Feeling down in graduate school? No one cares about your dissertation or your research interests? Stressed out about your future job prospects? Recently had a talk with your Marxist friend who told you that you are screwed and will work for years as a disposable adjunct? Find academic life in your department empty and unrewarding? Friends ask you why you are in graduate school and you can’t find a good answer? Overcome by self-doubt and depression? Wondering if the odds are stacked against you? Want to drop out of graduate school and do something else with your life?
Don’t worry, young friend, if any or more of the above feelings ever came to your door – wave them off with a nice advice from InsideHigherEd. Alexes Harris to the rescue!
At times during your graduate career it can become difficult to stay motivated and avoid burnout. During graduate school you must learn not only how to become an effective researcher in your field, but also how to manage frustration and, at times, a feeling that you lack the necessary motivation to move forward. There are several things you can do to remain motivated and focused on what it takes to progress through your program and earn your graduate degree.
Unlike real life where frustration and sadness are quite rare, graduate school is full of them. If you somehow managed to exist in your naive pre-graduate school days without having learned how to deal with such horrible occurrences as being tired or losing motivation to do something, lean forward excitedly, dear pupil, and receive this amazingly profound advice:
Focus on the end prize — Think about your goals. Identify one prize that you will receive when you graduate. This should be something that makes you happy when you think about it. Is it receiving the title “Dr.,” getting that job you have been dreaming about, or walking across the stage at your graduation ceremony? Hold on to an image associated with this end prize and when you are frustrated, remember why you are in your program. Let this goal carry you through the difficult times.
I hear you grumbling in the back row there, my friend, “What sort of advice is that?” – you ask. I am here to fill in the blank spaces left out by the column. Let me do a quick explanation for you here, you will see, it’s easier than you think: Want to finish graduate school? Put yourself first in everything you do, forget about your loved ones and their needs, their stupid feelings and their regular jobs, think only about the price you will get at the end of this long long journey. What can be more exciting than casually throwing in “It’s Dr. Smith, please” – “No, not a real doctor, a PhD” – “No, I did go to school for a long time for this” – “No, I’m in between jobs at the moment, but still put down ‘Dr. Smith’ there please” – “No, I don’t have my diploma to prove it, look at me, do I not look like I spend years of my young adult life in graduate school?”
Dreaming about getting a job at a great school you always wanted to teach at? Keep on dreaming, let it carry you through the hard times of reading InsideHigherEd and other publications that give you stupid statistical data and make you realize there is no way in hell everyone will be able to secure employment with such odds. But don’t think about it now, power through the negative emotion, forget about the reality of things and dream about how you wish things were if graduate schools did not admit too many students and if universities did not switch more and more to adjunct instructors. Thinking about such issues is a bummer and you don’t want bummers, do you? Remember, it’s all about positivity and deep deep breathing – you will get there, you will get a job, everyone will get a job, everyone will get a job of their dreams, just keep saying this to yourself over and over. There’s a slight chance of negative emotion once you graduate and hit the job market, but we’ll deal with it later in another awesomely banal advice column, okay?
Keep a visual reminder of what you are working on in your office. On a bulletin board keep a section for things you “need to do,” projects you are currently “doing,” and items that are “done.” This visual aid will remind you that you have made progress, finished important projects, and are progressing through current tasks. This will help you avoid feeling bogged down and overwhelmed with the hurdles of graduate school.
You don’t have an office, you say? Well, have your neglected child draw you one – you can put it up in the bathroom, don’t put it up in the living room, friends will ask what that is, you will have to tell them about it (“Yes, I’m an adult but I still need visual aids to get me to do things, you know?”), embarrassment all around. It’s all about you anyway, because graduate school is not about studying, it’s about proving to yourself (and your mean stepmother) that you are indeed worth something, that you are very very smart. Just remember, if you don’t finish, you are an utter failure and nothing can change that ever again. So congratulate yourself once you finished small projects – you read this post all the way to this point? Go get a chocolate bar and a latte, you amazing reader of blogs!
Find a topic that you are passionate about — If you don’t enjoy your work, then you are not going to stay motivated when writing draft after draft after draft. Find a research question that really gets you excited or a substantive area that you feel has an impact on a community, issue, or problem that you feel is important.
You know what? I’ll give you an even better one here: find a topic that is not only important, but that also makes you feel important. Don’t study what others study, invent your own subject matter, give it a cool name, fight the hegemony of the old and the tested, be original and innovative (but remember to choose a line of argument that can propel your career the best, i.e. be passionate about your careerist self, don’t neglect it, that’s why you’re in graduate school, friend).
Don’t doubt yourself — You can complete graduate school because you are well qualified to be here. You are working in your substantive area because there is something about this field that drives your intellectual curiosity. You will finish your thesis and/or dissertation because you are now the expert in that area. Do not waste time wondering whether you are good enough to be here — just know that you are.
Did you hear that, young friend? Alexes Harris, the person you’ve never met in your life, knows who you are! She does – how else would she know that you are not an idiot? Not only are you not an idiot but your decision to go to graduate school was the best decision you’ve ever made and don’t you dare thinking otherwise. You are a smart awesome individual and you can do no wrong. Unless, of course, you graduate with your PhD and you cannot get a job, then it’s your fault completely – you didn’t love yourself and your topic enough, you didn’t neglect non-academic affairs enough, you didn’t publish enough, you didn’t think originally enough. But you’re still in graduate school so fear nothing, love yourself and push forward – one day you will get your degree, then you can join the ranks of amazing people who rarely talk to each other about their work, are pressured to publish the shittiest articles and books you’ve ever read to survive, but who are full of enthusiasm for their profession because they made it and they are full of astonishingly shallow and knee-crushingly moronic advice that boils down to this: “Stick with it, because you have to – don’t question yourself or your motivations, forget about the harsh reality of likely unemployment, pay your tuition dollars because without you, we won’t have anyone to teach.”