Enduring the Trials of Graduate School: From Conception to Labor Pains and Birth By Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Going back to school at 30-something to complete a B.A. in a completely different field (from accounting to Religious Studies and Theology) was an interesting endeavor.  After many years of legal and business writing as well as crunching numbers, learning how to write academically, including formatting citations and using new technology was quite an undertaking that has proven to be rewarding.  All the searchable databases in the library no longer included card catalogues and microfiche.  This was amazing!  No more correction ribbon and electric typewriters (am I showing my age yet?!)  Going to college in 1985 is different then going back to college in 2006.

The transition did not stop with technology and formatting papers.  With each class and each instructor, a new transition was introduced on my way to the finish line.  It was a very large transition and more difficult when you sit in classes with students your own children’s ages. Add to that the reintroduction of the grammar game; in-text citations or footnote citations, semi-colons or dashes, commas or no comma, etc.  With the help of great mentors and patient professors, I prevailed and moved on to my next task (I mean transition) – Graduate School.  New professors, new demands, different writing styles, scholarly growing pains in abundance.  The research and writing intensified (which is an understatement).  Then there is the addition of critical reviews, peer reviews, and multiple presentations.  Each professor with his or her own format and requirement. Each with their own style of subjectivity or, if you are lucky, a specific grading protocol with tangible prompts or goals.  It is a world of unexpected twists, but, in my opinion, better than undergraduate work. 

I compare Graduate School to being pregnant.  With each class our mind expands and with each paper we write, it becomes a process much like a woman’s body would go through during pregnancy.  We continue to feed our minds and expand our knowledge to the point that you feel like your head cannot retain anything else; there is no more room; you feel as if you are to explode.  That essay or project becomes a labor of love that you invest your entire being into to.  Like anything else, this process can cause brief bouts of nausea, pinched nerves (especially in your neck), and even cause unexplained bouts of insomnia and exhaustion, but you have to push on despite the times that you just want to give up.  The process is long, tedious, full of frustration, time-consuming, and exhausting; simply put, painful.  It can also be joyful and exciting.

As one nears the finish line, the process can feel like endless labor where nothing can help except for deep breathing and focus (the CD of ocean music, the walking off the writers block, and the encouraging partner that just needs to find the ice chips). This sensation can also give way to panic. All in all this whole experience is a process full of high and lows – and tremendous emotion; it is a roller-coaster ride that has an impact not just you, but everyone around you.  At the end, you give birth to a new creation; one that you created with the support of mentors, advisors, friends, and partners. Some who will just applaud your efforts and never read a word and others that take the time to read your work and admire this new creation.

For the creator, this creation is sometimes met with exhaustion, elation, adrenaline, and/or pride.  This new work is a contribution to the growing body of scholarship out there either adding, dissenting, or re-creating an idea that is already out there.  Putting this new creation out there for all to see, read, and comment on is difficult and at times scary; it is like your child and you become protective of it, but you want it to be the best so you listen, sometimes endure criticism, and possibly modify or expand this creation into something better.  In other words, you are letting this creation grow and blossom into something even more beautiful.

Writing publicly in a forum like this blog helps to promote community and dialogue; engaging, growing, expanding, and sustaining one another.  As we all put a piece of ourselves on display in our writing; our opinions, our faith beliefs, and our struggles spiritually and personally. We are putting our children, the product of our writing, research, experience, and education out there for all to see, love, admire, criticize; but hopefully never bully or make fun of.  We do not always have to agree and dialogue is always welcomed, actually I would go so far as to say encouraged.

Through this dialogue, we will grow and continue to grow.  We are a global community, we come from different cultures, we have the ability to learn so much from each other.    It is my hope that within this blog, we can create a worldwide dialogue of mutual respect, tolerance, and even acceptance about the F-word and Religion while we continue to explore the intersection between scholarship, activism, and community.



Categories: Feminism, Women and Community

Tags: , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. The credit for the picture did not show up, but should be given to Bridget Ludwa. She added the poem that is found at this website:
    http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~lcrew/homilygrits03_04/msg00000.html

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  2. Thank you Michele for your courage and for explaining in such vivid details how it feels to join graduate school around classmates… in my case some the age of my grandchild. I was inspired to enter this process of creation and creative self-discovery by a move to finish the last semester of undergrad, like you, different in that it was in my late 50s. The experience was rewarding, and it included most of what you have share with us. I am now in my third semester of grad school, and have found a strange phenomenon invading process… After the gestation, the near blackouts, gastric stress… and after what seem to be good enough signs of parturition, I keep holding to the work inside, keep modifying, improving, editing and re-editing my faulty syntax, finding better words, longing for a higher academic standard in my writing… and find it difficult to let the paper go to be criticized and analyzed with a similar critical dispassion as I read others.

