Dear Lord, Why Did I Decide to Go to Graduate School?

By October 30, 2012

At a meeting with my advisor today, she told me that I was one of the easiest graduate students that she had ever had.  I did my work on schedule.  I don?t tend have to breakdowns.  And, I have a fairly good record at winning fellowships.  What she doesn?t know is that I am a mess inside.  Every time I send out a fellowship application, I am certain that I am going to fail.  Before every meeting I have with her or another committee member, I spend hours putting together an outfit and trying on different combinations of clothes.  I also worry that every paper I write is a complete and utter piece of crap.  What I am trying to say is that I have always struggled with graduate school even though a lot of people assume that I don?t.

The questions that I have about graduate school intensified after I returned from archival research this fall.  I felt as though I didn?t belong in the department anymore.  Most of my friends were still researching and the people I knew in the younger cohorts were stressed out with studying with prelims and teaching for the first time.  I learned a valuable lesson that the students in older cohorts had told me but I had never completely understood: Sometimes grad school sucks!

This series is partially my attempt to self-medicate through blog posts and partially an attempt to create a survival guide for graduate students.  How do you survive coursework?  The anxiety of prelims?  The loneliness of the archives and the frustration of knowing what your dissertation should say but being completely unable to write it?  This post is meant to be an introduction to the series and to provide a forum for people to ask questions.  What difficulties have you encountered?  What would it be useful to discuss?  I see myself less as the author or giver of advice and more as a compiler.  The posts will feature advice culled from the internet and from professors and graduate students at various universities across the United States.  Feel free to also use this as an opportunity to share your memories and reminiscences about that special time that is graduate school.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks for initiating this, Amanda. It’s interesting how similar our experiences are, in spite of being at different schools in different states with somewhat different intellectual environments. I could’ve written your first paragraph word for word, with the exception that my advisor has never told me I’m one of his easiest students and I spend slightly less time worrying about my wardrobe before meetings with him.

    The one point of departure in our experience (based on what you’ve presented here) is that I have had very little trouble re-integrating into the department after research trips. That is, in part, a product of the much smaller number of students at my school.

    Anyway, I look forward to the series, and maybe will even contribute something myself!

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  2. I feel for you as I was just a graduate student myself and can say with confidence: being on the job market is so much more stressful then being a graduate student pre-job market. If you are like me you will get a couple dozen rejections before you get an offer and thus will be a basket case. 🙂 (Though in my case offers did come fortunately.)

    Anyways, I wish you the best. Graduate school is a difficult time but one that gives growth and experiences that couldn’t come any other way.

    Comment by Joseph Smidt — October 30, 2012 @ 6:31 pm

  3. “What she doesn’t know…” I bet she knows. This is the more or less universal grad student experience. At least in the humanities.

    Comment by SC Taysom — October 30, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

  4. I loved and hated grad school. It was brutish, nasty, and unfortunately, not short. Someone in a different PhD program at the same school (Biology instead of ANE Studies) commented on how remarkably terrible it was that so many intelligent people at a such a highly ranked school could be made to feel so stupid and good-for-nothing. It was a real struggle, and the program, unbeknownst to me at the time of acceptance, had a reputation for not being supportive of students. Both my work habits and coping strategies, which worked just fine for undergrad, weren’t constructive.

    I suspect everyone struggles and harbors unspoken insecurities, though some less than others.

    My general advice, which may be redundant or inapplicable- Go to class, do all the work and then some, sit in front, speak up, read the professor’s work, stop in at office hours and get them to know who you are as early as possible. And have a support network of like-minded people, such as on a blog 🙂

    Comment by Ben S — October 30, 2012 @ 6:39 pm

  5. Thanks for the introduction, Amanda. I’ll look forward to this series with interest, because for about a year or so I planned on going to grad school (in classical philology), but I ultimately decided against it. So one question I’m interested in is the calculus people go through when they decide to make that jump and actually go through with it.

    (In my case I was going to do it when it was just me and my wife, and she was willing to work to help us get through it. But when we got pregnant that changed my outlook considerably, and I went a different direction, which has worked out really well for us.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — October 30, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

  6. Chris, Part of the problem is that my committee is just so fashionable. No matter what I wear I feel that their outfits are slightly more stylish. I do find it interesting how similar our experiences have been. It’s more than just this post. We seem to read similar books, encounter similar problems, etc. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because we are both working with early Americanists interested in religion or if it’s symptomatic of graduate school in general.

    Joseph, Thanks for the commiseration. The job is one thing that I have told myself that I am just not going to think about for right now. It’s just too depressing. When I do think about it, which is more often than I’d like to admit, I tell myself that it’s all going to be okay and that everything works out in the end.

    Steve, I’m sure she has some inkling but I tend to come off as much happier than I actually am. I think of myself a socially awkward wallflower. When I told my friend that, she laughed and told me I have no self-awareness and that I am the social butterfly of the department.

