm somehow extending my adolescence indefinitely. More school, more homework, more studenty rented rooms and cafeteria food, while cousins my age take jobs as teachers and cops, get married and and have kids, and save up for a down-payment on a house. I wonder if what I'm doing isn't just meaningless self-indulgence, a kind of game that I get paid for, but which, unlike baseball or hockey, doesn't entertain anyone but me. I wonder if I should quit and become a nurse... I would make a terrible nurse. And anyway I can’t quit now, without feeling like I’ve just surrendered, given up on something hard. Knowing that I can’t quit honorably, makes the angst worse.

I wonder what else I can do to feel useful, or at least adult, or at least different from the high-school version of myself. To feel different, I cut off my hair and started wearing a bit of make-up now and then. For a role-model of “adult” that doesn’t include nursing or minivans or monkishness, I’ve chosen Katharine Hepburn characters, and have been diligently watching all the Hepburn movies Blockbuster has. And as for “useful”... I’ve taken up woodcarving. I’ve made a teaspoon and am halfway through a hairbrush. It’s nice to have something other than pencil marks to show for my efforts. These measures are more satisfying than you would expect.

I’ll feel more a part of the real world when I start doing real research, I hope, especially if I do it in a field with practical applications. But even then, I won’t really have escaped the ivory tower. Maybe I could go babysit my cousin’s kids for him, while he’s working in the GM factory, or while he’s at school. He dropped out to get the job and get married, but now he’s going back part time, to work on an engineering degree.


(note: this cousin is now training to be a pilot instead.)

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