Life Happens (Or, My Commitment to Grad School)

I didn’t post last Monday. Maybe you noticed. If you didn’t, that’s alright. I won’t hold it against you. But I do want to point it out. I won’t pretend that didn’t happen because I committed to posting twice a week.

I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot lately. I’m committed to being a mother. I’m committed to being a writer. I’m committed to doing well at my new job. (Did I tell you I have a new job? I do. This is kind of a big deal.) I’m committed to being my boyfriend’s partner. And a long time ago I committed to graduate school, to getting my PhD. That’s the commitment I’ve been thinking about.

I had a draft of a post for Monday. I typed it up the night before, and woke up early Monday to do a quick edit and post it. However, I woke up frustrated, anxious, panicky. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that I was worried.

I was worried about paying my bills.

I was worried about finishing my dissertation.

I was worried about whether getting a PhD mattered if I didn’t have a full-time job to pay my bills.

I don’t think it helped that my tweeps were still buzzing about Pannapacker’s latest piece in Slate about the dismal state of the humanities. Despite the fact that writing means a lot to me, that morning writing couldn’t dispel the anxiety and, well, hopelessness I felt on Monday (and Tuesday, and Wednesday). So instead of editing I closed my laptop and made coffee.

I’m not about to go into a spiel about the broken state of higher ed or respond to Pannapacker’s piece. Frankly, plenty of folks have already responded, and I don’t think I’m bringing anything new to the conversation. Also, I admit that I didn’t read Pannapacker’s article, not because I dislike Pannapacker but because I need to safeguard my brain. I came across Pannapacker’s better-known posts, “Just Don’t Go” and “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” at a very emotionally fragile moment in my grad career and my brain almost short-circuited. I was a new mom in a new city with a new job as an adjunct instructor and with half of a dissertation chapter written. I stumbled upon those posts and ate them up, even though reading them just made me feel worse about my tenuous position as a PhD candidate and an adjunct. “Why didn’t I read this sooner?” I thought. And yes, there were several occasions in the past year where I almost gave up. It took me a while to get out of that funk and frustration, and to get back on the wagon. I hadn’t felt that depressed in a while…until Monday.

I’m sharing what happened on Monday because I know I’m not the only grad student who feels this way. Granted, I’d had days like that several times over the summer (unemployment will do that to you) but Monday was the roughest day I’d had in a while. Having a (part-time) job makes things a little better, but I still have bills to pay and I still have a dissertation to write. And at times I can’t reconcile both of them. The idea that I need to write and finish my dissertation doesn’t make sense when I think I could be working a full-time job and making more money to get myself out of my debt-hole.

People think professors only work when they’re teaching; the same goes for graduate students. There’s this whole other dimension where graduate students struggle to balance work and school life, lose confidence in their ability to write (or in themselves), or sink themselves into debt because they were told going to conferences and presenting their work around the world will make them more appealing on the job market…or worse, they don’t have the money to begin with because they spend most of their money on gas and food to commute to the two schools where they adjunct. The cushy life of the mind that some think graduate students live is not the reality of many graduate students. Sometimes I think to myself we need to revise what the humanities doctorate is all about. But I don’t even know where to start.

Once upon a time I lived the high life of a graduate student. I had a fellowship. I taught one semester per academic year. I had the chance to create my own courses. I had a semester where all I did was read for a field exam and write–and I got paid for that. I had no daughter to raise at the time, and I didn’t have to worry about health insurance. But that was years ago. The biggest struggle I face now is financial, to be honest. I have complained on Twitter several times that you really can’t think deep thoughts when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills. But for now I’m trying to be resourceful and creative while I write. I’m trying to use the skills that I have to earn a living while I finish. Graduate students DO have skills beyond thinking deep thoughts.

In times like these, I know I need to believe that things will get better for me and not lose hope; I also need to remember that I really want to finish writing my dissertation even if I never go on the job market for another professor position ever again. It’s important to remember why we do this in the first place. So I’m committing to finishing. Screw the “Just Don’t Go” mentality: I’m finishing my PhD because one day I set myself the goal of getting a PhD, and I’m almost there. I’m finishing my PhD because, ultimately, that PhD is a major accomplishment for me and for people like me: women of color, first-generation college students, working mothers, Latinas, puertorriqueñas. I’m finishing my PhD because I want to be an example for my daughter; I want her to look at me and realize that it was tough but I made it to the other side. I want Miss E to realize she shouldn’t give up just because some dude says she can’t afford to dream.

Sometimes reality hits you and it hits you hard. And you fade away into the woods until someone reaches a hand out and says “hold on.” I’m glad I found a few hands to hold onto this week to remind me why I do what I do.

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Comments

  1. Hang in there! It does, in fact, get better. At least, it did for me. And then, life does happen.

    I have felt what you’re feeling so many times, even now that I’m done my PhD and have (relatively) stable, full-time work. This feeling, really, never goes away. Or, maybe it does for some people who have an easier time letting go of things than I do. Like my husband.

    I don’t regret my PhD, and I still think that I “belong” in higher education. I’ve dreamed a lot of dreams in my life (like going to the Olympics), but sometimes you have to let them go. Maybe someday, I’ll have to let this dream go, too. Doesn’t mean either of us have to do it today.

