Posts Tagged ‘graduate student’

Well, it seems I am back from my hiatus, and boy do I have a lot to tell you.

I am leaving my graduate school program.

There is a TL;DR version at the bottom of the post. But if you want the details, and something to think about, read the whole thing. Fair warning, this gets a little personal, so if you’re not comfortable with that, feel free to read the TL;DR version.

I know not everyone will understand why I’ve made this choice, given that I’ve been in this program for a while and I am “close” to finishing, and that’s ok. This post is not a defense of this choice I have made. It may sound like that a times, but really I just want to explain what I’ve been going through over the past year. I know some people will be curious for an explanation, and I also want this to serve as a warning to anyone considering graduate school in the sciences. That said, I am certainly not trying to talk anyone OUT of going to graduate school. Rather, I am trying to tell you to follow your dreams, as unexpected as they may come about, for your own happiness, not for anyone else’s. It may sound selfish, but I have learned that essentially torturing yourself because you think it will make someone else happy is a terrible way to live your life. It took me a horrible year of graduate school (I am now 2 and a half years into my program as I write this) to figure this out, so hopefully I can help others figure this out sooner.

There are many reasons why I have made this choice, but I’m only going to talk about a few of them that may be relevant to other people struggling with a similar situation.

Let me start by stating that I don’t really like doing research, particularly laboratory/computer-based research. This is something I learned mostly while in the process. Data collection can take a really long time to generate and then analyze. Some people love that. Turns out I’m not one of them. No one really warned me about HOW tedious research can be, and it’s the kind of thing you can’t really understand until you’ve tried it for yourself. I also really rely on structure in my life. Term projects, like those I experienced in my undergraduate science courses, are completely different from masters theses or PhD dissertations. They’re smaller, they have concrete deadlines, rather than the sort of nebulous “when will I have done enough to wrap this up into a manuscript” deadlines of graduate school theses/dissertations. I hate never really knowing when enough is enough until you’re past it. There is a lot of uncertainty in research that really doesn’t work for me. It took me actually doing a TON of this type of research to figure out that I really don’t like it. That said, if you love research, by all means go to graduate school and do a big research project. I’m just saying, it’s not for everyone, and it’s not for me. There are also some programs that don’t have thesis projects attached. I almost went to one. But those non-research advanced degrees generally don’t pay you to do them (I’ve been paid as a teaching assistant the whole time I’ve been here).

The main takeaway here is that if you are thinking about graduate school, ask a LOT of questions about how the process usually works. Be very inquisitive. Tell people to be honest with you about what the experience was like for them. Ultimately, the graduate school experience should be a good one, even if it’s really difficult. If you’re in the middle of it, and you’re miserable all the time, consider trying something else.

Another reason that I’ve decided to leave the program is that I have this problem where I want to make everyone happy. My anxiety problems all stem from this one core aspect of myself that I am trying to change, because in reality – no one can make EVERYONE else happy. Someone will always wind up disappointed or angry or sad or whatever. For the past year, that someone has been me. It’s exhausting and unsustainable, especially when I now know what I want to pursue as a career goal, and it doesn’t require this degree. But I was so focused on doing this because I thought it was what other people wanted for me, that I ignored how miserable I was trying to do it.

Here is a request for all parental-figure-types (parents, grandparents, advisors, etc.): Please don’t pressure your children to go to graduate school. Tell them they have all the options in the world. Encourage them to make the right decisions for themselves, what’s best for THEIR lives and career goals, things THEY want out of life. Emphasize that you will be ok with whatever they choose – that you will support them and love them regardless. Just, be careful how you phrase things when you’re inquiring what your children are going to do with their lives, especially if you hope they go to graduate school. And remember, money isn’t everything.

I don’t want to go into too many details about what I’ve been dealing with, but I would like to share this comic that someone made that explains anxiety PERFECTLY. So if you don’t have any kind of anxiety problem, please read this to better understand what people like me are going through.

In my case, it’s mostly bad reactions to situational triggers. Right now, the trigger is my thesis. I’ve tried a lot of different things over the past 6 months to manage this, but nothing has really worked because this situation I’m in is really difficult, and it’s no longer something that I want or care much about. I know graduate school is difficult – it’s difficult for most people, and all graduate students are stressed out more often than not. But sometimes you reach a point where it’s not worth it anymore, and that point will be different for everyone.

For me, that point was when I realized my anxiety was beginning to cause depression and had started to affect my physical health. I lost 10 pounds in the last 6 months simply because I’ve been too stressed out and anxious to eat properly. My weight hasn’t been this low since at least high school. After a particularly stressful weekend, I developed a cold thanks to my anxiety-weakened immune system.

It’s taken me a really long time to be comfortable with the idea of leaving my degree program. I’m not a quitter. Plus, as a society we have this really weird attitude about quitting a particular career path, even if it’s not what we want and we’re really unhappy. News flash: the world doesn’t end when you quit a job, and it doesn’t end when you quit graduate school.

The highlight of my experience here in graduate school has been being a teaching assistant. Teaching is the most rewarding part of the whole gig for me, and I mostly teach freshmen. So, when my dad and I went hiking last September and he asked me if I’d thought about teaching high school science, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch. The more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. I spent random hours looking into how to get certified to teach. I read my evaluations from past students from the last few semesters – and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Teaching gives me a sense of purpose, it makes me feel like I’m actually making a difference in the world, encouraging students to think critically, to get excited about science, to perhaps pursue science in their future, or at least learn something useful. The idea to teach science at the secondary level feels like the most natural choice I’ve ever made in my career path. Writing a research thesis just doesn’t feel right anymore. But you know, if I’d never gone to grad school, I wouldn’t have realized I loved teaching so much, so…

This January I will be packing up my life and moving on to the next adventure. I’m going to spend the next year and a half earning my teaching certification in Wisconsin, and then I’ll hopefully land myself a fun job teaching science in a Washington high school. I’m hoping that as I go through this, Earth Science will grow in popularity in schools (it’s already starting to), and I can be a part of teaching students more about my favorite topic of science. Once I get my footing I’ll pursue some kind of teaching-related masters degree, but for now I’m taking it one step at a time.

TL;DR version:

I quit graduate school (working to earn my MS degree) for many reasons, but mostly because it was severely affecting my mental health with anxiety and depression, which had begun to affect my physical health as well, AND I don’t really care about the project or the degree anymore. This is no longer the path I wish to follow, and since I’ve been here I’ve learned that I really enjoy teaching science, and I would like to pursue that at the secondary education level. I’m going to Wisconsin at the end of the month to begin an alternative routes to teaching certification program, which will end with my certification to teach science in high school or middle school. I then plan to take my certification back to Washington and fill one of the MANY STEM field teaching vacancies (preferably at a school that wants to teach Earth Science).

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I really hate how graduate school work requires ridiculously long hours. I was warned about this before I went in, but listening to a warning about something and actually experiencing something are totally different things.

This line of thought is made worse when you consider why graduate school requires such long hours. It’s a restriction applied based on money. Well, money and the convention that a Master of Science degree is supposed to take 2 years, and a PhD is supposed to take 5-6 years. My particular money restriction is just the contract I signed before I got here – I get 2 academic years on a TA. My tuition is waivered because I’m working for the university. But once those two years are up, even if I still have a summer of thesis research/writing to do (and let’s face, I have at least a summer), they stop paying me, and I have to start chipping in for tuition. Nevermind the fact that the methods I’m using are extremely time consuming. Nevermind the fact that I did a summer internship and lost a lot of time I could have been researching. It’s not like they’ll chuck me out (at least, I hope my advisor will let me stay until I’m finished, as does every graduate student), but they won’t help me pay my way anymore.

So here I am, working at least 12 hours a day, socializing minimally, if at all, throwing my hobbies (writing, reading, blogging, hiking, exploring the city, relaxing) into storage until my graduate school prison sentence is up. Yeah, that’s what it feels like to me. I go for weeks having forgotten what fun and happiness feel like. I’m not saying it’s like this for everyone, but it is for me. I hope I’ll look back on this experience and remember the good times. But right now they are much too few and far between for me to appreciate.

However, the only way out for me is through, and so I must persevere. I am confident, at least, that I’ll be finished in time for the holidays (hopefully sooner). But the tedium and endless to-do lists that seem to grow on a daily basis are really getting to me right now. I suppose I am in the home stretch, or very close to it at least. But there is still much to do.

In the interest of finishing as fast as possible and retaining a small fraction of my sanity, I need to go on a hiatus from blogging so I can make more time for doing thesis-related things, and so the things I do for fun don’t feel so much like chores that are only there to distract me (much as I enjoy doing them). Removing the need to blog will remove one of my weekly obligations, and theoretically lighten my stress load, which has reached critical mass. When I do anything fun (and I’m sure many graduate students can attest to feeling this way as well), it comes with an unfortunate feeling of guilt for taking a break from the thesis.

