Recovering from Graduate School and Its Aftermath

There is so much shit one endures as a graduate student, it’s hard to keep perspective. Over time, the big picture perks, such as regular employment, excellent health insurance, the thrill of discovery, and more opportunities to fund fieldwork and research, are forgotten as we fixate on the frustrating minutia of the day-to-day—students emailing for study guides at 1AM the night before an exam, having committee members disagree about how you should do your degree, filling out the ever-changing degree paperwork, recalled library books while you are on the other side of the world, coordinating times for your committee to meet, etc. And you lose all of your non-graduate student friends because you don’t have time for anything beyond school and since all of your friends are in graduate school with you, enduring the same stupid things, it becomes all you talk about. Additionally, there are all the problems of a 20-something living in a big city on a below poverty-line income. Life becomes toxic when the everyday is filled with frustrations all for the sake of pursuing our passion and raison d’être. These things consume us, cause us to forget the perks of graduate school, and often leave us with little time for vital aspects of life—physical and mental health, romantic and familial relationships, creativity and expression… While no one makes you go, there is no denying that graduate school can leave deep wounds in all areas of one’s life.

It doesn’t necessarily get better after graduation either. Instead of fighting the little battles, which previously took place under the security of regular employment and such, you are in total freefall. Unless you are lucky enough to score an academic or research position right away, finding employment outside of your field as a PhD can be an equally painful process. While you’ve been preparing CVs for the past six years, you are competing with people who have been working their way up from the bottom and have the resume to prove it. You realize you need 3-5 years of experience for an entry-level job. To other employers, you are considered overqualified and must justify WHY you want to work at an entry-level position (…ugh, because I want to eat…). Even if you have a strong work ethic and want to work for the sake of having something to do every day because that’s how you measure your self-worth (yes, talking about myself), it doesn’t seem to matter. Knowing you could easily do the job that is advertised or at least learn the position in a month doesn’t matter unless you have the skills on paper; employers don’t know you and can’t take your word for it. You start to feel worthless, frustrated, and lose hope; you realized you’ve devoted 10 years of your life to a potentially unachievable future . You question your life choices and all the while, there is that carrot of an academic career dangling in front of your face giving you that little bit of hope that maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

Every once and a while you get lucky, but probably not in the way you imagined. What started off for me as a temporary office position turned into a full time one after some begging and pleading. While this certainly was not my ideal, it was income, it was time with good people, it offered certainty after two years of the unknown; it also made me more compassionate for those who live this way for years. Shortly after I was hired full time, Reed received the offer in Kazakhstan (When it rains it pours I guess!), and since that matched more closely with our long-term goals, we opted for that route. Neither of these paths were remotely on our radar, but desperate times…

When I woke up this morning I thought, “Ooooo! I will write about how I spend my days here—since it is the question everyone asks me when they learn I’m not working right now.” The answer to this is more complicated that I initially realized. I started listing my daily activities, but realized they are more than just ways to pass the time. I realized I am doing things I’ve neglected for the last eight years of my life (the six years of graduate school and the recent two years freefalling). I am finally recovering from the trauma that two years of uncertainty will bring, which turned out to be worse than anything graduate school sent my way. I am reevaluating what is important to me. I am rebuilding the things that were left unattended, such as my physical health and ability to process stress. I am trying to rediscover what I am passionate about. I am trying to connect to a new place which will be my home for the next two years. I am trying to set new goals. I am grateful to have the opportunity to actually do this, and to do so unrushed. Unless you have survived periods of uncertainty like this, it is hard to understand just how deep the damage goes. I’ve been told I am a strong person and can endure a lot, but even I am surprised at how profoundly the last few years have affected my core.

Yes, I spend my days going to the gym, thinking up food I want to cook, learning Russian, tidying up the apartment, writing things for academic purposes as well as this blog for fun… But these activities are not as superficial as they may seem; they are rooted in recovery, evaluation, and rediscovery.

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7 thoughts on “Recovering from Graduate School and Its Aftermath

    • skybluegoldensun says:

      Me too! After imagining my life one way for so long, it’s hard to think about other paths. Hoping to get some clarity and ideas for the future!

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  1. Maureen says:

    Oh Katie, I know EXACTLY what you mean. It can be a curse to be so driven. And, trust me, getting your ideal job right out of grad school doesn’t necessarily make it better. I was lucky to get a dream job upon graduating, and then obsessively immersed myself into that job, and then climbing higher to the next job and so on – just as heavily as in my grad school days. So, I had another 20 years of no hobbies, no free time, not taking care of my health, not spending quality time on friendships, etc. I was around 45 when I had my free fall (as you say) and nearly 50 before I could detox, break free of old routines, and get on a more balanced and enjoyable path. I’m so glad you’re having these realizations early, even though you were more or less “forced” into it. Keep striving to learn from everyday and try new things (as you are!). It pays off more than you know!

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  2. Maureen says:

    Sure thing. I felt a little pathetic “putting it all out there” for your blog followers to see but I think it’s important for “you youngsters” to know. I spent the majority of 20 years in a 10 x 10 office and while that does have its rewards, I certainly missed out on a lot in life!

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    • skybluegoldensun says:

      We appreciate it! I think it’s important to talk about struggles in a constructive way (not just complaining like some people think I’m doing), because many of us encounter such challenges. It’s helpful to hear the pros and cons of both paths — the grass isn’t always as green as it appears!

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  3. Maureen says:

    Indeed! Hunting for a job is like having a part-time job in and of itself. But if you keep applying yourself to the job hunt, that will come to fruition as well. I know it’s delayed more than you would like but persistence will pay off, and then you’ll be feeling good on both fronts (personal and professional).

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