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Isolation

October 7, 2007

Grad school is hard. There’s crazy amounts of work, a lot of which you have to figure out on your own because it’s not all taught in class. You also have to work long hours doing original research, which is just a terrifying idea. But that’s not what makes it hard.
Grad school is hard because of the isolation. As a first year you usually move far away from home and land right in a new culture, climate, and social life. (Don’t feel like climate is nothing. My friend Megan W. from Ohio sometimes feels like it’s raining when it’s not, because she’s so used to weather.) Then, before you have time to adjust, they throw on more homework than you had in undergrad, make you teach, and (for science students) tell you to spend all that ‘free time’ researching advisers to make the huge decision of what you’ll study for your dissertation.
The thing is, you have no support system. Or rather you do, but most of it is scattered across the country from a few hundred to a few thousand miles away. And phone conversations only go so far. You spend all of your time alone doing homework if you’re not careful, and it’s so easy to end up overwhelmed.
Friday I studied with a group that contained some people who’d mostly been working alone. Their relief at finally having people to work with was amazing. They thought that they were way behind everyone else, and much less capable, and had spent many homework sessions freaking out or crying about the stress. In one week of class, they were doubting their ability to do this. I’ve had other friends say similar things, and felt some of it myself. Here I am, from U of M with the ego about my intelligence that tends to come from that school, smart, motivated, unafraid of anything, and when I look at my quantum mechanics homework I cringe and wonder if I’m really smart enough. You wanna know something, though? Almost no one drops because they’re not smart enough. They drop because it’s the wrong subject, the wrong place, or because they don’t develop a support system good enough to combat the isolation. In a week and a half of classes I’m seeing people already convince themselves that they’re not smart enough, not managing to hear the professors who remind us constantly that we proved we’re smart enough by getting in. It’s so easy to psych yourself out, because you’re so far from anything familiar or comforting, and there’s no one to talk to.
Oh and wait, that whole support system I keep talking about. Seems like it shouldn’t be too bad, right? All you need to do is make friends, and because you’re all going through the same thing it should be easy to connect. ‘Cept everyone’s just as busy as you are, which leaves little time to talk, and people nerdy enough to make it to grad school aren’t really known for their social skills. Heck, I had two months here with little homework and a rare group of nerds who always wanted to hang out, and I still feel really isolated.
I guess where I’m going with this is just that I’ve never fully realized, until this week, why grad school is so hard. It’s something I never really got, even though I heard a lot about it, until I came here. My mom worries about the long hours and how hard the classes are, and I don’t know how to tell her that’s not it. I can do any work they ask of me, as long as I’m not stuck doing it alone. As long as I have people to rant to, and share a drink (or a soda, in the case of my religious friends) with, it’s all completely doable. But when I feel alone, that’s when I can’t finish my homework.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    October 9, 2007 5:38 am

    Indeed, you are a wise womyn. You are not alone. What you are is amazing. There is magic within you and you shall make wonderful things happen in this world.
    Believe.

  2. October 9, 2007 1:11 pm

    *raises her morning orange juice*

  3. October 9, 2007 4:11 pm

    It’s funny, because now that I’ve figured this out, when a lot of my friends still haven’t, I feel responsible to make sure that they’re not working alone too much. It’s a really weird responsibility to have…

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