Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for (Part 3)

In case you want to catch up: here are Parts 1 & 2 of my first-year journey.

We like to think that our life stories have happy endings, perhaps that we can carefully partition our lives into fourths of each year, and successfully say, “Well, after I learned this, my life was great!” But anyone who has lived life — so, I suppose, anyone reading this — knows that that is not what life is like. Life is a continuous (not discrete!) story with changing hurdles. The gist of this series called “Dear first year, this isn’t something you can plan for,” is that if anything has, grad school has shown me how much truth the quote “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” holds. Every quarter of my first year had some unexpected obstacle or victory and sometimes both, and sometimes the victory turned into an obstacle. The following is the story of my third quarter as a math Ph.D. student at Oregon State University, along with some thoughts that stay with me from that time.

I lived every term of my first year of grad school desperately hoping things would get easier. I still remember my first term as the most bitterly difficult of them all, but the truth is that each one of them — as my mentors warned me would happen  — were approximately equally difficult (I recently thought maybe I should just turn this series into a memoir about the entirety of graduate school, since this past term, my fourth at Oregon State and the first of my second year, was busy as all heck and I felt like I’d stepped out of first year into a fire). I started spring quarter with the hopeful energy with which I had started every other quarter: with a determination to excel in my courses and return to my peak mental performance.

Winter quarter ended with the knowledge that my first attempt at Ph.D. qualifying exams was about ten days in the future. By this time, I understood that this attempt would be my practice run: I had been so completely overwhelmed during the past two terms that I hadn’t had the ability to study as much as is necessary for these exhausting tests, so I was intent on studying as much as I could throughout spring break and giving it an “honorable effort.”

The analysis exam went better than I thought it would, but that’s hardly surprising, since analysis is my field of study. Linear algebra, on the other hand, went absolutely terrible — I left the exam early, knowing without a doubt that I’d failed because I couldn’t get much more than one problem out of four solved. Two weeks later, I received the predictable news that I had failed both exams. In my head, I tried to tell myself I didn’t care, but failing those exams only made that little voice whisper more persistently, You are a failure. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t work hard enough. You didn’t deserve to be a Provost Scholar.

Spring quarter, my course load was Real Analysis III (focused on general measure theory), Complex Analysis, and Partial Differential Equations III (largely bent toward applied mathematics; the last four weeks or so we discussed important topics in fluid mechanics). The beginning of the term, I was so excited about working really hard in complex analysis: we had reading assignments and problems to solve for each class day, as well as the typical set of four or five problems to hand in at the end of each week. Unfortunately, these daily assignments didn’t work out quite the way I expected. I hoped they’d be fairly simple: instead, they would often consume two or three hours of my time if I wanted to actually, really understand (they were graded on completion). As a result, I was left little time to work on the weekly homework, which was graded extremely carefully for correctness. The class I was excited to do well in quickly became the class for which I pulled multiple all-nighters, rarely managed to finish the homework, and was convinced I’d fail.

I could compare the three or so years prior to the beginning of May 2019 to being encapsulated in the deflector shields Droideka wear in Star Wars. Inside the deflector shield was math, math, and more math. Sure, being inside the deflector shield wasn’t a cakewalk, and the shield temporarily shut down in January 2018 when I learned that the only grandparent I had been very close to, my last surviving grandparent, had passed away. But it went back up again, shutting me inside with my math and not much else of the world.

Around the beginning of May, the deflector shield had sustained too much damage to protect me, and it burst. I started experiencing wretched allergies (did you know that Linn County, Oregon is the grass seed capital of the world?) and had to go to the health clinic three or four different times to try to (unsuccessfully) combat symptoms of allergies which left me with about 50% of my normal hearing. I randomly got heat exhaustion, even after drinking many fluids, after volunteering at a math outreach event in Eugene for the afternoon and then going on a bike ride in a Corvallis heat wave. I later learned that the random nausea was likely to be attributed to my new medication, the only side effect of which I had yet experienced was annoying itchiness on my extremities. Completely unexpectedly, I experienced a few weeks of relationship turmoil and confusion — the romance ended as suddenly and dramatically as it had begun, but the turmoil and confusion consumed my mind for months after. Then I received the news during one of my four recitations that my business calc class’s primary instructor was going on unforeseen leave; the next day I was asked to consider taking over a 100-person lecture, which I imminently decided to do, since it would give fellow grad students the opportunity to receive a teaching assistantship for the remainder of the academic year. I found a new apartment and my car got towed, and partly as a result of those two things experienced my first bout of the financial trouble grad students notoriously face.

All of this happened over the space of about two weeks. I said the deflector shield burst, didn’t I?

Having written almost three of these memoir-ish posts by now, one would think I would know how to end them. Do I discuss what I learned from that time, what I advise others to do? But I am a candid person; I have learned that honesty, even when it is brutal, is the best course of action; I have learned that lack of vulnerability is one of the tremendous weaknesses of humankind. So I’m afraid I will never be the one to wrap up a post like this with a nice little bow and make it pretty enough to put under a Christmas tree.

Perhaps what I think of when I think about the chaos and emotional toll spring term took on me, I am most thankful for the growth I see in myself — and not only the growth, but the evidence I gave myself that I am brave. It was not easy to know that I had to stop seeing someone I really enjoyed being around, but I did have to for the sake of multiple people involved, and so I did. It was not easy to keep showing up to teach a class where attendance on Fridays was around 15%, but I had to because I said I would, and I did. It was not easy to witness the subsequent strife in the mathematics department and feel that I was its cause, but I stood equally for both sides of the argument, knowing that I had made a decision and that I had to stand by it, so I did. It was not easy to read insulting student evaluations at the end of the term, knowing that I had poured so much time and energy into this body of students and into being as clear and precise as possible, but I knew I had to take their insults with a measure of salt, so I did. I did not know I could be strong, but I was, and I can be, and I am.

And you? You are strong too. Unfortunately, it is not the case that merely because we are human beings sequestered in learning the most beautiful field of study (I admit to being biased), we do not have to experience the pain of real life along with the pain of learning. I say this not to be pessimistic, but rather to tell you that I am aware that it is hard, and that showing up is hard, and that if you are showing up, you are standing strong in a hard battle. Don’t give up! I’m rooting for you.


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About Hannah Barta

I'm a second-year Ph.D. student at Oregon State University studying the analysis of PDE. When I'm not doing math, I love thinking about more effective ways of teaching, having thoughtful and silly conversations with my friends, and cuddling with my cat Martha.
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