Grad school is where you go to suck at the only thing you've ever been good at (i.e., school)

Tonight I finished my latest Program of Study. I typed out all the classes I’ve taken, the classes I plan (need) to take, and the time line associated with my Comprehensive exams. As I typed out my short term and long term goals, I couldn’t help but pause and reflect on a few things. What classes excited me despite the challenge? What classes made me feel like this is what I want to do for the rest of my life? What classes will eventually lead to my area of focus for Comps?

Then I thought about why I feel quite different from most of my cohort. Why do I not enjoy writing paper after paper, conducting experiment after experiment, or presenting at conference after conference? Why do I not give a rat’s ass if I ever get my work published? Why do I not go above and beyond what is required of me on an assignment or paper? Why do I feel like I do not belong in this group? I can count on one hand the people to whom I relate most. I still consider the other members of my cohort friends, but we have less in common.

I find more and more these days that my overall goals for grad school do not align with the goals of some other grad students.

Someone in my lab posted this on Facebook (she is also a friend):

Today. On one hand, I did a great job presenting my work in a meeting and it made me feel really good about my intellectual abilities. On the other hand, my thesis is reminding me how much I suck as a person. How very Libra of today.

Someone else in my program replied:

Grad school is where you go to suck at the only thing you’ve ever been good at (i.e., school).

I told my lab mate and friend she is awesome and that in grad school we feel a constant internal tug of war about whether we are good enough. We are expected to be good at ALL of it. When we aren’t, we’re failures.

Then I wrote:

I have to say, school isn’t the one thing I’ve ever been good at and this could explain why I feel like I don’t fit in with everyone. […] I wasn’t great in school. I’d say above average, but not like most of you guys. It’s more like I’m the girl who loved school, but wasn’t super awesome at it.

I sat there looking at what I’d just word vomited onto this person’s Facebook status.

What am I talking about? I WAS great in school. In fact, I was damn great. Sure, I always read slower than the smart kids. I had crippling social anxiety that kept me from excelling in a many ways. I felt like I was always one step behind even though I was always in advanced classes. I don’t have a high IQ. Nope. I score low on standardized tests. On paper, I’m 100% average. AVERAGE. Maybe a little above average, but not by much. I pushed myself because I love learning. I love it so much. Effort. I worked hard. The more I know, the more whole I feel as a human being. Seeking knowledge internally and externally is probably what one would call a passion. It moves me. It fulfills me. It is part of me. Knowledge. I crave it. When I can’t find an answer, I long for it and seek it out to the best of my ability.

When there is no answer? Sometimes, knowing there is no answer is the greatest knowledge of all.

I’m content with the knowledge that I don’t have the answers, but only after I’ve climbed in so deep I can barely find my way out. Then there’s the whole thing where I can’t see black and white. Everything is gray to me. Almost everything. Gray gray gray. I become upset and confused and sometimes angry when people only see one side of a coin. The world is complex. Yes, patterns emerge in the chaos, but ultimately, all this… this Universe… is complex.

Grad school has opened my world and my mind up in so many ways that undergrad and the “real world” never could. There are resources, methods of research, and contacts we just don’t know about until we reach this level of education. (And please remember, I’m talking about Doctoral programs, not any other kind of graduate program when I make these statements.) Without grad school, I wouldn’t even be pursuing a career in Human Factors. I wouldn’t be who I am, where I am today.

So it sounds like I would be the perfect grad student, right?

Not so much.

To come full circle, that quote above?

Grad school is where you go to suck at the only thing you’ve ever been good at (i.e., school).

I don’t feel like this applies to me.

Sometime last semester, I realized this world of academia is not for me.  I feel inadequate more often that not. Even though I am good at presenting my work or teaching other (so I’ve been told), I don’t like it. I’m usually in the bottom of my classes. I don’t enjoy collecting data or sitting in my lab hour after hour running undergraduates through experiments. I don’t eat, breathe, and dream about school. It’s part of my life, part of my day, and it is ultimately a means to an end. I do not identify with most of my fellow grad students. Eventually, I will escape the Ivory Tower. But until I do, I know deep down that I made a commitment to myself and to my goals. I chose to stick with it and I will. It is where I need to be so I can ultimately do the work that will make my heart the happiest. The work that will sustain me.

