Just another ugly side of grad school

If you follow me on Twitter, you know October has been a rough month for me.  When I started this semester, I knew October would be Hell Month.  I was right.  Some of you already know all of the things I am going vent about in this blog post, so my apologies for being a broken record. :)

Sometimes things happen that are completely out of your control.  For example, there are times you might work two jobs and have two midterms, two assignments, a research proposal and a Thesis due in the same week.  Or you might have to use Undergraduates for your Thesis experiment and they don’t give a shit about anything, so they don’t show up to your experiment and if you don’t have two people at the same time, you can’t conduct your study.  Or you might not have any research assistants in the lab to help you collect data, code personality measures, conduct verbal content analysis on your experiment recordings or enter data.  Or you may not be able to control that there are only 168 hours in a week, that your body requires some sleep and sustenance to function or that in America we are supposed to bathe regularly. Or you may not be able to control that you are one person who really needs a personal assistant or a husband or someone, dear God, I just need someone to do little things for me like go to the bank or take my car in for an oil change or do my laundry or SOMEthing.

Sometimes, things get ugly in grad school and in my experience the ugly happens in the middle and at the end of each semester.

I won’t make the Thesis defense deadline

The last two weeks were brutal.  Even though I requested a few days off from both of my jobs, I still only slept between three and five hours each night. I was working in the lab for 17 to 20 hours at a time, so I am thankful I live so close to campus now. The last day to defend is November 11th for December graduation. Data collection did not go smoothly again this semester (due to a lack of research assistants and multiple no-shows).  Once I chose to end data collection (well before reaching statistical power), I organized the twenty recorded conversations from each two-hour session.

My adviser finally approved bringing on some RAs last week.  I grabbed a few Junior/Senior Undergraduates in Psi Chi and we hung out in the lab and coded every.freaking.single utterance in those recordings using an emergent leadership coding scheme that describes various categories of utterances. The coding and data entry took about 100 hours total. Why? It’s just the joy of verbal content analysis. When I say joy, I mean Hell. I worked all weekend on my analyses and a draft of my results.

Tonight I rested my brain for the most part by reading a few chapters in a textbook, catching up on 100 emails in my Inbox and blogging.  The rest of this weekend I am conducting my analyses to the best of my ability (as I read through old notes and textbooks about repeated measures multivariate  analysis of covariance) in the hopes that I can churn out a decent draft of the Results and Discussion section.  My adviser will receive a copy on Monday and he will throw it back to me as soon as possible.  (I don’t even want to think about the three assignments due this week that usually take about ten hours each).

Ideally, your adviser and committee look over your draft in enough time to give you some feedback before the public defense. So at this point, it looks like I won’t graduate again. I don’t want to rush right here at the end in case I make an error only to discover it in the middle of my presentation in front of people who know everything about statistics.  I will still defend this semester, but it won’t be in two weeks. I just hope the department will allow me to participate in Commencement. I already purchased a cap and gown and announcements. This is what I get for planning ahead.

I failed a midterm

As I pushed myself as hard as I could to finish data entry, I completed my assignments for the week, churned out a 30 page midterm exam in one class and then proceeded to fail a midterm in another class because I ran out of time. Yes, I failed it. We went over the answers together in class. Granted, this is a course that employs a great deal of Calculus and the instructor assumes we’ve all created Monte Carlo simulations in Excel before and I’ve never even taken Calculus and certainly have never ever used Excel for simulations.  I digress. I am not the only one who failed and we talked with the professor after class about it, but he didn’t seem too understanding. In his defense, I probably could have stayed awake for three days straight to finish it, but I chose a nap over a good grade.

Sometimes we have to make choices like that in grad school and in life. Sometimes you do your best, but it is not enough because there are things we either can’t control or because we try to do too much. Sometimes you decide to sleep or watch an hour of Buffy because your brain just can’t figure out how to solve a particular problem or answer a particular question.

It is not the end of the world if I don’t finish my thesis this semester or if I make a C in a class. Still, the program would place me on academic probation and there are implications for funding and courses counting toward my PhD.

