Wayward Buddies: What the graduate school application process taught me about God, discernment, and competition
As fall rapidly approaches and I settle in to begin my first year in my graduate program, I find myself thinking back to this time last year. I was refining my CV, fastidiously researching programs, attending virtual informational sessions, soaking in advice from anyone would offer it to me, and talking about applying… constantly.
More people than ever are furthering their education and it’s easy to feel daunted or under pressure when looking to apply. I was convinced that I was well in over my head and these faceless, anonymous “other applicants” I was up against sometimes took the form of psychology whizzes with light years more experience than me while at other times I felt pretty confident about my chances. It was an emotional roller coaster from the word go.
For my programs, the application process had two major elements: First, applying and interviewing, and second, making a decision. Each of these elements brought its own challenges and tribulations. Most of all, they taught me how to pray with discernment of spirits, a practice of inviting the Holy Spirit into decisions and following the peace. Here’s how discernment of spirits guided me in this decision:
It was during interviews that I began to feel pulled in many directions spiritually and emotionally. I felt showered with blessings as the calls for the interview offers started floating in. My feelings of shock and elation did not fade with each offer that I was blessed enough to get. All I had wanted to do was get AN interview somewhere, and here I was, with multiple. I did not have much time to rest on these laurels as interviews began in a matter of weeks.
As I attended interviews, putting my best foot forward in my new dress pants and blazer, I was faced with some tough questions and decisions that affected how I felt about and presented myself. I would go from school to school, meeting wonderful people with whom I often had so much in common. But I was meeting people who were not only competing with me to be in the program, but people who were competing for the EXACT same spot as me.
I found myself automatically thinking one of two things about these people, either “Wow. She is so awesome. I don’t stand a chance AT ALL up against her for the spot in this lab. She’s so pretty, and brilliant, and congenial!” or “Seriously? Did you even brush your hair for this? How can you expect to compete with me for this spot when you showed up late?” I was not a big fan of either thought pattern. I was focused mostly on the outward appearance of these people, was not as open to being friends with them as I was with applicants for other labs, and only thought about them in the context of what their appearance and qualifications meant for me. But what was I to do? If I got too friendly with these people, wouldn’t I lose my competitive edge? Would I give away some fatal flaw, some achilles heel of mine? But as I meditated on these experiences, it came down to these questions that I had to grapple with:
- How do you “show off” your accomplishments and your abilities while also striving to put God first and to maintain awareness of the fact that all that you have is not yours, but from Him?
2. How do you navigate the peacocking by definition required of this process while not letting your competitiveness blind you or come before your relationship with God and with His children who, oh by the way, constitute the cohort of people against whom you are competing?
I don’t think there are “right” answers to these questions and fortunately, the interview process happens in a whirlwind at hyperspeed so they aren’t relevant for long, BUT there are so many times in life, particularly in work, where we have to face such decisions, such as asking for a raise or receiving recognition for your work.
I ended up navigating this process by focusing on taking each moment as it came to me and accepting it with grace. I wanted to be a decent human being first. My roommate at the time lent me a great discernment book: God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God’s Will by Mark E. Thibodeaux. As I leafed through this book, I began to be reminded of God’s will for each of us as individuals. I realized, I was not against these other people, instead, we were walking this path of discernment together. There was a slot for each of us, and we were all just trying to find the one laid out for us amid all of the others. We weren’t each other’s competition, we were wayward buddies, concurrently feeling out for the distinct path God has for each of us.
This was a game changer for the rest of my experience on interviews. They were FUN. I exchanged contact information with those who I clicked with and learned a lot from everyone I met. I became such great friends with an applicant I was “up against” at one of my interviews that, when I heard she got the position in that lab (meaning, of course, that I did not), I found myself full of joy for her! Even more, I made friends who would go on to have this enthusiasm for me as well.
Then came the next step in the process: discernment.
I was wrought with indecision, faced with guilt at having to turn some offers down, and filled with excitement at having options! But the decision loomed ahead and I didn’t know what to do. I knew that where I ended up for the next six years will shape who I become in my 20s and beyond. It will affect who my friends are, how I present myself, what kind of research I do, and, ultimately, where I get accepted for internships and jobs down the road.
I wanted my parents to tell me which one they thought I’d be happier with. I wanted to pick the one where I had more friends or where more people would come visit me. I wanted to pick the one where I’d have a better lifestyle or where I’d pictured myself at the beginning of this whole process. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was looking for outside cues to tell me what to do.
I turned back to the book God’s Voice Within which reminded me that truthful wisdom often comes from spiritual intuition, not from external sources. The Holy Spirit works through us, not AT us. I began asking “where does He want me to hone and use my gifts to help people?”. Instead of talking to everyone around me and making endless pro/con lists, I needed to be quiet and listen. The right choice then became very clear.
This period of discernment was extremely eye opening in that it brought me such peace, not only in my decision, but in my trust in God’s guidance. I realized that this decision, like all of the other tough situations in life, was not all on me – God has and will continue to guide us and lead us where He wants us to go. In facing this process, I expected to feel relief once the decision was made. What I didn’t expect was a valuable lesson in how to cheer on my “competitors”, a life skill that I will use forever. I am in complete awe of the work of the Holy Spirit and how He can grow us in ways we do not even know we desire. Now, I am so excited to start my program and see what God has next for me!
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Mara Tynan recently moved to San Diego, CA where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology. She’s a graduate of Washington & Lee University and an avid runner, swimmer, biker, and traveller. Her perfect day includes good coffee, great company, and a hike up a tall mountain.