Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Grad School and Asperger's: A Match Made In Heaven

Spring Break starts for me at the end of this week. It's also starting for my kid brother, so I get to go with Dad to pick him up on Friday and bring him home. It's nice to have the same week off from school.

Graduate school is the first place I've ever felt like things aren't scary. I've loved every minute of it, and it's just getting better by the week. I think what's nice is that it feels safe - there's no judgment there. We're all adults here - people aren't cliquey, a lot of us commute in and out, and we're all there for the same thing, so we might as well help each other out.

I was scared when I started back in January that I wasn't going to fit in yet again. It had been the story of my life, after all. But it turns out that things are a lot different in graduate school - it's a great place for people with Asperger's to be. Everyone who goes to grad school is interested in a more specific field, for one, which slots in very well with special interests. My interest in becoming an archivist is shared by other people, which is really exciting for me. Quite a few of us are nerds, too - people think it's cool that I draw two webcomics and script a third instead of making fun of me, and we can have generally geeky conversations (last night a few of us chatted about Transformers). It's a place I actually feel at home for once.

I can't imagine I'll ever want to graduate at this point. I'm quite happy to just stay in school with these people for the rest of my life. It's such a joy to be somewhere you feel like you actually belong. Before this, the only time I got that feeling was whenever I was at a baseball game - I knew I intrinsically belonged at the stadium because I felt so good there. I get that same feeling whenever I arrive at Pratt for my classes each Tuesday and Wednesday. It's wonderful to feel accepted and like you were meant to be somewhere.

That being said, anyone know of any scholarships for graduate students with Asperger's? I'd kind of like to be able to avoid student loans because archivists don't exactly make the same money that Wall Street executives do...


  1. Hi Steph!

    First off, I just wanted to tell you that I love your blog! It's great and I read it all the time; keep up the great work! Also, this entry really rang true for me because I also have Aspergers and recently completed my Masters degree in History at a small Canadian university. Though the worst of my schooling years were in grades 7 and 8, I have always had a hard time with my more eccentric academic interests and social situations. I'm a nerd through and through and a history buff as well, so my grad school experience was similar to yours; we had a great little grad group and sat around talking about everything from politics, and history to star wars and sci fi in fact the best conversations were the ones that combined both! In short, I just wanted to say thank you for this excellent post and for taking me back to my own year of grad studies. You rock! :)

    1. I think we must be clones since you're a history person too!

      In all seriousness, grades 7 and 8 were the worst for me, too - it's when people seem to make fun of their peers the most. It's really, truly terrible, but kids are at their most insecure during that time, it seems.

      So glad you like the blog - thank you! <3 It's lovely to know that there's other history-loving Aspergians out there, too.

  2. Hahaha yeah seems like it; kinda as if I have an estranged fraternal twin sister who lives in New York! I have to say that I myself don't update my blog nearly enough; starting a new job during the summer, and a rather eventful year since have kept me busy. Thanks for linking my blog on your site though! It really is good to meet a fellow Aspergian history nerd. If I may ask, what's your favourite era/area of history? :)

    1. Ah, no problem for linking you! I'm trying to gather up as many as I can.

      I primarily work in the long 19th century (French Revolution up through WWI) - I did my undergraduate work at Gettysburg, so I got to minor in Civil War Era Studies there, which rocked. Besides doing military history and Victorian stuff, though, I also like researching the evolution of comedy (random, I know, but I've been fascinated by this since 2007). What're your areas of research/interest?

  3. Some advice for anyone (especially those with Asperger's Syndrome) interested in graduate school (Part 1)

    Be very careful and bloody-minded! Get a well-defined thesis project that can be completed in no more than 4 years (no matter whether you are pursuing a Masters or Ph.D.) and stick to it.

    The days of huge (700-1000 page) Ph.D. theses are over! Most dissertations today are less than 500 pages, many considerably less (200-300).

    Be happy if you can make some genuine new contributions to human knowledge, but don't try to reinvent the wheel. There are too many people writing largely useless theses today (your competition) who are advancing quickly up the academic ladder.

    You can't afford to get bogged down in too many details about which most other people are uninterested (an Aspie trait if ever there was one).

    Be sure that you have regular (minimum twice per year) committee meetings with all members of your advisory committee present.

    This will keep you on track and will minimize the influence of your supervisor who may be more interested in their objectives than yours. Don’t let them take advantage of you!

    Your objective in attending graduate school should be to get a credential which will allow you to get a job--that is all!

    Otherwise you should drop out immediately.

    If you are going into graduate school with the idea that you will be doing humanity or your chosen profession a great favour by doing research and coming up with new ideas, forget it!

    Unless your research involves something really "sexy", trendy or of high economic value (probably the only things that will get funded in the future), most of your new ideas, even when published in peer-reviewed journals with large circulations, will be largely ignored by your colleagues and at worst ridiculed, especially if they go against the conventionally held dogma of the time.

