Consequences of Grad School 

I've been doing a lot of thinking about my life in graduate school, especially as it seems that several months after having left I have returned to square one, square one in this case being community college. In fact, this happens to be the very same community college where I began my crawl upwards out of the dreary clutches of a medieval-like factory job that threatened squeeze the spirit and vitality out of my life and my outlook on it. However, as grateful as I am for that first community college experience ten years ago, I am almost equally ambivalent about my current one. Really, I think I want to predict the future. I would like nothing more than the ability to know, for a certainty, that the work I am putting in now at school will have some kind of payoff. The graduate school payoff I was looking for didn't happen, and I am still struggling emotionally with the consequences of it.

Throughout my life, I have had a tendency to be depressed. I could try to hide it, but everyone in my life already knows about it. Especially during some tumultuous teenage years, I was apt to take to bed and try to sleep away most of my problems. Mostly overcoming that to a degree once the pressures of high school eased, I was relatively unafflicted by extreme emotional lows for a few years. I had a job and was able to put myself through college, eventually earning an undergraduate degree. But, the depression returned with a vengeance during graduate school (some of the reasons for that are still a bit unclear, and some of the others are known but will remain unspoken). In any event, the returning depression made it difficult to keep up with my work. I could attend classes, keep up with discussions, and even read all of abstruse--and sometimes boring--materials, but when it came to writing papers, two things were happening.

First, I was telling myself (with outside encouragement from various professors) that every paper had to be absolutely perfect. My goal was to write near-genius essays of remarkable criticism that would exceed everyone's expectations and have the potential to be published in top academic journals. Well, okay, maybe just the mid-level ones. Anyway, it was not entirely unreasonable to have this thought as the professors would occasionally remark how this or that past graduate student managed to do just that. Unfortunately, in my mind, I built up the task of writing papers to such a monolithic impossibility that no-one, not even the professors, could possibly do it in the time allotted. Ten weeks to write perfection? I think not.

Second, my emotional resources were simply drained all away. On the worst days, I would spend hours, maybe even half a day, marshalling the courage to get out of bed and go to class. It was a chore to eat a simple dinner every day, let alone spend hours in the library doing research. Why? Partially, it was because I was afraid of what my professors thought, what I would say to them, or how I would simultaneously work with other graduate students to get what I needed, but excel far beyond them in what I imagined to be the constant evaluating eyes of the professors. On my best days, I would simply worry about how I was going to get the mounting backlog of work done. I could even allow myself a slight, if naive, optimism.

During the last couple of months, I was starting to come out of the darker corners of depression. I was getting better--and I felt I was actually making real progress in my academic life, not merely wishing that I was making progress and somehow convincing myself of it--but by then it was too late. The damage was done. It was hurtful to leave; and as I was in denial about leaving, the hurt was extended for longer than it probably would have been otherwise. The meetings I attended that last week of school were sad for a number of reasons.

The weeks between the end of my graduate school career and my eventual move out of student housing and that town altogether were unusual and a bit surreal. Relieved I didn't have to worry about overdue schoolwork, I really hadn't considered all of the harsh consequences of leaving. Academically, I had been trained to think theoretically about things that didn't seem all that close to me. Perhaps this theoretically way of thinking was why I was able to develop a plan B: a return my old community college to begin a new direction in a new field.

As depression is an illness, albeit a mental one, it is sometimes compared to other illnesses. Depression is supposedly a problem with a brain chemical imbalance. Therefore, since depression has a physical cause, why should it be considered different from other types of illnesses that also physical causes like cancer. They say that--bottom line--I had gotten an illness, the consequences of which meant I couldn't finish grad school. However, sometimes, when I consider how much things have changed in the last few months, it still feels like a personal failure.

10 October 2006
Comments: Post a Comment