Perspective

With all the stress, depression, busyness, and chaos that is grad school, you may be wondering why anyone would subject themselves to such a life. We all have a reason for staying. You have to have these reasons to keep you going when times get hard. And believe me, they will get hard.

A PhD isn’t something you go after when you can’t get a job and have nothing else to do. If that is the case, you’ll either fall in love with research and stay, or drop out after a Masters (which is still effing awesome and nothing to be ashamed of btw).

I had a bit of a wake up call in therapy last week when I was talking about how I felt that grad school had ‘robbed’ me of my life and things that make me happy. My psychiatrist looked at me and asked me why I came to grad school. He pointed out that some people are in grad school against their will (for whatever reason: ambitious parents, degree requirements, etc). He then asked if I was forced to come to grad school. I wasn’t. I came of my own free will. So he asked again, why?

I was forced to sit and think about why I came to grad school. Sure, there are the reasons I joke about, love dat college lyfe, didn’t wanna get a job, yada yada yada. But those aren’t reasons to go to grad school and spend the better part of 3 years debating about staying vs. leaving (spoiler alert, I decided to stay).

The real reason I came to grad school is because I am unsatisfied. I am unsatisfied with the amount of knowledge I currently have. I am not satisfied knowing x + y = z. I am not satisfied knowing that your computer saves files to a hard drive or that rubber bands are stretchy because they are a polymer.

There is a real need to know the very fundamentals of how the world works. I need to know that rubber bands are a polymer, which means they have a certain crystal structure and the atoms are joined by a certain type of bond in a certain way that allows for enough potential energy to be stored before breaking that they are considered ‘stretchy’. I need to know that a computer reads binary using switches that differentiate between 1 and 0. I need to break a concept down to its most basic parts. This, inevitably, also ends up being the most complicated.

In undergrad, they show you equations, a black box of assumptions and the answer. I need to pick apart that black box and understand it’s role in providing the answers. Where do the assumptions come from? Why make these assumptions and not those?

Only when I grasp this am I able to “scale out” to the big picture. It’s why I’m good at designing systems. I need to know how each part works so I can optimize the entire system as a whole. A PhD is based on learning a subject to it’s most fundamental laws of existence. You have to break something down to be innovative.

That’s why I’ve stayed in grad school.

After explaining this to my psych, he gave me some desperately needed tough love. Not gonna lie, I kinda resented him at the time for it, but I am glad he was up front with me. Basically, I can’t whine and complain about how grad school ‘robbed’ me of my happiness. There was nothing to ‘rob’. This is part of it. A PhD takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and a lot of sacrifice. I can still compete in races, but that’s not my job. It’s my hobby. It’s what I do in my spare time. And I can’t blame grad school for requiring a lot of time. That’s what you sign up for. It’s not saying that you can’t achieve everything you ever wanted in life, but prioritizing is so important in grad school. And grad school should be your top priority. If you can train for an Ironman while in grad school and not drive yourself crazy then great! But you can’t expect to be the top student in your class and finish first in the race at the same time.

For right now, I need to focus on being the best grad student I can be not on having my fastest marathon or Ironman. I can focus on that later. I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about skipping a lot of my workouts and training because I have to dedicate more time to grad school. And I’ve been beating myself up over the fact that I may or may not beat my time from last year. If you haven’t noticed, it’s made me a little miserable the last couple of weeks.

Could I finish Raleigh 70.3 tomorrow? Yes. I have enough training to successfully complete 70.3 miles of swimming, biking, and running. Would I PR it? Nope. And that’s ok. I need to work on being happy with the fact that I am a grad student who can actually complete that distance. Which is a hellavua accomplishment in and of itself.

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