Masochistic Grad Students and Empathetic Rats

16 Dec

I used to find such solace in writing.  For the past four months, I have written very little for myself – next to nothing, in fact.  I can’t blame it on the busyness.  My life has always been and will probably always be busy.  I can’t blame it on the fact that I have had to write a great deal for other people either.  I knew then and know now why I didn’t write and why I didn’t want to.  There are times when writing is cathartic and allows one to experience a sense of freedom after a burden has been unloaded onto the page, but there are others when revealing one’s heart in black and white makes the pain hurt all the more instead of healing it.  It was hard enough to write out the facts and place the events of this fall on a stark timeline.  Each notation was so loaded with emotion, emotion that I could vocalize but could not write.  Writing it down made it more real and that much more devastating.  Even now, as I side-step around actually naming the feelings and the events that prompted them, a cacophony of emotions wash over me, and I am thankful that I am already sitting down.

So why do I write now?  I’m not really sure.  The moment feels right (no pun intended), and I once again feel that familiar tug.  And yet, I am having trouble getting started.  I censor myself too much as I write.  It is so hard for me to just allow myself to put on the page whatever comes to mind.  I’m all too well aware that my writing defines and marks me in an important way.  I don’t remember the last time I wrote completely unselfconsciously, and that bothers me.  There is something in me that longs for the release I know would come from the experience, but I fear what I might see on the page.  I also know that I cannot write that way in this space.  It’s much too public. However there are some things I can share here for those who are interested and in the hope that some of what I have gone through might be of some use to someone else.

As I dive into writing again, I should probably explain this post’s title. It seems to be a consensus among grad students, that if anyone knew what they were getting into when they began grad school, they would never have even submitted applications.  The application process, in and of itself, should be an indication of what awaits prospective grad students, but I don’t think that occurs to anyone until after it’s too late and they’re committed to a program.  Many students drop out of grad school, and I can’t say I blame them, but there are many who choose to stay despite everything.  Thankfully, I’ve found that fellow grad students are much like the empathetic rats that scientists recently discovered.  At the heart of the graduate maze lies the PhD, the prize for which every grad student strives, and along the way, I’ve found comrades who understand the struggle to make it through that maze.  I am so grateful for their encouragement and support, along with others “on the outside” (of academia) who have been there for me.

Because of the delicate nature of the situation in which I’ve found myself, I cannot share many details of this fall in a public forum.  However, perhaps by sharing my struggle with the consequent emotions, another student may see that their trials and dilemmas are not unique and that they are not alone.  Over the past year, but particularly the past four months, I have borne the brunt of unrelenting personal attacks and have been told repeatedly that I was incompetent and had no right to be in grad school.  If the criticism had been focused on specific shortcomings in my academic writing and coupled with helpful suggestions for improvement, I would have been fine.  Instead, the constant and unjustified abuse led me to feel an increasing sense of shame, not just in reference to my writing but in who I am as a person.

These are issues that are rarely discussed in grad school, and when they are brought up, they are too often attributed to the student being overly sensitive.  To make sure I did not fall into this category, I shared some specifics with colleagues who affirmed that what I was experiencing was not normal and that the personal attacks were unwarranted.  I am still struck by the realization of how much trust I had placed in the person and how much power one person has to destroy a graduate student’s career.  I think that mine can be salvaged, but this situation has presented some major setbacks that I am still trying to overcome, not least in my personal life.  Until things fell apart, I couldn’t see how much I had tied my sense of self to my academic career. Grad school requires students to pour every ounce of themselves into it, and when one faces a situation like this, it feels like one’s very personhood is on trial.

I have spent a great deal of time questioning whether or not I belong in a doctoral program. I think I do. When I arrived on campus and through my first two years in the program, I felt like I had finally found a place where I fit and I felt challenged in a positive way. However, I have also considered other options in terms of careers and the type of life I want.   I think academia could still be a good fit for me, but I am open to several paths now in a way I was not before.  This fall has also revealed in an almost tangible way how important relationships with friends, family, and colleagues are to me.  And this past year and a half has demonstrated that if I do not maintain my health, I literally cannot function.  For me, that means a strict diet, more sleep than I generally allow myself, and making time to work out.  I realize this is obvious, but most people can cheat on these things for weeks, months, and years on end, but I’ve discovered I can’t.

I wish I could conclude this post with an uplifting report about how I’ve traveled a rough road but things have smoothed out and I’m on a solid footing once again, but I can’t.  I remain in limbo as I sort everything out and try to decide on the best path.  At the very least, I see options now, something I couldn’t say earlier this fall. And I’ve begun to write for myself again.


Posted by on December 16, 2011 in Graduate School, Self-Reflection


Tags: , , , ,

3 responses to “Masochistic Grad Students and Empathetic Rats

  1. trinzic

    December 16, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    I find the cadence in your writing very soothing and familiar. Hope you don’t mind if I stick around and see what develops now that you’re back to expressing yourself here.

    • pilgrim752

      December 16, 2011 at 4:53 pm

      I am always surprised and honored whenever someone wants to read my writing. Thank you and welcome to the site!

  2. Murakami

    December 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

    I’ve discovered that ultimately, all things are whatever we allow them to be. If we give something power over us, then we are ultimately and for all time a slave to it. We begin to conform to the conditioned helplessness that the idea conveys because it is the only way that we can find to deal with the hopelessness of a situation that we are unable to cope with on our own.

    You may never be able to write anywhere without fear because you accept them as constricting concepts that will strangle your ability to feel what you might actually feel. They are going to be simply shadows that trail behind you and gradually you’ll lose sight of even that. It is said that time heals everything, but it doesn’t heal in a situation where you actively seek avoidance. It simply falls back into the midst of numbness. There are a great many people who lead effective lives that way, who do what is expected of them and have taught themselves not to miss the things that “might” be. Some believe that there is incredible power in submission. If that is their belief, then they are entitled to it. We all get to construct the world that we can best handle, even if for some of us it is a world filled with emotional pain and dissatisfaction. I’ve seen people in my group sessions who carefully cultivate their gardens of woe because that anguish defines them. It has become their central pillar of self. They don’t actually want to find a new pillar, they simply seek a way to find an impossible joy in the path of thorns that they have chosen. They bounce from meeting to meeting on their trail of tears and never once try to change the underlying thought patterns that lay them low and knock them flat.

    It is very difficult sometimes to convince people that they construct their own cages and that often, they can simply open the door and walk out as well.

    All that I can really write is that you are good enough to be in graduate school. You are intelligent and capable enough to achieve a Ph.D. Many teacher-researchers get by while being both far less intelligent about their topics and less capable in writing it. Your enemy is grasping at your low-self esteem to deny you something that should be yours. Please don’t allow this person to use your self-image against you. I believe that every student, even the student of life, deserves to be nurtured and respected. I hope that you have been in touch with a nurturing spirit.

    I also don’t think that most people can deny themselves those things you write off and be successful. You have to remember that everyone who is “healthy and successful” in this culture, including you, puts up a facade to meet expectations. On the inside, there are many more people bleeding to death than you’d ever imagine.

    You should read and write for yourself. No one else can do that for you.
    Remember too, that you are special, even if there are many others out there whose life and experiences resemble yours.


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