Second Year of Grad School

It is fall, and we are almost in November. The temperatures are dropping, and the foliage is stunningly beautiful. I love the yellow oaks and red maples. I like the colder temperatures, wrapping myself with warm sweaters, snuggling under the covers at night.

So much has happened in the last few months since I wrote here. I survived the 72 hour comprehensive exam that I spent the summer studying for, and what’s more, I passed!  I have moved into a wonderful house with two of my friends from Bucknell and another grad student who was living in the house previously.  There are two large gumballs trees in the backyard perfectly spaced apart for my hammock.  I’ve spent many hours reading there, warmed by the late summer and autumn sun.  It is so nice to be in a positive living environment, and so different than my situation last year!

I am now in my second year of grad school. This phd thing is quite a journey, and is hard on many levels.  Sometimes I wonder what on earth I am doing here.  One thing that is hard about the second year is that I have higher expectations for myself.  I am no longer a first-year student fumbling around trying to figure out what this grad school thing is.  I feel that I shouldn’t be dealing with anxiety about talking in class, surely I should have figured this out by now? I also feel heightened pressure to be productive as I work on my second year paper, which is the next benchmark in my program, and in general proceed towards the dissertation stage.

This has also been a hard semester on an emotional level. I am still dealing with a lot of grief, and am not so forgiving of myself as I was last semester when I was focused on daily survival.  Sometimes I think I am fine, and then something will trigger memories and I end up a puddled mess.  I have to remind myself that grief is a process, and that these moments are okay.  Sometimes you have to cry.

Also, in September one of my friends (who was also very close to Fran, my mentor who died last January) was diagnosed with a brain infection and the last few months have been full of ups and downs regarding her treatment and status. It has been scary, and stressful. Thankfully it seems that she is now responding to treatment, and will be able to go back to Austria where she was living.  Unfortunately I will not get to see her before she heads back to Europe.

So lots of emotional stuff has been going on, and it has been affecting my work a bit.  This week I finally talked to some of my professors and I have gotten support and advice from them, which is good.  One of them told me that I should not compare myself to others, and that when I start getting hard on myself I should remind myself what I have accomplished.  Like my exam, which I did really well on, “while dealing with enormous emotional stress” as she pointed out.  Also, I came in with a BA, whereas other students in the program already have their masters.  Talking with other grad students and recognizing that I am not the only one who feels isolated and stressed is also helpful.

I am so thankful for the community that I have here.  Sometimes I need to remember to rely on it more, to reach out to others.   I am also glad for my wider circle of friends who are always there when I need them, and easily reached through phone or email.  One of my close friends, Erica, who just finished her phd, had a useful response to one of my emails about the ups and downs of emotions that I have been feeling recently.  She wrote,

The ups and downs of emotion seem, to me, indicative of grad school. Something about the “freedom” one has as a grad student — timewise — the feeling that you don’t really answer to anyone, as you would if you had a “real” job, and most importantly, being in your head all the time. Your work is basically in your head. This kind of existence, I think, facilitates (over?) analysis, the needing of emotional outlets, a focus on the self. None of this is bad by any means, but I do think that it creates a kind of emotional/mental cosmology that is different than the more typical 9-5 kind of existence. I’m simplifying but I think you know what I mean. My friend [C.] and I have discussed this at length over the years — it is the blessing and the curse of the lifestyle we have chosen. So hang in there and don’t be hard on yourself for being emotional and very introspective. Grad school sets the stage for that!

It’s helpful to remember this when I start getting too stuck in my head.  Sometimes it feels like this whole grad school thing is just too much, and then I start talking about my work with someone and start to get excited again, or walk into the discussion section I am teaching (I started TAing this semester!) and listen to my students and remember that this is why I am here.  I love teaching, and I love the learning that happens.  Ultimately I am glad to be here, and am determined to keep trucking through, at least for now.   I’ll just keep riding these ups and downs.

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