By Audrey Chan

The Hardest Thing: Spiritual Formation Through Grad School

​A few months into the semester, I thought to myself, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” It’s the academic rigor of a graduate program, it’s balancing the demands of a baby and a toddler, it’s the dishes/laundry/what-is-the-family-eating-this-week life — it’s all of it. As I met with a spiritual director this past semester, we talked over that realization. What was so hard about grad school? Where is God meeting me in this, this “hardest thing I’ve ever done”?​ ​ 

I realized that grad school was shaping my thoughts, mind, and perspective in ways that were about much more than math. I’ll break it down into three main categories: humility, steadfastness, and presence.


Here are some very real truths about my life as a grad student: I am not at the top of my class. I feel like I’m just barely hanging on a lot of the time. I’ve completed classes and wondered if I really deserved to pass. I’m afraid my advisor will drop me when he realizes I don’t know what I’m doing.

In short: Grad school is hard, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. And yet, I’ve felt zero need to hide behind a facade and pretend I’m smarter than I am. On the contrary, I find myself freely admitting what I don’t know, being honest where I’ve given up on a problem, and shamelessly asking questions about stuff I feel like I should’ve learned in undergrad.

What is humility? After all my years in the church, humility can still feel so abstract. But in grad school, I can say this: I’m face-to-face with my knowledge as well as my ignorance. I offer and present exactly my (limited) knowledge with zero pretense or need to prove myself. I show up over and over again, even when it’s hard, even when I feel like I don’t belong, even when I sort of want to give up (but can’t). 

There is a faith and a faithfulness in showing up, to going to your advisor with more questions than answers, to submitting your incomplete assignments that are the best effort of what you have. To know I am out of my depth but to put in my earnest effort. And doing this, day after day, week after week — feels like courage, feels like humility.

Additionally, I think there’s something humbling about being in the field of applied math itself. The focus of applied math is modeling, aka coming up with equations that can accurately predict and simulate the natural world. It’s utterly amazing that humans have been attempting to do this for so long, yet there’s so much that they just can’t capture in an equation. Anyone in the math and sciences in academia will tell you that we have so little of the actual world figured out. Wild, isn’t it? My advisor likes to say, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” There’s something spiritual about this that gives me awe.


I mentioned a faithfulness in showing up over and over again as part of just getting through grad school. Well, part of that is I’m so dang close to graduation — just this thesis left to go! What can I do but sit at my desk and my laptop and plod forward? I must proceed, even with my low-level dread every time I open up my files. Maybe “steadfastness” isn’t quite the right word for it, but there is some character that’s formed by continuing forward, however shaky your steps may be. 

I’ve taken some really hard classes where it feels like turning in anything takes extreme effort, let alone getting anything right. This past semester, I took a class where I felt like I was cobbling my way through most of the time and so much of the material was beyond me. But there was something about the effort, tenacity, and work I had to put in for the two take-home midterms: I worked harder for the B’s on those midterms than I have all my previous A’s.

I think with “steadfastness,” I’m also attempting to capture the faithful pursuit of a call over a long period of time, across different circumstances. I first considered graduate school eight years ago, and it took a few years until I had the time and capacity to start the program. By the time I finish, it will have been five years in and out of school. I think this is the longest I’ve worked towards a goal, and that’s something to note. 


I haven’t quite figured out a new spiritual discipline that fits into my current life as a mom, grad student, and math instructor. But it turns out that this season is less about adding something in, and more about stopping and pausing.

For the first eight weeks of spring semester, my husband took his paternity leave, purposely delayed to ease the transition of me going back to school. My spiritual director encouraged me to see those eight weeks as a family sabbatical, to take things slow and notice where God was present.

How this panned out was that for the majority of the semester, I did no school work or teaching prep from Friday night until Sunday night. Additionally, I tried not to multitask when I was home with the kids and just embraced that 5 – 9:30 pm was fully for dinner, bath, and bedtime. It was a way to recognize that this area of my life mattered a lot to me, and that I didn’t want to give it up. 

Two things I learned during this time: 

  • My spiritual director mentioned statio as a spiritual discipline. It’s a simple practice to pause, breathe, and recognize God in the moment. For me, it’s the moments that feel so right and beautiful that I turn to God in gratitude: when nursing our baby peacefully (which is not always the case these days!), when our toddler is whisking all of us into her play world, when all four of us are outdoors together.
  • I often got to a point of my assignments where I decided, “This is where I’m done for the day.” I would know things weren’t complete, I would know I was making incorrect assumptions or breaking math rules, but it wasn’t worth more of my time: I needed to turn my attention to my family, or it was Friday afternoon and I just wasn’t going to touch it again until Monday. And that was okay with me. 

Maybe it’s just growing up and realizing you can’t do it all. Maybe it’s just recognizing my to-do list is way too long to actually be done. But I think at some point my younger, more perfectionist self would have pushed harder instead of letting go. In that sense, motherhood and marriage at this time feel like a gift: a call, a freedom to love and prioritize, a grace that is more important than my academics.

God in the Everyday

I know that many feel the call and move of God in the academic vocation. I am in awe as I experience it myself: in these days when life seems the busiest, I find things like character and grace present without working for it. 

Isn’t that what communing with Jesus is? That we don’t have to do 30 minutes of quiet time every morning to experience him, but that he meets us in our everyday moments.  And this is what I’ve found in my hardest and busiest season this past semester: that I am still being formed in character and likeness to Jesus.


Photo by Taffarel Micaloski on StockSnap

About the Author

Audrey completed her MS in Applied Mathematics and teaches math at a community college in northern California. She previously worked with InterVarsity as a campus minister, where her time investing in students, faculty, and the university paved her way back to academia and the classroom. She enjoys cooking, hosting, and being with her family.

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