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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 12: Reality Check--Home for the Holidays


Well, another calendar year has passed and I hope that all of you enjoyed your time with family and friends over the holidays. I'm sure that, like me, you spent a great deal of time vegetating, watching insane amounts of television, eating obscene amounts of food, and in general recovering from the semester so that you could come back refreshed and ready to (re)tackle the beast this semester. There are a few "delinquents" among you who, for various reasons, spent some of the holiday working. I hope you'll remember to make up for it during the school year--all work and no play makes for a very cranky and not always productive graduate student. And for those of you who couldn't make it home, because home is thousands of miles and dollars away, I hope you at least got to speak with your family for a little while.

One of the things I find most endearing about the holidays is how it makes us graduate students evaluate who we are in relation to our surroundings. I call it the introspective reality check. The reality being that the world continues to revolve while we are pining away on a project. Siblings grow up/get married/have children. Parents, for those of us blessed to still have them on Earth, get a little older and grayer around the edges. We are seen now as adults rather than the post-adolescent students we were in undergrad. And sometimes, just maybe (or is it just me?), we begin to wonder whether what we do is really worth it, if we have chosen the correct path, and where this path might lead. Some of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we're left hoping that it's not a train. ...

Usually we are engulfed by our duties as students and researchers and often only see the project in front of us--not how we appear in relation to the rest of the "normal" world. For many of us, especially those who are first-generation graduate students, that what we do at "school" is foreign to a lot of our friends and family. But it is our duty to make our vocation more accessible to those around us. They may not always understand why we are in lab at 3 a.m., or why we can't visit as often as we/they would like, or why papers, research talks, qualifiers, and conferences are such a big deal, but it doesn't mean they can't.

Unless your family consists of scientists and engineers that inspired/forced you to do the same thing, your visits home may be a bit daunting. Does anyone recognize the following?

You burst/crawl through the door of your family home and everyone is happy to see you! Dinner is almost ready but there's time for small talk before heading to the table to feast. The bolder individuals comment on how you've lost/gained weight, need some sun, or, preferably, how great you look. Everything goes well, you're basking in the glow of familial love and then, conversation veers toward what you do.

Cousin It: "So what are you doing now?"

You: "I'm in graduate school working on my Ph.D. in rocket science at the Wurka-Hollik University."

Cousin It, with a puzzled look: "Really? So does that mean you can do what Jeff Goldblum did in Independence Day? Are you an astronaut? Or are you just a mad scientist?"

You: "Not quite ..."

Cousin It: "I see. ... How much longer will you be doing that?"

You: "Don't ask!"

Aunt Flora (trying to be helpful): "So what are you going to do with that?"

You: (with a puzzled look on your face): "???"


Yes, my favorite question of all--"Well, what are you going to do with that Ph.D.?" It's not like the question isn't justified or anything, because it is. You've been away from your family and friends for a while, people can never seem to get in touch with you, and you may look like you've been locked in a basement creating a bride for Frankenstein's monster. And then, you also may realize that the answers that automatically come to mind for you (professor, industry scientist, government worker) don't necessarily come to mind for your family members.

Playing the game: When the reality check knocks you to the ground ...

I don't have all the answers, but I have found a thing or two to keep me moving forward even when I'm feeling I serve no purpose, even after I feel like I've put all the events in perspective:

Calling someone who cares: I hope by now that you have cultivated a plethora of friends that you can call on when you need consoling. Preferably people who can relate: other friends in graduate school, professors that have mentored you, someone who has probably had the exact same thoughts at some point in time. If nothing else, you're not alone.

Put it on paper: Keeping a journal to keep track of your mind and where it has wandered off to can be helpful. I can't tell you how helpful writing this series has been for me. I'm not sure I would have made it this far without it.

Admitting that grad school can suck: There, I said it. Let's stop pretending that it's all wine and roses. Sometimes it stinks, and it's not your fault. But it is your fault if you let it completely rule your life.

The questions keep coming: What are you going to do when you're done with graduate school? Why are you doing this to yourself? Isn't there something else you could do that pays more and requires less of you? Are you enjoying yourself? I'm sure some of you out there have all the answers. For those of us that haven't quite figured it all out yet because our dreams of graduate school and academia have been shattered mercilessly by reality, these questions can be a wee bit unnerving. Especially if you're only in your 2nd year of graduate school and things aren't falling together as you hoped they would be.

The precarious balance that I've held together over the last year and a half has been successful, in part, because I don't ask myself these questions anymore. Blocking them out and not unearthing my true desires has allowed me to focus and get the work done. For the moment, that's honestly what it is about for me--getting the work done, so I can write the paper/present the poster/go to the conference and get out of here and go "live" my life elsewhere. I know, it's not the greatest attitude to have, but who said this series would be about the proper way to do everything--this is my life. Right now, I'm just taking it a day at a time, and trying to keep the hounding introspective questions at bay.

On the other hand, you still have to say something to your inquisitive relatives and friends, so I did come up with a few choice things in answer to the "What are you going to do when you're done" question: science policy; educational policy; working for funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, or the Packard Foundation; teaching at a minority-serving institution; university administration. That's what I say, but the reality is that I'm not so sure anymore. Part of me just wants to ship off around the world and forget about this place, and the other part knows if I quit, I'll probably regret it for the rest of my life.

So why am I deluding myself? Good question ...

I know I can't be the only one out there with a "means to an end" (whatever that end may be) mentality. Occasionally I feel like I'm doing this because I can, not necessarily because I want to. But does anyone else have ideas about how to deal with such uncertainty? Stories about family encounters would be great, too. If you've found a way to handle reality while still living in the fantasyland of graduate school let me know; I'll be happy to include any stories and suggestions in next month's column.

Until then, Reality or Delusion, that is the question ...

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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