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Educated Woman, Chapter 55: What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

Well folks, it’s just about over. After 5 years and 55 chapters of all-Micella, all-grad-school, all the time--who knew that it would end like this?

As my final report from grad school, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what has transpired in my life, in all these columns, and over all these years.

It’s a little frightening, actually, to look back at those first few chapters of Educated Woman. I was still kind of, well, perky, contemplating the qualifying process, playing fledging social director, trying to figure my adviser out, working to avoid the strife I saw around me, trying to keep from feeling too lonely, and trying to figure out whether I really was meant to be here. To look back through my writings and realize how graduate school has changed me is disconcerting. Is the youthful excitement I once felt for science still there under the surface, or is it gone forever?

I’m quite sure that I’ve lost pieces of myself along the way in my quest to get out of here with a degree (Chapter 33). If I could have a chat now with my first-year self, I would tell her three things:

1) You need to find something you’ll still be interested in 5 years from now--and that's not easy;

2) Yes, you will go crazy (and the people around you will, too), so get used to it (Chapter 15 and Chapter 46); and

3) Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you can't have fun (Chapter 17 and Chapter 45).

Early on, I had ideas of what I liked, and I ended up working in a group in which it was possible to do it. But as it happened, the collaboration that would have been my project fizzled, and because I wasn’t pushy enough, I ended up doing a project that made my adviser happy rather than one that made me happy. I worked hard on something I hadn’t heard of prior to entering grad school, made it work, and got my degree. But today I remain frustrated that I can’t look my 15-year-old brother in the eye and tell him what I do without thinking to myself, Is this what I really want? I hope that feeling will pass. We'll see.

In the end, I made my adviser kind of happy, but I know Jeff wishes he could’ve gotten more out of me, even though in a sense I've given him my soul. There’s only so much energy you can put into something you don’t love. As my tolerance for all things project-related went down the toilet (Chapter 19 and Chapter 20), my interest in things outside the department skyrocketed, and in classic procrastinator fashion, I found enough to be excited about outside the lab to keep me content and in the lab--but it was close.

I am a little worried about my motivation for my next endeavor; even though the projects will be radically different, I’m still not so sure I want to hang out at the bench for too much longer. Maybe I’m just jaded and this will pass. Fortunately, one of the two new projects I'll be working on is nearer to my heart than my Ph.D. work, which should be cause for celebration--except that, of course, that one isn’t quite funded (sigh). I’ve talked to my future postdoc adviser, and I know that I have some structure to work with, as well as some time to think about what I want. I’m hoping I'll discover some inspiration before I throw up my hands and walk away.

Despite my ambivalence about the work I've been doing, I’ve continued over the years to do some peer mentoring, give some talks, and participate in panels on the side (Chapter 22 and Chapter 48)--trying to inform others on how to get through the minefield of grad school. And of course, I have written this column, partly for the same reasons.

As I have offered counsel to others, I've continued to look--with limited success--for a few people to counsel me. And I do need some counseling: I don't know what my professional future holds, and I'm okay with that. But I'm sure that if I choose a traditional path--in academe, government, or industry--it will be like trying to squeeze my uniquely shaped head into a square hole (Chapter 38). It will take some time to figure out how to be “me” as opposed to what everyone else wants me to be (Chapter 39). My graduate alma mater may not be too happy with me once I get wherever I’m going. Fortunately, I don’t care.

By the way, I’ve been asked via e-mail if this has been the same person writing this column all along. Yes, it’s been me, Micella, the whole time, entertaining you with tales of whimsy and woe from the graduate-school bench. And I'm grateful that I’ve been able to keep it all together. I’ve been lucky, although not at every stage. Failing two of my qualifying exams (Chapter 3, Chapter 7, and Chapter 13) was not fun, but it was all part of the process, and I'm hardly unique in that: Many students have been eviscerated by the qualifying process (Chapter 24).

Speaking of those exams, when they were over, my mother accused me of being self-absorbed. I didn't deny it; what else was I supposed to do when for the first time in my life I'd failed something and didn't know why? I was distraught, I was neurotic, and that is when the stress-related eating began. I was lucky that my failure was exam-related and not project-related; exams may come and exams may go, but Ph.D. projects are--or at least can seem to take--forever ... and still not work. So there's a lesson for all you budding grad students: If you're going to get really neurotic about something, it's better if it's something with a definite endpoint.

Grad school chewed me up a bit, but the wounds are healing. Still, I’m not the same person who entered these hallowed halls 5 years ago. As one of my future co-workers said--about herself, not me--“I wasn’t a nice person while I was in graduate school, and I wasn’t particularly nice for a while when I got out.” Fortunately, she says, the effects wear off in time. I hope that I haven’t gotten as bad as all that, but if I have, maybe in time I’ll regain some of the perk I shed somewhere around year 3.

On the bright side, as the now-retired social director I made plenty of friends since that first lonely semester (Chapter 2), all of whom I will miss dearly. Even if they’re a little jealous of my departure--I know I was always a little green when other people left--I'm sure we’ll keep in touch. These are always the bright spots you hope to remember (as you try to forget the long nights that you spent in the lab). I didn’t manage to pick up a significant other in grad school (Chapter 23), but it's just as well: I can only be responsible for my own sanity right now; adding another person would be a wee bit too much, even if he could take my car for oil changes and take care of some of the household chores. I’m in no hurry to settle down--although I could be lying. Going to my high school reunion reminded me how far behind I am on the husband/kids/money/house front, but I’m about to have some fun getting my life back.

The beauty of this--of this column I mean--is that it has served two purposes. For me, it's something like therapy, or at least a bit of a comfort. It has been a great help to write things down; it has clarified the absurdity or calamity of the situations I’ve faced. It has helped me recognize where I still need to do some work--for example, addressing the challenges of communication (Chapter 27, Chapter 28, Chapter 29, and Chapter 30) and how important it is to have feedback from someone outside my own brain (Chapter 41 and Chapter 42). What's great is that this column also seems to have helped a few other people--who, if I can judge by the many e-mails I've received, have learned something from my experiences. Maybe I have helped them avoid a few beastly experiences of their own. Those e-mails often say things like “Thank you for writing my life. Now I feel like I’m not crazy for feeling this way/experiencing this madness/wondering if I stepped through the looking glass”--or, “I wish I had this resource in grad school”--you and me both!

Thank you, dear readers, for sharing the madness with me. I wish each of you good luck.

Signing off from the land of graduate school, where nothing is what it seems, this is Micella Phoenix Dewhyse, Ph.D. But don’t worry--I’ll check in again when I arrive in postdoc land, where new adventures await ...

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse writes from space.

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