I have passions beyond school. Some of these passions are related to my studies, but others are not. I can list off the top of my head at least six talents, skills, or abilities I have beyond “being good at school.” I could be using one of those to make a living right now. I will always seek out knowledge. I will always be curious. I will always want to surround myself with other bright, shining, knowledge-seeking individuals. I will always want to make some contribution, something worthwhile and fulfilling.

But I would be willing and able to pay the bills some other way if I had to or chose to. Who I am and what I can contribute to the world goes beyond who I am and what I contribute in grad school or to my field of study. I strongly believe that.

At the end of the day, I want to do the work. I want to take the resources and knowledge I’ve attained in grad school and do the work. Apply it. I’m thankful for those in my program (and in programs around the world) who can ask the tough questions, do research and teach others. I admire those who answer or attempt to answer those wild, imaginative, world changing questions. Without them, I would not be able to ultimately do what I want to do. It’s just not a life I want.


So, all my grad school friends: Do you feel like you belong? Are you more of an applied person or you do you enjoy the teaching and laboratory research or writing side? Or a combination of these? Do you agree with the quote about grad school being the place where we suck at the one thing we’re good at? Why do you stay? Or why did you go?

Share this

17 thoughts on “Grad school is where you go to suck at the only thing you've ever been good at (i.e., school)

  1. I found your blog by googling ‘grad school sucks.’ So I guess we are having the same kind of day.

    I really enjoyed your post and can relate.. Thing is, I am so fucking sick and tired of feeling inadequate. I’m realizing at the end of my 20s that although I am ‘good at school,’ it doesn’t really agree with my disposition. The pressure and stress of deadlines and trying to anticipate every freaking flaw that some external examiner may or may not pick up on is impinging on my quality of life, cause when I leave the library, I can’t leave this stuff behind with my books and papers. It sits on my shoulder like a devil or germs in a prescription drug commercial. And when I try to sleep it whispers in my ear, ‘university of lies, you suuuuuck!’ And yeah, then there’s the realization that I’m not as good at school as I thought.

  2. It’s great to read a post that really addresses how I am feeling right now. I have just finished my first year of grad school at a really prestigious university and I am experiencing a bit of a crisis of confidence. The quote about sucking at the only thing I am good at really drove the point home for me. While as others have said, I don’t consider school to be the only thing I’ve ever been good at, I do see it as the thing that most contributes to my self worth. I try to pursue side activities that I am good at like cooking to keep me sane.

    I went to a good school and majored in area studies. While there I felt a real sense of community and belonging even though the school was a medium sized research university because my department was small and the people in it were close. While it wasn’t easy, it was good knowing that I was excelling academically and had found a place socially.

    Area studies was good because it gave me a chance to develop a deep base of knowledge in one part of the world, but after graduating I realized I really didn’t have much of a base in anything. I wanted to go to grad school to get a disciplinary background to be “respectable” and because I felt like there were important questions that I hadn’t yet gotten time to answer.

    The first semester was difficult. I didn’t have much of a math background and political science requires a lot of it. But midway through my second semester I gradually began to lose interest in my other classes and I kind of mailed it in. It was the first time in my life that I was ashamed of the work that I produced. The kind of scary thing was that when I began to think of what I could possibly do if I wasn’t doing this I drew a blank.

    So I talked with some people and decided I could improve my situation by switching from political science to sociology. The discipline isn’t as math dominated and the methodological approach seems like it would be more suiting to my interests. So this next year I am hoping that the change will solve some of my problems. It’s nice to know that other grad students are struggling with some of the same concerns that I am dealing with right now. I definitely felt like I didn’t fit in with my old department. Hopefully my new one will be more comfortable.

