Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.
In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:
“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”
She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:
“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”
As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”
The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:
“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”
Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.
The Emerging Scholars Network has a helpful article that gives wisdom for adapting one’s spiritual disciplines to the challenges of graduate school. The author, Chandra Crane, highlights “the value of simple, flexible, and defined spiritual disciplines. Or, to put it more succinctly, the urgency of having healthy boundaries between spiritual disciplines which give life and energy, and spiritual disciplines which require effort and sacrifice.” As the author points out, graduate school is complicated and asks a lot of people: “the realities of graduate school are often not enough time, money, or energy. So trying to do the exact same spiritual disciplines in a new season of life is often a recipe for disaster.”
She recommends adapting one’s practice of spiritual disciplines to be more simple: “streamlined, shorter, and/or less rigorous.” She graciously points out that “Accepting this limitation isn’t “settling” so much as settling in, understanding one’s finite nature (as opposed to God’s omnipotence), and adjusting to the realities of a new stage in life.” Reflecting that, she argues that “spiritual disciplines must be flexible enough to handle the constant changes in our lives as our schedules are interrupted and rearranged, and as our energy and stress levels ebb and flow.” For examples of what simple, flexible, and defined might look like, as well as further wisdom on spiritual disciplines, I recommend that you read the whole article.
While most of the people who attend Campus Edge are single, a significant number of people in grad school are married. And grad school is hard on marriages, as a somewhat recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education points out. The article contains a number of difficult-to-read anecdotes: stories from real people for whom getting a doctorate has caused significant pain to themselves and those they love(d). The author, Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, begins by acknowledging how frustrated she has “become with the fact that so many of [her] friends have lost their marriages to graduate school.” After explaining how grad school can be hard on marriages, she ends the article with wise and helpful advice for those who would like to have healthier relationships.
For those of you haven’t gone to grad school, grad school can feel a lot like having a (first) baby: lack of sleep, long hours, lot of scary unknowns and feeling of incompetence, not a lot of helpful communication, strange eating habits, emotional chaos, and so on. While the stress level can be compared to that of having a first child, the support network and rewards aren’t as significant as having a child: there are no wonderful baby giggles, positive hormones, babysitters, and/or wonderful people who bring you meals.
Quoting another grad student, Wedemeyer-Strombel notes: “Grad school is a crucible that strengthens relationships and can expose unknown cracks in [the] foundation.” A healthy relationship means that both people in the relationship are doing their best to work towards helping each other get through the challenge of grad school (stress, neglect, insecurity, etc.); that is what the commitment to love each other looks like. The commitment to love translates also into communicating with each other and making choices that are good for both of you, which includes developing one’s gifts and caring for those you love. Failure to communicate and make choices for the good of everyone in the relationship might cause the marriage not to be able to survive the growth, changes, and choices that happen in each partner during grad school, irrelevant of how committed one might be.
Your prayers are thus requested for grad students, especially since we as a culture and as a church don’t always know how to talk about good commitment to one another looks like.