What Am I Doing Here?

Ah, the question that every single graduate student asks themselves, at one point or another, once they’ve settled in nicely into their new academic routine. As a graduate student myself, I, too, have asked myself this question on some occasions, especially considering that I am flat broke! I mean besides my husband helping me out with my expenses and what not, the only means of income I rely on are my RA/TA-ships or scholarship grants, which obviously comes nowhere close to the yearly salary I used to make as a professional business writer a couple of years ago. And while life seemed great back then, financially, I was not necessarily content. Being cooped up in an office, working for a company, in a mundane 9-5 job was never really my cup of tea. Yes, the salary was amazing and I managed to save up enough to buy my own car and contribute to the down payment for a house; it was, however, just that: A boring, meaningless job that was good only for the money.

However, now that I’m in graduate school, and well on my way to attaining my doctorate degree, there are times when I sometimes wonder: What am I doing here exactly? Is this something I want? Is this something I’ve always wanted? What’s motivating me to do this? Is it my passion for humanitarian work? Or perhaps it is my passion for the development and emancipation of Pashtuns? And the more I ponder about this, the more it becomes clear to me why I picked this route and why, for the first time in my life, I’m happy being broke.

My reader needs to understand that I come from a moderately educated family. My dad has some college (he studied in the UK), and my mom, well, she basically got married shortly after finishing 10th grade.  However, I am the first in my immediate family who is in graduate school, and although it was always my mother’s dream that I either become a lawyer (which I strongly considered while I was in undergrad) or study medicine, she was slightly disappointed when I told her that I wanted to dedicate my life to the betterment of Pashtuns, and further attain my doctorate in the field.  Yet, that never stopped me from pursuing what I wanted, for I always knew what I wanted to do, very early in undergrad, and it was to study development studies.

I guess most people will never truly understand why you’ve chosen the field you have, because they may not share the same thought-pattern or passion as you.  Choosing a program and going to graduate school to study it in depth is not something that should, or could be, taken lightly. It takes a lot of thought, dedication, time, passion, and commitment. And, yet, not a lot of people seem to grasp this fact, maybe because they’ve never gone to grad school themselves, or they’ve been told (or perhaps even been conditioned with the belief) that the only time going to grad school is worth it is if you’re studying medicine or law. But that’s far from the truth. Very far, actually. Nothing is worth it unless you make it so.

However, this post isn’t about me, but rather about why so many graduate students wonder about their choice of going to graduate school. And it’s perfectly okay to ask such questions; because it just makes it clearer as to why you went there in the first place. It appears that many people usually end up in graduate school because they’ve done well as an undergrad. You’re bright, you’re good at academic work, and you think that grad school might be for you. And although that’s a start, it takes more than that to be a successful graduate student.  You will take some classes (and probably teach some, as well), but in grad school, classes exist either to give you the foundation knowledge and skills that you need for doing research or for stimulating your ideas about research in a specific area. Taking classes and getting A’s in them is not the point of grad school, and I realized this very early in my program. Of course, this is not to say that my GPA is any less than a 3.8, only because I personally believe in excelling and also because it makes my life easier when I apply for scholarship grants and additional funding for my research.  Yet, simply getting A’s is not what graduate school is all about, ‘cause if so, then you’ll be considered to be a “very bad graduate student”; the fact of the matter is that a good graduate student is one that can do excellent analytical research, and that too both in the quantitative and qualitative arena. (I’ll talk more in depth about what constitutes qualitative and quantitative research in my next post or so.)

But, what if you don’t really want to do research? Then what? And I guess this is probably where most students who’ve decided to go to graduate school get stumped. And here I will be  blunt and suggest that it is best that they drop out while they have the chance ‘cause guess what? Grad school is ALL about research, and it’s expected of students to do it as part of their learning process at their respective institutions, whether they like it or not. It’s part of the whole package of pursuing graduate studies. I mean if you plan to invest and spend so much time doing research, you must also have the passion for it, ‘cause there really is no point otherwise. I, personally, LOVE the idea as well as practice of research, especially fieldwork. I love meeting new people; sharing and understanding their views; their perspective on things; why they think or act a certain way; and how that has influenced their thought process, as well as their livelihoods. Yes, it’s a lot of work but it’s something I enjoy and can see myself doing for the rest of my life.

So, if you ever wonder why you’re in grad school, sit back, relax, and then grab a pen and paper and write down all the reasons why you decided to pick this career path. What is it about grad school and graduate work that made you want to pursue it? Is it the thrill of meeting likeminded people? Or perhaps the thrill of getting the opportunity to explore dimensions of the research process that you know you won’t find elsewhere, especially in the 9-5 jobs that exist out there? Maybe you’re doing it because you hope to use those credentials to your advantage and maybe even make a difference in the world.

I, for one, am doing it because it has always been something that I’ve wanted to do, and yes, I unashamedly admit, I have visions to “save the world,” as unrealistic as that may sound. Well, more specifically, I want to make a difference in the lives of Pashtun women. And, to me, personally, that will ONLY be achievable if I attain my professorship, and use my skills, research and knowledge to shed light on the issues and difficulties that Pashtuns face; hence, providing a means to include them, and any literature pertaining to Pashtuns and development, in academe. However, I also realize that it is not an easy road (and I’ve come to realize that first-hand while currently enrolled in a doctorate program), and requires a LOT of hard work, time, and commitment in order to become the influential person that I long to become. Yes, I definitely realize that.

So, think and reflect. Always. For whatever decision you make today, will have many great impacts and consequences in the long-run. Also, whatever decision you make is never wrong, for applying for graduate studies is no easy matter; a lot of thought goes into selecting the program of your choice and then writing the initial statement of interest, which usually takes days, even weeks, to formulate. There are always triggers that motivate you to pursue something in the first place. And if you don’t know what that is yet, you’ll find out soon enough. For it is only then that you’ll eventually find your calling in the academic realm.

One response to “What Am I Doing Here?

  1. Hey Samar,
    I really enjoyed reading this piece and I will share it on my facebook too as I feel, compared to a lot of advice about graduate school, this is quite different. A lot of what is out there focuses on the end goal of graduate studies i.e. a teaching job that you will not really like or a research job that focuses on publish or perish. This type of stuff almost always does not focus on the process of being a graduate student and because of that, it can be very disillusioning for those who are either in grad school or thinking of going to grad school. I was caught in that whole dilemma and sort of suffered through my graduate studies. I am glad you are openly writing about it.

    One thing I noted, was that you feel only through getting a doctorate are you able to help the Pashtun Women. Can I ask why that is? Don’t get me wrong, I think writing about it and making people aware about the situations is very important, but this type of activisim also serves to legitimize the power that academia has and in some ways takes away from what is already being done at the very basic level in a pashtun woman’s life to resist her own conditions of turmoil.

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