How Much Does Grad School Suck?

In the dark days of medical school – when I was routinely forced to confront unpleasant body parts and their various emanations, practice painful procedures on innocent victims (er… patients) and cope with the general unpleasantness of death and illness – I would often daydream about chucking it all and going to grad school.  I was an English major here at Ohio State and had visions of sitting around in a beret at Larry’s, thinking deep thoughts, writing the occasional paper, grading the occasional essay test.   

But since coming back to work at Student Health Services, I’ve noticed a recurring theme – I’m caring for a lot of very stressed out grad students around here.  And I thought that since the concept of “summer vacation” is about as relevant to grad students as “disposable income,” now would be a good time to review the various ways in which grad school is a royal pain in the Bunsen burner.

This post is probably everything it’s not supposed to be: it’s too long, it’s got no celebrity pictures or videos of roller-skating babies… I’m not even sure how medically relevant it is.  But I’m a big believer in the therapeutic value of a good group beyotch session, so here goes.

Your life is at the whim of one person for like 6 years…

There’s no doubt that medical training is chock full of personality disorders, but the beauty is that you never spend more than one month on a given rotation.  So even if you get stuck with the surgeon who throws scalpels at students for target practice or the psychiatrist who asks you to psychoanalyze her cat, you know that it’ll be over in a few short weeks. 

If, however, you don’t e-harmonize with your grad school advisor, you’re looking at a prison sentence along the lines of armed robbery.  What’s that, you don’t want to work every weekend?  Don’t want to teach an extra class?  Don’t want to go into academia?  Fine, your candidacy exam will now consist of reciting the complete text of Beowulf in the original Old English –I don’t care that you’re in the Biochemistry program!  You could switch advisors, but then you risk being labeled a “trouble maker” and alienating other faculty in your department, not to mention losing 2 years of your life to a scrapped project.

Money matters

As I was racking up enormous med school loans, I again thought grad students had it made – you get a graduate assistant position and your degree is free.

This may be kinda sorta true, but the flip side is that the funding that supports grad students can be surprisingly tenuous.  If your advisor’s grant doesn’t get renewed or the industry you’re working with decides they can’t afford to support the R&D anymore, all of a sudden your ability to continue your education – and your career – is in doubt.  Med school loans are no fun, but at least I never had to worry about someone coming in and saying, “Yeah, it looks like this whole ‘Ohio State Medical Center’ concept isn’t going to pan out, so we’re going to shut this baby down.”

Family planning

On top of the stress of work, little things like marriage and children tend to pop up during grad school.  This can be very stressful, especially for women.  Focusing on the nuances of macro-economics or mechanical engineering is tough enough – trying to do it while planning a wedding in Albuquerque with a future mother-in-law who is already plotting your demise is next to impossible.  And sure, you’re entitled to maternity leave, but no one’s working on that dissertation for you while you’re up at 3am changing diapers for 6 weeks.  You may think that you’ll be able to ‘get some work done from home’ but with infants you’re lucky if you get to use the bathroom without back-up, let alone think on a critical level.  Unless your research is on the cerebral softening effect of watching Baby Einstein videos 400 times a week, you’re out of luck.  Of course, you could “take some time off”… and end up in the Lantern 20 years from now: “Mother and Child graduate from OSU together!”

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Plymouth Rock… Ellis Island… Columbus, Ohio?  This country was built by people who came here in search of something better for themselves and their families.  That whole “American Dream” thing is not just a cliché, my friends, and it’s not just history – it happens on this campus every year when international students come here for their graduate studies. 

But the American Dream comes with a price.  Take all of the above stressors and add the following: cultural barriers, language barriers, visa barriers, a spouse who feels isolated while you’re at work all day (or is living 6,000 miles away), the expectations of parents who gave up everything they had so you could be here, the loss of the social support network of friends/family, heck… not knowing where to find recognizable food!

…. [deep breath]….

While these pressures are certainly not all unique to the grad school pressure cooker, they often come to a boil there.  And when that happens, lots of problems can pop up that make life miserable: trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, anxiety and depression, stomach pain, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, substance abuse, the list goes on. 

So what do you think – am I right or am I crazy?  Post a comment and let me know (don’t worry – it’s anonymous).  After we’re done venting, we’ll be a little more constructive and use the next post to talk about the resources on campus that can help you find healthy ways to deal with all of this stuff.

John Vaughn, MD