No matter what else was going on in my life — heartbreaks, self-esteem crises, friendships running over their course, fights with family — there was one thing that was going right- I used to be an excellent student. Through elementary school, secondary school, high school I was simply good at it all. Some kids are good at math, others at languages, third at literature and writing, I was good at all (except for sports). In my undergrad studies, I continued to do still quite alright without putting that much efforts. I remember as a freshman in college I was going out not simply every weekend, I was out partying and clubbing 4-5 nights per week. And I still did alright. Being good at what I did was is what kept me together.
Then, I came to grad school and the core of who I am got shaken and broken to pieces. I was failing courses. I was studying day and night, but it was all so much to absorb. Ok, my learning curve was also quite steep because, as it happened, I just jumped into deep waters without knowing how to swim first. Basically, you don’t come to do a hardcore economics program if your math is at high school level and you don’t even know how to integrate. After all, for 4 years in college, I thought I’d become a journalist, and was taking economic courses on the side, so that I would not be completely unemployable after that. Yeah, well, little did I know what I was up against. It was beyond frustrating. I was studying and I felt completely lost, completely inadequate– for the first time in my life. I had to let go of the strong base that had kept me together before. And as if school was not tough enough, I also had a number of other problems. I was homesick, missing my family and friends, unable to connect to local people here, having the feeling I did not belong, being forced to survive on a super tight budget, and to top it all, had a one-year relationship that meant a lot to me blow up in my face. Whatever could go wrong, was going wrong. Even worse, I could not rely on excelling at what I do to make it all better. I was not depressed, I did not have time to feel depressed or not, to feel in any way at all. I simply felt beyond frustrated and very inadequate. I did not ask myself what I was doing with my life because underneath it all, I believed it would get better. I had to make myself believe as soon as I pull through grad school and start doing my PhD, where supposedly I can do things I find interesting, it would all be better.
Well, it is now couple of years later and surely I am glad the days of the incessant studying are over, but I do not feel any less inadequate. It is still very very tough, only in a different way. I don’t know if everyone has it this tough, or it is just me because of my poor math and theoretical background. Some colleagues of mine sure seem to be enjoying life to the fullest. And I find myself working day after day, I hardly take weekends off, and if I do, I feel guilty about it. I have many ideas I like to pursue but it’s not always possible, and there is a lot of uncertainty involved. My second paper failed after I had worked on it for six months. and I had plenty of ideas that I had to give up because of lack of proper data, or because when you get your data, you don’t find what you hope to find and no one would be interested in you asking a question, being all enthusiastic about it, coming up with theories supporting this question, only to find the data disagree. So, every paper I work on, I seem to shed blood, sweat and tears on it, and it gets all of me. But I am not thinking of giving up and choosing an alternative, maybe an easier way. If I give up, it would mean I had failed, I did not have it in me to pull through. Also, at this point, I have realized I do not want to stay in academia, so what I am doing is not what I essentially want to do with the rest of my life. But some days, you just cannot shake off this quiet, nagging fear that if it is this tough, maybe it is not for you, and you simply are not cut for it. If you suck in something, you probably should not do it. But then again, if it was that easy, everyone would have done it, right? And maybe what you do at this stage of your academic life is not going to break ground and take the scientific community by storm, but that’s the path in doing it. It starts with baby steps. And for the really talented ones, these baby steps are like a piece of cake, but for the less talented and more stubborn ones, like myself, it’s more of the blood, sweat and tears. And having something on the way to keep you sane. I do not have a good support system, I live away from home, my lifelong friends are back home, so I am well aware that if push comes to shove and something bad happens to me, I have only me, myself and I to get me through it. Of course, I have colleagues and other fellow-PhD friends who are likely to understand my frustration, but just because they are likely to be in the same boat, you are not likely to get much sympathy from them. Those who do not do that, from the other hand, cannot understand what is so difficult about it. I had so many friends who after hearing what problem I am interested in, ask me, “Well, but can’t you just google it? Isn’t it obvious?”. Questions like that make me silently go ballistic… I don’t even want to start in explaining WHY you CANNOT just google it!!! So, in a nutshell, you have to suck it up, learn to lick your wounds, not complain about it, and learn to be self-sufficient. It might be the toughest lesson I’ve learned but the reward is pure liberation. And if someone is willing to stick around while you are at your worst and most frustrated, you probably got yourself a very precious someone there and stick to such people, even if they happen to be in your life shortly. If not, have I not mentioned you should be self-sufficient and this feeling of not needing anything and anyone at all if your reward, and it will be empowering. Or, it better be! 🙂