  3. I can relate. I’m in the fourth year of my doctoral program doing more basic neuroscience and, through no real fault of my own, I’ve still not published or even generated much presentable data. When I do publish, I’ll be happy…not because of the splash I’ll make (it won’t even generate ripples) but because maybe then I can graduate. I’ve also been tempted to the brink by the M.S. that you always know you could get out with. Like you, I love learning. And I’ve realized too that, for most, science can’t deliver on our lofty aspirations to make an impact.

    But the realities of grad school, with this whole process of experiment-fail-repeat and its culture of ‘work harder,’ is something we must accept if we’re to finish. One thing I’ve learned from my experiences is that no amount of zeal for learning will see you to the successful completion of a PhD. Our love of learning is fed and our curiosity satisfied through other means; like lively discussion and reading and wondering. Right after undergrad, as I began my program, I naively thought, ‘Since science has so far been the most enlightening, stimulating, and fun, I should DO science.’ But the dissillusionment has, at long last, set in. Doing science, in either academic or private settings, will never satisfy my love of learning. In fact, doing science has made me a bit wary of the motivations of some academics. I think you’re a lot like me. For us the lab is too small. We need to actively seek out new things, unleash our curiosity on the world.

    Still, even though it may be hard to relate to other graduate students, with their publications and dogged work ethic and shortage of hobbies and sometimes unhealthy BMIs, I’ve also come to see the positive aspects of graduate school. PhD students generally have flexible schedules (work early or later, its your mistake if you regularly do both), they have an excuse to read at work (and procrastinate on that experiment that will likely fail), they can take courses at their University for free (like scuba), and they can talk about science with scientists (or other things too). And, I think I would be just as listless with a 9-5.

    So, I try not to hinge my self-worth on my ability to do science, because, as you say, we have other abilities and talents. And of course we can’t totally dissociate ourselves from the success of our experiments. So, you’re right-on when you say that pursuing personal interests is important. I’d say the only thing more important is not letting anyone devalue those interests or discourage your pursuit of them, which so many profs and society in general will try to do. Personally, I just want to be a unique and interesting person. To anyone who tells me to stay in science because it is the ultimate occupation or because I’m too smart not to…well, I’m still in my 20’s and I’m after bigger fish.

    1. Thank you SO much for your reply. I have been meaning to reply for ages, but my Inbox has gotten so out of control. I apologize.

      I am not sure what to say in reply, other than I appreciate this comment so much. I can be really encouraging when I hear other grad students who have similar outlooks. I definitely agree that grad school has amazing moments and aspects. The flexibility can be a double edged sword; professors assume we can work 24 hours seven days a week. On the flipside, I can read at the beach in the middle of day once in a great while. Talking to other scientists in my field is absolutely one of the greatest joys I have as a grad student, so I definitely do not take that for granted when the opportunity arises.

      And then this:
      “Right after undergrad, as I began my program, I naively thought, ‘Since science has so far been the most enlightening, stimulating, and fun, I should DO science.’ But the dissillusionment has, at long last, set in. Doing science, in either academic or private settings, will never satisfy my love of learning. In fact, doing science has made me a bit wary of the motivations of some academics. I think you’re a lot like me. For us the lab is too small. We need to actively seek out new things, unleash our curiosity on the world.”

      Yes yes yes and yes.

  4. Wow, I’m glad that I read your post because I was starting to wonder whether I don’t belong in grad school because I haven’t made any friends with the students in my cohort and this is the second semester of my program. I don’t like feeling lonely and that I don’t measure up to my professors’ expectations and fellow peers. I have questioned whether if I am on the correct career path. I even venture out to do research and meet with other program director to see whether does program (clinical psychology, metal health counseling) are suited for me last semester. I realized that they were not for me, but I would always come back to my drive and passion for school psychology and child psychology.

    I even realize that I wouldn’t get accepted into the school psych program if the individuals that decided to pick me to be part of this program didn’t think that I had what it to take to succeed in the program. And more importantly my past achievements, current goals, and future aspirations made an impact on their decision.

    This post helped me changed my mindset of questioning whether I belong to how could I use this great opportunity to grow in my professional, personal, and spiritual life, along with becoming a better person.

