Friday, March 19, 2010

Big Fish

Well, I'm back in State College again, and have settled back into the monotony of teaching, writing, and other collegiate activties. I feel like I'm pretty much caught up with the scholarly aspects of my New Mexico visit, although I'm sure later posts on the fun things I did after finishing my "business" duties will pop up now and again. I apologize to all who might read this: I know it's disorganized and kind of all over the place. I'm a graduate student, that sort of comes with the territory. I plan on going back and re-writing/editing some older posts, and I'll add more pictures, once things settle, if they settle.


I went out to lunch today with a friend who already has her doctorate degree. We were kind of going back and forth about the stresses and adjustments people make during different phases in academia. One of the biggest adjustments is getting over your own ego. I'll explain.

The kind of people who go on to get master's degrees and PhDs are the kinds of students who do really well in college, and they have a high degree of intellectual curiosity, in general. They typically are the best of the best at their institutions (one of the reasons I worry about actually DOING a PhD, ha!), and within the confines of their undergraduate degree programs they are hot shots, at the top of the food chain, the "big fish" in their tiny little pond. Even at PSU, an ENORMOUS school, the geosciences department was a little pond where I felt safe and important. Most graduate students can likely say this about where they went to undergrad.

And then they go to graduate school, and this is generally the first place they get their mental asses kicked pretty severely.

In graduate school, you come to the sudden realization that you are in an ocean and it's easy to get lost, confused, eaten, and then spat back out. Excellence is no longer especially praised, it's expected. Pats on the head are few and far in between. It's not a place where you will be coddled. You are no longer "the best".

I was lucky. I had a good relationship with my master's adviser before I started my degree. However, while sometimes I feel like he is indifferent to what I am doing, the times where I do get praise are extra satisfying. I realize he isn't actually indifferent, I simply have been in the department long enough to know what I'm doing, therefore I don't require a lot of adviserly maintenance. Our good relationship is probably what helped me simultaneously cope with grad school and the death of my father. I've heard horror stories about bad advisers.

I've also somehow avoided getting my ass kicked, and that's proably because I haven't pushed myself hard enough. The closest I've come was being in a Rudy Slingerland class, which has unachievably high standards, and I dropped the class. I still feel shame when I see Rudy in the hall. I look back on it, and I probably could have taken the beating in that class, but I was new to grad school, stressed, over extended, and afraid. Since I've avoided my own personal ass kicking up until now, that just means it's still coming at some point, and it will likely be during my PhD.

The time at which an academic beating comes varies from person to person. For some, it happens during the transition from college to a master's degree, or some time between a master's and a PhD. I don't know HOW people go straight from college to PhD directly; it seems somewhat masochistic.

Still, for others the beating doesn't show up until the PhD is completed and they are looking for a job, in the real world. These are the kinds of people who performed brilliantly from college all the way through their PhD, they were big fish all that time, or they flew below the radar and were just lucky. Then they come to the real world. The real world doesn't care how "cool" your research is or how brilliant you are. The real world has other criteria, and a whole new set of rules for you to adjust to. The real world never seems to be satisfied with the number of publications you have, or the number of talks you've given, or how "smart" you are. And even if you are brilliant, the real world will likely never tell you.

All of this, of course, only applies to PhDs in academic jobs. The REALLY smart ones go into industry and become rich.

I'm not REALLY smart.


  1. Hi Mel! I am all for editing old posts for typos or the such, but please don't add content! I can't keep up with you and Bea's new posts and re-read the old ones too! Ack! :-P

  2. Yikes! All of the pages related to letting me post a comment here where in Spanish with no English option in sight! Ay carumba!