A Confession

21 Nov

I like grad school. Kind of a lot.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this. It’s common knowledge that graduate students bond with each other by complaining about grad school. A random sample of any graduate gabfest will invariably include references to a) sleep deprivation due to grad school, b) the morale crushing behavior of [insert professor/supervisor here], c) wistful visions of life after grad school, d) fears that grad school may never end, or e) all of the above. I participate in discussions like this in an enthusiastically indignant/wistful manner – my social life would be hobbled if I didn’t, and I never have trouble scrounging up something to complain about – but in all honesty, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I’m in the neighborhood of 9.5, and that’s only because I feel the need to reserve .5 in case something fabulously awesome happens. I enjoy being in a counseling psych Ph.D. program. I like what I’m learning, I like the people in my department, I like my clients. I kind of…and seriously, let’s keep this on the DL… don’t feel ready for grad school to end.

It hasn’t always been like this. My first two years in my program were fairly traditional, meaning that I spent a lot of time attempting to be perfect at everything, moping, daydreaming about dropping out of grad school, researching careers I could have if I dropped out of grad school, looking up median salaries for “professional cupcake baker” and feeling disappointed, etc.

During my third year, everything seemed to click into place, and suddenly grad school no longer felt like a bed of sizzling coals I had to race through to get to the life I wanted. I was, I realized, living the life I wanted. It was not a life that contained every dream I’d ever had, but it was a life that included all the most important things I could have asked for at 25: great relationships, client work I cared about, a constant stream of opportunities to learn interesting things,  enough money to pay the bills and have some left over to play with, and room to work toward all the other dreams that were still unrealized. (Well, maybe all of them except the ones featuring me nonchalantly saving the universe using beams of magic I shoot out of my hands. If anyone knows what the first steps are for working toward those dreams, please contact me.)

Third year was also the year that I got the hang of “strategic caring.” My weeks were stuffed with individual client sessions, couples’ counseling, group counseling, assessments, consultation work, clinical supervision, thesis research, funded research unrelated to my thesis research, coursework, outreach presentations, scholarly reading, and ambitious caffeine consumption, plus all the stuff that comes along with everyday living: maintaining relationships, laundry, grocery trips, pet care, home maintenance, cleaning, cooking, money management, some semblance of hobbies, the works. It was not possible to care about everything. In retrospect, it was probably never possible to care about everything, but prior to this revelatory time, I had convinced myself that it was. I would beat myself up ferociously whenever inevitable screw-ups happened, tell myself through gritted teeth that I just needed to care more and work harder, and carefully steer myself into misery. I’m not saying that I enjoy screwing up now, but I’ve sorted out which things are worth caring a lot about (relationships, clients, broad movement toward long-term goals) and which things aren’t (grades, getting my oil changed exactly when I’m supposed to, producing flawless research drafts, eating well-balanced breakfasts). I’ve learned to allocate care accordingly.

I’m halfway through my fourth year now, and hopefully I’ll be moving on to an internship next summer. (“Hopefully” being the operative word, what with the current shortage of APA-accredited internship programs… more semi-panicky musings on that later.) As excited as I am by the prospect of starting the next chapter of my life, I’m sad that I have to end my graduate experience so soon after I discovered it was possible to enjoy it. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and tell my newly-minted graduate self to lighten up, but I’m pretty sure that if I did, my past self would become convinced that she was experiencing psychotic symptoms and leave the program immediately.

None of this is meant to downplay the struggles people face in grad school. I know intimately how much it can suck, how overwhelming and pointless and thankless it can feel sometimes. And I’m also aware that many of the things that contribute heavily to my current level of happiness – a husband who is both emotionally and financially supportive, good health, sane and caring family and friends, few sociocultural barriers – have nothing to do with grad school at all and are not a given. But I do want to put it out there that I don’t think grad school has to be a hoop we jump through on the way to our real lives. If you’re currently in a grad program and think of life as something that starts after grad school, it might be time to re-evaluate your values, figure out which of your needs aren’t being met, and make tweaks where tweaking is possible. Five to seven years is a long time to put off living.

Does anyone else out there secretly (or openly) enjoy grad school? What did it take to get you to that point?

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