Graduate school can be an incredibly complex machine.
On the one hand, it seems simple enough. It’s that thing you do when you’re done with your undergraduate years. It allows you to continue your studies in that awesome/terrifying/brilliant major or minor to which you dedicated four (or more!) years of your life. You study, you attend class, you work. That’s pretty much it.
On the other hand, it’s an entirely new system that requires adjustment in the way you think, an entire paradigm shift from breadth to depth. I’m in an experimental psychology program, and though I was well prepared there’s a big difference between this and my undergrad. I’m not learning the basic mechanics of experimental design I may or may care about. I’m not simply entering data in SPSS, or working to answer someone else’s research questions as a lab assistant.
I’m creating psychological research.
My classes drive me towards skill and knowledge in my very tiny area of interest. My professors and peers are now my colleagues; I work with them as a functional team member to grapple with a question we’re all interested in answering. I have to use what I know and learn to solve the problems and challenges of the world. I have to critique and be critiqued. My choices really matter because they affect not only my future career, but my ability to work in this interconnected web of psychological scholars. It’s a vigorous, focused time that is dedicated to both learning the systematic methodology of my study and establishing my place in a community.
Whoa, that’s intense.
Some days it feels very much like hanging onto a tree branch while trying to do calculus while everyone is shouting different directions from the other branches. Or like growing up in a white box your whole life and then suddenly being dropped in the middle of New York City (except, in grad school, you couldn’t use this allusion unless you had either logically reasoned out your argument for using it or provided internally valid experimental evidence that suggests it really does feel this way to a generalizable portion of a distinct population).
But some days I get a glimpse of the reason that complex machine is so complex. I see that it drives all future academics to embrace their inner scientific genius by truly engaging with the ebb and flow of investigation and discovery. I understand that I have at my hands the very tools that will allow me to wrestle with my curiosity and arrest the secrets of God’s creation. There’s a purpose to all of the minutia and confusion and dead end theories. It’s messy, beautiful invention – the place where my passion and the needs of a dying world meet. And I am happy.
Charles Spurgeon once described the call to ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” I’ve wrestled for a long time with what God desires of me, what ministry for Him looks like, and what His calling is. But I think, in some ways, that I have moved one step closer to understanding His purpose for me. I’ve stumbled upon (or, rather, been directed toward) the realization of that call in my own life. That is what keeps me going through papers like “Dendritic GABA Release Depresses Excitatory Transmission between Layer 2/3 Pyramidal and Bitufted Neurons in Rat Neocortex” (That’s really the title). That is what makes me smile when I lose track of time because my classmates and I can’t stop discussing the awesome practical applications of research to lower SES populations.
God, for at least this period of my life, designed me for this purpose. God is good.