I’m writing this as I’m starting to notice some signs of burnout in myself. I also struggle with anxiety, so that’s a factor as well. Maybe I’ll go back through and edit this before you read it. Maybe I won’t. But what I certainly will not do is lie and add fluff to this. To do so would be an insult not only to myself and to my fellow classmates on this journey with me, but to all who are in graduate school or those who ever attended grad school.
I want to talk about what’s messy. I don’t want to talk about how lucky I am or how privileged I am to be able to say that I am a graduate student working towards my master’s degree. I know that. We all know that on some level. We are aware that we are an academic minority. We are aware that we are being afforded an opportunity to advance our education and our careers. We are aware that we are making our loved ones proud. We are aware that we are hard workers and that “it will all pay off someday”.
We do not discount that. We do not discount everything it took to get to where we are in our programs. We are fully aware, probably more than you are, that grad school is an amazing opportunity and we are growing so much as individuals.
And that is exactly what makes us feel immense pressure. Pressure to succeed. Pressure to be an effective student and counselor. Pressure to not let people down. Pressure to get that “A” and not look incompetent during that presentation. Pressure to not only make sure you’re keeping track of everything you do at all times, but also pressure that if you don’t cross every “t” and dot every “i”, you’re going to fail and it will be your fault.
They tell you that as graduate students, you will need to let go of your need to be perfect. And yet, they set these perfect expectations for you to meet in order to move forward. It’s something we’ve all experienced at one point or another.
And then the spiral starts – “How am I going to communicate my concerns and my doubts without sounding like I can’t handle the stress? What if I don’t speak up enough in class because I’m drained from the crisis intervention I facilitated just an hour ago? Are they going to think I’m incompetent? I’m definitely losing participation points. You parents are going to be so disappointed if you can’t make it this weekend because you have to finish that paper. Who is your friend going to talk to if you can’t find the energy to answer their call? Wow, my classmates sound so informed about this and I can only sit here and nod at their discussion.
What a fraud. What are you even doing here? If you can’t handle this amount, how are you going to handle doing this full time? Maybe you made a mistake. Maybe this isn’t the field for you. Maybe you’re not capable of handling this. Everyone else can do it – why can’t you? No, they’re all stressed. It kind of sucks that feeling this way is the norm for us, doesn’t it? Crap, I forgot to email my supervisor!”
Every single one of these statements or questions have either run through my mind or have been communicated out loud by yours truly…more than once. And even reading back through it now, I can feel the anxiety. Those thoughts are enough to make anyone feel like curling up in their blanket and watching hours of “Queer Eye” episodes that you’ve re-watched 3 times already…which is exactly what I’m going to do once I finish writing this.
So what’s the point in me revealing all of my doubts and fears about grad school?
…I don’t know.
Sometimes I write to gain clarity and some perspective. Other times I write just to blow off steam.
I’ve yet to determine which one this is. Let’s see…
I am a graduate student and I’m tired. But my identity does not end there.
I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a friend, a dogmom, a Guyanese-American, an advocate, and a writer. I can probably add more, but you know…I’m tired.
I guess my point right now is this:
Grad school is hard – it’s difficult and challenging and taking on the identity of a graduate student does not diminish your other identities. We are trying to keep a balance of all our identities and responsibilities that come with them. We are drained and stressed and overwhelmed. We would like others to hear us and understand that. We would like you to know that we are trying so hard to be good friends, children, spouses, partners, siblings, and parents. And sometimes we need you to understand that we would like to take off the grad student hat we wear and just be in the moment with you talking about anything and doing nothing.
Sometimes we wonder if you understand that we don’t just go to class, go home, study, and take exams. We do that, but we wonder if you also know that we’re basically paying to offer our free, nearly full-time services in order to graduate. We wonder if you know what we mean when we say we’re attending and presenting at conferences and how much time and energy goes into that. We smile and shrug and give you vague answers about how school is going when you ask. Partly because we don’t wan’t you to try and remind us of how lucky we are if we tell you the reality of how it’s going. Meanwhile, we’re thinking about how emotionally exhausted we are from continuing to think about it and how much we just want to exchange memes and see pictures of your dog for some sense of balance.
I don’t want anyone to think that I am not happy because I am tired and stressed. I am happy. Those feelings can exist together. And I write those words with complete honesty and comfort. I have learned so much about myself and the world over the last three years – far more than I could ever have hoped for. Through all of the setbacks and tears and doubt, I have learned more more about life and about my abilities. I have learned my limits and my boundaries, and I have learned that I am on my own journey. I’ve learned that comparing myself to anyone else is pointless, because in my life and with my experiences and perception of the world, how can I be anyone else? I am so proud of who I am and where I am. I wouldn’t trade this opportunity for anything, and I can’t wait to see what comes next. My worries don’t erase that feeling.
To my fellow grad students:
You are allowed to feel crappy. You are allowed to not be okay. You are allowed to be stressed and exhausted. You are allowed to make mistakes or say the wrong thing. You are allowed to fail. You are allowed to feel beaten down sometimes.
It does not mean that you are any less of a good person or a good student. You can be a good student and still fail, just like you can be a good parent and make a mistake. They are not mutually exclusive.
And if you don’t take anything else away from this, just remember that you are more than just a grad student. So take a few moments, remember all of who you are, drink some water, play with your pet, watch some Netflix (I recommend Queer Eye if you need a positivity boost, of course), and get some rest.
You are your own worst critic.
You’re doing a lot better than you think you are.
I’m there with you, and I am proud of you.
I guess I did end up gaining some clarity.
“People have said, ‘Don’t cry’ to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, ‘I’m too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don’t cry.’
I’d rather have them say, ‘Go ahead and cry. I’m here to be with you.’”