Grad school made me stupid

I wrote a little about my grad school experience in an early post called “smart and pretty at the same time.” But an email from a reader made me want to write some more. She was telling me about being a young woman in a science department at her college.

It’s hard to exaggerate how stupid grad school made me feel. I hadn’t been feeling stupid before. In fact, when I moved to New York City, I felt particularly smart. I had just defended an honors thesis in front of an intimidating panel of professors who took honors theses very, very seriously. My whole family showed up to watch. I used the word “hegemonic” several times, which is all my brother Jake got out of the experience (later, he teased me with this impression of me, endlessly repeated: “First, allow me to say….hegemonic. And now, on to the rest of my thesis!”).

(the word still makes me think of this… source)

I knew all of the professors in my department, and I once joked around by stepping up to the board when the professor was late and pretending to lead the class. In that moment, I felt so powerful. Like, you know, if someone bothered me too much I could just shoot force lightning out of my palms. When I started college, I was this confused, haughty little person who proudly refused to stop talking so much in class, despite the other students putting her on a black list titled “most annoying people ever.” But by senior year, I had learned my lesson. I learned to make jokes rather than painfully earnest points. I learned to make friends. At the year end departmental party, I approached the boy who had impressed me the most three years earlier. This time, I made an impression too.

For grad school, I applied to the most exclusive universities I could think of. Places with names that made you reflexively throw back your shoulders and turn up your nose. And my professors said things like, “Don’t do Harvard. They’ve gotten sloppy with that program. You want to challenge yourself.”

And then, riding on a cloud of all of that stuff, I was gently deposited into an elegant seminar room in a building by the river, up on 121st street. There was a fireplace. In the classroom. There was mahogany trim. Around the table sat about ten young men, one other young woman, and me. The department chair came in. He was very famous, and moved with the ease of someone who is so used to being looked at that he hasn’t noticed in a long time. His hair told another story. It was white and flowing and thick, plowed back, dramatic. It liked to be looked at.

It could all have been fine. At that moment, I was eager and confident and nervous and full of my own potential.

But things started going wrong right away. Subtle things that I wished over and over in the months to come hadn’t gotten to me so much. Like the fact that there were only two other Master’s students. Everyone else was there for the PhD. One of the other Master’s students was a forty-five year old man who had no interest in getting to know anyone else there. The other was a slender, wincing twenty-two year old who was already married and who never spoke above a murmur. He wore sagging sweaters and kept his eyes on the floor.

Everyone had a background in philosophy. I had no idea what I had a background in. Everyone else seemed to have acquired a particular body of information that involved certain people, like Hegel, and Derrida, and I suddenly remember that I had a pretty bad memory. Everyone else seemed to remember page numbers. I couldn’t even remember big ideas.

And I was a woman.

Suddenly, every time I raised my hand in class, I was aware of the fact that I was a woman. My adviser was a woman, but the rest of the professors were men. The one other girl who had entered with me had clearly learned to hold her own in the proper way. She cited page numbers constantly. She came to class with her books bristling with color coded sticky notes. She was ruthless and expressionless and formidable and a triumph for women everywhere and absolutely out of my league.

I crumbled. I retreated inside myself, trying to make myself look physically smaller at the seminar table, where a three hour long required class was held every week. I was trembling with tension as my brain screamed, “Say something! Do something! Get in there! What’s wrong with you?” and my body refused, swearing it would defend me until it died.

I couldn’t participate in the discussions. It was as though I simply didn’t speak the same language. I made a few, broad points, and everyone looked at me, and I imagined them thinking things they quickly suppressed about how it wasn’t too surprising that departments like these were still almost all male. I tried not to mention anything about feminism, or women, or the lack of women in the text, or the way the text dealt with gender. These were some of the only subjects I felt qualified to speak on at the time, but I didn’t want to be the woman who could only talk about women. That was a sign of intellectual weakness. It was small-minded, helplessly subjective, and crudely political.