    1. One reason I continue to blog? Comments like these. I’m so happy you can reframe things so you can use this time to grow in all the right ways. Keeping perspective and remembering that we all have different talents, skills, abilities, experiences, etc. has helped me so much.

      Thanks for your comment.

  5. I’m somewhat confused by your post. Why are you different? I don’t really see why you don’t fit in. What is different about you that is different from any other person working on a PhD in a science? Doing a science PhD is hard. Anybody who says it isn’t is just posturing.

    Your perception that everyone else has it easy and that you don’t fit in because you don’t eat, sleep, and breath school and therefore cannot do an academic career is a misguided view. I can see how it might look that way. I could have written most of this post myself. I was, on paper, quite average. I just loved learning and knowledge so much that I worked really hard. I never gave up. I fought illness through college and still never gave up on getting my degree. I’m a 31 year old lab tech and I still haven’t given up my dream of going to grad school. So, I can relate. I’m never the fastest reader or the highest test scorer or the quickest most efficient worker. I have other interests and other talents outside of science.

    There is a LOT of posturing in graduate school. A LOT. Most students want to give the impression that they understand everything, that they don’t struggle, and never make any mistakes in the lab. But, it’s not true and they end up accidentally fooling their fellow students. I think if people were more willing to admit failures, admit misunderstandings, relentlessly ask for extra help, and don’t walk away from an adviser meeting without being damn sure you know what was talked about rather than just nodding “uh huh, uh huh” and then scurrying off to figure out what you just discussed because you didn’t understand it when it was happening, then maybe people wouldn’t feel so swept up by the fast pace of graduate school. Needing help is nothing to be ashamed of and if you slow down and reason out what you need help with, you will end up becoming more efficient in time. Ever heard the phrase “there’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it over?” Don’t let that be you.

    As a self proclaimed dumb kid, I have given up trying to be the top of the class. It’s a relatively biased standard you are measuring yourself up to anyway. If people who have a philosophical thirst for knowledge and multiple talents and interests stay out of the academic world because they don’t make great data churning machines or sharp as a tack “understand everything the first time” kids, then the scientific community and knowledge as a whole suffers from a severe lack of diversity in points of view. I don’t care about the rat race either, but I do realize that being an academic at least for a portion of your career is quite important. The training you receive and the connections you make are quite valuable and it increases your chances of having an impact. Don’t give up on academics. Just find your place in it, and don’t pay attention to the perceived “have to’s” preached by the ivory tower. The ivory tower is made of people, after all, and it will take people to tear it down.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and somewhat critical comment. I sat with it for awhile before replying.

      I did not mean to make it sound like I thought people claim that it’s easy for them. I also didn’t intend to say that I’m different because it’s hard for me. It’s not easy for anyone. But some people enjoy and thrive in this type of environment more than others, I think. Some people are also more confident and more extroverted (and competitive) so they can be perceived as more knowledgeable. Some people are not as open about their personal struggles with things either. We all make major sacrifices to pursue this path and my feeling is that some people don’t view those sacrifices as inappropriate or unhealthy because as a group we all make them.

      I was attempting to explain that some of my priorities are different than my cohort and that I just don’t have a lot in common outside of the desire to learn with my cohort. There are a few people with whom I share a lot of common interests and we are incredibly close. The rest of the group is more cohesive because they truly do immerse themselves in academic life. Relationships and sleep and exercise, for example, are top priorities now because I put them to the slide and it was detrimental to my physical and mental health. Many of my peers and grad students around the world have suicidal thoughts, gain weight, are sick constantly, get divorced, etc. But they laugh it off or don’t truly address these as negative consequences of grad school. It’s just the norm. I don’t believe those things should ever be the norm.

      I am committed to getting this degree so I can get the job I want most, but I don’t want to work in academia after this. Usually a PhD sets one up for a life in academia specifically with the goals of research and publications. I should have probably stopped at my M.S., but I didn’t for many reasons (some of which are the wrong ones). I would rather make contributions in other ways than research and publishing. That’s the goal I’ve set for myself. I will also continue to pursue personal interests even if means I will never be a “star” in my program. I’m happy with that.