    Ben, thanks for the advice. I finished coursework a few years ago but I could have used that advice when I first started graduate school. It was unnerving because I didn’t get my first feedback till late October (school started early September). Looking back, I should have went to the professors and asked how I was doing, but I was too scared.

    Kevin, that’s interesting. One of the posts that I want to do is being pregnant in graduate school but it’s something that I have no experience with. Doing a post on how people made the decision would also be quite interesting.

    Comment by Amanda — October 30, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  7. I remember in the first weeks of grad school going into fellow student’s office and seeing large bottle of Tums on his desk. I totally made fun of him. By the end of my Ph D, that was me. Haven’t really used them since I graduated.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 30, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  8. Stapley reminds me of a story. I woke up one night with a dry mouth and tight chest, maybe 3 am. Got up to get a drink. Within a few minutes, I was sitting on my couch, limbs going numb, hyperventilating, sharp stomach pains, some other things. I ended up having to go in to the ER early in the morning, then having it go away on its own. I went home and slept, missed my classes. The next day, I went to my professors and explained what had happened, and they all waved it away. “Oh yeah, nerves. Same thing happened to me once. You’ll be fine.”

    Comment by Ben S — October 30, 2012 @ 9:41 pm

  9. Huh, that’s funny. I don’t remember writing this post and submitting it as a guest post to JI. And yet, here it is, all my grad school thoughts and experiences. 🙂

    Hang in there. Also, probably your campus has a psych counseling office. Can’t recommend it enough.

    Comment by Cynthia L. — October 30, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

  10. Juggling my wife’s job and my school work was the major challenge of my grad school experience. She was able to work from home (which was nice) but had to travel about 10 days a month (which was rough). We had our fourth 2 years into it.

    Now she’s getting her master’s on top of all this (I’ve have gastritis even since she started 7 months ago) but I think we have a payoff in the fact that we seem to be much more relaxed about the job hunt than many of our colleagues are.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 30, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

  11. I often feel like graduate school was the biggest mistake of my life, for a wide range of reasons. I think everything will turn out okay in the end, but I’m darned if I can see how.

    Comment by Christopher Smith — October 31, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  12. Amanda,

    Thanks for sharing you experience. Clearly, my grad experience was also not just about learning the academic content, but also how to cope with the pressure of what grad school is. Perhaps it could be debated; in grad school do we learn more about our discipline or ourselves along the way?

    I admit laughter is great medicine as we work towards a graduate degree. I often joke that when I finally finish my PhD that my friends will all pitch in and buy me a nice dorky tweed jacket with elbow patches as a right of passage clothing. And if you haven’t, the below Simpsons cartoon about being a grad student is painful but still funny.

    Anyhow, hang in there and keep up all the good work.

    Comment by Zach Jones — October 31, 2012 @ 1:45 am

  13. Oh, amen to this. I have to remind myself that my hard won scholarships at least prove that I’m apparently doing something right and am not as stupid as I sometimes feel. Also, I get your wardrobe anxiety.

    I look forward to your posts and the ensuring discussion.

    Comment by Saskia — October 31, 2012 @ 8:41 am

  14. Thanks for the frank opening to a much-needed discussion, Amanda. As a recent graduate (2011) who took forever to finish (10 years, MA + PhD), I spent a lot of time thinking about surviving the process… my two cents:

    1) It was key for me that I always made sure that my life *outside* of my graduate program was strong and healthy. I used various strategies as time went on to make sure this happened, but key was setting aside Sundays — even while actually writing my dissertation — to spend time with my husband and with friends. I had to make sure that I was more than just a crazy, anxious graduate student.

    2) For me, a key to getting through the last leg of the process was giving myself permission to look at other options besides teaching. The longer I was in grad school and the more I watched my friends and colleagues making enormous sacrifices — of time, location, pay, and job security — in order to pursue teaching jobs, the more I realized that there were sacrifices I wasn’t comfortable making. I spent about a year between the end of coursework and the beginning of my exams just treading water, feeling freaked out. Then I finally had a long talk with myself (we academics do that, don’t we?) and gave myself permission to start thinking very seriously about my plan B… and once I did that, and started openly discussing my options with my committee members, I was able to settle down and focus on my work again. I know that my decision was significantly influenced by my own unwillingness to make certain sacrifices, and not everyone is as unwilling as I am to deal with those challenges — but I think that another key to getting through the process is knowing what you are and aren’t willing to deal with, and to plan accordingly.

    Finally, my answer to the “Why did we do this to ourselves” question: I just couldn’t put the books down. I went into grad school knowing full well that the odds of finding a tenure track job were long, but I loved the material enough and felt strongly enough that I could do something, however small, to add to it that I decided I wasn’t done with school yet. In short, I think we’re all just research junkies.

