By Jayme M. Yeo

Living into the Promise of Graduate School

After hearing that I’d been accepted into one of my top choices for PhD programs in literature, I was elated. I packed my apartment and moved across the country, all the while fantasizing about obscure literary gems hidden away in dusty archives, teaching Shakespeare to an enraptured audience of dewy-faced undergraduates, and hobnobbing with the country’s literati. Sure, there would be challenges, but I was moving into my future.

A few months into graduate school, I found a very different reality from the one I’d envisioned. It’s not that there weren’t literary gems to be found or dewy-faced undergraduates to enlighten, but those moments of beauty were sprinkled tightfistedly among deserts of impossible deadlines, herculean workloads, and the insecurity of beginning a new career on the bottom floor. I loved literature and my work (most of the time), but I found myself living constantly at the limits of my financial, mental, and emotional resources. Naturally, the rest of my life quickly became subsumed by the everyday pressures of school.

The temporary nature of graduate school has a hypnotizing effect. “I’m only sacrificing a few years so that I can have the career of my dreams” tends to be the dominant logic. And yet, this kind of thinking makes living a fulfilling, healthy life nearly impossible. I did everything in my power to hold onto happiness while completing the cruelly difficult tasks my advisors set before me. I made budgets and schedules to help me carve out extra money and free time to spend it in. I covered my apartment in post-it notes. I tried yoga for relaxation, on-line shopping for time saving, and chocolate cake when all else failed.

It was clear, however, that my relationships, sanity, and quality of life were suffering when I received a voice mail from my dad a few months into school. Though I normally spoke with my parents every few days, a difficult project had taken me hostage; I barely had enough time to collapse exhausted into bed at the end of each evening. The voice of my dad was a welcome break from my hectic routine. “Hello!” he called over the line. I could tell from the tone that he had a playful admonishment to give me. “This is Rick Yeo. I’m looking for Jayme Yeo. I’m not sure if she’s still available at this number or not, because it’s been awhile since I’ve heard from her, but if you can, please give her a message for me. Tell her that her father is wondering how she’s been doing. Thanks!” Abashed, I dialed my dad’s number and spent a half hour filling him in on the details of my stressful life. I hung up with a smile on my face, and suddenly realized I’d been going about my grad school experience the wrong way.

I’d gotten into this literature business because I was genuinely passionate about it, but the daily grind of graduate school had finally brought my enthusiasm — and motivation — to a grinding halt. I realized that if I was going to keep my love for literature, I would need to stay connected to the other things that mattered most in my life, starting with my relationships. And I would begin with the most important one, the one I’d been neglecting since I entered grad school. I had checked in with my Dad, but it was time I touched base with my heavenly Father as well.

I learned over the course of that first year that graduate school offers a lot of opportunities and obstacles for spiritual, personal, and professional growth. I think it’s important to experience these challenges and learn how to handle them in real time; whether you’re writing a dissertation or just living out your life, truly good work happens slowly. But, there’s no reason to enter the fray totally unarmed, and so I’d like to offer a few thoughts for anyone entering graduate school for the first time (or those of you who, like me, still need an occasional reminder that you’re not in it alone).

Make Time in Your Life

Graduate school is a demanding place. It greedily eats up your time, mind, resources, and — if you let it — yourself. Spiritually speaking, this can create a rift between your God-centered intentions and your school-centered actions. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 6:24 that “no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Although he was speaking specifically of serving God or money (“mammon,” in the King James Version), the aphorism rings true for anything in life: whatever you dedicate yourself to will eventually rule your life. The most well-intentioned of us can have our lives completely consumed by graduate school, and end up with a lot of discontentment and self-loathing in the process. Graduate school accomplishes this fiendish mastery by putting pressure on three distinct areas of life:

  • Time. The number one complaint among grad students is the lack of time they have. And it’s true: workloads can top off at ten or twelve hours a day, with weekends taken only when your body or mind completely gives out, forcing you to spend a day in bed curled in the fetal position muttering to yourself while Bugs Bunny cartoons play in the background.
  • Intellect. Graduate school takes up a lot of head space. Working on one particular problem for eight to twelve hours a day simply lends itself to thinking nonstop about your own research and completely forgetting about everything else, like other people and proper hygiene. The non-academic world has a word for this: obsession.
  • Energy. The sheer stress of keeping up with looming deadlines and the pressure to perform well in graduate school are enough to zap the zest out of even the perkiest people. The result is a negative feedback loop in which stress over deadlines and pressure to perform mean less energy, which means less ability to make deadlines or perform well. Rinse and repeat.

All of these things add up to a situation in which even the most well-meaning person can find herself crushed under the weight of her own work. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to end up serving mammon before you’ve even had a chance to unpack. But before you break out the pillows and cartoons, remember that these very same challenges supply the setting that can also lead you into a deeper, more mature Christian faith.

It starts when you decide, as I did, to set aside time in your life for God. There will always be deadlines and work left to complete, but if you forget to check in with God, it won’t be long before you end up wondering why you do the work at all. A friend of mine once confided in me that the most liberating moment for her in graduate school was when she told herself, “I’m done when I say I’m done.” This attitude can help you take ownership over your work — and your life. Whether you take an hour before you hit the lab, or make a trek to your campus chapel for a lunchtime prayer session, make God a priority.

