Life Lessons Learned in Graduate School

“We’re very human,” my advisor told me over the phone in late May 2013.  I had just found out that I received an assistantship and would indeed be able to begin my Ph.D. work at UGA in the Fall.  She and I were primarily talking about which classes I should take, but she was also giving me some graduate school survival advice.  

And she was right.  Graduate students are very human.  I think people think that doctors, lawyers, and academics are at a higher moral level because of our level of intellect.  My family, quite honestly, has a fair profession of all three, and I can tell you that we’re not without fault.  We might have been able to crank high enough scores on tests and/or entrance essays to achieve a higher level of education.  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hurt, that we don’t occasionally drop the ball on things, that we’re infallible.  I just think it’s important to remember that ability, whether it be athletic, intellectual, or otherwise, doesn’t put people at the same level of God, or gods/goddesses depending on your theology.  Yes, it may mean that we have insight, but it doesn’t mean that we’re without fault, or that you can’t hurt our feelings.  We still want to be treated like normal people and connect to people on an interpersonal level.  In other words, invite us to your parties.  We are fun, I promise, especially in my department.  Ask anyone who really knows us.  A lot of us are goofballs at heart.   

And as someone who’s still human, and who’s still reasonably young, I’m still learning.  So I thought I would share some basic life lessons learned in grad school.  Who knows, maybe they’ll help some others who are on this journey: 

1. Continue to eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep, even if it’s midterms season and you’re super stressed.  I know it’s tempting to stay up late nights and skip workouts to get your papers written.  But, I’m finding out that it just comes back to bite me in the end.  If I’m not taking care of myself, I’m not as effective.  I knew that was true when I was a middle school teacher.  It’s also true now that I’m a researcher, a writer, and a graduate assistant/program planner.  Plus, if I don’t get sleep, I’m cranky and just not as fun. 

2. Make time for a social life.  Again, I know that sometimes it’s easier said than done.  But it’s crucial.  Many of the people in your program will be pretty freaking awesome, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t get to know them on a personal level in addition to knowing them as classmates.  It’s nice to have friends who are going through the same things as you are.  Having said that, it’s also important to keep up with your friends who are not in your program.  I find that it’s nice to be able to socialize with people and not have to talk shop. 🙂  Plus, we all need a release from time to time.  

3. “If you put it in an email, you might as well assume it’s going to be printed in the New York Times”–my dad.  He was right about that.  We live in an information age, and sometimes, sending an email is more convenient than face to face interaction.  Yet, as some of us know from Facebook debates gone wrong, it is very easy to misconstrue comments made in writing.  If you’re dealing with sensitive issues, you need to talk face to face, or at least arrange a telephone/skype conference.  More often than not, emails get forwarded, and even if they don’t, you can’t take things back once they’re written down.  So think before you send.  In academia, and I’m sure in other fields too, it’s important not to gain a reputation as a petty gossip or as someone who doesn’t consider words carefully.  

4. Find good mentors.  Fortunately, that’s been easy for me now because so many of my professors in my department are so awesome.  I’ve already learned a lot from them about academic etiquette, writing skills, and how to run service programs.  And the tough days are easier if you can find someone good to talk to who can help you out of the snags.  

5. Stay out of politics as much as possible.  It just leaves you frustrated, and it’s important to focus more on your work and what needs to get done.  The phrase “stay out of the teachers lounge” applies to other school and work environments.  

6. Don’t procrastinate.  I know I am calling the kettle pot black here because I am REALLY bad about waiting until the last minute.  But, I have gotten better, and I’m trying really hard to continue to get better.   If there’s anything I have learned in academia, it’s not to mess with deadlines.  If something is due on October 3rd, have it ready at least three days before that in case you run into a last minute snag.  Unfortunately, institutions and publishers don’t tend to be very sympathetic if your dog threw up on your manuscript.   

I’m sure there will be others, but these are the ones I’ve learned and/or been reminded of that I think are the most important ones.  As it turns out, I have a lot to learn about life in addition to children’s literature, writing pedagogy, and digital literacy.  But I’m lucky to have colleagues, friends, and mentors to help me on the journey.  

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The Learning Disabled and Gifted Student (Twice Exceptional)

“Be kind.  Everyone you meet is fighting a battle.” 

This is the beginning, narrative portion of a scholarly paper I’m writing for graduate school: 

“You have a learning disability,” a psychologist told me when I was seven years old.  It explained some things, like why I had trouble with penmanship even though my reading level was about six years ahead of my peers. It explained why I had trouble learning to tell time on a clock that did not have numbers.  I had, and still have, a visual processing disorder and spatially-based learning disability, combined with symptoms of ADHD.  Learning to read geometric shapes, facial expressions, and maps would always be harder for me than most.  Yet, I learned and am still learning to compensate, primarily with words and with my intuition.  Perhaps that’s why I later became a teacher of gifted students and special education students served in collaborative classrooms. 

So there’s me in a nutshell.  The adolescent years are hard enough when you are more mainstream.  Think of being learning disabled and gifted (weird in two different ways) on top of all of that.  Between that and the reconstructive jaw surgery I had to have to correct my rather large overbite, it’s a miracle I’m even halfway normal now.  But, now I’m a Ph.D. student who writes scholarly articles, reports, and blurbs about authors.  I say that not to brag, but to make a point that overcoming obstacles is possible.  The trick is to find your niche, to learn what you’re good at and develop it as much as you can.  The other trick, I think, is to learn how to compensate where you fall short. 

This link about eyes and nonverbal communication came up on facebook today, and I took the quiz: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/well-quiz-the-mind-behind-the-eyes/?_r=0.  Is the quiz without fault?  Probably not.  But I do think it’s insight into how much a person’s eyes can communicate a person’s emotional intent.  Due to my spatial learning disability and ADHD traits, I sometimes miss certain social cues.  But, I’ve learned to compensate to a degree by making good eye contact with people.  Also, eye contact helps me to pay attention rather than allowing my mind to wander.  That’s why even now, I try to sit close to my professor and/or classmates who I find engaging in my classes.  That way, I’m better able to focus.  A friend of mine who’s ADD says he employs this same strategy, and it helps him as well.  As for me personally, I’m fortunate in that I have an artistic personality, and people find me effusive and fun to be around.  I think that’s why they forgive me for my quirkiness.  Also, the further along I’ve gotten in my education, the more I’ve been able to find smart and kind people to be my friends, along with their friends. 

My point here is not to let people feel sorry for me or to sound self-aggrandizing.  My point is that if you have that awkward student in your class (either as a teacher or as a graduate student or professor) or have that person in your life who just comes off as awkward for whatever reason, you should give that person a break.  Chances are, he or she can’t help it, and chances are, he or she is trying to make connections with other people.  We, as human beings, are social animals, and we want people who care about us and value us.  Now, if that person is making  you feel uncomfortable, that’s another issue and might just go beyond normal social awkwardness, and that person might need a kind heart to heart.  But, if the person just has some socially awkward quirks, smile and try to be his or her friend anyway.  As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s a miracle human beings can even walk.  We’re intricately made, but I’m not so convinced that we’re meant to be perfectly made.  I think we need to learn to give others, along with ourselves, a chance to be human.  

On another note: If you have a learning disabled child, student, or friend who needs help with things like organization and goal setting, feel free to talk to me.  I used to not discuss these things with people out of embarrassment, but now, I’m realizing that I might be able to be of help, especially as someone who is now studying educational theory.