On being a grad student

In an email to me, Marianne wrote, on being a student, “I guess that even if you don’t feel like you belong there, you know you do. I think one of the main purposes of universities is to make you feel small and stupid, so that you’ll try even harder. I’ve never understood that kind of pedagogy, but it seems to be very widely spread.”

No, I’m not feeling sorry for myself; I just think it’s an insightful observation.

On a related note, I remember that when I was working at IBM, we came across a study that showed that depressed people tend to be more productive. (johnxorz and I loved this.)

The proposed explanation accompanying the data was that depressed people want to take their minds off of whatever’s making them sad, so they throw themselves at their work, whereas happy people see work as a distraction from their good mood, so they don’t apply themselves as much. Sounds reasonable.

I’m weird in that when I get depressed, which happens every so often (but not now), I actually kind of enjoy it. I spend a lot more time than I usually do thinking about what I like and what I’m like, what I want and who I want to be. I feel a kind of observational clarity where I normally feel my perception is clouded by [things I’m not going to list here].

Anyway, I guess being more productive is another good thing :).

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10 Responses to On being a grad student

  1. awu says:

    I’ve wondered if [enjoying it] has to do with the feeling that this is who I really am, in some way, as if that self is the true self, by way of frequency or resonance.

    • aj says:


      But of course there’s the possibility that it’s only just a feeling, and that you’re just as (or more) deluded as normal, but maybe in different ways.

      But hey, if you can delude yourself into thinking that you’re not deluded, then maybe that’s worth something :).

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Right.

        “Observational clarity” is a nice way of putting it. The more unoriginal phrase here would be “self-consciousness” (taking the original and not the modern negative sense of the word). If over a month depression strikes three days, it jolts a person out of the unconsciousness that to a larger or lesser degree accompanies habit. And with that comes a grasp on the self (or something that feels like such, which as that’s all there can ever be, is good enough to be considered such), and sure enough, something like clarity–or even freedom.

        When depression is the rule, it *becomes* habit and something rather demonic. The crystal lake that is consciousness might stay, but not to a good end. One now can see piranhas breeding way down there.

        As for the hypothetical unhappy worker who works harder, I’m not sure which of the above categories to put him in. He might be in either the first or second if if he didn’t try so damned hard to get out. As it is, you’d probably have to put him in an entirely different category, because most of the time he’s working too hard to think about his unhappiness (and thus also to *be* unhappy in the fullest and, well, most beautiful sense of the word). Clearly, he doesn’t care much for the freedom mentioned in the first paragraph. Work is the habit in which he escapes the consciousness that he is unhappy; it also reduces the moments in which he might try to discover himself. Poor guy. (Incidentally, I remember the *only* unhappiness that ever made me more productive in college was that which came from the knowledge that my next twelve hours would be tied to the full production of a paper.)

        I like “resonance,” too. Previous flashes of depression have presided over the painting of the Nursery of the Depressed Noggin; the current one pushes us in from the Hallway of Cloudy Habit (because we spend most of our time there, we sometimes mistake it for “home”), and suddenly, a truer homeliness!

        This said, I’m no fan of depression. Joy is a far preferable method. (Perhaps worst of all, though, is productivity.)

        John Chin

        • aj says:

          That makes a lot of sense

          I like your explanation — short-term depression is like a break, while long-term depression can take over your life.

          I agree, I’d rather be happy. But if I’m going to be sad, might as well enjoy it, right? :)

          • Anonymous says:

            Unless looked at in this light: depression tends to induce selfishness (perhaps somewhat complementary to selfconsciousness? though each can certainly appear independent of the other), tempting to bask in, whereas happiness, generosity?

          • aj says:

            But is selfishness (of though, at least) always bad? What if it makes you a better person in the long run?

          • Anonymous says:

            Not always. There is room enough for selfishness, and there should be. But that which stems from depression is so consuming, it sometimes nearly completely blinds the subject to the pain of others, and therefore seems to me unattractive at best–which is not to say it is completely avoidable. John

  2. walther says:

    that is awesome about the correlation between unhappiness and productivitiy. thank for alerting me to it! i hunted down an article on the study and forwarded it to all of my coworkers who are more productive than i am (which is pretty much all of my coworkers) and told them that, obviously, i must be a lot happier than them. one thing: it is not actually “depressed” people who are more productive though…just the unhappy ones. apparently, people who are clinically depressed actually cost companies billions of dollars per year because of their decreased productivity. (they never want to do anything, get sick more often, miss more work, etc.)

    • aj says:

      Yeah, good point!

      I too often equate “depressed” with “sad”, even though it’s a real medical condition. It’s sad, really ;).

      I blame it all on elementary school, which is where I learned how to use “retarded”, “idiot”, and “moron” with no regard for their clinical definitions. Everything else stems from that :).

      • walther says:

        Re: Yeah, good point!

        oh wow, i didn’t know that “moron” had a clinical definition until just now.

        A person of mild mental retardation having a mental age of from 7 to 12 years and generally having communication and social skills enabling some degree of academic or vocational education. The term belongs to a classification system no longer in use and is now considered offensive.

        maybe it’s kind of like how i used to say “gypped” all the time without knowing that it was perpetuating an ethnic stereotype about gypsies.