Emotions in Grad School: From Excitement to…???

You know those videos of people finding out they got into college? They stare at a computer screen, sometimes surrounded by family and friends, and there’s a moment when everyone grows so silent, you can almost hear the mouse click. Then, eyes widen and faces light up, followed by a leaping out of chairs, hands in the air, screaming, celebrating, and sometimes a broken computer, knocked to the floor, a casualty of pure joy.

I suppose I was half-expecting that experience. My first acceptance letter into a Ph.D. program arrived in January – far sooner than I expected. Upon seeing the email notification, my stomach seized up. I put my phone down and walked away. I wasn’t ready to know.

Of course, I came back a minute later. I tapped open the email, slouching over my phone, and saw the congratulations. But where I expected to feel excitement, panic and doubt about my life choices swept in. I closed my email and didn’t tell anyone for a few hours.

“The First Week of Grad School Was Great”

I’m sitting in a small but homey sort of classroom, solid wooden tables arranged in a long U-formation around the room. There are two TV screens at the front, but this professor only uses a chalkboard. Most of the time she sits comfortably in a chair up front, a stack of papers in front of her, wooden podium pushed aside. It’s my first day of grad school. And that professor is Peggy Thoits.

Peggy Thoits is a big deal. She’s basically a sociology celebrity. My friend down at Emory is jealous and that only fuels my excitement. I’m nearly bouncing up and down in my seat the whole time, never mind that it’s a two and a half hour class. It’s the very first class of my very first day of grad school.

I listen with rapt attention to everything Thoits says. Obviously. But occasionally, I’m overcome with excitement and can’t stop a stupid grin from spreading across my face. I hope no one notices because I probably look like a complete weirdo. I also don’t really care.

But it isn’t just my first day and it isn’t just Thoits. I’m ecstatic the whole first week and still feeling pretty good the second. I figure this means that I’m a total nerd. And that I’m meant to be in grad school.

After my unconventional reaction to my acceptance letter, feeling excited is a welcome relief.

“Week 11 of Grad School Was Not So Great”

By the time week 11 rolls around, I’m not grinning or bouncing up and down in class anymore. I no longer think that classroom is homey; in fact, I’m pretty sick of it. All of my classes are in the same room in the same building. On long days, I try to force myself to leave the building, for sanity’s sake.

Then there’s grad school itself. It’s exhausting. Why is there so much reading? Why would you assign more than what’s humanly possible to read in a week? Why can’t I enjoy the material instead of trying to skim it as quickly as possible while still understanding what’s happening?

And let’s not forget health. I’ve been sick the entire month of October. Everything is harder when you can’t stomach breakfast.

But something during week 11 reminds me of week 1. How I was once so excited to be here. Beyond excited. I was grinning like an idiot in class. Remember that? My brain asks. I decide I want to capture that feeling. And the process of remembering my excitement starts to sound like good blog material.

“I Guess the Second Semester of Grad School is Okay”

I want to think there’s something valuable in remembering your past excitement and feelings of passion for an endeavor. In writing this blog post, I wanted to capture the initial excitement of grad school, find comfort in it, and encourage others to do the same.

But the second semester had other plans for me. In many ways, January mirrors August – new classes, new projects, new schedule. Except this time, the excitement is gone. So when I sat down to finish a blog post on remembering my excitement about grad school – a post that is only a few paragraphs away from being finished – I couldn’t do it.

Remembering past excitement or good times seems to have two possible results: encouragement or discouragement.

Back in week 11, I found comfort in remembering that I had been excited to be here. That maybe it was just the busy-ness of the semester that was getting me down.

In the second semester, remembering my excited past-self invoked bitterness. Oh, good for her.

A quick web search seemed to confirm my negativity. In looking for articles similar to the post  I was trying to write, I found nothing.

Nobody was recommending that you look back on good times to feel better. I probably could have dug further and found somebody on the internet to agree with me, but these results gave me pause. Maybe the practice of remembering good times isn’t all that helpful. Maybe it keeps you trapped in the past, wondering why the present can’t be more of the same. Maybe it doesn’t let you move forward.

The moral of this story then isn’t about excitement at all. Instead, it’s something like this:

Grad school is going to screw with your emotions. Be ready for it.

3 thoughts on “Emotions in Grad School: From Excitement to…???

  1. If it helps at all, I’m still jealous that you get to take a class with Peggy Thoits!

    The grad school route is tough though. It will tire you and try you to the limits, but never forget that you have a support network to help you when you need it! It’s amazing what venting, and talking to people who have been through it, and are going through it will do! You’re tired, you’re stressed, but you are not alone!

    And remember too – and I will repeat this again and again, because it took me a long time to listen to this advice – it is OK to take a break. Whether that’s a mental break, or a physical break (take a walk, go outside, etc.) for a night, an afternoon, a day, whatever you feel comfortable with. Block out time in your calendar if you need to, and make sure that you give yourself guilt-free time to take off to do whatever you want. But letting yourself have a snippet of time that is just an unconditional break is important. It makes a load of a difference! (EVEN IF you just had winter break, it’s still OK!) You’ll work better with a fresher mind, and it will help keep you from burnout.

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