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Educated Woman--Chapter 46: Episodes in Crisis Management

I’m baaaaaaaaaaaaack and hell hath broken loose again. This time, life has been made more interesting (translation: stressful) by the surprising exit from graduate school of not one but two of my close friends. Both are women in my department, and both are far along in their grad-school training, one a fourth-year and the other a fifth-year. They informed me about their decisions within a week of one another after I returned from my European escapade.

This episode is the latest in a long line of things called “life experience” that keep my grad-school productivity and general sense of well-being in constant flux. As a chronicler of the graduate school saga, I write mostly from varying levels of misery with the occasional bright spot, which, I think, is pretty typical of the grad-school experience. The bright spots are moments when I pull myself up out the muck--my own muck and other people’s muck--wipe off the filth, and notice that the world is still out there, that I still have a pulse, and that, truthfully, it could be worse.

This latest episode took me by surprise. I knew that they were both miserable--who isn’t? We had all imagined fleeing and leaving it all behind--the failing projects, the delinquent colleagues, the crazy advisors, and the dysfunctional department--but for me it was just imagining. I didn't realize how close these two colleagues were to the edge. Now I have to deal with the impact their departures has on my life. I am usually the NMP--Not My Problem--person. I try to be helpful without getting too involved. But this particular crisis left me high and dry, because a large portion of my support network disappeared from immediate view.

No one breezes through graduate school. If you think you did, you ignored a hell of a lot of things that happened around you, which, now that I've thought about it, is a pretty good skill to have. Stuff happens while you’re in graduate school--all the stuff listed above as well as experimental failures, personality conflicts, bad advisors, co-workers behaving badly, health problems, money problems, breakups, family problems, and--occasionally--disasters of epic proportions; just ask those grad students at--or, rather, who used to be at—Xavier or Tulane. If you let it, this stuff will sap your energy and cloud your mind.

Crisis Incoming!

If you're familiar with this series, you know that these two aren't the first people to quit since I started graduate school. George ( chapter 24) left my group for sunnier pastures in his second year, after a bad run with his qualifying exams and Daphne ( chapter 25) made the switch to another group shortly afterward. Those departures inspired me to write my communication series (chapters 27-30) in which I discussed ways of warding off the crises that bombard grad students daily. Some conclusions from that series which I wish my dear departed colleagues would have tried more efficaciously:

  • You have the power and the obligation to talk to your advisor/friend/family member before a situation gets out of hand. Whether they listen or not is another story.

  • Everything that happens in your lab or your life isn’t about someone else hating you or wanting you to suffer. It probably has nothing to do with you; it's their problem, not yours, that makes them act that way. Still, even if it sucks, you are responsible for how you respond.

  • It is always beneficial to study your own behavior. Why? Because you--not them--may be the one who's dysfunctional. Maybe it is about you after all.

  • Even when you you’ve gotten it right and minimized all possible risk and impact, something will go wrong. Count on it.

Sometimes it's hard to take your own advice. I forgot that something can and will go wrong (last point). This isn't about me, I know (second point). But with this particular crisis and these two friends, there was nothing I could do to keep from slamming head-first into shock and awe.

I could see the clouds forming for them, but those same clouds covered my head, too. Besides, we had invested so much time in the process; to me it would be insane to stop now.

But for my two friends it was insane to keep going. The first friend decided she’d had enough; there was a life waiting for her that didn’t require having a Ph.D., and even though she had a supportive advisor, she couldn’t stand waiting a year or 18 months for her research to turn around and for things to start working. While I disagreed with her--I thought she should have stayed and told her so--it was to no avail. Once she had made up her mind that was it. Grad school was over, and she was gone within a month.

The other friend had been in flux for a while. In the midst of my own yearnings to leave, I ignored her signs: the revised resume that eliminated the last few years--how could I have missed that clue?--and the job search that was taking more and more time. And maybe, deep down, I did realize what she was up to, but I just kept ignoring it until I got a phone call announcing the end.

I kept hoping that she would change her mind, but her advisor was of the more malignant variety and her research never quite got off the ground. For her it was simply this question: why spend more time with people and things that make her miserable? She found her answer.

