Field of Science

Culture shock and grad school identities

In my second post for Samia's zomg grad skool carnival!!!1, I'm going to attack a different question. Samia asks, "How has the academic culture affected your navigation through multiple identities? Was there a culture shock involved?"

When I first became aware of the grad student demographic in my department during my last year of undergrad, the atmosphere was a lot more diverse than it is now. There was a significant population of Latino students, but they have all graduated and moved on to other things. There was also a decent portion of east Asian students, and a few of them are still around, but most of them have graduated as well. There are no brown students, and only two black students. I've noticed a significant whitening of the faces around me in the last two years, which I can't really attribute to anything tangible but I doubt (I hope) that it is on purpose. The population is, as a whole, heteronormative, which isn't a huge problem really because I present as heterosexual right now. My labmates know my true orientation, but it doesn't really come up much. There are more girls in my department than you would see in the more physical sciences and even in a lot of biological science departments, but I think that's partially due to the nature of ecological science and how it seems to attract more girls than any other branch of biology. Everyone I've spoken to in my department is a bleeding heart liberal. I like it that way.

I think one of the things that stuck out to me almost immediately about grad school was that virtually every single female grad student that I met was in a long distance, long term relationship with boys they had to leave behind when they moved to BigStateU. About half of them were engaged to said boys, but I don't believe many of them were already married. This was awkward for me, as I was fresh out of a failed long term relationship with someone I thought (at one point) that I'd probably marry. I had also drastically fucked up my first date with K right before grad school started (funny story, our first date was the summer before grad school, but we didn't start seriously dating until November because I'm kind of an idiot-- maybe I'll tell that story someday), so I was pretty bummed out about relationships in general. Whenever we got together in casual groups, the conversation would generally drift over to complaining about two-body issues, etc, and I felt like I had no place there. I had the opposite problem. Then... of course... K and I actually got together and I became the girl everyone hated because her boyfriend lived just off campus. :)

Actually, that brings up another issue. I felt like I was a much better student when I was single than I am now. I spent long evenings at the office when I was single because, well, I didn't have anything to look forward to coming home to. I didn't mind staying late and working extra because I just didn't have any other priorities. Now that K and I are quasi-living together (he has an apartment but he doesn't spend much time there), I come home as soon as I can on most days, and I rarely work from home. It makes me feel guilty that I don't spend evenings working anymore, and it makes me feel like I'm falling behind everyone else. But if I spend too much time working in the evenings, I feel like I'm neglecting my relationship. All this stress and guilt lowers my libido, and then nobody is happy. I'm still trying to figure out how to reconcile this girlfriend-vs-student stuff, but I don't see any easy answers in the immediate future.

One major bit of culture shock that is probably unique to people who go to grad school at their undergrad institutions is the transition from taking undergrad classes to teaching undergrad classes. When I'm talking with my human physio students, and they tell me about something they learned in introductory bio last year, it amazes me when I think to myself, "Oh my god, I took that class SEVEN YEARS AGO." Everything those students are going through, I already went through at least five years ago. It is weird, because it helps me relate to them, but it also keeps me separate from them. I keep getting very jarring reminders that, culturally speaking, undergrad life and grad life are very different, even though it is all taking place on the same campus, in the same buildings.

Another way that grad school has changed my identity is the fact that it allows me to be financially self-sufficient. I am lucky enough to belong to a department that funds all of its students one way or another, so my tuition is paid for and I get a pretty decent stipend that allows me to pay all of my bills without any help from my parents, for the first time in my life. All through undergrad I relied on financial support from my parents, and I didn't mind it really, but it is a very cool feeling to be able to support yourself for the first time. It kinda makes you feel like you might actually be a real adult instead of just faking it for the cameras. I think this is perhaps one of the most important shifts in my identity due to grad school. After all the stupid, self-absorbed identity crises and existential crises I had in undergrad, I feel like I'm finally growing up.


  1. Thanks so much for these posts. :) Awesome!

  2. [...] year to come July 29, 2010 by EcoPhysioMichelle I have blogged before on the transition into grad school and my progress in the past year, but this month’s [...]


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