      I agree that it’s better to do it right or at least to the best of my ability now. There is never time to do it over or to try again later.

  6. Applying is a barrier in itself. I found an online application for a post-bacc, submitted, and had transcripts sent directly. Then I read all materials including references go in one packet with sealed signed envelopes. Sigh

  7. I’ve been a grad student for a year now and this quote seems to be uncannily true in my experience. I enjoy my field (its in the sciences) and i wouldn’t have applied to the program if I weren’t at least decently good at it in the undergrad. Some of the students in the program are just so ridiculously good at the subject I really feel I could never get to that point that they are. Grad school has led to feelings of helplessness and depression at a time in my life I think I should be most happy. I feel like an embarrassment to my field for the smallest errors. I forgive you Pixie, for I am the patron saint of mediocrity!! (Soliare- from the movie Amadeus)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. It is difficult to feel these things, but I’m blessed to know people who are struggling in the same way. We share a special bond because we do feel “different.” Eventually we all have to decide if this is the right path or if we need to change gears and do something else. It is a difficult choice. I wish you lots of luck and hope your feelings on helplessness ease up some as you continue your studies. <3

  8. I stumbled on your words and I thought about my daughter and sons. This life and culture drives each one of us to this same thought. Be patient and peaceful in your heart to what you know. I am a father (grandfather also) and a teacher. Humbleness is where one learns.

    Peace and growth,


  9. Oh thank you for this. I can only speak from the masters degree level, but I definitely didn’t think I fit in at all. All of my classmates were completely different and I really had no one I could relate to. I would hear about other super academics and think I was nowhere near them. Even though my masters was in a business focused program, it wasn’t in the business school – so I often thought I made a mistake and that I should have been going for an MBA. I realized later that I was right where I was supposed to be. I never would have had exposure to the people I did.
    I’m scared to apply for a PhD. I’m scared that I won’t fit in. In fact, I KNOW I won’t fit in. The things I want to do with the PhD are different – I know the other academics won’t think like me. I’m scared I will hate it and have to put up with it for 4 years. (If I even get in.) I’m so scared that I’ve completely procrastinated on the application process. I don’t know if it is the fear or that maybe I don’t want it. But I know I have to try.
    Sorry for venting.
    I’m a combination of applied and teaching. I can do research – buttt that doesn’t mean I love it. And I know that will be the biggest part of my career.

    1. I think that you will gravitate toward those who share your values and goals, like I have. They are few and far between and it’s hard to feel like an outsider. It’s been so amazing meeting other grad student bloggers so I can talk about these things with them. It’s not the same as having them in my classes, but it’s saved me in so many ways.
      Definitely decide in your heart and soul that you need and want to move on to a PhD program. :) I know we’ve talked about it a little before (and we should talk about it more, anytime!). If you know it’s the best option, you’ll be awesome.

  10. Thank you so much for this post Alex. I feel like I could and should write a post in response. The short answer is no. I don’t feel like I belong. But, I question that feeling, because I know I have something like an impostor complex that lets me believe against all reason that I’m not smart or talented enough to be here. It’s faded a lot, but it still haunts me.

    I love that quote even though I’d probably have to change “the only thing you’re good at” to “the thing you’re best at.” I hold on tightly to the fact that I know I’m good at other things, because otherwise grad school would drag my entire sense of self down to nothing. When it threatened to do that (second year), I found myself holding on to other things I could do as an escape from grad school. I knew if I failed at this, then I could do other things.

    Also, a million more things. I should just write a post. :)

    1. I look forward to reading your post! 😀 It’s funny because I was worried this post would just be super boring or not worth publishing. I almost didn’t. I totally agree that the quote should be “the thing you’re best at.” I’d relate to it much more. I think I also hold onto plans B-Z because there are times I feel like such a complete failure. And you are right about holing onto those other things to protect us from grad school basically killing our souls.

Comments are closed.