The Curse of the A- Student

I have a theory about April being the most depressing month of the year. Like all of my theories, there is no evidence backing this up, aside from the fact that people seem to go completely insane around mid-April, myself included. Maybe it's because as we thaw out from the winter, and things start warming up, and you can finally go outside and do things, you start to realize how shitty your life is. I don't know. Kyle has a depressing post right now, too. That amounts to incontrovertible fact in my book. Anyway. As a graduate student, only 75% of your life is devoted to chemistry. The other 25% is devoted to surviving. That quarter can seem all-encompassing at times. This post is about that 25%. It's about elitist dejection.

The inspiration for this post was being rejected for an NSF graduate fellowship. Those things are awfully hard to get- your record has to be fairly polished and blemish-free to get it, especially if you're white and male, like me. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into by applying: a person with an academic record like mine (ie. fine, but shitty by NSF standards) was essentially jumping into shark-infested waters as a fish with a broken fin. I wrote what was in my opinion an outstanding research proposal, but that did not skirt the reviewers from the blemishes on my academic record, and neither commented on the proposal (one said it was "very good" and THEN began ripping on my grades; the other didn't even try to soften the blow). I knew this all ahead of time. I was honest with myself, at least. My powers of reason did not stop me from feeling dejected when I found out. NSF fellowships are an elitist institution- only the top 10% of applicants (if that) receive funding, and my only problem with that is that there is a 90% chance you're not among them.

Elitism and meritocracy drive academics at every level. I personally have claimed witness to the academic elite since elementary school- I have mingled among them and tried to steal their secrets, only to find out there aren't any- some people are simply better at school than others. I have constantly been delegated to the "above average" category in school, granting me access to the top without ever actually reaching it. This access to the top of the ivory tower has, in turn, shaped my values and priorities in life. School has always been my most important priority, and I have dedicated, and continue to dedicate, the majority of my life to it. That does not, however, mean that I'm really good at it.

I call it the curse of the A- student. Good, but never quite good enough. Getting the opportunity to bask in the elite classes at the elite schools with the elite students, and always looking up at them, rarely down, never as equals. You work, you work hard, you survive, but you never quite reach the top, for whatever reason. I have my reasons, sure, but the point is that I never reach the goals that I've set for myself. And I'm beginning to realize that those goals are impossibly high for me.

This is probably not a good revelation to have at this point in my life. Or maybe it is- I just started grad school, and the prospect of leaving with a Master's is still viable. The things that I wanted to do- be a professor, teach, win a Nobel prize- seem mercilessly out of my reach right now, and I am forced to rethink my options and my future. It's terribly inconvenient... well, no, it downright sucks to have this kind of revelatory humility. Grad school is meant to be suffering, I understand, but it manages, like some kind of shapeshifting devil, to fuck with everyone in some unique way. My way is hubris. It seems terribly appropriate.


sam said...

I feel your pain. NSF rejection was a depressing time. Your theory that April is depressing for grad students seems to hold for me, too.

Mitch said...

If you are good you need the A+ though. Trust me, no one knows how hard it is to achieve an A+ than me. I never drank alcohol as an undergraduate, I never went to a frat party, my weekends involved me studying in a disheveled room of the chemistry building every weekend and weeknight. I went to every office hour(both professor and graduate student), I went to every study group. I did every single problem in my textbook, so I could see all the varieties of problems that could arise on a test. I studied as much for that A+ as I did for the subject material.

Now that was undergrad, I sacrificed my life and best years so I could get to the graduate school where I am. Being a graduate student is very rough. Everyday you realize all the things you should be doing, all the things you should be doing with your research time, all the better projects that exist, and how sweet life seems to those who are more grounded, who are smarter, who are even higher-achievers than yourself.

At some point, for my own sanity, I tell myself, frequently, that, "I'm the best at what I do." I tell myself, "That there is no one better than me for my project." I say, "The field will thank me for my presence, my knowledge, and insight I lend/will-lend to it." Whether it is true, or whether it is a lie, I don't know. All that matters is I've convinced myself of the above, and it keeps me sane.

In life, you pick your reality and you run with it.


Ψ*Ψ said...

This makes me the anti-Mitch, doesn't it? Well...I've never been to a frat party. But I also have this bad habit of distracting study groups. And I am generally terrified of office hours, with a few exceptions. I also only do the homework if I know that it is not busywork and that it is essential to my understanding of the subject. Overachiever I'm not. This will eventually screw me over.