I found myself wishing, at least, that I was stunningly gorgeous. So that I would have inherent value. So that when all those men turned and looked at me, they’d at least be thinking, “Wow. She’s so beautiful.” Along with, “Why does she never say anything worthwhile?”

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t all the department’s fault. I was paralyzed with responsibility. The responsibility of being smart for all women. And being smart in the same way that everyone else was being smart. After having been the annoying girl freshman year of undergrad, I never wanted to be her again. I wanted to fit in. And I didn’t have the tools to fit in correctly. I was stuck holding the same damn hammer I’d been holding when I started college. If I was going to talk, I was going to have to smash some stuff apart and make some noise and be indelicate and obvious.

My second semester, I proposed a thesis idea to my adviser. For my project, I’d observe the department. I’d do research on gender and higher education and how little the dynamic has changed when it’s supposed to have changed so much. How people use the excuse of “but we’re already doing it” to enable them not to do it at all. As in, if there are only two women in the department, that’s just because women aren’t doing the right kinds of research. I wanted to record conversations about students. I wanted to capture the subtlety.

My adviser liked the idea. But then she realized I’d have to sit in on faculty meetings, and it became complicated. I ended up hanging out with transgender support groups instead, which was probably more fun anyway.

I dated the guy who had impressed me back in college. He had come to Manhattan, too. His department was right next to mine, in the same building. He was very confident about how smart he was, and he couldn’t quite understand why I was so insecure. In fact, when he broke up with me, he said, “I’m going places. It just doesn’t seem like you are. You can’t ever make up your mind.” We were standing, appropriately, on the platform at a train station, and I was about to get on the train.

I did make up my mind. I decided not to go on to a PhD program. Instead of taking history classes, I took non-fiction writing. I decided to let myself stop trying so hard to be smart. Not just neglect to remember the three Aristotelian classic laws, but wander off the path completely.

I feel smarter now. It’s a gradual process. I’m thinking that by the time I’m forty or so, I’ll be convinced that I’m brilliant. Sometimes I paint something and I think, “I have an interesting mind.” I like the way it fits shapes and colors together. Sometimes I catch myself being strictly logical.

I don’t like it when people pretend that women have the same experience as men, now, in academia, or in any other traditionally male arena. Not that every woman feels out of place or intimidated or devalued. But the ones who do also feel like they aren’t allowed to. Aren’t supposed to be feeling this way at all. Because it’s already been fixed. Because we’re already there. And if we are still thinking about being a woman once we’re there, maybe we’re just not thinking hard enough.

(She seems pretty comfortable at Columbia)

*  *  *  *

Un-roast: Today I love how my appearance is a little like a hammer. It’s bold, obvious, and unapologetic. I just have to learn to appreciate that about myself.

P.S. The other young woman in my grad school class is now one of my closest friends. I’m still intimidated by her brilliance, but I’ve accepted the fact that she thinks I’m pretty cool too.

P.P.S. New post on Un-schooled, about socialization and how bad I am at it.

P.P.P.S. Just as an aside, this is the funniest piece about grad school I’ve ever read. Or that’s ever been written, I’m pretty sure.


Kate on December 2nd 2010 in being different, feminism, life, new york

28 Responses to “Grad school made me stupid”

  1. Cindy responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 12:09 pm #

    I’m just going to say this and than shut up.

    I cannot even comprehend most of this.

    I finished 2 years of JC.

    So the mere fact that you were even IN grad school is intimidating to me.

    I’ve always wanted to go back and finish and even that seems overwhelming to me and just recently i’ve decided it’s probably okay that I never become an “educated” person.

    that world out there…the higher education world scares the bejeezus out of me and it amazes me you were there, did it and lived to speak about it.

    besides there are different kinds of “smart”.

    well, I think.

  2. Miriam Martin responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 12:38 pm #

    I can completely relate to this. There is that moment of glee when people who have been brushing you off (or worse, patronizing) because you’re “a girl” suddenly realize you actually have more (and “better”) to say than them on a subject … but mostly it’s the feeling of having to fight twice as hard and yell twice as loud to be heard. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Christin@purplebirdblog responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 12:42 pm #

    Community college throttled me. I can’t even imagine grad school! I am currently in massage therapy school and have truly found my home where I can hone my learning and enjoy the process, and for me, that is all I need! :)

    I am always in awe of college graduates and grad students, and you are no exception.

  4. Kate responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    There are definitely plenty of ways to be educated without going to college or grad school. Take it from someone who didn’t go to any kind of school before college!

    It’s really unfortunate the way people think that “getting an education” can only happen inside the walls of a place that’s designated as educational. Libraries are free! And most of college is just guided reading sessions.

  5. Allison responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    Kate, you have absolutely no idea how much this hit home for me. I’m currently working on my qualifying exams for a grad school degree in science, and as the only woman in the phd program there, I’ve thought everything you’ve thought, and those lines about being responsible for all women, how the nearly only male department doesn’t get that it’s still hard and different for women even though there are some token females hanging around nearly made me weep that someone else has noticed this.

  6. AlisonM responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    I could jump out of my computer screen and hug you for writing this! I am in a weird place right now with smart and pretty. I realised this when I was on a date the other night. He asked what I did, and I told him I was finishing up my PhD.
    Him: “Oh, so what was your ticket: loans, or your parents?”
    Me: “I got a scholarship. So I guess smart was my ticket”

    It just popped right out of my mouth. And it immediately felt uncouth. To be both smart and sassy on a date? No no no. And that’s when I realised that smart and attractive just don’t seem to go together in my head.

    Not only is smart a threat to sexy; sexy is also a threat to smart. When I was the girl citing page numbers with stickies in her book, playing the male game of who-can-shout-the-loudest, I dressed hot. I wore tight pants, heels. I even wore makeup. But I’ve lost a lot of confidence in my work and my intellectual capability over the last 18 months. And with it, I’ve lost the heels too. I guess I don’t want my (mostly male colleagues) to think I’m a bimbo. So I dress in jeans and hoodies. I sometimes even let my eyebrows grow out.

    What I’ve realised is that in the academic world, I only think I can get away with being pretty if I’m fiercely (and aggressively) smart with it. And on the dating scene, I can only get away with being smart if I have other redeeming qualities. Like tight pants and heels.

    That’s a sucky realisation, but thank you for helping me reach it! At least now I know where my BS is at ;-)

  7. Emily responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    Great piece Kate. Want to guest it on my blog about women in philosophy? You aren’t in philosophy per se but the view point is pretty much the same. woman in archaic male dominated field. Also, you never told me about that thesis idea. What a great project. It’s super lame that you weren’t allowed to follow up on it.

  8. Kate responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 2:31 pm #

    Stories like the one about your date make me angry. How can the guy even ask you something like that?

    And you’re absolutely right. Neither smart nor pretty is the solution. They both complicate, challenge, and sometimes negate each other. My friend who cites the pages wears heels a lot. And like you, when I felt bad, I wore them less and less.

    It’d really be a lot nicer if we could just capitalize on whatever strengths we have, and if both beauty and fierce scientific brilliance are among them, then we should be able to do both at once! And if it’s just fierce scientific brilliance, then so be it. Or just beauty and the ability to bake amazing cookies. Or whatever. But the fact that it’s never that simple lets us know exactly where our society is in terms of gender, and exactly how, despite all the claims to the contrary, we’re not “there yet.”

  9. Kate responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 2:32 pm #

    Go ahead and put it up!

  10. Kim responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 3:27 pm #

    I think a lot of it depends on the environment of the particular school you’re in, also the attitude of the specific department while in grad school. I was lucky to feel valued in both my undergrad and grad schools, but in talking to some of my female friends, it is almost totally a crap shoot and I just happened to luck out. How women students and professors fit into the academic life at a certain college is such a difficult thing to pin down, you can’t really figure it out during the flashy tours or interviews or application process. So once you’re in there and all matriculating and everything, it’s often too late to back out.

  11. Ally responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 4:35 pm #

  12. AlisonM responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    Yeah it made me mad too. I wasn’t quick enough (or brave enough?) to call him out on it at the time. But the assumption that I must have begged or borrowed to get through grad school is outrageous!

    I agree that one of the biggest challenges our generation of women face is reconciling potentially conflicting qualities. How do we combine the “traditional” female role (the pretty, baking, homemaker?) with the smart, fierce, financially independent, scientist. So often I’ve seen this ambivalence in women result in a complete rejection of traditional female qualities (like me adopting the male persona in the classroom). Or an aggressive assertion of them, in overt sexuality. And as you say, that seems to undermine women even more in the end. Why can’t I bake for my students at Christmas, and still be respected as a tough and competent philosopher up at the board?

    Saying that, I’m pretty bad at baking. So maybe that’s how I get away with it… ;-)

  13. Anna responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    I love how you describe yourself during your freshman year. I was the exact same way (and I was homeschooled)- I tried to be polite, but sometimes it was just too interesting or no one else would answer the question. One teaching assistant told me after class directly not to answer questions, and another professor just started directing questions to particular people to avoid me. I’m not cut out for this kind of education, methinks.

  14. rachel responded on 02 Dec 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    English seems to be almost the opposite of a lot of the usual gender dynamics now. My incoming class of 13 at grad school had only one man. The year after me had more men, but they’re still the minority. The faculty is pretty evenly divided (though if one looked at rank there’s likely to find a gender gap). It’s also a discipline where it’s generally excepted that questions of race, class, gender and sexuality need to be asked, especially because my institution is strongest in 20th century texts. Still, when I feel like gender implications aren’t being invoked by others and they are relevant I raise them and force the discussion there. I don’t think it’s particularly self-interested to do so, because that’s the direction the academy is moving.

    [Ex. Yesterday when discussing "Bartelby the Scrivener" our professor cited a study of 19th century architecture that says the period was marked for the creation of private space (multiple smaller bedrooms and offices). I interjected that that surprises me considering Virginia Woolf's early 20th century "A Room of One's Own" which says that women never had private space. My male professor took up the subject, noting both the first author's oversight and relating it to our previous discussions about Fuller.]

    When I attend classes, I dress pretty casually. Lots of jeans, rare makeup or heals. I guess I’m comfortable enough to believe that people are going to pay attention to me for my ideas that what I wear is less important. But when I teach my presentation is much more feminine. Part of that has to do with the fact that I find dresses and skirts more comfortable than dress pants. Dresses are easy and professional. Still another reason is that I think dressing “like a teacher” will make my students more at ease. Being put together (jewelry, accessories and/or makeup) lets them know that I take the job seriously, that I haven’t rolled out of bed ten minutes before my morning classes and shown up unprepared. Of course, my lesson plans and demeanor accomplish a lot of the same thing, but every little bit helps, right?

  15. Claire Allison responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 7:11 am #

    Theatre is the opposite, and in our grad department there’s only one other history student and she seems to be the opposite of me. I’ve caught her glaring at me for three hours straight, and the more I participate and get enthusiastic (you should have seen the look on her face the day we went over logical theory) the more she glares. The worst part is that she’s old enough to be my mother, and she spends the whole time with her lips puckered up in a sour expression. I wonder/worry if she is frustrated me by our age difference, as I’m 24 and one of the youngest in the entire department. It upsets me to think that, rather than be supportive of me (like some of the other older women) she seems to distance herself and try to intimadate me with her mean looks.

    Or I dunno, maybe she just doesn’t like my face.

  16. ashleigh responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 7:44 am #

    This post really, finally, articulates what it feels like to be a women in academia. As an undergrad, I was lucky enough to attend a women’s college, where I was lulled into the feeling that I wasn’t a woman first, but a human being. It has taken some time to reconcile myself to the fact that for pretty much everyone else in the world, I am a woman first, person second.

    As a grad student now in a traditional university, I find that yes, I have had similar experiences of feeling like I must be an ambassador for women, and that I will be judged on my appearance. However as I was lucky enough to have a fantastic undergrad where I got to develop my confidence (and ask as many questions as I wanted without being told off for being outspoken), I sometimes remember that I can think of myself as a person first- not just a woman- and that helps me feel much less intimidated by the male culture of my department.

  17. Sona responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 10:46 am #

    I guess it really depends on the program you are at in Columbia – I’m in the EMPA program at SIPA, and we all work full time, and the class is probably 40 – 50 percent women. I was always intimidated by the bankers and the Federal Reserve workers in the class, until I realized none of them could write that substantially. And a lot of the “quants” are women – nice to see people break the stereotype! However, since a lot of our class is already in the workforce, it makes the culture gap between the PhDs and Masters students nonexistent.

    I think an important part of “maturing” is realizing your strengths, your weaknesses, and having the courage to confront them. I also think that having your butt kicked at an intimidating job makes being intimidated in a classroom less likely – my first year at a corporate PR agency was rough, but it made me doubt myself way less.

    I’m glad you shared this story with us – first, it shows that you always have to keep an open mind, and accept the setbacks. And second, it shows that even if you have some awkward moments, you can still soar like a butterfly ;) . It also makes me so proud of the women in my program, we kick butt.

  18. San D responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 1:12 pm #

    To add to the discussion in list form:

    1. I think of myself as a human first, by accident of birth: a woman.
    2. I am not as smart as I think I am, or others perceive me to be.
    3. When at the undergraduate and graduate level I had two mottos:
    a. I am paying for these classes (and consequently YOUR salary, professor), so my opinion counts.
    b. I don’t friggin’ think so (when rebuffed by anyone).
    4. I believe that in some circumstances there “are no victims, only volunteers”.

  19. Kate responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 1:23 pm #

    You’re right. I took a class at SIPA and felt completely different. I loved how many people were already “out in the world,” and how many people were non-traditional students. It changed the entire dynamic.

    I mention SIPA to people as an example of a better way to have an academic department.

  20. Dana Udall-Weiner responded on 03 Dec 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    That sense of being an impostor in higher ed is so tough. I remember feeling like I was always bringing up gender and lame women’s issues (which is a problematic term in itself). And even in so-called progressive departments, tokenism is often at play, and the entrenched power system is just below the surface. The hegemony remains!

  21. jstolk responded on 04 Dec 2010 at 2:54 am #

    I can so relate to this. I’m not in a grad program right now, not even in any classes, but the field I am going into is considered a “man’s” field because not only is there a hell of a lot of science, but my focus is on brewing, as in beer. I can’t think of any other beverage that is so sterio-typicly a “man drink” than beer. When I was taking classes there were maybe one or two other girls, but they were there for degrees in nutrition, a “proper girl degree” as I was told. My counselor tried pushing me to a degree in nutrition, but I held out and insisted that I wanted food science & technology. As a woman I feel I have a bit of an advantage because all the men underestimate me, but at the same time, I’m so self conscience because I don’t want to prove them right or have them think of me as a silly girl trying to make it in a man’s world. The academic world can be hell.

  22. Noel responded on 05 Dec 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    When I read this post, I automatically thought of two things: hazing and my experience in grad school. I also rolled into my first lecture with no philosophy background; within the first 5 minutes the profs started talking about Geist and most of us where stuck looking around at each other like ” … who??? … Is he talking about ‘Christ’ …”

    Like you, I was in a Master’s program, hell bent on getting that Doctorate. Like you, I said to hell with it. Parts of me loves academia, really and truly loves it, and loves diving into a project and wrestling around with it like Steve Irwin with a crocodile. But at the end, all the posturing and showmanship and general arrogance made me want to puke in my mouth. And sadly, in my program, the ladies liked to dish it out just as much as the men. Which is why all these brilliant, magnificent ideas stay locked up in the ivory tower and never trickle out to the “common folk,” where perhaps they could actually make a difference.

    I apologize for the general rantiness of this comment; it’s just the whole thing still makes my blood boil.

  23. lk responded on 06 Dec 2010 at 12:41 pm #

    Just have to say that I agree with the post and all of the comments.

    Currently I’m finishing up my science degree at an all womens’ college. I’m in an Non-trad student program because, well, i’m older than a regular college student should be (the first 4 years of my traditional college experience – I had 2 majors: Booze and boys!). That being said – I’m considering getting my masters as well and I know that I’ll have to go to the traditional University route if I want to do so.

    So many of those same questions come to mind when thinking about even applying to those schools. I’ll most likely be the *ONLY* woman in the class in addition to likely being the only caucasian in the class – according to the rosters that I’ve seen, 99% of the masters candidates in the programs that I’m interested in are of Asian or Indian decent.

    For that reason, I’m seriously considering just being happy with only my BS… Kate, once again your post hits home!

  24. Clare responded on 11 Dec 2010 at 4:35 am #

    I just discovered your blog and love it! You write with great honesty and frankness. I’m subscribing. You have a new fan! Keep it up.

  25. Kate Fridkis: Are Women Taking Over the World or Not? | News | responded on 03 Feb 2011 at 7:24 am #

    [...] I felt stupid in grad school. I was surrounded by men. I felt like I didn’t know anything, and they knew everything. These days, I’m beginning to think that knowing everything isn’t the point. Thinking you know the right amount is. Believing that no matter where you are now, you have what it takes to succeed. That’s the important thing. [...]

  26. Dan responded on 19 Jul 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    I really enjoyed what you wrote here — except the fact that you appear to blame your being not up to the intellectual standard of this particular graduate program on your being female. That was a really tiring thing to read but I was able to mostly ignore it as I assimilated the rest of the content here. I can totally relate with you in how school can be an ego-crushing experience. The good thing is that this experience also gives us a more accurate understanding of where we fit in within the world. I, too, thought I was very smart until I decided to start attending college.

  27. Joe responded on 27 Dec 2011 at 4:08 am #

    I’d just like to say that I think everyone has feelings of unworthiness when entering and completing graduate school. I’m a male in a PhD chemistry program which is about 50:50 men to women depending on your specialization. Historically it is a male dominated field. There are many more male professors than female but honestly I think things will even out substantially during our generation. When I’m feeling insecure, unworthy, or unintelligent during my graduate work I often revert to old insecurities intrinsic to myself as the rationalization for what I perceive to be happening.

    My point is this, the perceived gender disparity which you are discussing my or may not be an issue. What I’m certain of is if you don’t care about it, it won’t matter. This isn’t a female problem, so many people have a form of this experience be it race, gender, economic background, or life experience.

    If you don’t feel like you are lacking knowledge how are you supposed to motivate yourself to learn? The lesson for me you learn during graduate school is that the amount the human brain can understand, remember and use in some logical way is far too small to truly, and honestly be confident in making meaningful contribution to a field, luck plays a big role. Especially given the time line (short) of a graduate degree. To accept this and be comfortable with this, to use it as a motivation for the pursuit of knowledge, for me is the message. If you obsess about how you don’t have some knowledge or ability because of some factor you will never look at what needs consideration, your own education.

  28. Eat the Damn Cake » you big softy responded on 24 May 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    [...] grad school, I felt like such a girl all the time. I didn’t want to have to keep mentioning people, when everyone else was talking about ideas, [...]