Dear (No Longer) New Graduate Student,
You have responded and poked at my parting words from my most recent letter. How in the world, you ask, could you be expected to be grateful for the illness-inducing amount of stress and expectations that graduate school is presently forcing upon you? The concepts of ‘gratefulness’ and ‘graduate school’ don’t naturally associate themselves together in my mind either. In a word association test, I guarantee you’d find my subconscious answering with words like “survival,” “getting through it,” “stress,” and “pressure” when presented with the idea of graduate school. For many a season, I would happily rant to you about expectations that were set too high, about the hours I was obligated to department service destroying my ability to have a single moment free on the weekends, about the coursework that somehow was never manageable.
I assumed the attitude of survival and complaining was unavoidable. But that changed last year. On a particularly frazzled day, I tumbled into my supervisor’s office mid-semester after 5 hours of sleep and little nourishment and rest the days before. I was nearing the end of my rope. Gone was my energy and excitement about the discipline I loved. In its place was sarcasm and a glum perspective that at least I’d found a lower level of survival in the midst of a thousand hours of work. But in that meeting, something changed. And it began with one small, calm sentence.
“My goal for you is that you would exit every semester of this program grateful for the opportunity God has given you to study and write.” When a doctoral student asks their supervisor what their expectations are for the coming term, this is not even in the realm of answers we expect. In a world where I’m being reminded weekly by the Chronicle that academic job openings are down, I was expecting my professor to articulate an expected page count, a goal for number of publishable papers produced, a numerical average to reach for in my teaching evaluations. But there was not a hint of that. The goal was and is gratefulness. And somehow everything else has fallen into place below it.
So instead of spending every hour of my time stressed about the next paper and the next stack of lit to read, I’ve been spending some time this year learning about gratefulness. Along the way, I’ve seen God change my perception of this exhausting and wonderful season of my life. The brute facts of my schedule and life have not changed one iota. I still work far more than a 40 hour week. But who I am, by the grace of God, has changed.
I’ve first learned that gratefulness begins at the cross. God quickly revealed to me that my failure to give thanks for His gift of graduate school stemmed from a refusal to recognize the depths of my sin and brokenness apart from Jesus. When I see what He has done for me, when I see myself accurately, my pride melts away and my heart moves naturally to gratitude for His love that sees me and chooses me daily over and over again. When my heart focuses on Jesus’ work for me, I begin the day grateful for who Jesus is and His calling on my life.
Secondly, I’ve discovered that it is a gift to be a graduate student! It is a gift to spend my days talking and writing about ideas that matter. It is the highest privilege in my life that Jesus has decided that my role in the furtherance of His kingdom is, in this season, to invest myself in the life of my mind and in training others to love Him with their minds. Graduate students have been offered the chance of a lifetime to use our strengths and passions in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and some of us even get paid to do it!
Finally, I’ve learned that gratefulness to the Lord affects my classroom, as well as my life in the office or the library. Throughout this year, I’ve struggled to give thanks when dealing with complacent or disrespectful students. When I live in the attitude of gratefulness for Christ’s love for me, the love that loves me in my most unlovely moments, my heart naturally moves to give thanks for the opportunity to share that love, especially when it’s difficult to do so. My hope is that over the coming years, I would be able to continually give thanks to the Lord for the challenge to love my students as He loves me.
The unsurprising result of this paradigm shift has been that my heart has found joy again in my research and my teaching. When I see graduate school as something to be cherished as God’s gift to me, I no longer see it as an ordeal to survive. For the first time in my graduate school career, I’m looking forward to and cherishing the early mornings in an aging library as the morning light falls on my pile of unread secondary lit, because I realize that it is God’s will for me to be giving thanks in all circumstances. I see that it is His will for me to be spending hours learning about tiny corners of my discipline, blowing dust off of unused books on shelves and delving further down research paths and embarking on new teaching adventures (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
This, (No Longer) New Graduate Student, is why I’m positive that by the grace of God, you can and ought to give thanks for graduate school, especially right now. Trying to do so may seem Herculean and impossible, but greater is He that is in you, than he who is in the broken world around you (1 John 4:4). The goal is gratefulness, living in light of the calling of your King.
In the fight with you,