As I enjoy the post-graduation glow, my desire to teach has surpassed my actually being a teacher of some sort. I will take this time while memories are fresh to write what I can about what I want newer students to know about graduate school.
When I applied for graduate school as an undergrad in Berkeley, I had no idea what graduate school was actually like. I just knew that it’s the next phase of my education and what I had to do to get a Ph.D. and become a professor. I knew I was going in over my head and looking back, I was way in over my head. I was very shy when I was an undergrad so I didn’t really have too many other students to talk with about anthropology and graduate school (sidenote: grad school really reduced my shyness over the years though I’m still quiet at times). I was working as a volunteer in an archaeology lab under the direction of two graduate students, Barb and Amy.
Barb and Amy gave me a lot of advice but after all of these years I only remember one tip that Barb gave me that proved completely true.
“Find friends outside of school.”
Barb elaborated, suggesting that I find people who share similar interests so I am not spending time with my classmates the entire time. For example, she suggested playing a musical instrument in a community group.
On the surface, this tip seems so insignificant. It’s not even related to studying, taking classes, exams, or anything else academic. In fact, the tip is anything but about academia. How would this help me? I was more concerned about doing well in school and getting used to living in the Midwest.
The following fall in 2001 I found myself in Missouri, far removed from the Bay Area. I thought it was great. I arrived knowing nobody but people in the department were so nice to me. I was also so busy with school so I didn’t look beyond the building for socializing. Things were going well so I was not too concerned about straying from Barb’s tip.
By the end of 2004, everything had changed. I had gotten too close to the wrong people in the department by moving in with one of the other grad students in the summer of 2003. Upon moving in, it was apparent that he was a huge manipulative jerk. Over the next year, working together at school and living together at home had completely worn me down. I became depressed and I gradually lost contact with most of my friends in the department as my roommate was more vocal than I and the others did not want to get involved. I felt betrayed by my peers and withdrew from school in all ways except officially (which I really should have done but I didn’t know until later that it was an option). My classwork suffered and I got my first Bs and Cs of my graduate career. I lost control of my emotions and I had fits of rage, crying, and plans for suicide. I was completely broken as a human being.
It took me years to recover. With the help of MU Counseling and Mental Health, I rebuilt my mind from nothing, relearning how to trust people and how to control my errant thoughts and flashbacks. As I recovered I finally heeded Barb’s advice and looked for people outside of school with whom I could relate. I joined the local comics community. I met some great friends working a temp job at the Assessment Resource Center. A friend from there got me into yoga, which has done wonders for me mentally and physically.
Of course I had to commit myself back to graduate school. I did not recover academically until fall of 2006 when I started working on the project that eventually became my dissertation. In spring of 2010 I started socializing with the department again. In the five years I was absent, most of the graduate students had come and gone, so new students made up most of the group. I found the new students to be a good bunch that formed a strong community in the department. It has been a joy to meet them and it’s been an honor to have come full circle and have them be one of my groups of friends.
Still, as full of camaraderie as they are, I encourage the students to branch out and meet new people in town. Surely my experience was extreme, but with a little planning, a disaster like I have lived could be avoided.
So, seriously, find friends outside of school.