    So, letting go of the beloved paper or paragraph is painful. I hope to keep gathering inspiration from you and so many others who write and let it go, and keep writing forward.

    ps. is it possible to “borrow” your gorgeous poster of the pregnant silhouette. Sometimes I wonder if psychology had a woman founding mother instead of Freud, airplanes and so many other things that are engineered would be circular instead of phallic. This poster can lovingly get into people’s minds in subliminal ways. What a heartwarming form. Thanks again, V

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    • V – Congratulations on your journey! The hardest thing is to walk into that classroom for the first time. I hope, if I have made any contribution at all in my journey, that I inspire, encourage, and even help those who want to go back to school to pursue their life’s goal and vocation. We spend so much of our lives working and many of us do so in safe fields to feed the family and we do a disservice to our own spiritual being compromising and not pursuing our dreams. It has been difficult for me in terms of geography (no local programs in Religious Studies and Theology so I have moved over to History focusing on Religion, Gender and Sexuality), plus I have 4 children (ages 11-18) and I work full-time. So it gets tenuous, but I look for the rewards that I get with a paper that I get to present or might be published and the friends, like these wonderful women on this blog. We are building community.

      It is such a difficult journey and I hope that you are as blessed as I was to have supportive mentors that guide your (not only in a gentle way, but also critically – pushing you to do better). I think it is the mentorship, your advisors that will make or break you. There are times that you get so beaten down and you can feel lonely. I know my own husband does not support my goals, so my conversations happen with colleagues and friends in the field. Plus I find that I am setting an example for my own daughtes.

      The paper, especially the culminating one, is such an experience of frustration and growth. All roads lead to that one paper and there are times where I have felt that I am at stage one and have never put together a paper before. Then there is the issue of the topic -at the moment I am disenchanted with mine because I am just sick of it. But it is all cyclical as well.

      The other issue is putting yourself out there and fearing that your writing does not reflect your ability (or maybe it reflects your inability). Sharing with peers is scary but presenting them in a room of scholars (more senior and degreed) is terrifying. I once presented a bioethics paper in a forum of scientists, theologians, and lawyers (bioethics is such a vast field of professionals). I found out just before my paper presentation that 2 people from a nearby College was anxious to hear what I had to say because he just did his dissertation on that topic (talk about butterflies). The comments and feedback were ones of encouragement, praise, and alternative sources. It was an experience of growth.

      So as scary as it is, with your papers, try to get out to the professional meetings and observe and you will see that the Professors will critically review each other and make suggestions and grow in their own right. It is a process of continual growth no matter the stage.

      As for the picture – I have emailed by friend and either I or Bridget will let you know about its reuse. It is beautiful and I am so grateful she allowed me to use it with this article.

      Well wishes on your continual journey and keep writing everyday!!!

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  3. I redid the ‘poster’ a little, added Jim Cotter’s name to it for credit for the poem. I sent to Michele for whomever wants it. :) All I did was add the poem to an image I found on google images, but the poem evoked that beautiful image when I first read it :)

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  4. Thanks for sharing this Michele!

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  5. Michele, this was great, thank you. I think I needed that extra boost before I fly out tomorrow for the AAR – also long and exhausting at times, but of course joyful and fully worth it. I especially loved how your metaphor of childbirth was one so inherently feminist, binding structure with content, theory with practice.

    I can’t imagine what it must have been life to begin an entirely new field, and one that I think it particularly difficult for its deep complexity and ethical questions. I constantly struggle not just with the grammar, writing, and theory of graduate school, but with articulating and embodying its political potential for myself and my activism. That is something I think this blog is quite useful for – giving us a space to work out all of those questions, frustrations, and sometimes, inarticulations. I think this post was in perfect timing for the AAR/SBL because it it so rife with moments of recognition that there are others who share your experience, concerns, and worldviews, and graduate school seems worth it!

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  6. Maybe some things have improved. I remember graduate school with metaphors more along the lines of waterboarding, although it did have its better moments.

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