Friday, May 13, 2011

My Grad School Story, Part I

Yesterday was a special day for my husband and me.  It was the five-year anniversary of the day he proposed.  It is hard for me to believe that much time has already passed since the beginning of our engagement!

Reflecting on our engagement and the earliest years of our marriage (which began a little over a year later), combined with a recent Internet discovery that I'll discuss later, has inspired me to write about something I had originally planned to avoid: my graduate school journey. 

This journey began right after his proposal. The summer of 2006 wasn't the easiest for my then-fiancé and me.  He had decided months before to do an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) during his last summer of college to improve his chances of being accepted into a graduate program.  We had started dating in high school and we both went to colleges close to home, so we were accustomed to spending a lot of time together.  We knew that we wouldn't be able to that summer, as none of the REU sites were close to home.

He ended up doing his REU at Penn State.  "Is that in Harrisburg?" I asked when he told me he was applying.  "No, State College," he replied.  I had never heard of the place.  I looked on the map and observed that it was right in the middle of Pennsylvania.  The names of the few surrounding towns appeared in thin, tiny font.  "Is there anything there?" I asked him over the phone during one of his lunch breaks.  "Oh, yeah," he replied, "there's a couple main roads downtown that have a lot of restaurants and stuff."  I was unconvinced, but shrugged it off: as long as he was content during his 10-week stay, it didn't matter to me how isolated the place was.  I just wanted the summer to end, so he would be back home.

I spent that summer working at my university, as I had the previous year, ruminating over what graduate program would be right for me.  My undergraduate advisor and boss, a beloved friend, amazing mentor, and essentially my "school mom," passed away from cancer just a few days before my husband and I got engaged.  I was devastated at the loss.  Without her guidance, I struggled to figure out what I should do after I graduated.  I loved school and I knew I wanted to continue my education, but I had no idea what direction to take.  At first I thought I wanted to study library science, but a month-long stint working in our university library changed my mind about that.  I flirted with the idea of going for higher education administration, spent a weekend passionately convinced that I belonged in a computational linguistics program, and considered bumping up my undergraduate minor, English, to full-course status for my postgraduate career.  I was utterly lost.

The fall of my senior year of college was fraught with indecision about my academic future.  In the end, I applied to four different programs at the same universities my fiancé was applying.  They had some similarities and my undergraduate degree prepared me decently well for any one of them, but they were sufficiently different that I had to completely rework my statement of research interest for each one.  As I wrote them and thought about the different programs, I realized that I didn't even like Penn State's, but at that point my fiancé had already applied, so I figured I should too.

Within a few weeks of submitting our applications, we started hearing back.  Ohio University was the first school that accepted both of us.  We were excited to have an option, but not thrilled: their graduate stipends were very modest, and that mattered, since they would be our livelihood.  Soon after, I received an acceptance email from Penn State.  I wasn't overjoyed, because the program to which I'd applied there didn't seem to be a great fit for me.  However, within a few days, my fiancé also received notice of acceptance there, and I became more enthusiastic.  The physics program at Penn State was highly ranked, which could play a role down the line when he'd be applying for faculty positions.  And although our income would still be limited, their graduate stipends were considerably higher than OU's, and much more reasonable in terms of actually keeping a young couple afloat.  I can remember looking up apartments in the State College area and realizing that we'd have a surplus after paying the rent and utilities.  "Just think, the rest can be for food!" I said giddily, mostly joking.  Ah, youth.

Not long later, I received a phone call from a professor in the program to which I'd applied at Ohio State.  I had applied to the master's program, but he wanted to know if I'd be interested in pursuing a Ph.D. instead.  I was on cloud nine.  Not only did they want me, but they wanted me for more than I'd even hoped!  The program sounded like an excellent fit, the stipend was generous as far as stipends go, and I had always had a desire to live in Columbus.  Surely this was the school for me -- for us.  I felt confident that my fiancé would be hearing good news from the Ohio State physics program soon and our course would be set.

In the meantime, Penn State held a recruitment weekend for potential graduate students.  Even though I was fairly convinced that we wouldn't be going there, I still wanted to go.  I had never done anything like it before -- never driven that far from home alone (it's a 3-hour drive), never stayed in a hotel all by myself, never been "wooed" by an academic institution.  The event was held in early March.  I departed on a sunny Friday morning on the trip my fiancé had already made at least a half-dozen times the previous summer (yes, he made the six-hour round trip most weekends so we could see each other...he's a prince).  I was terrified of driving through the winding, rolling hills of central Pennsylvania, and my speeds on Interstate 80 oscillated between 50 and 70 mph accordingly.  But I made it.  I was struck by what I'd suspected when my fiancé was doing his REU: the area surrounding State College was rural and sparsely populated, which was quite different from the vicinity of my hometown.  However, he was still right about the university itself and the surrounding college town.  They were bustling and lively.

