My First Official Breakdown of Grad School – Facing down a Time/Fiscal Crunch

Well readers, I have officially hit (and so far survived) my first breakdown in grad school. And it wasn’t at all how I thought it would be. A week’s worth of reflection has given me some insight though I still have no idea how my decisions will play out in the future. So, my post this week is more expository than instructive (for actionable tips on surviving some of the difficult decisions of school –check out Heather’s post from last week “How to Show Up for Yourself in Grad School”) but I place this here in the hopes that maybe the insights I’ve gained from my experience will help other grad students feel seen, inform anyone thinking about grad school of some of the strange realities of master’s programs in this day and age, or at the very least give me some catharsis as I continue to process this stage of grad school.

The short preface is that I am now in my second year of the Master of Arts program in English. I was fortunate enough to gain a Graduate Assistantship with the English and World Languages department that has a generous tuition waiver with a part time position that pays out a small stipend. In looking at my monthly expenditures (rent, utilities, phones, food, and all that good stuff), I decided to continue working full time in a retail position (for the flexible scheduling) while balancing my studies and GA duties. As anyone but me could have predicted, this was a perfect recipe for hitting burnout. At the end of last semester I worked with a professor to carry an Incomplete grade for a course so that I could have more time to work on the final project, intending to crank it out during the winter break. But during the break, I’d opted to take a course during the Winter Session that I fell woefully behind on as the retail fervor of the holidays hit and I picked up some extra hours. This meant that entering this Spring, I had two incomplete courses as well as two new courses. The weight of the uncompleted coursework combined with the new classes and the prospect of attempting to find more time to work on these projects while working 50-60 hours a week, seven days a week as my GA duties resumed finally got to me. Being considerably older than I was in undergrad has also taken its toll. Pulling all-nighters when I was 20-something was a very different experience than when I pull them now as a thirty-something. I’m also figuring out how to deal with an anxiety disorder that so often sends me into spirals of intense panic. So, recognizing that a change is needed, I put my two weeks in at the retail position (that also carries the benefit of health insurance), but not without a few tears shed.

And I know how privileged this struggle is –many people dream of finding the tuition assistance and stipend that I have but the reality is that even with these miraculous supports, the rising cost of living, the deterrent insidiousness of student loans, and stagnation of wages has made me feel like I’m doing something wrong—that my living situation (which is far from extravagant) is fiscally irresponsible. I’ve read plenty of articles and Reddit threads that paying for grad school (and particularly a Master’s) is difficult. This is paired with the knowledge of increasing food and housing instability experienced by graduate students. But these articles and statistics don’t always prepare you for what a decision like this feels like—and it feels heavy. After having worked full time since graduating from undergrad, jumping into a future without a steady income that covers my living expenses feels uneasy with the looming specter of decreasing job prospects pushing at the back of my mind making me question, once again, is furthering my education truly going to be worth it? I don’t have an answer for this right now (though to any of my profs who may be reading this –don’t worry I’m not dropping out). I’m just going to coexist with the unsettling instability for the time being because I believe my time at Millersville has been well spent. So, I’m making a leap—believing that the future I want is one that can be made possible. The existential weight of parsing where I spend my time to balance a potentially bright future with the immediate needs of the present is a struggle I was somewhat unprepared for as I assumed that I would just push through with the same capacity that I had in my undergrad years. Recognizing that I am not the same person, that this is far from the same world of the mid 2010’s, and that a Graduate degree is different that an undergraduate degree are the obvious conclusions that I am finally feeling fully.  But now that I am here, on the other side of my first official breakdown of grad school, I can already see that it’s going to be ok. The intensity of the situation is already fading and honestly I feel a bit silly about it now. Still, this experience has given me a reality check of the nature of Graduate Degrees and will help inform my decisions about pursuing a Doctoral program with more reasonable expectations of my capacities.


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