Swan Dive, again

Early in the summer of 2008, I was making some drastic changes to my life. I remember listening to this song, among others, almost every day in my car to and from work. I remember wanting to be in control of everything, but I felt broken and I knew something had to change. I made a choice. A choice to move forward. I was ready to take the next step. I was about to embark on a new journey. I was about to move to Virginia and begin working toward a Master’s degree.

I fell a few more times along the way.  “Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves back up again.” I put the pieces back together.

I finished. I changed. Grad school changed me in a way I never thought possible. I was pushed to the limit in every aspect of my life in those first two years. I learned how to habituate to the feeling of drowning. In 2010, I decided to take another leap and started a PhD program. I wrote about it on the blog.

I fell again. I broke again.

Recently Chelsea wrote about breaking.

Break, because contrary to what “breaking” infers which is isolation, imperfection or delay – the truth is that breaking means movement and light, both of which are beautiful, sacred and profoundly gratifying.

I left some pieces behind when I broke the last time. I left them scattered on the floor beneath me so I could let the light in again. So I could fill myself with the fragments of a new life. New people. New perspectives. New definitions of success. New experiences. New love. Contentment. Movement and light, as Chelsea so beautifully described.

I realize today that we don’t just take these BIG leaps, these swan dives, when we make those BIG LIFE decisions. Actually, we leap into new opportunities and new paths along the journey just by making a choice to move forward even when we are broken.

I’m about to take another leap (two leaps, in fact). I’m terrified. I’m excited. I’m filled with gratitude. I don’t know if I’ll land on my feet or if I’ll break this time around. I do know that when I break again (because breaking is part of progress), I will be OK.

I’m still finding my Way.

So, here we go.

Cradling the softest, warmest part of you in my hand
Feels like a little baby bird fallen from the nest
I think that your body is something I understand
I think that I’m happy, I think that I’m blessed
I’ve got a lack of inhibition
I’ve got a loss of perspective
I’ve had a little bit to drink
And it’s making me think
That I can jump ship and swim
That the ocean will hold me
That there’s got to be more
Than this boat I’m in

‘cuz they can call me crazy if I fail
All the chance that I need
Is one-in-a-million
And they can call me brilliant
If I succeed
Gravity is nothing to me, moving at the speed of sound
I’m just going to get my feet wet
Until I drown

I’m cradling the hardest, heaviest part of me in my hand
The ship is pitching and heaving, my limbs are bobbing and weaving
And I think this is what I understand
I just need a little vaccination for my far-away vacation
I’m going to go ahead boldly because a little bird told me
That jumping is easy, that falling is fun
Up until you hit the sidewalk, shivering, stunned

And they can call me crazy if I fail
All the chance that I need
Is one-in-a-million
And they can call me brilliant
If I succeed
Gravity is nothing to me
Moving at the speed of sound
I’m just gonna get my feet wet
Until I drown

~Ani Difrano, SwanDive

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

Last week, Ashley blogged about finding balance as a grad student. She wrote about making the choice to stay in grad school despite the challenges she faced. Her guest post described what most of us grad students experience when we choose this path. Many of us become discouraged when we hit a brick wall or when things seem to fall apart around us. And when we reach that breaking point, many students choose another path.

A friend recently sent me an article that I wanted to share on the blog.

Aru Ray asked this question over at StackExchange.com:

How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student?

You can read his full post here. As you know, I’ve asked similar questions on this blog before. Often when I’m feeling discouraged or depressed about grad school, I read as many articles as I can about what to do to get out of the funk. I ask for help, but mostly I seek help from strangers on the Internet.

Most of the advice I read involves the following words and phrases:



It’s not worth it

Move on

Find your calling elsewhere

Don’t torture yourself

Take care of yourself

We aren’t all meant to be specialists

If you don’t feel passion now, you won’t feel passion later

The comments on this other thread were remarkable. They were full of hope and encouragement.

I thought the end game was deciding I was a real mathematician, but it turns out it’s developing the confidence not to worry about this, and I’ve been much happier since that point.

Take breaks, find fulfilling things to do outside of work, and realize that everyone (even seasoned researchers) feel the same frustrations and highs that you do.

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome. Everyone “actually smart” is hearing exactly the same voice in their head saying “Oh, if only someone who actually knew how to hit walls with their forehead hit this wall, it would come down like a stack of cards” when in fact the wall really is made of brick.

Eventually, you’ll move from hoping that you’ll be able to knock down a wall with your head someday, to being surprised at how often the walls you hit with your head actually fall, to finally believing that you really can knock down walls with your head sometimes.

Part of the problem is that it’s tempting to focus too much on the destination: proving theorems, writing papers. These things happen only occasionally, and thinking about them (or their absence) too much is an easy way to become depressed. Instead, you want to reach the point of enjoying the journey itself. This takes some perspective and confidence, but it will come with time.

Sometimes we look for the answers we want, especially when we’re struggling. It’s easier for me to focus on the answers that tell me to move on because deep down, that is what I want to do. Reading comments like the ones on this thread nudged me in a different direction. They made me feel a little more hopeful for my future as a grad student.

Their comments also reminded me that grad school (at the PhD/JD/MD level) is not easy for anyone. It’s not even easy for those people who claim to love grad school (or for those who truly do love it). It’s not easy for those who are experts at memorizing details from every journal article. It is not easy for those who are the most productive in terms of publishing.

At some point, we all struggle as we pursue this degree. We dedicate 5 or 6 or 8 or, God help us, 10 years of our lives to this. Those are years beyond a Bachelor’s, by the way. Most of break at various points along the journey. Some of us struggle on a personal level (weight/health). Some struggle at home or in their relationships (divorces, breakups) or with their finances (ignoring debt). Others struggle in work, in research, and in classes (taking on too much, not publishing, not getting all As, not making deadlines). In the beginning, many of us struggled in all  of these areas.

But some of us make the choice to stay.

I think the reasons they cited in those comments above are excellent reasons to make that choice.

On the other hand, it is still absolutely essential to ask yourself tough questions in the most discouraging moments. Ask the why questions. Why should I stay? Ask questions like the ones Vivek Haldar asks in his blog post: Advice to Prospective Grad Students.

What it boils down to is that this is one of the most intense questions of self-knowledge you will ever face. The answer is simple: you should do a PhD if you really want to. Look into yourself to figure out if you really want to.