Grad School and its Discontents

I’ve been reading Trevor Eissler’s excellent book Montessori Madness. I have one tiny little disagreement with him: I disagree with his claim that graduate school is an example of a “Montessori environment.” (In the context of the entire book, it’s a completely trivial point, so it shouldn’t be taken as a serious criticism of the book.)  At the same time, various people who’ve had a vested interest in my success as a grad student have been asking me for ages to explain to them what went wrong, so they can try to make the grad school experience better for other people. I’ve mostly ignored those requests because I just wasn’t able to do it. I’ve finally realized I can tackle my grad school experience, so I thought it was time to take this on.

At first, it seems like the two issues above are separate, since one is about grad school as a system and the other is about my person experience as a grad student. But the truth is I can’t tell how much of my unhappiness was the entire structure of graduate education, how much was my individual departments (though I was in two different departments, which gives me some perspective), how much was the fact that I was in the wrong field(s), and how much was just me.

I got a master’s degree in math at a highly respected university on the east coast in 2007 before moving back to the west coast to study linguistics. I spent two years doing math and another 18 months doing linguistics. Ever since I got that master’s degree, it has felt like a failure. That feeling hasn’t changed one bit despite how often people tell me I’m being stupid, it’s a master’s degree for goodness sake! I always thought I felt like a failure because I was supposed to be earning a PhD and the MA was just a “consolation prize.” I’ve come to realize that has nothing to do with it.

I worry a lot about students who put in exactly the minimum effort necessary to get a good grade (or just to pass).

That was me.

I worry a lot about students who are mostly interested in what other people will think of them.

That was me.

I worry a lot about students who get no satisfaction from accomplishing difficult tasks.

That was me.

I worry a lot about students who panic when they don’t know how to solve a problem.

That was me.

I worry a lot about students who seem entirely uncurious about the world.

That was me.

I worry a lot about students who look like they’re dead inside.

That was me.

I didn’t feel like a failure because I “only” got an MA. I felt like a failure because I turned into the one thing I’ve fought desperately my entire life to avoid: an externally-motivated, uninterested, fearful, image obsessed student-bot.

Continued here…

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