I was upset to say the least. I’ve been wrestling with these things as well and so far have reached a different conclusion. I too have a life I’d like to lead. I know that I could be less miserable. But in the end, I’ve decided to stay, not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because I need the credentials.

Managing Yourself Through Crisis

How can we grad students, already in a disheartened state, deal with dilemmas like these? Ignoring the problems, especially the massive ones, won’t help. It’s like having the “check engine” light come on in your car. You either deal with it now or in another 10,000 miles, when the tow-truck guy hauls your car down the interstate with thick smoke billowing from your hood. Just as bad as ignoring the stress is acknowledging its presence (or burying it) with the use of drugs, alcohol, television, or other illicit, mind-altering substances. Doing so will only mean more damage in the end. It’s times like these when a kink in the matrix allows us--depending on how close we are to the epicenter of the madness--to take stock of our own situations and motives. When life happens, we can tune out or tune in, examining, sometimes doubting, sometimes reveling in the decisions we’ve made.

Like everyone else, I’ve had other personal incidents that have shaken my foundation, but I’ve gotten through them and become stronger in the process. When my grandfather passed away suddenly almost a year ago, my uncle’s eulogy made me sad but reminded me of how much my family sacrificed so that I could have the opportunities I’ve been given; it wasn’t that long ago that the best I could be was someone else’s maid or an elementary school teacher. Soon after that funeral, my best friend’s mother lost a long battle with cancer, and I went home to help my friend with the burial arrangements. The foundation of our friendship was renewed and strengthened, and we are thankful that we can encourage one another when times get tough. (She is also in graduate school.)

For a while, after all of this, I was emotionally exhausted, sleeping to escape from thinking, withdrawing from any activity that seemed like it could be taxing, apart from work. Sometimes I think that taking a break probably would have been beneficial, but graduate school guilt and the desire to graduate and move on with my life kicked in and I kept going. I’ve been lucky, I guess. Even with all the things happening around me, I continued to make progress. I am absolutely sure that this--the fact that my work has continued to go relatively well--has made all the difference. The secrets of my success: successful research and selective amnesia.

What kind of amnesia? Remember how I said a moment ago that bad things happen in graduate school whether you notice or not, and how not noticing might not be such a bad thing? I've developed a form of coping I call selective amnesia: after it’s over--whatever it is--you might have to forget some things, at least for a little while, so that you can keep going. Tallying every offense, every problem, every worry--and keeping them in mind-- creates crazy, ugly people with ulcers and bad attitudes. Although grad students are very smart people with excellent memories, cataloguing crises is not a terribly good use of brain RAM.

So get rid of some of your crises after you've dealt with them. That last part is important: you have to deal with them somehow, otherwise they'll stay in there, tormenting you, just below the surface. Dealing with the crisis may involve a variety of things; I’m no expert so here are three possibilities.

· Confronting the source of the madness constructively . Arguing with your co-workers about how sloppy they are does not contribute to a happy lab environment, but talking about solutions that everyone can agree on is a step in the right direction.

· Writing a letter about a situation that has caused you stress. Sending it may cause you more stress, so I don’t necessarily advise doing it, but if ever you have the opportunity to discuss the situation, writing may help you crystallize your argument, even if you don't send it.

· Discussing the crisis with supportive people. Talking to friends that you find draining will not help; you need to find someone who will listen, suspending judgment, while you blow off some steam.

Do whatever it takes and learn what works for you. Believe it or not, the crises and stress will not stop once you’ve graduated. Learning how to manage through a crisis now will serve us well later. And that means finding a way to let go once you've done what's necessary.

I’ve come to terms with saying goodbye to my friends. It took some time, but I’ve been able to be supportive of their decision. I finally found a way to talk about it without being angry or feeling betrayed. I may not be happy with it, but it’s their life, not mine, and holding on to the madness will not benefit me, or them.

If anyone has any tips or suggestions on managing while in graduate school, please send them along. I’d be happy to share! Thank you to all of you that have written over the years. If I haven’t been able to get back to you individually, please know that your comments and encouragement are greatly appreciated.

Happy Holidaze to all and to all a much needed vacation!

---Micella, over it, and waiting for the next bump in the road …

Crisis management suggestions? E-mail

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.