August 16, 2012

On Advice and Thoughts Before I Begin (Again)

The summer before law school began, all of the incoming students received weekly emails from the law school in preparation for the next three years. A handful of these emails included advice, such as tidying up our personal life. If we had a relationship "on the edge" we should "fix it or kill it". We should read as many books "for pleasure" and stockpile sleep, sun, and vegetables. During orientation, one of the keynote speakers was from the state organization that provided confidential consultation for attorneys, judges, and law students regarding drug abuse, depression, and other mental health issues. We were told the grim statistics of the number of marriages and long-term relationships that do not make it through law school. We were told of the high rate of substance abuse and depression. We were told of the seemingly unavoidable pitfalls of law school and, ultimately, the legal profession. (And this was all when the economy was booming, so low salaries, the depletion of law-related jobs, and hard-to-pay law school loans didn't even enter into the conversation.) This was all in an effort to help us cope with academic and personal challenges and thrive in a high-pressure environment. It was done with the best intentions. Many of us ate this law school framework for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not all of us, but many of us, and I'm pretty sure I had it for snack and dessert also.

Which I know now, I should not have done. At all.

I had a bit of a unique law school experience in that I also took classes for a Masters degree while carrying a full law school course load my second and third years. However, I don't think that impacted the foundation of any of my thoughts or actions during law school. It just amplified everything I did or did not do. I won't go into the gritty details of everyday life of law school, but I will say this: I ate, breathed, and slept (or didn't sleep) law school and I didn't do much else. Yes, I had some awesomeamazingwonderfulfabulous times with loved ones (law school and non law school) but I certainly didn't do a whole lot of reading for fun, writing, exercising, baking, coloring, movie watching, shopping, dancing, sledding, etc. at the rate I normally would. (Which in some cases - ahem, exercising - is rare, but it's nice to have the option.) I hardly slept, I drank a lot of coffee, I ate primarily for health purposes but not nearly enough for pleasure, and I worked hard to remain close with some of my best friends. And that was about all I managed to keep in tact. As a result, huge chunks of my personal life fell apart and I waited far too long to piece them back together.

Why do I tell you all this? Because I've started to hear the same rumblings of advice for us soon-to-be PhD students. The "stockpile books, sleep, and vegetables!" mantra and the "be aware of your relationships" warnings, and the "know where the mental health services are located" advice. As someone who has been through the classes that cause crippling anxiety, handled the professors and students who become the catalyst for feeling like the dumbest person in the world (not in the class, but in the entire world) (i.e. impostor syndrome - google it, it's kinda a thing), and conquered the massive amounts of work that felt like climbing the tallest mountain on earth and drowning on the deepest lake on earth at the very same time, I say the best thing to do is take a nap, read a book for pleasure, sit in the sun doing nothing, or spend some time with the relationship that's teetering on the edge.

Take a break. Re-focus. Rejuvenate. Take care of yourself. That is what needs to come first.

This is more a reminder to myself than anything else: I am excited to start this PhD program. I have nothing I need to prove. I'm going to be anxious sometimes. I'm going to feel like I'm the dumbest one in the room. I'm going to feel like I can't finish all the work assigned. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. This time around, I want to layer it with a new t-shirt that says "Excited!" and "Engaged!" and "Thoughtful!". I have questions I want to answer and I want to collect better questions to ask. I'm looking forward to the readings, the classroom environment, to teaching, to researching, library time, late-night coffee, study groups, paper writing, presentations, even finals week.

I'm also looking forward to walking around the city with my camera, blogging frequently, going to yoga, reading novels, watching live music, spending weekends with my friends, even dating.

I'm not planning on eating, breathing, and sleeping this PhD program. I will be a thousand times a better student, better teacher, better researcher, better person if I don't.

The past few weeks I have not been stockpiling books to read for fun or taking inventory of my relationships. I'll finish Just Kids before bed in the first few weeks of September (thanks for the recommendation, Amy) and start a new book after I turn its last pages.  This fall (and all the seasons following) I'll give my attention without reservation to someone I care about when he or she needs it and find room in my life for new relationships. Life and death and love and heartache and everything in between keeps going despite enrollment status. I learned that in law school. I'm making room for all of it this time. I'm embracing all of it.


  1. Wow, good for you. And congrats on getting as far as you have. I can't imagine how grueling it must be. I think you have a great perspective on how to approach your new program however daunting it seems. In my humble opinion, Life is too short to work yourself to the bone to the detriment of every other area of your life. I've done this for many years of my own life and I'm just tired of it. Pace yourself, that's a good thing. but don't forget to really live! right?? :))


  2. Thank you! It has been quite a trip, but overall it has been worth it. I agree with you really living is the most important thing. I'm trying to keep that in mind over the next few months. I get so easily swept up in work but I'm determined to do it differently this time around. Thanks for the encouragement!!

  3. I didn't know that schools actually sent out "personal advice" emails like that but I have a feeling you're going to be well-prepared. It's fun to be on the cusp of something so new and exciting and I wish you the best of luck with it!