This article sums it up perfectly. So in a further attempt to remove distractions, the blog needs to go into storage with the rest of my happiness until I’m finished with this nightmare that is graduate school.

These feelings of misery were also spurred by the realization of a very stupid mistake I made while collecting my data. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a small setback, and I created a bunch more work for myself to re-do, while I should be moving on to something else.

Hopefully I shall return to you by the end of the summer, but for now – farewell. If you need a new blog to read, I highly recommend any and all of the blogs linked on my blog roll on the sidebar. Enjoy!

P.S. – If I think of anything that absolutely MUST be blogged about, you may see some bonus blog posts in the months to come before I graduate. But don’t expect to see anything until the end of August.

P.P.S. – If you are like me and you struggle with stress and anxiety, and you’re thinking about going to graduate school, think very carefully about how you feel about research versus taking classes. There are programs out there with non-thesis options, they just generally require you to pay for them. Consider this a warning from someone who is experiencing this right now – graduate school with research is a very high-stress environment. Make sure it’s what you want to do.

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If you are new to my blog, I am a graduate student. For me this means two very important things: 1) I like to find new and exciting ways to procrastinate instead of attempting the difficult work I have to do and 2) I am OFTEN stressed out and/or anxious and/or worried about a great many things. I do not like these things about myself, but I know I cannot change them overnight. So I have finally come up with a couple of “New Year’s resolutions” that will target these two things. In general, I want to procrastinate less and take better care of my anxiety/worry issues. These goals, while honorable, are rather vague and lofty. I also know I am not alone in having these problems, especially as a graduate student. If you want some better evidence than my word, take a look at PhD Comics. Read them. Realize you are not alone. Then realize that the only way out is through. (Or, you know, you could always quit. I would never think less of you for that, having had the experience I am having in graduate school. It’s just not my personal style to give up.)

I spend a lot of time being jealous of my friends who are no longer in graduate school, living their lives, working, coming home, and having the freedom to do what they want with their off-the-clock time. As a graduate student, we do not have off-the-clock time. Not really. I mean, sure, you need a mental health day a few times a month, but sometimes those are hard to justify with the amount of work we’re required to do. I honestly can’t wait for this experience to be over. But I cannot wish the next 8 months of my life away, and so I must change my attitude about it.

I have discussed my roller coaster emotions induced by my graduate school experiences. But I’ve never talked about my anxiety. It’s a personal issue, but it’s one that I know many people deal with every day. I also know that it is a manageable condition. A couple years ago I learned how to manage my anxiety really well. I was doing great.

Then I went to graduate school, left all my helpful tools for dealing with this problem at home, and anxiety has slowly crept back into my brain over the last year and a half. It’s annoying and frustrating. There’s a lot of self-doubt in graduate school (unless you are arrogant, which, you know, sometimes I wish I could be that in graduate school), a lot of pressure to get things done quickly – especially when you’re trying to do a 2-year Masters degree vs. a 5-6-year PhD. If you don’t think graduate school is stressful, you are wrong, or possibly not doing it right.

Anxiety is not an excuse, though. Yeah, it sucks, and it drags you through the mud, but it is never an excuse. I have come up with a few “resolutions” for this year to help me take control of my anxiety again. My hope is that in posting them here on my blog, I can hold myself accountable for them, and maybe even provide encouragement and/or help to people in similar situations. It’s possible the only person who is going to read this is my mother, but at least I can pretend that other people, people dealing with similar problems, will be in my corner cheering for me if I make this deal with the universe on my blog. I promise I’m in your corner.

My resolutions are these:

1. Limit my facebook usage to once a week, when I need to post my blog in my blog pact group. In order to accomplish this, I have signed out of the website on my laptop. I also don’t have facebook on my phone anymore, but I made that decision sometime ago last year. I’m only a couple days in, but it feels better already. Facebook for me is a time suck, and I would rather spend that time reading or getting more work done, or actually interacting with people in the physical world. This is more to target my procrastination issues than my anxiety, but it also helps reduce the guilt I may feel at perusing Facebook when I need to be doing something else.