Mike said...

I feel with you, I eventually got rejected by all my university choices within the US. The higher you fly, the deeper you fall, "but some people never even learn to fly" (as my supervisor added wisely).

This is especially bitter if you know that you are better than 95% of the rest, but don't have the possiblity to present yourself properly, even though you write excellent essays and you are convincing in interviews. I mean, how do you present your lab-enthusiasm and endurance in an interview?

@Mitch: respect. I'm more the "Ψ*Ψ type" as well. I merely in-depth study what I'm interested in, the rest is getting the textbook, some papers-read polish, which should be sufficient.

Tynchtyk said...

Another depressed student...

Greg the Chemist said...

It doesn't get any better when you are a faculty. Imagine being responsible for paying all your students and postdocs and having 95% of your proposals rejected. *sigh* I hear you about the April blues.

Kutti said...

Good to know that I am not the only one who often feels like you do! My semester has just begun but there are already so many projects, exams and stuff that I don´t know how to manage that all :-(

Uncle Al said...

1) "especially if you're white and male"
2) "Elitism and meritocracy drive academics at every level"

Lesser folks call this cognitive dysphoria. Are you going to believe what you see or what I tell you? How much ACS Project SEED money was tossed at sexually harassed Black lesbian single mother intravenous drug addicts with AIDS doing the Macarena in a wheelchair? How does any of that qualify them to be productive chemists?

Better than you. Take the hint and plan your life accordingly.

Mike said...

Better than you. Take the hint and plan your life accordingly.
I thought about picking this up as well. My ex-gf had to deal with this shit every day. She graduated from Yale and yet everyone was (secretely) asking whether she achieved this only by her skin colour.

Excimer said...

Are you going to believe what you see or what I tell you?

The former. Every time. No exceptions. And certainly no regrets.

David Eaton said...

Rejection, even expected, sucks.

I was a late bloomer, a god-awful student the first time around, and only mananged to turn my life around and go to grad school in my 30s. If I had ever tried for an NSF Fellowship, I imagine the application form would have caught fire.

I harbored no illusions about making up for the screw up I had been, so my bona fides as an elite scholar were fucked from the get-go. I just wanted to be a scientist, and knew I had the chops to do it. Sure there are smarter, higher achievers than me. That would have been true no matter what I did, or who I was-

Consequently, I had a good time in grad school, got some good work done, got papers and patents and a cool post doc. I found a fantastic job in industry (i'm a carbon materials type, too, so it ain't in pharma...) and I'm having a ball. It would be nice to be recognized by my peers as a great scientist, and I used to think being a prof would be great until it happened to several people that I love and care about. It looks like a goddammed nightmare to me now. I'm pretty happy being recongnized as being competent, making a good living, making a contribution, and getting to do something fun every day.

Someone once told me that only scientists, musicians, and ball players get to do what they love every day. I'm only one of those three, so I can't say. But I am one lucky SOB, no doubt.

Chemgeek said...

You take the good, you take the bad,
you take them both and there you have
The Facts of Life, the Facts of Life.

There's a time you got to go and show
You're growin' now you know about
The Facts of Life, the Facts of Life.

When the world never seems to be livin up to your dreams
And suddenly you're finding out the Facts of Life are all about you, you.

You got the future in the palm of your hands
all you gotta do to get you through is understand
you think you rather do without, you will never make without the truth the facts of life is all about you!

TV has given us sooooo much!!!!

GCT said...

Until now I was under the impression that grad school was primarily about learning by "free experimentation" but from the accounts that I've heard so far from the authors of Carbon Based Curiosities and Thechemblog, it seems to be more defined by grades then ever before (that is the undergraduate session).

Lyle said...

Doesn't matter...your in graduate school...you have the opportunity to do something novel...rejection and failure is just part of it

Anonymous said...

It is interesting how a few percentage points significantly leverages success in academia and some industries. And it kind of sucks to know that if your academic trajectory is nonoptimal, unless you have the balls to be independently original or an iconoclast, you're relegated to the elite's b-team or worse. That's just the way it is. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in the world, but most of it is mind-numbing soul-destroying drudgery. But then again, there is sports, beer, and regular sex. It's about striking the right balance.