Confessions of an Overachiever (I)

“You can rest when you die” ~ advice from a former professor

I used to feel stress and ignore it.

There. I’ve said it. What’s so bad about that you might ask? Hopefully, you’ll keep reading to find out.

In 2004, I began doctoral work at a research university. Some programs require that you work in a cohort or group, but not this one. Not this program. At this institution, you attain a PhD the old-fashioned way, independently. Whether independent or collaborative, doctoral programs at research universities begin similarly. Your first few years include coursework. The next few years are what separate the high achievers from the overachievers. This phase includes qualification exams intended to move you from doctoral student to doctoral candidate. If you make it through this proverbial hoop, then you propose a study, conduct a study, and become Dr. so-and-so. For me, this last part took three years. Here is where I endured, and subsequently, ignored the hardest stress in my life.

The first sign is familiar. It’s how we know that being president of the so-called free world is stressful.  One day I noticed a slight tint of silver. Is this lighting? I thought to myself? Oh my God! No, there’s a gray hair! It was true. I was 34 and ill-prepared for what is called “new-growth gray.” That means every time my hair grows, it’s growing in gray, right in the front of my head, where everyone can see it. Oh, no, no, no, no way. Luckily, I had a great hairstylist who could mask this horrid sight. But once I went natural, boxes of Dark and Lovely became my friend. Because my hair grows quickly, dark brown dye is necessary every other week.

“Why is your hair so black?” My aunt once asked.

“It’s not. It’s dark ash brown. Or at least that’s what the box says.”

So my first sign was a vanity stressor. But not my second. It was 2006. I was still teaching high school English and attending graduate school full time. And being a wife and mother. Although doctoral candidacy is the expectation, it’s not always the result, especially not at UF. I’d heard horrible tales of students failing their exams and leaving with a Specialist degree instead. This would never be the fate of an overachiever. There was one re-write. But I passed. I also developed a chalazion under my right eyelid. Chalazions can appear for several reasons. However, each points to a type of illness. I’m rarely ill. If I am, then it’s because I’m stressed. My body was screaming out to me. This time an ophthalmologist rid me of this sore. Once again, I was able to cover up and ignore a sign.

The final marker of stress happened repeatedly. It only occurred at night or early in the morning. After a deep sleep, I wanted to wake up. So my eyes would pop open but I couldn’t move the rest of my body. The room was dark. I could see everything in it. My dresser. The TV. The door. But I couldn’t open my mouth. I would try screaming for help. Nothing came out. My mind raced. Sweat trickled. After a couple of bouts, I learned to calm my mind down and tell myself that everything is okay. It’s called sleep paralysis. Some believe it’s your spirit leaving. Others say demons are entering. Medically speaking, it’s something that happens when you’re under a lot of stress, which I was. Five years in and my study wasn’t being approved. My chair was offering little help. I was working full-time. Life was difficult. But I ignored it.

Part II and Part III

How to Talk to a Doc Student During the Holidays

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Do you have a doc student or candidate that’s visiting for the holidays? If so, then trust me on this one. They probably won’t tell you, but I will. Don’t ask them these three questions.

 When are you graduating?

This seems super harmless, right? It’s not. Refrain from asking any doc student, no matter where they are in the program, when she is graduating. She doesn’t know. Traditional full-time undergraduate students could probably answer this question. May, 2017, they might proudly announce. A full-time student pursuing a master’s degree might also be able to tell you. But a doc student? Unless she has successfully defended her dissertation and submitted it for university publishing and approval, then the likelihood of her knowing an actual graduation date is pretty slim.

What is your research about again?

What’s wrong with this question, you might be wondering. Well, the problem is the doc student has already spent countless hours revising and refining two or three questions that explain this very thing. She has probably been asked by nice and not-so nice committee members to consider the time of year, re-word the sentence after the comma, change the participants, or re-think the study altogether. She might even have a handy three-minute explanation of her work. But she probably doesn’t want to talk about it while scarfing down her mac-n-cheese.

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What’s taking you so long?

This question is not easy to answer. The response could be any number of reasons. She could’ve lost a committee member, or maybe her proposal wasn’t accepted. Just those two reasons alone could average a one or two semester delay. Most institutions, colleges and programs are totally different. Some doc students finish in three years because of the prof’s personal mantra; whereas, others finish well beyond five years because of the same reason. Does the doc student have a spouse? Kids? Other responsibilities? Reasons why it is “taking so long” are plentiful.

Maybe this holiday season you can ask the person a simple question, like how’s it going? Or how are you? If she wants to discuss her graduate studies, then she’ll probably slip in a success story or gripe, but if not, then just let her enjoy her eggnog and your company. The reduced stress will be a welcomed change.