First, some writer’s notes: This is the first in a series of posts, originally from my paper diary and translated into English (but otherwise unaltered), that talk about my graduate school journey and reflections.
I have long refrained from writing or posting anything about the challenges, reflections, and mundane details of my graduate school life in public because I’ve always felt like my writer/blogger persona is not “engaging” or “interesting” enough. I don’t have a niche that I’m an expert on, and I also don’t have inspiring or fun stories that people could feast on. I mean, grad school is one of the best decisions ever and I greatly enjoyed living and studying in a foreign country, but there were also times when I was ashamed to admit I was having a hard time, particularly when I started working on my thesis. I feared that I was not giving a positive impression about myself.
This is why my blog and social media posts over the past 2 years have become sporadic. I’ve been trying to alter my online persona to come across as more “positive” and “fun” – by only telling the stories that give a positive impression about my life and hiding the ones that make me look weak – but I’ve decided that I cannot, and don’t want to, pretend to be someone I’m not.
Re-reading my paper diary entries reminded me of my true self and the real way I write. Not only that, I’ve realized that I’ve grown and learned so much from everything that was thrown at me in grad school, though the changes were not evident at first as I went through the day-to-day motions. Seeing my growth from the pages of my diary encouraged me to share some of my grad school moments with everybody to remind myself of the reason why I write: to express my real self and tell stories about my real life without pretensions, and without shame.
Well, enough of this talk, and let’s go to the real entry!
If you’ve noticed, I’ve been refraining from writing the G word for fear that I might jinx things, but now that it’s official, I can finally say it:
I have finally graduated with a Master’s degree in Applied Economics and Social Development!
It’s crazy how I have gotten this far. A few years ago, I never even imagined I would be in this position. But now I’m here, with a Master’s diploma in my hand, and what can I say? It has been a sweet ride.
But it wasn’t always easy, hell no. In fact, I will be the first one to say that grad school is NOT easy.
“You’re the only one who’s struggling.”
As a scholar who’s entirely dependent on the scholarship stipend and tuition waiver in order to survive day-to-day1, keeping my grades up was very important to me. But because a lot of course materials were new to me and were quite advanced considering my background, I had a bit of a hard time keeping up.
And I was given flak for it.
I was even told by my peers that I was the only scholar who ever struggled with academics. And even when I succeeded, with better-than-expected results, I was still often told that I wasn’t good enough, and I would never get into a good career with the grades that I had.
To be honest, I was quite taken aback when I heard all these things, especially because I used to take pride in how hard I worked to learn everything I could despite starting out slow. I was initially proud of the fact that I overcame myself to achieve what I did. But with these comments, I only felt bad for myself. Did this mean that I was dumb and that I’m not cut out for grad school, or for the career I wanted?
Well, for a while, I chose to believe in these words and these led me to think that I wasn’t as smart and skilled as my classmates. Because I believed this, I was often frustrated with myself and hesitated to take part in or accept great opportunities to share what I know, thinking that I and my opinions don’t matter.
And then came thesis period, which changed me in so many ways.
Well, I was forced to change.
Working on my thesis was a crazy rollercoaster ride full of frustrations and excitement. It was a process that definitely wasn’t pretty and was one of the darkest, most difficult times. But despite everything, it’s a process that I’m thankful I got to experience.
This period changed me, because for the first time, I had to work on something independently. To be able to do this, I had to learn to trust in my own abilities and judgment… but it was so hard for me to do this when I didn’t even think I was skilled enough to make decisions. I also had no direction nor did I have any specific interest in mind, which led to me running in circles and just following whatever my adviser wanted for me. I didn’t just need guidance – I was completely clueless.
But even when I found the perfect topic, I felt like I was taking a huge risk given the time (and financial) constraint and my skill level in GIS, which I felt was nowhere near good enough at the time. And even if I learned things quickly, would I have enough data? Would my adviser, who was specializing in the initial topic I proposed and not this new one, be happy with the changes?
All these questions stalled my progress. Not only that, I was miserable. I felt like my worth and the validity of my decisions always depended on my circumstances and what other people would say. I felt like I had to be perfect all the time so they would see the value in what I was doing.
But one day, while absent-mindedly playing around with my statistical software and trying to figure out how to run the nth version of my spatial regression model, I reached my breaking point. I am not quite sure how it happened, all I remember is that I suddenly had a sense of urgency and felt the need to take control. I just knew that I hated the way I was living for the past months. I hated not trusting myself and not making my own decisions. I hated how I was self-censoring during meetings because I felt like anything I proposed would not be approved. I hated not feeling that I had ownership over my work.
