I had a Thanksgiving visit to a faculty colleague’s house. We got to talking about graduate school after dinner and the feelings of inadequacy it seems to bring out in everyone. These feelings relate back to my earlier post on shame. He described the dogged persistence by which he finished up, and he is glad to not have research responsibilities anymore in a teaching-focused faculty position.
As for me … I am glad I am not in a research position, and as I wrote earlier, I feel like a failed researcher. Graduate school sure kicked the stuffing out of my ego. But there’s a part of me that isn’t convinced that I couldn’t be a good researcher now (although exactly at what is still an open question) or couldn’t have been a good one then. The one thing I am sure of is that you can put a perfectly motivated, intelligent, creative person in the wrong circumstance with the wrong people, and you can tear her down so badly that she is almost unable to function. So that she starts to hate things that were enjoyed activities to begin with.
Yes, a good part of that was my own damn fault, and I know it. No one teaches you when to quit; that sometimes the only way to make something better is to run away from it. I should have found other people and another direction, but when things didn’t work, I was far too busy blaming myself, feeling like a failure. That does not help give you strength to pick yourself up, walk away, and start over.
I got on Project Euler this summer; discovering that I do really like programming was a revelation. After leaving my last software job, I thought I had made a huge mistake going into the field. Must’ve been guilt or pressure, being one of the few women who could to go on and pursue math and software. But that’s not right either. Over the past years of teaching, I keep discovering that I do love problem-solving, math, and programming, and not just when I am working with students. I enjoy them in their own right. And what does that mean?
I am always going to be a teacher first; give me students and they will take priority in my life. I want more than that out of life too. I want to write articles and books; I really want to write things that people read and care about. I don’t want to just write musty math articles.
I know I approach problems differently now than back then; now I’m all about finding the low hanging fruit and plucking it down. Way back when I was in graduate school, I wanted to understand the things that most confused me. Which is, for the record, not the best way to pick a thesis topic.
One thing for certain is that we cannot go back and fix the past. The only thing we can do is learn from it, and use our lessons to help ourselves and others. I don’t know where my journey will take me; maybe into more research and maybe not. One thing I am always telling my students is that they are capable. They are worthy. They are strong. They will find a way, even though it may not be what they currently imagine. And that is the message I need to bring to myself. I am capable. I am worthy. I am strong. I will find a way, even if it is nothing that I currently imagine.