2. Exercise daily. Even if it’s just the short 4-block walk from my car to campus and back. Everything I’ve read lists exercise as the number one way to get anxiety under control. It’s science. Not science I understand, because I’m a geologist rather than a biologist or chemist, but it is tangible. I notice the difference when I exercise vs when I don’t. If walking isn’t your thing, and you want to try this too, I highly recommend one of those 7-minute workout apps, specifically one that rewards you for reaching goals, like working out 3-days in a row, or for 30 minutes, or whatever. This is my first line of defense against anxiety.

3. Go to sleep earlier/sleep more. This will consist of only allowing myself ONE episode of TV on my iPad in bed, or none at all, and reading. When I am horizontal and reading, it is very easy for me to fall asleep. It’s easier with my kindle, because I don’t have to worry about turning a light off (but I might even get a new lamp that allows me to just hit it – anywhere – to turn it off). I also need to be better at getting up in the morning, so I can justify stopping working and heading home from campus when I no longer wish to continue for the night. Going to sleep earlier seems like the best place to start. Also, better sleep means less anxiety. This particular method may not work for everyone, but if you’re struggling with anxiety and worry like I am, find a method that works for you.

4. Re-educate myself on dealing with anxiety. Join a therapy group. Read articles online about methods for dealing with anxiety. Read inspirational quotes about managing anxiety. Do one of those thought-journal things. These are all things that will aid in my re-education (and that reminded me of Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines series and the last book is coming out soon yay!), and they might help with yours, too. Managing anxiety is all about having a toolbox of skills and methods to help you. Yes, it takes work, but the place to start is building that toolbox.

5. Eradicate the word “should” from my vocabulary. “Should” is a terrible word. It brings with it massive negative connotations, and heaps of guilt when it’s directed at yourself. This is something I do remember from my days of well-controlled anxiety. Replace it with words like “need” or “want.” It can also lead you to make life decisions that contradict what you actually want to do with your life, and that doesn’t help anyone. “Should” is an awful word. Get rid of it.

Five resolutions kind of feels like a lot, but I think they are all manageable because they are directed, and they’re all stepping-stones toward my overarching goals for this year.

Also, this is a fantastic thing to read if you struggle with stress/anxiety as much as I do. It’s on Captain Awkward’s website, written by Elodie Under Glass as a guest post. The Thought Catalog is also a great resource for tips to deal with anxiety. I recently found their list of inspirational quotes about anxiety to be helpful. Sure, some of them are kind of cheesy, but there are some really good ones in there that I’m going to try to keep in mind this year.

I feel better already having just written this, and I hope this post meant something to those of you who are struggling with anxiety as well. It is not the end of the world. We can manage this.

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This post is for graduate students, people contemplating graduate school, and people who want to understand what their graduate school friends are going through.


from PHD Comics


Graduate school is hard. This, hopefully, is not a surprise. But it’s difficult to understand how hard it really is without going through the experience.

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching, and thus I find myself on an emotional roller coaster. I have a thousand and one things to do, and they all feel like they needed to be done yesterday. I have a lot of feelings about attending graduate school, why I chose to go, why I’m still here. It’s complicated. But I’m writing this post for people who are still thinking about going back to school, so they can make informed decisions, at least about the emotional side of things.

I feel the need to explain that I am in graduate school for geology, and the logistics of how that works. First off, geology, like most sciences, is generally a paid graduate program. You are there either on a research or teaching assistantship (I’m here on a TA), and so you are getting paid to do one of these two things, and your tuition is waived. I don’t get paid much, but I essentially don’t have the stress of worrying about how I’m going to pay for this education in the present or future (although, I do have student loans from my undergraduate degree, so I am not without a significant amount of debt – I just don’t have to worry about paying it right now). This is, of course, different for non-science graduate programs. Some are paid for, some you must pay for yourselves – there are many different ways to go about graduate school. Paid or unpaid, both have their benefits and drawbacks. I, for instance, don’t have to pay for what I’m doing, and I am indeed paid to teach and do research. But this means I am both attending school and working a normal-ish job, so my workload is a bit higher than it would be if I didn’t have to teach.

As a geology graduate student TA, I have to take a minimum of 24 course credits, plus at least 6 thesis credits, during my time here. I am on the semester system, so I teach/grade for two classes each semester (right now it’s Geology 101 lab and grading for Historical Geology/Earth System History, for those who wish to know). I may only have 6 thesis credits required, but the actual time it takes one to complete a thesis is much greater than that. Theoretically, this must all be done within 2 years (and I mean full years, not 2 academic years – I get to use my summers as well).

On top of all teaching and taking classes, I must also produce a thesis project for my Masters of Science degree. Hours upon hours of research and data collection, follow by hours upon hours of writing. Right now I’m neck-deep in data collection.

