Thursday, November 18, 2010

I'm Now A Real Grad Student

I had my first graduate student identity crisis earlier this week. Everyone has to go through it at least once; in fact, some of my friends spent their entire Master's program in one long extended identity crisis. For those of you who haven't had the unqiue joy of being a grad student, the identity crisis goes something like this:

OH NO there's a huge hole in my logic/my results didn't come out right/I've worked for 12 straight hours at this paragraph and it still doesn't makes sense/etc. etc. WHAT AM I DOING? What was I thinking going into grad school? I don't even LIKE theology/engineering/anthropology/political science. And I hate writing! I should just give it up now, before I get in any deeper. In fact, I'm going to move to northern Alberta and go to trade school/take up farming/become a miner, and never go near the printed word again. And rename myself Ralph Withers Gerrymander. And eat soup and cry myself to sleep every night BUT AT LEAST I WON'T HAVE TO WRITE THIS THESIS!!!

Etc. Etc.

This can come on quite suddenly, and often for no apparent reason. It may stay for a few hours or several months, and it may come and go in waves, like that cold that you get at the end of September that doesn't go away until mid-June. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, dizziness, tears, churning stomach, and difficulty sleeping.

My particular episode came in three waves, starting on Sunday night.

Wave 1: I realized, after coming across yet another book that deals EXACTLY with my thesis topic - how did I not find these before? - that I was never going to get all of the appropriate reading done. The more you know, the more you know you don't know. Begin panicking, especially when I realize that I have 3 weeks left to do as much research as possible while still writing 2 papers. Realize also that "new sources" include primary source material that I may or may not need when I get back to Canada, and which are held in collections with very restricted hours, and some of which are in Latin.

Wave 2: The next morning, after letting this churn about in my head all night, I somehow became convinced that this meant I was going to have to move back to Montreal full-time in the winter. Now, my plan had been to spend quite a lot of time in PEI with my parents, to take advantage of the peace and quiet (and lack of rent) for a few months to just get the damn thesis written. I have been looking forward to this - mainly the "not living in Montreal anymore" bit - for, literally, years. The thought of moving back again and having to find a place and probably another roommate almost reduced me to tears. Continue panicking, increase intensity.

Wave 3: That afternoon, as I was just trying to plow ahead and get my work done, I started thinking about my outline. Then I started thinking about potential questions about and objections to very specific things in my outline. (Note: Never do this!) I then started trying to rework my outline, which turned into me questioning the sources I had already planned to used, which turned into me actually shifting my thesis topic yet again, therefore negating work I had already done. The more I tinkered, the more I realized that, methodologically, my thesis just did not hold up. At all. Let any one person ask any intelligent question, and the whole thing would come falling down. This was tied into my being terrified of people judging my work and me having a hard time thinking on my feet when challenged: I was mainly panicking about possible scenarios that could happen at my thesis defense, which is definitely not for at least another 6 months. Panic, panic, panic, and go through bursts of identity crisis, as outlined above.

Long story short, I emailed my supervisor, who basically just wrote back saying, "You're a master's student, just chill out and get your paper written, it doesn't need to be at a PhD level of discovery, I've been tracking your reading reports and you're doing all the right things."

I emailed and talked to friends who are either going through a master's program or have recently done so. They all commiserated and made me feel better, and told me not to worry and just keep plugging on.

I called my parents. That always helps anyways.

Then I went back and wrote down all the objections I could possibly think of to anything. Then I let myself come up with answers and write them down as they came to me. Then I saved it. Then I felt much, much better.

Crisis averted. For the moment.

Good Lord, I cannot wait until I'm in PEI.


  1. This is so funny/sad/true. I think about sitting in a faraway place where there is an ocean, a window, and a pile of FICTION books! No need to take notes, just enjoy!

    It really helps to have friends who kick some realism into our fantasy fears. I am so glad for my fellow students in Montreal and some pretty amazing and encouraging profs (big hint that its not so bad to come back here). And panic is a big sissy in a puffy costume. Totally no substance! Just sayin....

    Good stuff! Love ya...

  2. "And panic is a big sissy in a puffy costume."

    That totally and spontaneously made me picture a gorilla in a ballerina outfit. Thesis-writing Rorshach test, anyone?

    And don't worry, I'll be in Montreal often enough to make everyone sick of me. And, you know, to check out the 10,000 extra books our (fantastic and totally awesome) supervisor recommends.