Incoherent Ramblings of a Grad Student: Doubts, Desires, etc.
My heart is pulled in multiple directions.
The first. I have been in my graduate program in materials engineering for 5 semesters and am entering my 6th semester. From the work I have left to do, it appears I have at least 2 semesters before completing the program. I’m on my way to finishing my 8th year in college. My bachelor’s degree took me 5 years and my master’s will take at least 3 years. It’s like I’ve spent my entire life in school, which is almost true. I enjoy engineering, but it currently feels like a duty. I feel like I have to do it instead of feeling like I get to do it. I often find myself avoiding my work. Every day it feels like I never get enough done. This feeling eats at me. It makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. It makes me feel like I’m not smart enough. It makes me feel like I’m not good enough. It makes me feel like this path wasn’t meant for me.
I find my mind wandering in other directions. I’ve started playing tennis consistently again. I constantly obsess over forehands, backhands, and serves. Tennis is never too far away in my thoughts. Again, just like when I was a kid, I want to be the best. I want to beat everyone I know. I want to show off to the world. But, I know that time has passed. I will never play in a packed stadium. No longer will people congregate around my court to spectate and admire my skill. No more knowing that those oohs and ahhs were for me, were about me. I yearn for the energy of a well-contested match with a large crowd. I miss the cheers and applause. The life of an engineering graduate student is much quieter, much more isolated, and the rewards and congratulations much more muted and rare. It’s much easier to talk to people about professional tennis players, forehands, and tennis rackets than materials engineering, statistics, and 3D printing. It’s much easier for others to find interest in tennis.
I found myself wanting to make things again, too. Once upon a time, not too long ago, I wanted to be a designer of some sort, of any sort. I saw a video about someone who made a watch last night. Oh how I want to make something beautiful. Oh how I want to come up with an idea and then physically hold it. How proud that would make me. I used to learn about graphic design and industrial design in my free time. A handful of times I’d design and print stickers (usually on company time). Sometimes I’d find something online to put on a sticker, print it, and place it on my coworker’s desk hoping he’d get a kick out of it.
I miss working with my friends. When working, every once in a while our conversations would wander to things we were interested in, to what normal 20-something-year-olds think about. They’d open up about the world they live in, about where their minds wandered when they were bored and I’d try to share my own world.
Now, I feel like my life is so different from my friends. Most of them are working, making money, and fucking off in their free time. Their goals are standard goals: make more money, get married, buy a house, work so that eventually they can not work. Mine are less traditional: find a research-oriented job (perhaps that means get a PhD), perform significant research, work towards becoming an artist, write essays that help me understand myself better and that resonate with others, be a better tennis player, find work that sustains me.
I often wonder if I’m on the wrong path. At the beginning of my graduate program things felt comfortable. I was just beginning, there was no pressure, and my short-term future was clear. Now, I have to think about my future while attempting to finish (and to some degree start) my research. I feel pressure to get published in a good journal (and to simply get published). I feel pressure to establish myself as an adequate scientist and researcher. Am I smart enough to be a researcher? Am I smart enough to work on anything even slightly important? These questions often cross my mind. I’ve been a cog before. I didn’t like it. But I don’t know if I’m smart enough to be anymore than a cog. I don’t know if I can put enough time into doing anything worth doing. Perhaps my self-doubt is saying, “Keep your options open in case this science thing doesn’t work out”. Perhaps I need to dabble outside my subject to rejuvenate myself so I can enjoy my research more.