Posts Tagged ‘stress’

beer-pongI got another round of questions from a reader, to which I’ve responded below:

1. When talking to a graduate of Columbia University (and former professor there) , I asked if he knew any students or taught any students that were/are struggling with depression and he said there was not ONE graduate student he knew that didn’t suffer from both. He says grad school was a “cavalcade of misery, at least for the first three years”. He says he does not know this to be true of undergrad students attending elite schools. Do you believe this to be true?

Could be. I don’t have a graduate degree myself, so I can’t attest to the difficulty of getting one. It seems like PhD programs often get a bad rap (I remember reading a tongue-in-cheek article on the lifestyle of PhD students entitled “So You’ve Chosen to Ruin Your Life”), but I don’t know how dependent it is on the specific school attended. I’m guessing it varies a lot.

As far as intensity of undergrad coursework is concerned, I think it depends heavily on what you study, and I’m guessing the same is true in grad school as well. I found Duke to be an intense and draining experience, but that’s probably because I was pre-med (and a science major) so many of my courses had heavy workloads and were graded on a curve. And since medicine tends to attract some of the best and brightest at the university, I was competing with an above-average demographic for a limited number of A’s, and many of the top students seemed to do nothing but study. If I had pursued sociology or art history instead, I would probably have a very different perspective. Then again, I don’t think Duke is as famous for grade inflation as many of the Ivies are, so the challenge probably varies quite a lot from place to place as well as from program to program.



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In fact, it could well wind up being the worst four years of waking existence you’ll ever encounter… Unless, of course, you’re one of the unfortunate souls who faces the post-graduation fate worse than death: that of chronic unemployment and crippling student debt. In that case, every four years after you graduate will probably be your worst, until and unless you manage to regain some financial and emotional stability. Welcome to hell, but no, don’t call it that: you’re living the American dream.

For me at least, the private school experience was a nightmare. The curriculum was obscenely difficult and massively time-consuming, the students were competitive – no, cutthroat describes them better – the classes were impersonal, and for the most part, the professors (assuming the classes weren’t taught by a teacher’s aid) came across as indifferent to the success of their students. The curriculum matrices that had to be satisfied for graduation were ridiculously elaborate, and left me in a position where I almost never had the freedom to enroll in a course without first considering which graduation requirements it would fulfill. By and large, I felt like a bee in a hive, an unpaid laborer in a fool’s-gold gulag, a cog in a superficially dramatic but ultimately profoundly overpriced machine. By the end of four years, I was so burnt out that the strange malaise of perpetual exhaustion which set in roughly 10 years ago has never lifted. The stress, the frustration, the anxiety all penetrated too deeply, and left a scar that will not fade. But the real salt in the wound is the realization that the four years you just spent in college, busting your chops to get straight A’s (and spending your half your parents’ life savings in the process) is totally useless, no one cares what you studied or how well you did, and you have to start over.

In fairness, not everyone has this experience, and in spite of what you’ve just read, even for me there were some good experiences mixed with the bad. I certainly met some very smart and fairly interesting people, I made some lasting friendships, I had more than a few wild and crazy and unforgettable experiences. But the outpouring of negativity you read in the previous paragraph – that accounted for 90% of my time at Duke: the perpetual grind. Thousands of hours spent memorizing textbooks and writing lengthy essays about obscure scientific factoids that in hindsight are laughably irrelevant and of no real interest to anyone but academic fools and immature students who don’t know any better. Thousands of hours wasted fighting to climb to the top of the curve, to achieve the most and be the best in what, it turns out, is really nothing more than a pointless game which no one gives two shits about in the real world (i.e. the next 60 years of your life).

Certainly much of my pre-and post-graduation experience owes to aspects of my personality and decisions that I made, including choice of major, study habits, values, and personal pursuits. Yes, I could have done things very differently, and could have had a better experience. But on the flipside, a lot of what left me feeling bitter was external: the pedantic and unnecessarily difficult coursework; the oversized and impersonal classes; the random hodgepodge of immature, nerdy bookworms, stuck-up rich kids, arrogant profs, and TAs that couldn’t speak a word of English; and the jaw-dropping price tag for what was, in the grand scheme of things, a stunningly mediocre experience.

College doesn’t have to be like this. Unlike me, some people I know actually look back fondly on their university years. Most of us are familiar with the saying that college is the best four years of your life. It’s cliché and I doubt it’s actually the case too often, but no matter how college plays out for you, there’s simply no reason to make catastrophic sacrifices investing in what may turn out to be a disappointment. If you attend a public school, at least you’ll save money and enjoy comforts like a moderate workload and less-than-fiercely-competitive peers – which in turn, will leave you with less stress and more time to spend making friends, building positive experiences, and figuring out what you really want to do with your life. And even if college doesn’t turn out the way you would’ve liked, hopefully you’ll at least graduate with enough energy and cash to find a way forward. The things which matter most in the end don’t require the phony glitz of an Ivy League diploma. Take it from a guy who gave up everything (like social skills, mental stability, life savings, and the opportunity for a normal childhood) for the sake of pursuing an “elite” education: it simply isn’t worth it. No, really, it isn’t. So save yourself the hassle now (and the heartbreak later), and throw that application to Harvard in the trash.

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