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"Elite" Schools a Depression Trigger; Need Assistance


GradHooting

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Just a preamble for context:

Hey everyone.  I just wanted to thank the users of this forum, in general, for being extremely supportive.  When I was battling my years-long depression when attempting to apply to schools, you offered lots of constructive advice and support.  I finally got a full fellowship to a so-called "Top 10" engineering school and am pursuing my Ph.D. there.  Much of the mystery around my long-standing depression was finally wiped away a diagnosis of adult ADHD.  After starting treatment at the end of last semester, I have to say that this semester has been absolutely fantastic.  My grades are all great, I enjoy teaching and helping out the students, the research is starting to fascinate me more, and I have been making ample friends around the city.  Overall, I have taken great strides to battle the depression that had resulted from being undiagnosed for so long.  My therapist who I have been seeing has been an integral part in forcing me to look at life in a different way.  I have not felt this good in years.

 

 

However, there is still a lingering problem that I have not been able to adequately address.  There is still a "trigger" which puts me back into that depressive inferiority-type state.  It is hearing about someone (perhaps a peer, a friend in the community) went to a traditionally elite school, usually on the order of the regularly-recognized top-5/10 in the world.  I have not been able to adequately address it, and I do not know how I should.  This trigger can come from reading about the background of a visiting speaker to the university, to business speakers at conferences, to "people who inspire you"-type bios you read on websites.  A great majority of the big leaders in the scientific and business community come from some perceived-elite school.  It is rather disconcerting, because it sets off a bit of a logical fallacy in my head.

 

Basically, from an logic standpoint, this is what my brain is doing, even though I know it is logically false:

 

Let A be "went to an elite school."

 

Let B be "highly respected/high salary/perceived as very smart/successful."

 

I keep seeing A and B strongly correlate, so I (perhaps falsely) attribute a cause.  So, in my head, I say:

 

"If A, then B."

 

Even worse, my brain furthers this roller coaster of conclusions:

 

"If not A, then not B."

 

Mathematically, this is a false statement.  I tell myself this.  Just because I do not attend a "big-name" school (as perceived by the general public), does not mean that I will not become successful or am not very smart or whatever.  However, my brain is like "I'm going to reject your notion that it is a false statement, because there is probably a strong statistical correlation that you are ignoring.  Your chances are slim that you're going to be nearly as successful, much less perceived as being as successful.  It is an uphill battle for you."

 

My problems are further exacerbated by the perception of elite schools among my peers.  Despite the fact that my school most certainly places professors at schools perceived to be "the very top," fellow graduate students with years of experience seem comfortable with this resigned complacency that they're not as good as students at "top" schools. (Remember, this is still a top 10 school, but not, perhaps, a top 3 school.)  Professors who are highly regarded at my school are mentioned by students as being that good because, for example "Oh, he went to Caltech. Those are the best students."  Discussions on job prospects frequently are peppered with this implied defeat. For example: "Schools generally do not recruit professors from less-ranked schools." or "SpaceX would be great, but they're looking for the best students from MIT or Stanford." or "It's unlikely you'll get VC funding without those big-name degrees to back you up."

 

There is ample pressure in the academic community which surrounds me, as well as the general public, that one's worth, intelligence, and probability of success are highly linked to the schools from which they came.  As a result, I can deeply internalize the triggers that I see, whether it is a Harvard Law lanyard around someone's neck, a Stanford alumnus license plate frame, or a short phrase by a journalist as if to emphasize the importance of one's academic background.  e.g. Michael Dell is frequently called a college dropout, while Bill Gates is frequently called a Harvard dropout.

 

I don't want these schools to be triggers.  They're all excellent schools, and so are the schools that do not have a name that is not so heavily ingrained in the public subconscious.  I want to associate with people from these schools without having that social/class inferiority feeling.  This will be very important in the future as I branch out and contact people about research findings and collaborate with them.  It is very difficult and I do not know what to do.  The best I have been able to come up with is ignore it and hope I don't run into anyone with such a background, but that is just avoidance.

 

Can someone please assist?  Can someone help me quash that monster in my brain which is eating away at my sense of self-worth and motivation?  I don't want to go through life running into this mental death spiral over and over.  The years-long grad school application process (which was rife with trial and error and years of complete rejection) has taken its toll on me, big time.  It seems to have ascribed to me a social status with which I want no association.  The type of research I do will probably result in me moving to Boston, Seattle, or the SF Bay Area, where I will likely see said school names thrown around all the time.  I want to be a ally/fan of those schools, simply because, like other schools, their purpose on the world is a positive one and, like other schools, they output great research findings and potential employees/professors.

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There's no magic cure for this, but I find it helps to think of the people I admire who did take different paths and found success on their own terms. There are always outliers, and they often have the most interesting stories. You have the perspective you have now because you've fought your own unique battles. Embrace it as much as you can, and find a way to make it work for you.

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I am very likely running from a deeper issue.  It is a MacGuffin in the plot of my life that, right now, hiding in the idea that going to a more elite school will solve my inferiority problems.  I think, right now, that going to a more elite school will somehow be a deus ex machina.

