Balance in Grad School: Challenges

Balancing in grad school require, first, recognition and naming of the extraordinary challenges one must face.  Grad school looks like college but does not feel like college.  You go to classes, take seminars, write papers, and work with professors, just as you did before and with great success.  After all, it was high grades and glowing recommendations that got you into grad school.  It was supposed to be more of the same only bigger, better, and more prestigious. What happened?  Why all this anxiety and confusion? Why is it suddenly so hard to write those papers and speak up in class with confidence?  Why does life feel as if it’s narrowing instead of opening out?  Maybe if we just work harder …

Grad school has an undeniable allure.  First, there’s the dream of a university position, both now and later on.  A teaching or research fellowship does constitute a paid position, even if you are still an apprentice and therefore, by definition, exploited.  You can still wrap your ego in the cloak of a prestigious research institution and nurse the hope that a regular, similar position will magically follow once you finish your dissertation, despite the terrible numbers reported on the job market.  Grad work allows you to stay in school, insulated from the economy and postponing the cold bath that comes with entry into the “real world.”  Moreover, there are tangible payoffs in terms of the work itself, which you love: you get to read, conduct experiments, write and publish papers, teach, all of which feed your spirit while buffing your vita.  What’s not to like?

It’s not long before reality begins to intrude.  After only a few weeks, you may begin to awaken from this sleep of reason.  The professors, who in undergraduate school basted you with interest, encouragement, and constructive criticism, now seem critical, skeptical, and demanding.  They often seem more impressed with your mastery of the secondary literature, which too often seems clogged with second-rate ideas, than with original thinking.  After dreaming of studying with the greats, you now despair of finding a mentor.  It’s baffling, bewildering.

Consider, however, that if brilliance and originality got you into grad school, they are  also what got your professors to the top of their field.  What are the chances that your brilliance and originality will coincide with theirs?  To gain and maintain the big-league reputations so vital to the continuance of their programs, grad professors must constantly generate and publish cutting-edge research.  The care and feeding of stardom is a more than full time job. There are only twenty four hours in a day, and grad professors are only human.  Few of them have the inner security or ego strength to set aside their own agendas and enter with wholeheartedness into the growth of their students.  Especially when they know, deep down, that these students’ work will eventually make their own obsolete.  They have the unenviable job of training the competition.  Talk about a double bind!

Think for a moment about the professors you knew in grad school.  How many seemed to be leading convincing lives?  How many were balanced themselves?  You may have known a few, either personally or by reputation.  Some had learned to be true mentors, mastering the arts of tough love and empowerment, guiding without directing, able to let go at the right time.  It’s an extraordinary sacrifice.

Meanwhile, most of us have to navigate grad school without true mentors.  We have to find our own way, working toward balance as best we can.  The good news is that this struggle, pursued with deliberate imagination, can become an invaluable part of our education.  It can make us strong and graceful.

Grad School: An Example of Balance

Here is a detailed example of balance in grad school that was presented at the June ASLE workshop, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“I remember grad school as competitive and neurotic, with everyone obsessing about their work and generally bent to the task.  In this unwholesome environment, Tom H. stood out.  He was physically healthy, smart, good looking, and seemed remarkably sane.  He climbed mountains, played hockey, lived in a neat and tasteful apartment, grew basil and tomatoes in a backyard garden, and studied hard but not too hard. He never complained or put anybody down in conversation.  Intellectually, he engaged issues vigorously but could also be convinced: he was that rare thing, a truly rational person.  He focused on mainstream literature of the Renaissance and seemed generally skeptical of literary theory, although he was well-informed.  Overall, he struck me as very well-balanced and emotionally secure, something that I myself certainly was not.  He had a good sense of humor and a diverse and loyal circle of friends; I believe that he inaugurated the tradition of dinner parties where each guest would bring an offering to the evening’s entertainment, perhaps a poem to read or an instrument to play.  He got involved with one of the undergraduate colleges, coaching intramural hockey and organizing faculty-student get-togethers.  Later, when he was denied tenure despite prize-winning publications, he reinvented himself, first as a dean and then as a lawyer.”

In discussion the group derived several key tools from this story: pay attention to your bodily health, cultivate diverse friendships, get involved with undergraduate life, make room for self-nurturing activities such as gardening, cooking, or entertaining, and above all treat your career with a light but sensitive touch.

Next up:  More tools from the ASLE workshop

Balance in Grad School: Examples from the ASLE Workshop

We asked participants at our June 2009 workshop to think about people they had known in grad school who were leading convincing lives.  They had to scratch their heads for a moment.  Most of us remember grad school as a period of anxiety and stress, when we are all bound up with ourselves, studying for exams, trying to finish our dissertations, and arming ourselves to face the hopeless odds of the job search.  Among survivors, grad school is hardly remembered as a time of fun, fulfillment, or healthy relationships.

Our yoga balance posture for grad school is the Eagle  PoseeagleforblogWhen you are all wrapped up in yourself, how can you stay on your feet, and even stretch upward, without toppling over?  How can your energy be oriented around the emerging self without strangling it or flying outward in all directions?  It is not easy, but it can be done.

One person remembered a colleague who worked on building a canoe in his spare time.  Another recalled a friend who spent time socializing, often at a local watering hole where he played darts. Another had a friend who liked to act.  Another maintained “two identities,” doing research and playing sports.   Still another, a woman in her 40’s, seemed to “glow” even though her free-thinking put her at odds with prevailing intellectual fashions; she was stressed but not up tight, and she seemed happy amid the “creative chaos” of her life and work.

In discussion the group decided that convincing lives in grad school seemed to “radiate outward.”  These people did their work but also connected to something else.  Some brought family or regional traditions with them, such as the fellow from the South who held “bream cookouts” for his colleagues.  Another described one friend who took a menial stocking job at Target and would bring back  “really refreshing” stories. “These kinds of things buoyed us,” she said.  Reaching beyond your work, connecting to a larger community, and self-nurturing activities seemed to be key tools for balance here.

Up next: a detailed case

(picture source:

Welcome Back

With the turn of seasons an the start of a new academic year, we are now back with more ideas and insights for staying alive. Stay tuned for weekly postings that explore the four stages of academic life, unpack the master metaphors of our profession, and offer tools for balancing suggested by participants at our recent workshops.

Because we hope to grow a online community of thoughtful people pursuing balance and integrity in their academic lives, please do not hesitate to share your own ideas and stories by posting comments. Wisdom can lead to empowerment only if we pass along the gifts of experience and insight. Grace does not work in isolation!

As a way to get started, we invite you to try the writing prompt from our recent ASLE workshop that Mark described in his previous post. Pick a phase of your career, anywhere between grad school and retirement, and write about someone you knew who appeared to lead a convincing life. Just write for five or ten minutes, no more than a page.

What can this example teach us? Feel free to share in a comment to any of our forthcoming posts on the various phases of a career.