I got a migraine that night, my first in seven years and my last to date.  After sleeping it off, I participated in the introduction and tour that was planned for us on Saturday.  I'd received an itinerary before coming to Penn State, yet somehow I'd missed the fact that I was scheduled to meet with a certain professor after the group activities.  I didn't realize it until the weekend was already in progress, but she was trying to specifically recruit me to be her advisee.  Not all graduate programs work the same: some encourage students to join a particular lab or research group immediately, whereas others opt for a more exploratory model.  This was very confusing for naive little me, whose college days were spent at an institution which catered heavily to undergraduates.  I met with her for an hour or so during Saturday afternoon, embarrassed because I barely knew anything about her work.  She described it to me, and I still couldn't really figure out what she did.  It didn't sound like anything I would be interested in.  She came off as a brusque, demanding person, and I had no desire to work for her.  I agreed to have dinner with her and one of her graduate students that evening.  I felt uncomfortable and awkward the whole time.  Sunday morning, I took off for home with relief, only to drive home in a terrible (read: white-out) snowstorm.  Just before I crossed the state line into Ohio, I noticed that a number of vehicles coming in the opposite direction were off the road.  I later found out that I'd seen the results of a 20-vehicle collision that had left one woman dead.

I was glad to be done with the whole affair.

The weeks passed by.  The acceptance letter or email or call that my fiancé and I had hoped he'd receive from Ohio State never came.  Eventually, he emailed the department there to inquire, as he had never received a rejection notice, either.  The response indicated that if he had another opportunity, he should take it.

We had three options: we could both go to Ohio University and try to survive on tiny stipends, we could live halfway between OU and Ohio State so he could go to the former and I the latter, or we could both go to Penn State.  The other school we'd both tried for, the University of Pittsburgh, had waitlisted him and offered me no money, so that wasn't in the running anymore.

The first option simply wasn't going to work for us, financially.  For a while, we toyed with the second option.  It wouldn't have been impossible, and I'm sure it would work for some couples, but it ultimately wasn't going to work for us.  We would have each been 45 minutes away from our respective institutions, at best, and I would have likely been driving into heavy rush hour traffic.  Plus, my fiancé didn't think that OU's program was a good fit for him.

My fiancé never pressured me.  He would have agreed to the split-school option if I had insisted.  But we both knew that wasn't the right choice.  When I first conceded that our only viable option was to both go to Penn State, I cried.  It hurt -- emotionally, intellectually, even physically -- to recognize that I was going to have to give up my hopes of going to Ohio State.  It hurt to accept an offer that I didn't love, didn't really even like.  It hurt to know that, after having an undergraduate advisor whom I'd loved and considered a dear friend and confidante, I was going to start my graduate career with an advisor whose perspectives on research and life itself were radically different from my own.

My college years were a spiritual wasteland.  I prayed here and there, but not regularly.  I never missed Sunday Mass, but I never went to confession, either.  Recollecting some of the things I did and said makes me feel very shameful.  I'm sure I wasn't all bad, but I behaved like a selfish jerk in many situations.  As I look back, I realize that my grad school "submission," if you will, was a turning point for me.  I had experienced a good amount of suffering for personal reasons during my college career, but I had no choice in the matter: life happened to me, and sometimes it hurt like hell.  This time, however, I had a choice, and I chose the path that I knew would be painful, difficult, and in many ways, unfulfilling, because I knew it was the best path for us as a married couple.

Some readers may wonder, why didn't you go to separate schools and maybe postpone your wedding?  Why didn't you get a job instead of going to graduate school, since you weren't happy with the program at Penn State?  My response to the first question: I get muddled quite a bit when trying to figure out God's plan for me, but getting married right after college was something my husband and I were absolutely certain was the right decision.  There was no way we were putting that off, and definitely no way we were going to spend our first years as a married couple separated.  As for the second question -- I had no idea what I was doing at the time.  Almost all of my friends went to graduate school, and even though I spent a considerable portion of my undergraduate career convinced that I wouldn't follow suit, by my last year I couldn't fathom doing anything else.  Plus, I was still under the impression that Penn State was the only business-like entity within a hundred-mile radius of the State College area, so the idea that a possible job might exist around here wouldn't have even occurred to my clueless 21-year-old self.  Yep, I really was that lame, folks.

That is the end of the first chapter of my graduate school story.  You can read Part II here!


  1. I enjoyed reading about your journey and I look forward to hearing more :)

  2. Ohhh I love knowing all the details that just never managed to find their way into one of our conversations. :)

    Also, I have a question. Obviously things have worked out in the way they are supposed to, but do you ever wonder if you would have ended up with such a disdain for grad school had you gone somewhere else?

    I guess part of me kind of wonders. I just love school so much - I figure there has to be some program out there that just happens to be in a grad school that I would really enjoy, right? I guess I still think it would probably be the exception if I could find one, though...

  3. I love how you put God's will and your future marriage first, sacrificing your own desires. Can't wait for part ii!

  4. Thank you, Ashley and Dacia! I'm working on it and hoping that it will be done sometime this week.

    Lindsy, that is such a good question. I do think that there are programs out there that I would enjoy. There must be *some* out there that are great! Grad school is such a strange beast, though...for example, my husband's program: it was highly stressful and difficult when he started, but now he loves it -- because he loves his research and his advisor. Had he ended up doing different research under a different professor, he might have hated it, yet it would still be the same program. I think my opinion of my program would have stayed the same regardless of what I was doing or with whom I was working, and I'm guessing your opinion of yours would have, too. ;) But they are each so different.