Dear New Graduate Student,
I don’t know you. And yet today, I think about you and pray for you. The academic world is small and mobile enough that there’s a good chance we’ll be on the same campus at some point in our lifetimes, and yet this letter is probably the only chance I’ll be able to speak these words to you. And reflecting back on my own first year as a graduate student reminds me of all I want to say to you, to tell you that you aren’t alone.
There will be nights this year when you feel as if you are the only person in your cohort who does not belong in your program. That you somehow slipped under the radar because you had a good recommendation or a reputable research background, and somehow they accidentally let you in when you didn’t deserve it. And your heart and your mind will crumple under the weight of the expectations you correctly and incorrectly perceive, not just from your faculty, but especially from your peers and colleagues.
There will be mornings when you will wake up and your degree will feel like a cage that you are stuck in, with nothing but miles of unbearable stress ahead to unlock it. You may not cry physical tears, but you will call a friend and you will try to rationalize yourself into quitting. Or taking a semester off. Or taking a year of absence. Anything to get out of the cage for just a while.
There will be nights when you’ll be standing at the Rite-Aid or CVS or Walgreens or whatever almost-everything store you frequent when you’ll catch yourself in a heated internal discussion about whether you can afford to buy the $8 shampoo or whether you should save the money to buy bread next week. And then you will suddenly realize that $8 shampoo didn’t used to be expensive to you, and like a load of bricks hitting your soul, you’ll be reminded, for the umpteenth time that week, that you’re truly a stressed, exhausted, and above all, dirt poor, graduate student.
There will be mornings when you breathe in the new air of vacation, be it Christmas break or Spring break or Summer break, only to find yourself staring at a research and writing load that makes the school year seem enviable. And when that fateful year of prelims/orals/comprehensives/qualifiers comes, every single day of vacation you are given will be instantly transformed into opportunity for increased time for frantic productivity rather than rest.
More than all these mornings and nights, there will long, long days in which your mind and your body will be tested by every second as you pinch yourself to stay awake in a seminar or drag yourself to work for your professor even though you have a fever. A graduate degree is a marathon. It takes everything out of you and asks for more, and you will feel your mind and your body begin to give out even in your first semester.
But oh, New Graduate Student, don’t give up. I wish I could look you in the eyes so you could see the exhaustion that still hasn’t left my face even though we’ve just had months out of school. I’m always tired. But I am no longer unhappy. I am no longer burdened by my crazy degree or the expectations of my faculty or my colleagues. I have won the fight with the expectations and the feelings of poverty and restlessness that seemed destined to crush me. Jesus did it all.
I wish I could see your face begin to light up when you realize for yourself that He’s the answer to every pain you’re experiencing, every misplaced, unmet expectation that dogs you. That your Jesus will love you through graduate school just as He loved you through normal life. You’ll see him, New Graduate Student, you’ll see Him work in ways you never expected, in areas of your life you didn’t think He saw.
You’ll feel your soul rise when He sends a colleague to come bail you out of the snow when your car at last gives out on your grocery run. You’ll begin to hope again when He works in the heart of that impossible to please faculty member and you receive your first substantial praise from a respected scholar in your field. He will teach you to laugh when your ID card goes missing and you forget your wallet at home and you have to eat the microwave popcorn you found in the office kitchen cupboard so you don’t die of hunger during a class. He will stay up late with you, every night, as you sit alone in your cubicle/apartment/library, feeling as if the world has forgotten you as you plod through the miles of research ahead of you. You will be diving into a new text at 2 am and suddenly your research project will somehow click, a light bulb will come on, and the path ahead to a paper is made clear by your Jesus.
You will see Jesus every single day of your graduate school experience, New Student, if you’re willing to persevere in tribulation, to rejoice in hope, and to be faithful in prayer (Romans 12:12 NIV). Because we are most open to see Jesus work when we are at the very end of our rope, when our capacity for being able to handle life on our own is most exhausted, when we can’t be even close to competent on our own strength. And there are few places in this world where you will find the end of your rope more quickly than graduate school.
And that is where Jesus meets me. Every single morning, I wake up, already at the end of my rope. And Jesus and I do graduate school together. I give Him each day as I plop my briefcase on my desk and begin to ferociously type the next paragraph. Jesus, use me. Use whatever I’m doing today for your glory. Speak through my writing and my words, to those who read it and those who are around me as I write. Because I can’t do this without you. And I know I’ve said that so many times before Jesus, but today it’s really true. I don’t know how to keep going unless you hold my head above water.
In the fight with you,