    Comment by Cristine — October 31, 2012 @ 8:48 am

  15. Can we all agree that writing a dissertation is as much about existential angst as it is about producing the thing?

    Or perhaps are we that “special?” I know my wife struggles with career choices, which she takes too as a reflection about her selfhood.

    Comment by Max — October 31, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  16. I’ve sometimes found it useful to bring my experience as a Mormon to bear on graduate school. Once in a while I love church. Far more often I endure it. Sometimes I hate it and it’s brutal and I desperately want to quit. But there’s something there I don’t get anywhere else, so I endure. At the same time, I facilitate my own endurance in practical ways by focusing on what I’m there for and doing everything I can to minimize my contact with the aspects I find distasteful or downright offensive.

    To their mutual horror, I’m sure, the church and university turn out to be remarkably similar in certain ways.

    Comment by ZD Eve — October 31, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

  17. Also, for whatever it’s worth, it’s helped me immensely in navigating both institutions to accept my spiritual and intellectual mediocrity. Enormously liberating.

    Comment by ZD Eve — October 31, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

  18. J. and Ben, I think I may have developed stomach issues from all the caffeine I have been drinking. I guess it’s time to switch to caffeine-free diet coke and just when it became okay.

    Cynthia, Saskia, and Max, Thanks for the commiseration. It’s nice to be reminded that I am not the only one who has these issues. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the type of people who are attracted to grad school and the way that graduate school exacerbates those issues.

    Chris, I keep telling myself that everyone gets a job in the end. You are lucky that you are also have a career possibility in publishing.

    Stephen, one of the things that I have come to realize is that what makes grad school so difficult is that you have to ask your family to make as many sacrifices as you make. That adds a lot of pressure to succeed, because it makes me feel like I have failed them and wasted their investment as well.

    Comment by Amanda — October 31, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

  19. Zach, that video is hilarious.

    Cristine, your ability and willingness to pursue an alternative path is always amazing to me. I’m not sure I have the bravery to do that.

    ZD, That’s a really refreshing perspective. I’m going to try to think about it in a similar way. There are days when I really don’t want to go to church but I go because I know I should. Approaching grad school in the same way might actually be helpful.

    Comment by Amanda — October 31, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  20. I’ll just add something Richard Bushman said once at an MHA student meeting: A dissertation starts out as an intellectual problem and ends up as a psychological one.

    It’s more or less inevitable (for all the reasons y’all have enumerated so well), but knowing it’s going to happen helps.

    Comment by LisaT — October 31, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

  21. ZD Eve – Amen. My experience so far, I am just finishing my PhD while working as a post-doc, suggests that those feelings continue. I am still overcome by insecurity and anxiety (clothes, ideas, everything); I should probably take up Cynthia’s advice about counselling.

    Comment by Aaron R. — November 1, 2012 @ 5:05 am

  22. My advice. Don’t pin all your hopes on getting that t-t job (even at a small institution) at the end of the long, hard grad school years.

    Rather start doing things now to diversify your portfolio. Try to find opportunities to do things outside of the traditional “research-write-teach” track to make yourself marketable outside of the academy. I did that and I’m extremely glad I did. I now work for the federal government in a job I like and where I’m very well compensated.

    You can do everything “right” from the academic perspective (win prestigious fellowships, have ample teaching experience, write well) and still not get the t-t job. The job market, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, is so brutal now that even the brightest and best can’t find permanent work.

    Comment by blj123 — November 1, 2012 @ 9:26 am

  23. Adam Ruben, a guy I went to grad school with, wrote a book called Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School. From what I can tell it’s pretty funny.

    Grad school was an ordeal for me. The worst part about it was constantly feeling like a failure as the months and years passed without discovering anything publishable. And then it sucks to realize that at the end of the ordeal all that’s waiting for you is several years of post-docing and a terrible academic job market. It’s enough to drive a guy to do something crazy like go to law school after grad school. I’m glad I got the PhD because I learned a lot, especially perseverance, and because it opened doors to a career I think I’ll like (patent law). But I’m not sure I’ll encourage my children to follow my path. A nice, four-year engineering or accounting degree will do.

    Comment by Tom — November 2, 2012 @ 8:40 am

  24. Amanda, from my perspective it takes far more courage to run the job market gauntlet than to find an alternative path. I’m grateful that I had skills and experience that let me find a stable position that carries the benefit of access to an amazing library. And that I actually the work enough that it isn’t a trial to do it. I know people who truly couldn’t imagine being happy doing anything other than teaching. I was relieved when I realized I wasn’t one of them, because to me the traditional academic path was much harder than the one I’ve chosen.

    Comment by Cristine — November 3, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  25. […] few weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about graduate school and the feelings of inadequacy that I was having.  I promised a blog series […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Dear Lord, Why Did I Go to Graduate School? Surviving Coursework — November 16, 2012 @ 11:10 am


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