On Grad School

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When I started my master’s program in fall 2011, I wanted to work hard and write well. I devoted my first year to doing just that. I read as much as I can, thought well and hard about my critical essays, and gave my brain the workout of its life (while trying to juggle 2 part-time jobs). And it nearly drove me insane.

By the end of my first year, I was beset with doubts, fatigue, and reader remorse (the feeling you get when you know you would love what you are reading had circumstances been different). In retrospect, it’s easy to find the culprit for this: I was out of balance. I was working hard and nothing else. I was on a harsh graduate school motto of “All work and no play makes Francesca a successful graduate student.” Clearly, “success” meant being nearly driven to pull my hair out. I felt like I was drowning in reading. I was working hard, but not smart. (This made it hard to even recall what I did last summer and if I did, in fact, enjoy it. I probably did not enjoy it as much as I could have.)

After two semesters of insomnia-inducing terror of failure (I wanted to see if it was just the adjustment to grad school or not), I’ve decided to start over—in both my philosophy and outlook—to achieve (better) balance. It’s not perfect, but I’m making progress.

For my second year of graduate school (it’s taking me three to finish–that’s a related entry on time-management and going at your own pace), I wanted to bridge the gap between “joy” and “work.”* I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but difficult to apply. It is in this liminal space that I try to do my work. This means working effectively (read: no distractions) to make sure that I read, synthesize, and critically think about my work. It doesn’t always happen all at once—it’s a recursive process (much like writing) that takes revisiting, rereading, and rethinking.

This also means that I stop to enjoy what I’m doing. If you’re anything like me (most Capricorns and results-oriented folks), I see things in terms of process, puzzles, and goals to reach. There’s not much space or time for enjoyment—and if there is enjoyment, it’s somewhere along the way, a minute (if not fleeting) moment.

And so I added another reminder (thanks to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who said the best things about most things):

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

I try to remind myself my reason for going back to school and for choosing a school that is rigorous and challenging: I love literature and I love to learn it. Sometimes it takes time to reflect to realize this. Other times, it takes a simple change of scene from studying in a library to an outdoor patio. Sometimes it comes from talking to friends or just sitting around with a book on literary censorship in Caroline England and finding yourself enthralled. (That one is harder for some people.)

But it does happen and I try to take notice. And I’m sure that these methods and routines will change along the way. I am, after all, going for a PhD in a few years and will definitely need to rethink some of these habits and outlook. For now, I want to live in that “middle-space” and hopefully, this will give me a more meaningful, instructive (academically and otherwise), and enjoyable journey through academia. The bridge between “work” and “joy” is one worth building. For my sanity’s sake.**

 

*I remembered this idea from an interview of Stephen Colbert in Rolling Stone. I’m sure other “literary” people have said similarly illuminating and wise advice, but hey, it’s Colbert that did it for me. I know. The man is a genius.

**I switched one part-time job for a less hectic one. It made a world of difference.

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January

January has always been my favorite month. Sure, it’s the New Year (and—yes—my birthday is this month too), but for me it has always been the month that best combines renewal and reflection. We’re slowly waking up from our winter slumber, refreshed (hopefully) to face the rest of the world once again.

Clearing some space for fresh, new ideas to occupy. I hope good writing will also follow. In the meantime, here are January-related things I like.

“January” by John Updike

January 24: Hug-A-Writer Day

January Hymn – The Decemberists