 

Suppose I did go to a more elite school?  Will I suddenly feel better?  Sure.  I will most certainly feel better... for maybe a month.  What then? The goal would then shift to something else; I would compare myself to fellow students, perhaps.  I would envy people with elite family ties, child prodigies, social butterflies.  Perhaps the inferiority issue would settle itself within physical fitness, SCCA driving skills, photography skills, number of papers published, number of citations, girlfriends, sexual prowess, for goodness' sake.

 

Perhaps the very title of this thread should have a 'Blank' in the place of "Elite Schools."  Right now, what is in the title of the thread is currently the biggest trigger for me.  In the past, I could just say, "Well, I never applied, wasn't interested."  But I was forced to play that game throughout the application process.  Now the ranking systems are etched into my memory.

 

I need to stop the comparison.  The grad school application game is over.  If I attempt to solve the problem by gaining admission/funding at a top school, my problem will jump ship to something else.  At least I know where it is now.  I know where it's hiding.  It is cornered in something I can easily encapsulate.  Now, I need to figure out how to properly address it so I can hang out with people from "better" (I actively attempt to reject the notion of "better") schools without my brain going into such a negative spiral.

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There's no magic cure for this, but I find it helps to think of the people I admire who did take different paths and found success on their own terms. There are always outliers, and they often have the most interesting stories. You have the perspective you have now because you've fought your own unique battles. Embrace it as much as you can, and find a way to make it work for you.

These are wise words.

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I think doing really good work at a program outside of the top 3 or top 5 can be a great source of pride. If you work with a "chip on your shoulder," you might very well end up outperforming the average student at a top 3. That's basically what I try to do in my program, which is somewhere in the 5-10 rank for my field.

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I am at an "elite school". I would say about 1/3 of the grad students here come from other "elite" schools but the majority of the grad students (including me) here come from non-elite schools. And here, by "elite", I mean something like the top 15 or top 20 across the nation (not just the top 5!).

 

I've been at both elite schools and non-elite schools. I know for sure that the top students from schools ranked in the 20s to 30s are better than the average student at an elite school. When I went from a non-elite school (my MSc school is not even in the top 200 worldwide, I think) to an elite school, I did not magically transform from someone you can associate with to some hyper-intelligent untouchable being! I'm still the same person. 

 

I would say that yes, it is true that elite schools do admit better students than the non-elite schools, but it's not like the elite school students completely surpass all other students in every way! And yes, elite school graduates do tend to have more successful graduates. But really, I don't think the "output" of the elite schools is so great because of the "better input". Instead, I think the reason elite school graduates are so successful is that elite schools provides a lot more resources for good students to become great researchers. That is, it is the wealth and resources available at the elite schools that make its graduates so great, not the actual quality of students. Any decent student can produce great research with the right support and resources. (This sentiment is echoed by the administration here). 

 

I do understand a little bit how you are feeling. In Canada, we don't have elite schools that rival Harvard, Stanford, etc. so we rarely meet students from these schools. Before moving to the States, I also kind of imagined them to be hyper-intelligent super-beings. I remember one memory from my visit weekend to my current school, when we introduced ourselves by name and undergrad school. Everyone seemed to have come from Ivy League or other elite schools and it was really intimidating. I felt that I completely did not belong with this group of people. But when I got to know everyone better, they are all very nice and just like any other student! In addition, I later learned that the number of people from "elite" schools were not in the majority at all, but those names just stuck out to me due to my own insecurity. 

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I am at an "elite school". I would say about 1/3 of the grad students here come from other "elite" schools but the majority of the grad students (including me) here come from non-elite schools. And here, by "elite", I mean something like the top 15 or top 20 across the nation (not just the top 5!).

 

I've been at both elite schools and non-elite schools. I know for sure that the top students from schools ranked in the 20s to 30s are better than the average student at an elite school. When I went from a non-elite school (my MSc school is not even in the top 200 worldwide, I think) to an elite school, I did not magically transform from someone you can associate with to some hyper-intelligent untouchable being! I'm still the same person. 

 

I would say that yes, it is true that elite schools do admit better students than the non-elite schools, but it's not like the elite school students completely surpass all other students in every way! And yes, elite school graduates do tend to have more successful graduates. But really, I don't think the "output" of the elite schools is so great because of the "better input". Instead, I think the reason elite school graduates are so successful is that elite schools provides a lot more resources for good students to become great researchers. That is, it is the wealth and resources available at the elite schools that make its graduates so great, not the actual quality of students. Any decent student can produce great research with the right support and resources. (This sentiment is echoed by the administration here). 

 

I do understand a little bit how you are feeling. In Canada, we don't have elite schools that rival Harvard, Stanford, etc. so we rarely meet students from these schools. Before moving to the States, I also kind of imagined them to be hyper-intelligent super-beings. I remember one memory from my visit weekend to my current school, when we introduced ourselves by name and undergrad school. Everyone seemed to have come from Ivy League or other elite schools and it was really intimidating. I felt that I completely did not belong with this group of people. But when I got to know everyone better, they are all very nice and just like any other student! In addition, I later learned that the number of people from "elite" schools were not in the majority at all, but those names just stuck out to me due to my own insecurity. 