My third semester is almost over.

Of course, the panic tends to set in for everyone at the end of every semester. Final exams are approaching like fire-breathing dragons (and some professors like to give exams right before Thanksgiving… I have one tomorrow, despite the fact that there are only two and a half weeks of class left before finals. Ugh.). Final projects are due (I’ve got one due next Tuesday, before Thanksgiving). Holiday/vacation planning is in full swing, if you allow yourself to take the time off. It’s a stressful time of year. And it happens twice a year for students.

For graduate students, at least in the sciences, it’s compounded by the fact that your advisor is breathing down your neck asking why you haven’t gotten things done (whether or not they are actually doing this in real life, they’re probably still doing this in your head). It is both a gift and a curse to have an advisor who cares about you finishing your degree on time. I almost wish I didn’t, because it makes me feel guilty when I don’t have time for thesis stuff any given day. As a result, my brain sometimes begins to spiral.

You have research to do! Why on earth did you decide to take that extra class, even though it’s really interesting and will likely help you get a job in the future?? Why are you doing this to yourself? What was wrong with your life before graduate school that you had to abandon it for this life of torture??!

Graduate school, at least in my case (and many others in the sciences), is a juggling act of teaching, learning, and researching. You’d think that taking our the teaching might make it less horrible, but honestly? Teaching is probably my favorite part of this whole experience. It’s also the easiest. Next semester I won’t have any more classes to take, and I do have the whole summer after that. The goal is to start writing my thesis in the middle of spring semester. At this point I honestly have no idea if I’ll make that deadline. It feels far away and scary and there are SO MANY THINGS that need to get done between now and then. Weekends are no longer real. The future is not so vast, and it’s hard to keep things in perspective in graduate school.

In the grand scheme of life, I do not regret this decision. I have met many wonderful people I otherwise never would have come in contact with, and I am happy I have them in my life because I chose to go to graduate school. I am sure my degree (once I earn it, hopefully before I snap and run away) will help me get a better job in future.

But right now I’m in a dark tunnel and I can’t see those shiny lights at the end.

This is what graduate school is like. Not all the time, but at least once a semester. It’s made even harder when you see what your friends back home are doing on facebook and twitter, having a grand ol’ time of life. Or when you see your new, non-graduate school friends go to work and come home able to relax and do whatever they want. I know what that life is like – I took two years off before going back to school. On the one hand, I’m glad I did, because it helped me figure out what I wanted to learn about in graduate school. But on the other hand, I know what I’m missing without school in my life, and that’s hard.

Graduate school is stressful. It is the most stressful thing I have ever gone through. Would I have decided to go if I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now? I don’t know. That’s a really difficult question, one I try not to think about (but inevitably do around this time of year).

I must keep reminding myself that if all goes according to plan (and I honestly don’t know if it is right now) I have less than a year left of this life. My stepmom always says you can do anything for a year. Thing is, I’ve been doing this for a year and a half already. But I’ve made it this far, it would be stupid to run away now. I am not a quitter, and I would hate myself forever if I just gave up and walked away, so no worries of that happening.

It’s really difficult to balance relaxation and fun time with the amount of work you are required to do. This is something I have struggled with my entire life though. It’s exhausting. My greatest advice to new graduate students is this: make time for fun, and for yourself. You may find yourself working 12 hour days (that’s where I am right now). But you need to find a way to cut yourself some slack when you do that, or you’ll burn out. This past summer I did an internship, and it was basically like a real job. Yes, it set me back on my research progress, and yes, it didn’t end with a job offer. But it gave me another taste of the real world post-school, and a chance to recharge for the second year of graduate school (not to mention I met one of my best friends there). I don’t know if I’d be in a better place now, mentally, if I hadn’t done that internship. Sure, I’d have more data for my research project, and I’d be further along with it all, but I’d also be taking another class right now, and that sounds awful.


Like I said, graduate school is an emotional roller coaster. You get really excited about things like staring down a microscope at sparkly minerals and rock fragments, but then you also get overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do in such a short amount of time. I am going to take things one day or one week at a time, because looking further ahead than that is terrifying. I promise it is not all gloom and doom. I have learned a great many things here and I am thrilled to know them all. I love what my project is about. I just wish I had more time.

Here’s a great list of 8 struggles only a graduate student will understand. Although it’s also a good read for non-graduate students who want to understand what their friends and family members are going through.

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