    I couldn't say it any better than Louis L'Amour did in his 1987 novel Haunted Mesa (pg. 175):

    "Men have never readily accepted new ideas. Our schools and general thinking are cluttered with beliefs long proved absurd by contemporary knowledge. Man has demonstrated over and over again that the last thing he wants are new ideas, even when they are desperately needed. Ideas are welcome as long as they do not contradict theories on which scholarly reputations have been erected".

    I have personally experienced what I can only describe as the wrath of one retired professor who was stunned and enraged that I should be publicly questioning conclusions he made in a paper written nearly 30 years before.

    Academic and scientific thought moves on, but individual academics, as the quote implies, often persevere on the ideas and achievements that helped to make their careers and will defend them to the end regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

    What's more, other researchers, upon whose published evidence I based part of my case against the retired professor's position, on hearing of my research, "reinterpreted" their data in an attempt to weaken my case and aid in the maintenance of the status quo.

    So much for academic objectivity!!

    Don't buy into the ivory tower illusion!! People in academia can be just as vain, ignorant, self-serving, petty, parochial, stupid and mean-spirited as those in any other line of work. Many academics are not the people of thought, reason and fairness that we might assume they are.

    As others have said before, graduate school is a system of indoctrination into a certain way of thinking and behaving within an academic or corporate context--it is socialization of a kind which you, as a person with Asperger's, may find disagreeable and to which you may not be able to conform, much in the same way as you might have trouble conforming to military discipline (i.e. boot camp), even if you understand the reasoning behind it.

    (Continued in Part 2)

  4. Some advice for anyone (especially those with Asperger's Syndrome) interested in graduate school (Part 2)

    The older you are at commencement of graduate studies, the shorter will be your window of tolerance for this indoctrination--Aspies tend to be quite rigid in their thinking at any age and especially so past the age of 40 (much earlier in some cases).

    You need to be able to compromise with your advisors to get your thesis completed. You can't have everything your way even though it is your thesis. If you are too inflexible in your thinking to give any ground on proposed changes to your project or writing, you will never make an end.

    Unfortunately, if you take the attitude that you would like to sit in the holding pattern of graduate school forever, you will, likewise, never finish and will be forced to leave one way or another without a degree, most likely broke, in deep debt and without employment prospects.

    In order to justify the time you will be taking, your thesis project will begin getting larger and larger and the stress you experience will become an increasingly heavy burden that will eventually have devastating personal and professional consequences.

    A vicious cycle of stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, frustration, apathy and declining ability to complete tasks will take over and will be further fueled by a resultant decline in your relationships with your advisors who may not be very understanding or tolerant of your personal problems.

    At some point you will begin withdrawing from the outside world, become fearful of answering the telephone and looking at your e-mail, and will require the services of mental health professionals. The chances of salvaging anything of your degree at this stage will be minimal.

    Time is not on your side!!

    Assuming you are trying to get a job in the end, employers of any type are looking for someone who can complete tasks in a timely fashion (i.e. yesterday). Any Masters degree taking longer than 3 years and any Ph.D. taking more than 5 years will be regarded as less than ideal. Certainly if you are competing for academic jobs which are few and far between, a 12 year Ph.D., even with a good publication record and references will be practically useless.

    Don't even think of using your diagnosis as an excuse for why you have taken so long either (unless there is an affirmative action program in place). Most interviewers will not know what Asperger’s is, nor will they take the time to learn about it (perhaps best if they don't). Effectively, you will be giving them another reason to eliminate you as a viable candidate for the position.

    (Concluded in Part 3)

  5. Some advice for anyone (especially those with Asperger's Syndrome) interested in graduate school (Part 3)

    Before you enter or continue with graduate studies, you also have to consider the future of the job market which you will be entering and how you will cope with changes that will inevitably come with the passing decades of your career.

    Is there a real future of any quality (for you) in your chosen career path, or are we looking at a pattern of diminishing returns?

    Certainly the academic (i.e. university faculty) path does not look very promising these days what with increasing pressures to publish and get funding (fewer funds are available), the strong probability that some universities or parts thereof will become economically unsustainable as costs rise and fewer students can afford to attend, the tendency to lower expectations (i.e. dumb-down curriculum) for undergraduates due to their inadequate grade school preparation etc.

    In the modern world, the more education your profession requires, the greater change that profession is likely to undergo in a given time.

    We all know that change of any sort, but particularly in occupational or living arrangements, presents a significant problem for people living with Asperger's Syndrome.

    As such, Aspies need to ask themselves how much change they are willing to tolerate before they will bend no further--and, once that breaking point is reached, what their response to the forces of additional change will be. E.g. what if you are an Aspie faculty member who is continually pressured to change the difficulty or nature of the evaluation in certain courses that you teach in response to complaints from undergraduates or their parents to the undergraduate chair or department head (“the customer is always right” mentality), and also compelled to alter marks upward at the end of the term to avoid additional complaints (this is happening in many universities now-I kid you not!).