    • Thanks for the support, Lee. There are a lot of articles going around about how it’s okay to quit, and this is a good thing–people need to know it’s okay to fold your cards if that’s what you really want to do. But I also think it’s okay if I continue on my road and get my PhD. I like what you said about someday we have to let dreams go, but not having to do that today. We have to at least say we tried, right?

  2. That last year of dissertating was incredibly hard. By then I had lost all my naive illusions about academia, had piled up debt, and thought, “What’s the point?” But I couldn’t imagine stopping either. I knew that there was a point, but it was psychological, not professional or financial—something about being engaged in a fight that I was darned sure not going to lose. Life afterwards was still hard, since adjuncts don’t make a living wage. Nowadays, though, I just adjunct on the side for fun and a (very) little extra cash, because I’ve been lucky enough to find a decent editing gig, at least for the time being. I wouldn’t do the whole PhD thing over again, but I wouldn’t stop so close to the finish line either. I’m glad I finished.

    • Thanks for reading and for sharing, Mark. It’s important (for me and for other dissertators) to hear it is possible. I think to a certain extent that’s my problem too: academia and the life of the mind has lost its “shine.” Bills and other obligations will make that hit home real quick, right? But you put it perfectly: it’s a fight you don’t want to lose. I’m determined not to lose.

  3. Thank you for writing this; I love it :)

    I’m not yet at a point where I’ll decide whether I want to pursue a Ph.D. or just stop after my M.A., but the part of your post about once living the “high life” of grad school gets right to one of the issues I’m struggling with as a grad student. I have an assistantship for this academic year, and I’m fortunate enough to go to a university that is within commuting distance of my parents’ house (which means that I’m living with them to save money)… but I had my daughter as an undergrad and have never quite gotten the chance to live what I’ve always viewed as the “ultimate grad student life” where I’m free to only focus on myself and school.

    Being a mom is the one major aspect of my life that makes me seriously question my ability to continue on to a Ph.D. if I so choose. I start telling myself, “If I weren’t a mom, I could do ____” and it really starts to bring me down if I focus on those thoughts too much.

    It’s very encouraging to read the stories of others who are put in certain family or financial situations yet are still able to persevere, so thank you again for this post :)

    • I’m glad you liked the post, labegley! One of the things I like about Twitter is that it allows to get our stories out there, for whomever wants to read them or needs to read them. When I started graduate school I didn’t know a whole lot about academic culture. What I knew I got from my colleagues, peers. Later on, I found a mentor and this opened the door to more knowledge. But via Twitter I have learned so much more. I’m glad I get to hear how other graduate students deal/dealt with grad school. It helps to not feel so alone.

      As for being a mom and an academic, I think it’s important to remember they are not exclusive. The culture in academia will make you think there’s no room for that. But if this is what you want, you can make room. I think the most important thing to know is you have options. We all have options. This has been liberating for me.

  4. Everything is harder with kids. I think it is great that you are going to keep going. I had a friend that had a baby before she finished her thesis and it took her longer but she still did it!

    • Thank you for the support! It does take a little longer. I also noticed it makes you a little more efficient. :) I try to fit in time to work on the dissertation during naps or while my boyfriend is at home. Schedules (and Post-Its!) are key.

  5. I think this is an excellent post! I’m having similar thoughts/doubts/worries myself lately. I’m up for a full-time job, but I’m afraid that if I take it (if it’s offered), that I’ll give up on the other dreams that I’ve been pursuing lately. One of those is finishing a final project for a MA degree that I started and didn’t finish. I got another one in the process, but I hate that something has been left dangling. The other dream is writing. I’m making some headway there (as you’ve been a witness to), but I’m afraid what little time I have will be eaten by this job. Then, if I don’t take the job, how do I keep paying the bills? It’s a hard place to be in. You articulate it so well, and I will take those words to heart as I think through my options over the next few weeks.

    • I know the feeling Cassandra, that feeling of not wanting to leave something left dangling. I don’t like that feeling either. One thing I’ve learned about writing is that you need to make time for it. Although I don’t write as much as I would like to (ah, the dream of the writer who just sits on a porch all day and thinks of amazing story lines, hehe), I try to make time for it. Something tells me you
      will too. :)

      A few weeks ago someone told me: whatever job/career you choose, you don’t have to do your whole life. It made perfect sense. And here I am, passing that one on to you.

  6. I loved this entry. Though I am not near as far in my schooling as you I understand the feeling of choosing to pursue this line of work isn’t easy. Thank you for proving there are people out there who actually do get it!

    • I’m glad you liked it. I am touched that people liked it and could relate. It was tough to write, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to post it. But my gut knew better. :)

  7. To put it simply: you have to go through to get through. Don’t give up!

    • Thanks! I keep on keeping on, and pushing through. :) I look forward to the day I can post on my blog that I am D-O-N-E.

  8. Wow, this hit me hard. I’ve told myself to keep going for the sake of my daughter in the sense that I need to graduate, so I can get some kind of job and not leave us living hand-to-mouth forever and ever. But I honestly hadn’t considered my role as a model for her.

    I have considered quitting as a pie-in-the-sky dream, but I don’t think I can have that dream anymore. I have a responsibility that’s bigger than me: woman of color? Check. First time grad? Check. I’m doing this because I love the work, but also because there are people in my past (and present) who said I couldn’t. If my little girl wants to follow in her Mama’s footsteps (oh dear!), and she encounters folks who say she can’t do this, I want her response to be: “just watch me.”

    Thank you for writing this.

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