The bright side

I survived this month remembering I have some of the most amazing friends on the planet. The level of camaraderie that emerged this month just within my lab was incredible. We spent so much time together. Each of us had our own reasons for staying up multiple days in a row and laughing at nothing at noon on Monday and sobbing uncontrollably at 2am on Wednesday. We had our own reasons for eating donuts for dinner because we didn’t have time to go to the grocery store this week and the only things we had in the lab at 2am on Thursday were some leftover donuts from the lab meeting.  We give good hugs and tell each other it is OK to cry because we genuinely care about each other.  We give the best advice because we are going through this right now with each other.  We truly do understand what we are all going through and it is such a relief.  Also, we bring each other gifts (i.e., we bring giant bottles of wine to the lab when we cry in front of each other).  No matter what we have going on in our personal, work or academic lives, we “get” it and are there for one another.

Before classes, friends would text me to ask if I needed food or coffee.  Others emailed or called or hit me up on gchat. I mean, you know you are on the verge of crazy when other grad students in your program who are just as busy are making sure you eat lunch. :) (On a side note: At some point four of us were working in one of the rooms in our lab and we realized I was humming Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper.”  It was funny in a creepy, Alex might need to be medicated after this semester, step away from the computer kind of way.)

My grad school homies were not the only people who reached out to me over the last two weeks.  Many of you sent me texts, DMs, emails and tweets throughout the day to make sure I was alive. OK, maybe it wasn’t *that* bad, but you did your best to lift my spirits, send me warm thoughts and make me smile. You know who you are and you are amazing, each of you.  I know some of you were so busy lately.  It means a lot to hear from you. Thank you.

And thank you for making it this far in this blog post and for not un-following me on Twitter or un-friending me on Facebook this semester what with all my mood swings and stress-induced complaining.


The challenge of grad school is rarely about learning content knowledge. I find most of the time, grad school (at least this type of program) pushes you to your absolute edge (yes, that metaphorical ledge) physically, psychologically and emotionally.  People who drop out before earning their Doctorate do not drop out because they can’t handle learning, applying their knowledge in courses, conducting experiments, etc.  They drop out because it becomes too much to manage.  It makes people lose their sanity a little, to be quite honest.  I’ve talked with multiple graduate students who each had thoughts like, “If I just got in a car wreck and hurt myself just enough, I would have a a legitimate excuse for taking a week off.”  Why would a human being in any other environment be placed on a suicide watch if they verbalized such thoughts, but such rules do not apply to graduate students?  Some people cannot manage the emotional roller coaster, the sleep deprivation, the headaches, the student-adviser-work-family-friends tug of war, the lack of free time or the interpersonal drama that can occur among highly intelligent, competitive individuals.  I now know I am reaching such a breaking point.  I started moving in the direction of a breaking point last summer and I don’t think that train has stopped.  I want to avoid a moment when I do decide that taking a step toward the ledge is the best and/or only option.  I always say I want to make a change, but once a semester hits, there is no going back.  I still feel like I’m drowning.


What are some of the other ugly sides of grad school?

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8 thoughts on “Just another ugly side of grad school

  1. I’m sorry Alex. It is ugly, but something still keeps us around.

    Also, I have imagined every kind of natural disaster that might push back a deadline or even land me in the hospital. Just for a week, so I could take a break without getting too far behind. At the start of this semester, I had a dream where I was driving head first into other cars on purpose to avoid all the things stressing me out. So far from healthy thinking.

    Let me know if you ever need to talk.

    1. Ah yes, natural disasters. I’m more of a car crash wisher myself, but no matter what, it is definitely far from healthy. At least we have our fellow grad students to keep us from actually driving the car off the road or into other cars. :) And the talking invite is mutual, always. <3

  2. I am utterly amazed by everything you accomplish. One job, one class just about drives me batty – and then there’s you juggling five hundred times more. Step-by-step, minute-by-minute you’ll get closer and closer to the end.

    1. Well I don’t really balance all these things well. :) I find that I can do really well with a few of the things on my plate very well. Everything else falls by the wayside. Heh.

  3. I’m just now catching up on my reader, and I just had to send you a hug! You are going through so much with this Thesis (dammit, why can’t people just show up?!) and I admire you for it. I know that you will finish in good time. :)

    1. Hey! :) Thank you for the virtual hug. I’ll finish, it’s just tough when it isn’t according to plan. Hope you are doing well. You are so close by, hopefully we can get together after this semester is over.

  4. It’s rough to take on too much and come crashing down, but just think – you often do more by achieving 80% of some impossible goals, than realizing 100% of possible goals.

    1. You are right about the impossible vs. possible goals. I definitely took on an impossible amount of work this semester and it does feel good knowing I’m doing well with some of those things. :) And the things I’m not doing “well” in, I’m doing my best with. Sometimes that is all one can do.

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