    I don't want to depress anyone or destroy anyone's hopes or dreams but graduate school in my experience is a high-density minefield for people with Asperger's Syndrome, one that should be entered only with clear purpose, vision and thought and within which one's stay should never be prolonged.

    So maybe not exactly a match made in heaven?

    1. I think it's different depending on the person - for this Aspergirl, it's PERFECT, but for another person, it might lead to more struggles.

      For me, graduate school has afforded me a way to turn my love of history into a promising career in archives. I'm in a two-year Master's program in library science right now, so by December of 2014 I should be the proud owner of another expensive piece of paper.

      The environment you appear to be describing is more of a PhD. setting - independent research fostered by professors who are working to direct you in a certain way. Getting a Master's degree is more like job training, as it's a much shorter program and you're in a more traditional 'classroom' environment a lot of the time.

      When you're going for a PhD., the amount of time you have to stay with the program often depends on the subject and the amount of research required - so it really does sound like you're talking a lot more about PhD. programs than Master's programs. I'm not planning on becoming a professor anytime soon, even if I do eventually get the PhD. in Victorian comedy that I want to research and get down the road - a Master's degree is oftentimes what a person needs these days just to ensure job security!

      I'm going to become an archivist, which is a great field for people on the spectrum who love history to go into because it requires attention to detail. Unfortunately, archivists generally need Master's degrees, and so here I am in grad school. (I probably would have eventually gone to get a Master's in something eventually anyway because it increases one's salary and I love learning.)

      I happen to be very high-functioning, which has allowed me to take advantage of a lot of elements of the neurotypical world even though I struggle socially. For me, graduate school works really well because it allows me to interact with people just in love with history and archiving as me - they don't judge me, and they also don't know I have Asperger's. (I did, however, write about it in my application letter to school and was accepted, so it's not a bad thing to mention all the time!)

      tl;dr For me, it is a match made in heaven, but for you, it might not be. It varies from person to person, like every other experience for every other person in the known universe.

  6. My comments were not aimed directly at you as I obviously know nothing about your specific circumstances.

    I was only a bit concerned with your statement that you may not ever want to graduate.

    It sounds like you are in a job-specific graduate program that will carry you through to completion in reasonable time without too much trouble. That is good.

    Other graduate programs (including Masters), however, are much more research intensive and open-ended and require more self-direction on the part of the candidate.

    In may opinion, Aspies are more susceptible than most to get mired in the details and hung up on the procedures of this process simply due to the way their brains tend to function.

    Needless to say, this is only a generalization--every individual is a different story.

    Generally speaking, I think staying in line with the expectations of the neurotypical world, not necessarily the academics themselves, is the greatest challenge facing students of any age with Asperger's Syndrome.

    Unfortunately for us, these efforts to conform to the norms of mainstream society burn up a great deal of mental energy, a situation which does not appear to improve with age.

    Perhaps this is part of what leads to what has been termed "Midlife Autistic Burnout" in individuals which have been emulating neurotypical behaviour too much for too long.

    Just something else to think about.

    1. I think this might just be another indicator that I am really high-functioning - I forget sometimes that I need to be more literal in my writing to make sure that everyone understands what I mean.

      I absolutely want to - and will - graduate. What I meant when I wrote that had absolutely nothing to do with academia whatsoever; rather, it was about my social circumstances. I'd finally found a place where I was socially accepted, and that's the primary thrust of this entire post.

      I've never had any academic issues my entire life, which is probably part of why I wasn't diagnosed until age 20. Nothing about me indicated there was something going on except for the fact that I had trouble making friends. I finally got the diagnosis when I was an undergraduate student at Gettysburg and was still having trouble making friends.

      This blog has served (since 2010) to describe my personal experiences on the spectrum and rarely makes general statements about Aspergerians on the whole (except to explain why we get stigmatized, etc.). Because it's personal, all the stories here are my own experiences, so it's awfully hard to make general statements based on them - as I said earlier, every individual on the spectrum is different. For me, I get fulfillment out of research, so academia actually works well for me. Others might prefer other pursuits.

      And as to socialization - because of my late diagnosis (age 20), I actually learned to socialize like a neurotypical child. It's helped me a lot more than I could imagine. So has being a writer because I've done a ton of research into psychology and what makes people tick. The hardest part for me is applying those skills in the dating world, but that's a post for another day. I'll get there.

      ...once I've collected more degrees because I seriously live for the research parts, that is.

  7. Sorry, for obvious reasons I can only take your writing at face value and am not interested in discussing your case alone.

    This will be my last entry in your blog.

    Good Luck and So Long!

    1. Hey, misunderstandings happen! Just know that this is a personal blog about my personal experiences on the spectrum and it's all good.

      Good luck to you, too!