Grad school suddenly is meaningless

How do I keep going when the thrill is gone and the scholars around me are quitting in disgust?


Cary Tennis
December 10, 2010 6:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm in an unusual position, and I have no experience with the challenges I'm facing.

I'm at a top-ranked graduate school, and I've been purring along, performing my graduate student duties, and feeling really good about myself and what I'm doing. Then my good friend and colleague quit a professorship that had taken over and ruined her life. Post-docs are now telling me that they have no job prospects and that they wish they had known earlier. The whole premise of my efforts has crumbled. I feel like I've been duped, but my advisor keeps acting like pursuing his profession is the only way to be happy. The more I think about it, the less and less I want to do this for a living. It's lonely and I feel like I'm wasting my time on problems that no one cares about. I suppose I could imagine marching forward, but the ships wrecked at the feet of the Sirens give me pause. My attitude has taken a complete 180.

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I also feel ashamed. My identity has been wrapped up in my studies. I have learned to derive my sense of self-worth from the fact that I would work hard and sacrifice for my passions. Now I feel completely lost. I imagine all these other people having a sense of direction and hope that their efforts will be rewarded and I'm insanely jealous. This also decreases my self-esteem: What right do I have to self-pity when I'm in a good school and I have good job prospects outside my field? But the most important thing to me -- my passion, the thing I always thought would give me solidarity through troubled times -- feels lost. What is the point of a good-paying job if I'm going to feel dead inside doing it?

I find it hard to tell people about my problem because there is a certain schadenfreude in their eyes, a sort of witness to my fall from grace. I wish they knew that even though on the outside everything looks peachy, on the inside I feel like I've been hollowed out like a pumpkin.

Lost in Graduate School

Dear Lost,

No matter what you decide to do later, right now you need to get through this crisis by reclaiming your passion for this work.

You must recall your original dream. Don't worry for now about how realistic that dream was. You need to connect with your positive emotions.

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Conditions have changed and will continue to change. Our own effectiveness fluctuates day to day. What sustains us through these ups and downs is our emotional connection to what we do, and the meaning it has for us. To keep going, we need to maintain a lively and vivid connection to our root sense of purpose. Sometimes we need to consciously kick-start this, if we do not have the intuitive and seemingly automatic self-knowledge about how to keep ourselves motivated that some people are lucky enough to have.

If you are a music scholar, every now and then you have to just get out and play. If you are an astronomer, every now and then you have to look up at the sky and wonder at it the way you did when you were a kid. If you are studying culture or policy, every now and then you have to go to a soup kitchen or march in a demonstration or volunteer at a clinic. This keeps you connected to the human dimension of your studies.

So what were the emotions associated with your decision to enter this field? What were your hopes and dreams? What is the feeling that you loved that got you into this? Were there books or materials that inspired you to get into this? Go and look at them again. If you have a favorite book, or a favorite thinker, go and read that work again. Immerse yourself in the passionate beginnings. Get that old feeling back. Remind yourself why you're here. Were there friends you used to talk with about this work, friends who shared your passion for it? Call one or two and talk. Bring alive what it was that got you into this in the first place.

What about this advisor, too? Is his enthusiasm infectious, or is it off-putting? If you need encouragement, perhaps you could spend some more time with him -- if he is capable of transmitting to you his certainty in the correctness of his course. That is, some people are so sure of themselves that they fill the rest of us with doubt. But if he has a way of reminding you why you got into this in the first place, then spend some time with him. Get the old spirit back.

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It's an emotion. It's a feeling of certainty: Ah, this is what I was meant to be doing! Also ask yourself in what aspects of your work do you get this feeling? What aspects are, by contrast, dull and exhausting? Perhaps you are in a phase of your study where you are doing mostly the dull work, and you need a dose of the highly motivating, exciting stuff for which you got into this in the first place.

This self-doubt didn't happen in a vacuum. You witnessed something disturbing. You may have unacknowledged or unstated feelings about your friend's leaving her professorship. You may feel abandoned, or betrayed. After all, she rejected this course of action that you remain on. She rejected what you believe in. But she had her own reasons. Her situation is different from yours.

Consider the words you use to characterize what happened. You say she quit a professorship that had "taken over and ruined her life." That is a fearful image, as though the professorship were some kind of supernatural monster, and as though she had no agency. To recast this, one might say that she got into severe emotional and perhaps ethical difficulties and made a decision to change careers. There was probably a good deal of pain and difficulty, perhaps some trauma and wrenching personal conflict, but it's a scary exaggeration to say that her professorship ruined her life.

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What happened did, however, alert you to certain dangers in the profession, and that's a good thing.

In fact, if you've been "purring along" all this time, this may be a sign to examine the deeper and more difficult questions related to your calling. I mean, good for you. Every choice implies danger. Every endeavor is dangerous. No endeavor is sure or foolproof. It is healthy to be aware of the danger.

You might consider this a part of your curriculum, then: the curriculum of fear. The danger and uncertainty of an enterprise can sharpen one's commitment to it. It can cause you to revisit your original purposes and to find in them a deep and abiding strength to carry you through.

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Cary Tennis

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