I told myself that if I wanted to finish on time, I had to step up and shift my focus.
When I stopped the negativity and focused on creating and learning, the results started to show… and people noticed
When I completed my data, I was slightly horrified to know that some parts of it were definitely not what I expected – the data wasn’t perfect at all and had some limitations that shook my confidence in my research. All of a sudden, I was scared that I wouldn’t graduate and that my results would be nowhere near as good or groundbreaking as I envisioned them to be.
But then, I reminded myself why I chose and fought for this topic: because I was genuinely interested in it and wanted to discover something new about my country that no previous research has done. What’s more, I had to remind myself that no research is perfect, no matter how experienced you are in your field. Ultimately, I realized that what mattered most to me was my desire to learn about my topic from another angle and bridge gaps in what people knew about this by offering an alternative Asian perspective. Learning and discovering were my priority, and not perfection.
So, I started to focus on the things that I could do with what I had rather than complaining about what I didn’t have. I developed the ability to work around the imperfections of my data2 by seeing which alternative measures I could use or generate with the information I was given. Of course, I did all of these critically – I didn’t just generate these alternative variables for the heck of it. This part is where I learned that I was capable of solving difficult problems and that I actually liked the feeling of being able to solve them. Even though the workload was the same and the amount of pressure I was getting was the same, the change in perspective helped me make better use of my time and write the best thesis I could produce given what I had. Most importantly, I became more confident in my study.
When I started to believe in my work, my professors and classmates saw the value of my work too.
“You did all of this by yourself, and I am impressed by how quickly you learn.”
“You’re on the right track.”
“I really think we need this kind of research, and it’s great that you’re doing this.”
“You explained it really well. I can’t wait for the rest of your results.”
I will never forget the first time I heard these words from my professors3 and friends. I will never forget the nervous pounding of my heart before meetings, and the sighs of relief when they’re over. I will never forget the pride I felt when I learned the tools of the trade necessary for the completion of this thesis, and being able to persuade them that my method was the appropriate approach when they had doubts about it. It’s one thing to believe in yourself, but it’s nice to know that other people believe in you too.
This doesn’t mean though, that I became a positive person all of a sudden. Certainly not. There were still a lot of times when I would worry about graduating on time. Sometimes, I would still count my money and see if I would have money for the next semester in case I failed my thesis defense. Sometimes, I would still stress over what my professors would say about the work I have done, and whether they think it’s enough. It’s definitely not an overnight process, but those baby steps towards acceptance and confidence in my work led to great leaps.
By the time I got to thesis defense, I knew that I was prepared for whatever comments or questions they had for me.
I dreaded the thesis defense weeks before it happened, so much so that my anxiety was at an all-time high at around 3 weeks before the big day. But contrary to my expectations, I actually enjoyed my thesis defense.
At the beginning of the thesis period, I cared too much about what other people would say. I was scared of the possibility that people would call me out for doing or saying the wrong things. I was scared that people would disregard my study and dismiss it as crap because the data is not perfect, unlike others in previous literature. But having spent a lot of time with my data and learning my methodology thoroughly, the ins and outs of my research became second nature to me. I could relate its details in different ways, whether I’m talking to an expert or a layman in urban economics.
This may sound conceited to others, but we in grad school like to think that we are the experts in our specific thesis topics. Why not? I can definitely claim this because not only did I accumulate a lot of specialized knowledge regarding this topic, but also came up with original results building on this previous knowledge. With that in mind, I came to view my thesis defense not as an avenue where professors would grill me alive and look for ways to fail me, but an opportunity to share my ideas and seek ways to improve what I have done.
When I acknowledged that I was an expert, I began to think and feel like an expert. I was actually eager to answer all of the committee members’ questions because I felt like I was sharing a part of myself, a part of my country, whenever I expounded on my points. More than passing the defense, it was a more amazing feeling being able to talk to distinguished professors about something I was passionate about, and even better feeling when they see and acknowledge the value and contribution of your work!
But to be honest, even though I looked forward to passing the defense, the whole hour of presenting and defending was all just a blur for me.
The late nights, the tears, the silent battles, the smallest victories… These are the things I remember most.
These things taught me so much about myself and my limits, and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for these challenges. I don’t regret any of it.
PS: I just realized that I’m doing the thumbs up sign for all of the photos in this post. XD