 

I must admit I suffered from things like these when I began prepping for the PGRE, but it actually took the result of the PGRE itself to convince me otherwise (910, 86th percentile, and my recommenders said that, once at 900 and higher, the PGRE is not a game-changer anymore, even at top-10 schools)

 

And then came PhysicsGRE.com, where I realized that Ivies actually did admit students with the sort of files I have, and, with the suggestions given there, I felt that I have to prove that I really was the same as them (I ended up applying to five top-20s, of which two are top-10s, out of 11 schools total).

 

My advisor says that students that are strong students, but not quite top students, are often quite difficult to advise regarding PhD applications, because unlike students at my undergrad that are merely above average (for whom staying at their undergrad is often their option with the best reputation) they can be overwhelmed by their options.

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GradHooting, given the context of your second post I think that this is not an issue about elite schools, but rather about your mental health.  I dealt with depression through much of the middle of my graduate program.  I did go to an elite school for graduate school, but I still convinced myself that I was never going to get a job, that I was not comparable to my peers, that everyone was better than me, that maybe I should've gone to an even more elite school for better chances, or done this or that (papers and a different field were common triggers).  It's not because of the school or program.  It's really just your headspace, the depression, conspiring against you to make you feel worthless and panicked and anxious.  If you're dealing with depression, the nature of the school won't fix that; fixing the depression is the only thing that would help.

 

Having gotten over the depression, I can happily say that yes, that is the issue.  I am far more optimistic about my job prospects and feel more positively about the choices I made now.  Nothing much has changed, really, other than the fact that I was depressed and now I am not.

 

What it sometimes helped me to do is make a list of the reasons I am awesome.  Then mentally review them when necessary.  This sounds narcissistic but it's not, really - the point is to help you balance yourself, because people who are depressed have a tendency to unnecessarily put themselves down.

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Thanks for the reply.  It might just be the case that people talking about other "superior" schools in the manner they do might be some kind of tongue and cheek thing that my depression is influencing me to take more seriously.  I indeed suffer from some fairly heavy depression, though the past semester has been overall fantastic.  It's the best semester I've had in years.  I've never made this much progress with depression before.  I have just been avoiding this particular issue because it indeed does set me off.  I have the tendency to perceive those who achieved their dream school goals as being superhuman and towering over me in achievement by the dazzling name alone.  This is an unacceptable thought pattern for me and I want to get over it.

 

Your anecdote is fantastic.  Depression does a great job at moving the goal posts whenever you think you've finally "made it."  It is a conclusion that I need to train myself to arrive at over and over.  Thinking about an elite school?  Immediately realize that your problems will not be solved there.  It's a false goal.

A conclusion I came to recently and that I have iterated here on occasion: the only name I should be concerned about is my own.  The name and status of a school is a brand like any other.  Hiding behind a big/brand-name school (Purdue, MIT, Berkeley, UT, Michigan, Caltech...) is just as bad as defining yourself by cars things you own, whether it be Ferrari, or BMW, or some better options package somewhere.

 

Maybe what I should strive for is "Oh, it's GradHooting" instead of "GradHooting went to..."

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I will paraphrase what a good friend told me when I was having a similar dilemma: "Have you considered that you are trying too hard? You seem to hold yourself to impossible standards and then if you don't achieve it, you are profoundly upset." I have found yoga /meditation (at any level) to be helpful in centering myself, and silencing the crippling guilt I feel for not achieving a goal. Yes, most days the guilt comes back, frequently for events far past, but I try to list the good that I have done even without perfectly achieving my goals. GradHooting, I see passion in your posts and I believe that you can overcome those fallacies in your mind!

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I will paraphrase what a good friend told me when I was having a similar dilemma: "Have you considered that you are trying too hard? You seem to hold yourself to impossible standards and then if you don't achieve it, you are profoundly upset." I have found yoga /meditation (at any level) to be helpful in centering myself, and silencing the crippling guilt I feel for not achieving a goal. Yes, most days the guilt comes back, frequently for events far past, but I try to list the good that I have done even without perfectly achieving my goals. GradHooting, I see passion in your posts and I believe that you can overcome those fallacies in your mind!

One of the hallmarks of ADD is that those with it have a tendency to shoot for lofty goals.  In a way it is a coping mechanism:  when they go down in flames they can blame the difficulty of the task, masking the ADD.  The contrary is that when they do achieve goals, the tendency is feel depressed, shrug it off as no big deal, instead of celebrating in their accomplishments.  To those with ADD, trying too hard is their natural state and true selves. 

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One of the hallmarks of ADD is that those with it have a tendency to shoot for lofty goals.  In a way it is a coping mechanism:  when they go down in flames they can blame the difficulty of the task, masking the ADD.  The contrary is that when they do achieve goals, the tendency is feel depressed, shrug it off as no big deal, instead of celebrating in their accomplishments.  To those with ADD, trying too hard is their natural state and true selves. 

 

I am not sure you can characterize this behavior as just typical of ADD. 

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