I was so relieved to be a person again when I got to Millbrook that I started to disconnect from my research. I’ve been in grad school long enough to understand that this is not uncommon. For many students, it becomes a kind of drudgery as new and compelling options present themselves in the professional world. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a vacation, you think as you stare out the window wondering how you’re going to balance your finances for an extra semester. Wouldn’t it be nice to watch a TV show, or take a nap, or go on a hike and not feel guilty about it. It all kind of bubbles together and you’re left with a blanket statement, wouldn’t it be nice to be done with this paper?
But it’s more than that. Because you know that you shouldn’t be doing those things, so you set your phone aside and ignore the people checking up on you. You isolate yourself in an attempt to focus and simply can’t. You recognize the lack of control you have over your own life which forces you to examine yourself in the mirror and subconsciously compare to other moments where you’ve lacked control — exhausting yourself, your memories.
It’s more commonly known as burnout, and it’s quickly catching up to me again. It’s extremely common among grad students. It’s crawling back. I can’t hide it. The place I’m living for the summer has simply become the place that I live. And after an exhausting thesis meeting I find myself reckoning with my age. 26 is not old by any stretch of the imagination. But I find myself confused and disappointed that certain things are still a stretch. I thought by 26 I’d at least be able to afford a one-bedroom dog-friendly apartment. Nothing against where I’m living now — it’s nice, it’s safe, and the land is beautiful — but I’m frustrated and disappointed by a lack of such a basic level of control; what I was initially able to laugh off now haunts me.
Again, this is common. And I need to keep reminding myself to reassure myself that it’s okay; that I made choices; that I dedicated myself to this path and I knew this would happen.
That said — the fact that it is so common; that science and academia seem to lack such little cultural and societal value that thousands of people in their mid and late-20s and even their 30s find themselves in this position is disheartening. (Please don’t make me cite this. I really don’t want to. I cite a lot of things. Google exists.) How can we change it? Can we change it? The academic model is so competitive that I doubt it’s possible.
And that alone makes me wonder what, exactly, do I want for myself? I want the title “Doctor” more than most other people could possibly imagine. I’m sure I’ve written on this before – half of it will probably annoy some people — I hate that women are referred to by their marital status — but the other half isn’t just that. I want to be a leader in the wildlife community. I want my words to matter. I don’t want to just be a technician forever.
But part of me looks back at the 18-year-old version of myself and wonders if maybe she was onto something with all of her different ideas. Music, writing, art, theatre, culture. Would I have found a better headspace pursuing one of these? My guess is not; all of the things I’m interested in are wickedly competitive. We’re only here for a minute, anyway. Might as well pursue the one that gives you the most inner peace.
I started going to the library instead of trying to work behind closed doors in my tiny room. It helps a bit. You see, actually being present at a college campus does not necessarily create a community. The pressures are different there. You often get lumped together with undergrads and find yourself perpetually 22. But I like the public library so far because it is different; lots of people with lots of different ages. It’s quiet. Maybe this can be a new start to creating balance.
And yet you have that tiny voice in your head, haunting you:
Do I really want to do this?
You decided to go into science. What other choice do you have?
Nevertheless, she persisted, I guess.
Resources for my fellow grad students: