Several months ago, I started waking up in unabashed terror. I didn’t need an alarm because around the same time every morning my ears would flood with that earth-shattering foghorn sound from the dramatic scenes of Michael Bay movies. These delightful somatic symptoms happened to also coincide with my commitment to going to grad school. It’s not as though this choice caught me off guard — I had known that I would inevitably need to obtain a graduate degree. I say I committed because I think I had spent the lead-up to my senior year secretly hoping that I would magically inherit a complete set of marketable skills or, even better, that the market economy would utterly collapse and, after recoalescing into egalitarian communes, I would live out a quaint existence milking goats. Somehow neither happened.
The issue was that there were so many little choices to think about that I felt like I was suffocating under the sheer volume of information. Anyone who has broken down and just typed “Graduate School: How?!?” into Google understands. But I’m not drowning anymore. I just wake up with my regular level of despair now because I managed to find a helpful dose of perspective. How? Let me mansplain this one for you.
All of the anxieties circling through your mind about your career and the sake of your “perfect” life are kind of irrelevant because they are based on your current condition.
If you are like me, then the real problem is that you are trying to achieve perfection. In psychology, there is this concept called affective forecasting, which is the ability to model one’s own needs, feeling and attitudes in the future. You engage in it a lot when making decisions, like deciding what state you would prefer to live in or if your Friday festivities should include an open party at the 3s. You have to guess if you will be happier based on your inferred future preferences (hint, you will always be happier not going to the 3s or Alabama, regardless of the other options). We humans are unique in our ability to do affective forecasting (as far as we know, but research is incredibly speciesist). We also suck at doing it. Humans, with enduringly limited frontal cortexes, weigh our current feelings and motivate far too heavily while failing to account for the fact that we change frequently. And we change a lot. Every single one of us is fabulously flaky. In addition, we also have horrendous hindsight bias. After committing to a choice, we quickly forget about the angst leading up to that decision and immediately start to search for validation that it was correct all along. Your mind goes as far as to rewrite your personal narrative so when you reflect on a choice it seems obviously correct; literally, no regrets.
Use the enduring stupidity of our species to your advantage as you confront the grad school tsunami. Remember that, as horrible as it sounds, you are very likely to settle into whatever program you choose. All of the anxieties circling through your mind about your career and the sake of your “perfect” life are kind of irrelevant because they are based on your current condition. But this can rapidly transform in new contexts. Plus, you will probably be pretty happy as long as you allow yourself to be. If you want to make the grad process a little less awful, then find a few schools that seem like they will accept you and will provide financial aid and look kind of interesting. Apply and see what happens. In the end everything will work out because your mind will make it that way. Anytime you start to get overwhelmed, find solace in the knowledge that your brain and everyone else’s brain are too tiny to actually understand the future and you have the ability to enjoy just about anything life throws at you.
Emily Gardner is a Confusion Corner columnist who may or may not be in the middle of applying to graduate schools.