Every graduate student, always, everywhere

“Read your post… sounds like me!”

“That’s exactly how I feel.”

After my last entry on my most recent doubts about graduate school, there were a number of people who contacted me. I had friends directly talk to me, and even people I hadn’t seen in years email me. The general consensus was that 1. this horrible feeling is normal/expected and 2. more people than not go through this, and if you don’t, then you’re the weird one.

Then, this evening, a friend on Facebook posted a link to a piece written in the Science “Working Life” section. The article was on an inorganic chemistry doctoral student who felt severe burn-out after completing their degree, and how a break to hike the Pacific Crest Trail brought him perspective.

I sometimes wonder if the people I am getting career advice from have had a lapse of memory when it comes to their time in grad school. Or maybe, their experience was different and they didn’t feel the kind of burn-out that me and my friends are experiencing. Or maybe, they just don’t see the problem. I say this, because I have yet to have one of my mentors suggest to me that a break might be good or necessary. In fact, the only feeling I get after talking to them is that if I deviate at all I risk putting my career in jeopardy. It could also just be a matter of me not bringing it up with them.

The simple truth is that landing a job or a post doc right after I finish won’t do me a bit of good if I can’t mentally or emotionally hack it.

One of the things I told myself early on in graduate school is that under no circumstances will I abuse myself or let other people abuse me. I’m not referring to regular stress or regular senses of doubt; but, after my Dad died suddenly and my engagement fell apart I decided that life was too short to waste it being miserable. I’m not working this hard or sacrificing this much to waste my life.

In the past when I’ve been feeling bad like this, the thing that has brought me the most comfort is thinking of my whole experience as an adventure which I can control. When I get down about not having a “real job”, I remember a conversation with my friend Xian about how this totally is a real job. This is what I’m doing right now. It’s not permanent, but really, what job is these days? Taking a step away from what I’ve been doing will probably give me the change of perspective to decide if this is something I want to continue doing, or if a different chapter of my life is going to begin.

Another thing: simply getting a PhD is an accomplishment in itself. I have absolutely nothing to be feel bad about, aside from being tired.

I seriously doubt I will be in the sort of physical condition to do something like hike across a continent, but the general idea of doing something where my focus is on the immediate present is appealing. If I can put away even a modest amount of money, I fully plan on disappearing from academia for a while once I have my degree in hand. I don’t have many belongings that I feel a permanent attachment to and, if necessary, my cat could probably stay with my mom for a couple of months if I asked her.

Absolutely none of the details are sorted out, but the very idea of taking a detour from what I’ve been working on for over a decade is seeming more refreshing than terrifying. It’s something to work towards and look forward to.

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