Graduate students are all really smart. Everything graduate students write is of publishable quality. Graduate students don’t bathe frequently, but only because they are busy writing brilliant dissertations. Graduate students can read volumes in a day and quickly grasp complicated theories. When they speak in class, what they say is profound.
Graduate students don’t have time for the activities of undergraduates; in fact, any nostalgia they have for their undergraduate years is subsumed beneath their contempt for undergraduate immaturity. They go out, but as far as I know, they don’t get drunk. Graduate students are at university for a single reason, and don’t have much time for social distractions.
Graduate students know what they are doing with their lives. They have direction and purpose. Graduate students don’t cry and they don’t get lonely.
Graduate students are, in summary, grown-ups.
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There are some things in life you know can’t be true, but believe nonetheless. As middle school wound down, I figured that when I entered ninth grade, I would magically know how to talk to girls. My senior year of high school, I told myself that, by the time college rolls around, no one has acne anymore. And, before I came to Oxford, I thought that by the time I entered graduate school, I would be more mature, more self-confident, and more “intellectual.”
It shouldn’t be – and in a sense, isn’t – surprising that none of these predictions have come true, and in the eight weeks I’ve been a graduate student, I’ve realized that pretty much nothing I said in my opening paragraphs has turned out to be true. While deep down, I knew that four months out from graduation, I wasn’t going to become an entirely new person, I’m left disconcerted by how little seems like it has changed. While it would definitely be taking it too far were I to say that my first term has felt like a repeat of freshman year of college, I have some of the same doubts. I wonder whether I am really qualified to be in my program. I question whether my comments in class are suitably “smart” for my elite peers. I ask myself daily why I seem to be the only one without a thesis topic, and fret that I don’t already run a non-profit in a Third World country. I worry that I am failing to meet the high bar set by the previous people on my scholarship.
Ultimately, much of my stress stems from the fact that, all in all, grad school doesn’t feel that different from undergrad school. I spend most of my days reading and writing, and, despite the change of scenery, I don’t particularly feel like my reading and writing is much more profound and advanced than it was a few months ago. To some extent, I feel the same because graduate school hasn’t required me to change. While when I first received my syllabi, I figured that I was going to be crushed with work, I’ve actually been doing less work than I did at Princeton. As other people in my program panic about how many essay we are assigned, I can’t help but note that I wrote less for my four classes here than I did for a single 300 level class my senior year. My diminished workload has opened up all sorts of opportunities for me—rowing, running, protesting, cooking, and writing this blog, to name a few—but my enjoyment of them is diminished by the sense that, if I’m not acting the way I figured graduate student do, I must be doing something wrong.
In high school, it was always enough to justify what I was doing by the fact that it would help me to get into a good college. As an undergraduate, I knew to work hard so I could get into a good law school or graduate school. While I could spend my time at Oxford working to get into a good PhD program, there must come a day of reckoning when I have to figure out not just what I stand for, but how my work serves my ideals and vision. It’s not enough to simply say “I am getting an education so I can help people” forever; at some point, I’m going to actually have to figure out who those people are and what exactly I want to do to help them. It would be nice to have that kind of direction already; it would be acceptable to feel like that sense of purpose was developing. At the moment, however, I feel a bit lost.