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The Value of Humor
August 6, 2013 - 9:45pm

Emily VanBuren is a PhD student in History at Northwestern University. You can find her on Twitter at @emilydvb or at her blog, dighistorienne.

When you first start graduate school, it seems like everyone has a piece of helpful advice to impart: Don't procrastinate. Take your vitamins. Make an appointment with the research librarian ASAP. Read everything. Don't read everything. And to be sure, there is value in each of these pointers.

But having recently completed the first year of my PhD and currently staring down the second, here are three pieces of advice I wish someone had offered me from the beginning: Learn to laugh, learn to laugh at yourself, and learn to laugh at frustrating situations. Have you ever noticed how many Tumblr blogs there are full of funny graduate school gifs and memes? That's because a sense of humor is crucial to grad school survival, and this is true for a number of reasons:

1. Because you will fail. Regardless of your field, it's safe to say you are entering graduate school in order to develop expertise. The point of the dissertation, after all, is to make an original contribution to knowledge. But we all know that the path to success goes something like this: try, fail, reassess, try again, fail again, reassess again, try again, and finally succeed. Graduate school is no different, whether you're confronting a small assignment (like a research paper) or a massive one (like the dissertation). You will try to make an argument and it won't be a soaring success. You will take a chance on an exciting methodology and it won't work out. These failures are part of the process. But I've found that many graduate students struggle with them because they are unaccustomed to failure.

2. Because you will feel embarrassed. This is important. Many first-year grad students feel like the stakes are extraordinarily high. But no matter how well-read or prepared you are, you will make a blatant mistake or faux pas at some point. And you will most likely do it front of other people. You might feel mortified when someone you admire tears apart an important assignment. Or you might muster the nerve to say something insightful during a seminar and find that it comes out all wrong. I know someone who ripped apart a book's argument in a seminar, even making jokes about it, only to learn afterward that the instructor was married to the author. There was an important lesson learned that day about tact and diplomacy in argumentation, but also about laughing at yourself when you do something stupid. The best way to take the sting out of a blow to your ego is to laugh it off. It's a way to lower the stakes and stay resilient.

3. Because you won't get everything done. There will be times when all the coffee in the world will not be enough to get you through the stack of reading or grading that needs to be finished by tomorrow. A professor once told me that the workload in grad school should feel like stamping out multiple brushfires at once: you have to choose which situation is most pressing and start there. The worst part of an intimidating workload is the quiet sense of dread that tasks will not be finished in time. And the more responsibilities you add to your plate, the more you'll worry. There were moments this year when I had to read four or five books in one day, on top of attending courses and completing written assignments. But I've found that the best way to conquer this feeling is to acknowledge how ridiculous my to-do list is and laugh at myself for taking on too much. It's a way of regaining control over a situation that feels unmanageable, and helps me to be more forgiving of myself when I'm not working as quickly as planned.

4. Because you will need to let go of stressful situations. And in hindsight, some of them will be really funny. A former grad student shared this story: In the first semester of his program, he was a TA for a large 100-student lecture course. Owing to procrastination, he graded all of the mid-term essay exams in one day and, completely fried, finally got to bed around 3:00 am. The next morning, after arriving at the lecture hall, he realized with horror that he'd accidentally tossed the plastic shopping bag full of exams into his apartment building's dumpster ... on garbage day. Luckily, by sprinting home and climbing into the dumpster, he managed to rescue the exams and make it back to class, and the professor was none the wiser. The only way to survive a situation like this is to laugh at it.

5. Because you will need to work with people who challenge and frustrate you. As a humanist, I'm being trained to ask good questions and challenge others' ideas. And so are my classmates. So a typical seminar discussion includes a lot of "Yes, but..." and "Not really, because isn't it also true that..." and so on. In this type of conversation, if you grow frustrated each time your idea is challenged, you'll lose your mind and miss the point of the exercise entirely. Receiving feedback from professors works the same way. One of the main goals of coursework is to force you to think about things in a new way, so it shouldn't be surprising when an instructor asks you to reconsider the basics of your argument, or to ask different questions of your evidence. And some people will deliver feedback in more palatable ways than others. If you're feeling especially upset after reading an evaluation of your work, chances are it would do you some good to add some levity to the situation and laugh at how exasperated you are.

I'm not suggesting you should use laughter to avoid difficulties or shirk responsibilities. What I'm saying is that there will be moments during your grad school career when a sense of humor can help you to take yourself less seriously and become a more resilient thinker and researcher. If you read blogs like GradHacker, it's likely that you are a well-prepared student, but at least half of the grad school battle is surviving setbacks and handling surprises. Finding the humor in a situation, whether it's a failed grant proposal or an impenetrable piece of theory, is a means of lowering the perceived stakes of a situation, taking a step back to breathe, and allowing yourself to try again. And that skill is nothing to laugh at.

Have a funny story about graduate school? We'd love to hear it. Share it below or on Twitter using the #GHlaughs tag.

[Image: "Why? Why??" by Jorge Cham at Piled Higher and Deeper]

 

 

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