When I began checking in more regularly with God throughout that year, my attitude toward my work and my faith slowly evolved. I stopped feeling like the two were in some kind of cosmic tug-of-war match over my soul. In fact, they began to enrich each other — I began approaching my faith more thoughtfully and my work more worshipfully. It didn’t take long before I realized that my career goals were also changing. Where before I had wanted academic recognition so that I could start my successful climb up the career ladder, I now found I wanted academic rigor so that I could completely and responsibly interact with God’s creative work in the world. The closer I got to God, the more I wanted his work to be my work. As a result, I began studying with more humility, diligence, and with a greater sense of purpose. What had started at the beginning of the year as making time for God finally became, at the end, a daily practice of surrender.

Come Out of Hiding

Graduate students are isolated people. We tend to work on our own, live on our own, and spend less time socializing than most. In addition to this natural lone-wolf syndrome, the common PhD or Master’s student also tends to embrace self-reliance on levels only normally achieved by people stranded on the arctic tundra. Most of us are afraid to impose on others, or we see asking for help as a sign of weakness. Generally speaking, it isn’t until late in the game, when we’re already curled up in bed contemplating eating last week’s empty pizza boxes for dinner and with no one but Mickey Mouse for company that we finally give in and pick up the phone.

Simply put: humans were designed to live in communities. We form families, friends, and relationships because that is where we find meaning, support, and love. As God puts it, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Even though graduate students seek out isolation, if you ask a grad student what has helped them grow the most while in school, they will almost invariably reply: community. Finding a spiritual and intellectual community at your school can be the biggest step you take toward getting the most out of your graduate experience.

One of the primary benefits a community can bring is a sense of support. Elite runner Paul Mbugua, who grew up on a farm just outside Nairobi, writes movingly about the role of teamwork in the success of Kenyan runners:

The team concept is very important to us. I think it is the number one difference that makes us better than other countries . . . When you wake up in the morning, and maybe you don’t feel like running, you have to. Your team is making you. You cannot hide. The team gives you the support to get through the training. We rely on each other. *

For Mbugua, having a team means having people who keep him accountable, who challenge him, and who help carry him through the tough moments in training. The Hebrews author encouraged the Hebrews in remarkably similar language: “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (12:1-2). In the long haul of life’s marathons, such as graduate school or the Christian walk, we need people around us — those Christians who have run the race before us, and those teammates who are running beside us.

Not only can a Christian community in graduate school give you a source of encouragement, it can also give you a sense of perspective. As you are supported by the people around you, you will find yourself called to lend support as well, and answering this call is an important step on your faith walk. Checking in regularly with people outside your field (or even — gasp — outside of academia) can help you remember that you are not the only person with struggles. A good faith community pulls you outside of yourself by asking you to serve others. While Christians normally think of “serving others” as volunteering at a homeless shelter or donating to charity (and those are VERY important aspects of service!), what I specifically mean here is giving yourself to other members of your community. While you can serve others by actually doing something — making dinner for a family that has recently had a baby, visiting a friend who is sick, or buying groceries for someone who is having a hard time — sometimes, serving others just means listening closely and openly, being aware of the needs of others, and making time for people.

Reaching out, in both action and attitude, hones the spiritual practice of servitude and reminds you that your inconsistent lab results or endless pile of papers to grade aren’t the only problems out there. In addition to finding other Christians in graduate school, look for a church, homegroup, or Bible study outside of school in which you feel comfortable, can be held accountable, and can be supportive and supported by the people around you.

If graduate school takes you to a new city, make sure you take some extra time to seek out people who can make up your faith community. You can start by searching out on-campus groups; many schools have graduate Christian fellowships. Scan your school’s list of student groups to see what’s available for you. If your school doesn’t have a group, then I encourage you to start one! Christian faculty, even those who aren’t in your field, can also be a good resource to help connect you to other Christians on campus. I began building my own faith community by attending graduate Christian fellowship meetings, and, through the friends that I met there, I found a church that I attend regularly. While it’s not always easy to drag myself out for weekly activities with these two groups of people, I’m always challenged and encouraged when I do.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do for graduate school begins before your first class. It happens when you take the time to consciously decide to make God your first priority in school. As I learned during that first year, while graduate school is a time for intense professional training, it is also a time for intense spiritual training. In one of God’s lovely paradoxes, I found that as I gave my time and energy to do his work, I ended up with the time and energy to do my own.

I encourage you not to hit the spiritual “pause” button while in graduate school, but instead take advantage of the unique opportunities that it offers to challenge and grow your faith. If you are able in the middle of grad school’s demands and difficulties to put your focus on God, you will give yourself the training you need to keep that focus in the future, and you will build the foundation for a truly rich and long-lasting relationship with him.

  *From “Kenyan Kinetics,” in First Marathons: Personal Encounters with the 26-Mile Monster, by Gail Kislevitz.

If you enjoyed this piece, we also recommend the second essay in this series by Jayme Yeo: Thoughtful Faith and Faithful Thought .

About the Author

Jayme Yeo has a PhD in English from Rice University and joined the English department of Belmont University in 2013. She specializes in seventeenth-century British devotional poetry, early modern political culture, and affect. Her current book project explores the affective and political dimensions of religious experience in early modern poetry. She teaches classes on British literature and academic writing, including one class that integrates poetry with community service and political activism.

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