PhDs at the Kiddie Table

(Or, “Why I Identify with Ryan the Temp”)

Ryan

A weird thing’s happened since I’ve decided to leave: I find it easier to talk to faculty.

Let me backtrack and–at the risk of sounding like I’m bragging about basic people skills–say that I’m pretty fine with most social interactions. I’m not a big extrovert, but I like talking to other humans. I get self-conscious like a normal person, but I’m not excruciatingly shy. But I’ve had my fair share of shyness with professors. Not all professors, but it’s definitely more self-consciousness than I’ve had with bosses or coworkers elsewhere.

And that’s the rub. I think this new confidence shows two things: (1) part of why I was shy is because I always dreaded the “how’s the research?” question, because deep down I didn’t want to do freaking academic research anymore; and (2) faculty and graduate students are not coworkers, which I’ve always known, and I’m sick of it, which is new.

This! This! It bites. (From PhD Comics, 7/25/08: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1047 .)

 

We as grad students are, like the faculty, teaching courses, publishing research, organizing events, running conferences, giving presentations, serving on committees, advising students, and more. But there’s an insurmountable split between us, and between us and staff. It’s like we work in the same building, but we grad students don’t reallywork there.”

My friends who have partners in the sciences attest tell me this divide or hierarchy is a bigger issue in the humanities. Turns out that when you’re working in a lab or on a publication with a faculty member, the social and professional walls between faculty and grads can be more flexible. (Not always, I know, but can be.) But for most humanities PhDs, our interactions with faculty are limited to TA’ing, seminars, exams, and getting advice. We very rarely factor in a direct way to their professional success, which makes it hard to feel like we work for the same organization toward common goals.

I don’t mean to say we should make the same salary or that we have the same expertise as faculty. But let’s take a minute to think of graduate school as if it were any other job, as we’re sometimes enjoined to do. We, as PhDs, are entering a new career path (ostensibly higher education) as well as a new area of specialization (whatever our hobby-horse is). Certainly, that’s going to mean a period of career training and being on the bottom rung.

Still, if we’re thinking of this as a job, then being a graduate student is essentially a low-paid internship or temp position that lasts for 5-10+ years. The reward for sticking with it–for showing intelligence, self-motivation, and determination, while developing a unique skillset and field expertise–isn’t even a career: it’s the small chance of becoming a junior member of the career. And if we DO decide to leave, either before or after finishing, we’re often considered turncoats, sell-outs, or failures. That doesn’t sound like many careers I know.

I’m saying that we’re not on the bottom rung: we’re on a totally different ladder, leading up to save a different kitten out of a different tree or whatever it is people do with ladders these days. (Did I mention I have a white-collar job?) It’s not about being treated badly. It’s about the stupidly, untenably long entry-level position that we’re stuck in.

Maybe it would help if PhD programs were smaller and the adjunctification of academy was reversing–at least then we wouldn’t be seen as starry-eyed lambs–or if programs were ACTUALLY five years. I’d like to see more widespread acceptance of and training for non-academic career tracks (not at the expense of adjunctification, though), which would place grad students more firmly in the pre-professional category. It’s also up to grad students to act like capable professionals, not superannuated college students–and to faculty to treat them as such–but again, I think this is a chicken-and-egg issue.

I don’t want to be the bitter ex-PhD who bores all her friends to tears with her tirades against the academy. I wouldn’t trade the last several years for anything. And, frankly, if I’d read this blog when I started grad school in my mid-20s, I still would have come. I was a starry-eyed lamb.

But at this point in my life, I am ECSTATIC at the thought of being a colleague, a professional, a part of a team, a–God help us–valued employee. Call me a capitalist turncoat if you must.

office-dwight-schrute-hard-worker

Telling my adviser I’m leaving the PhD

Yesterday, I told my dissertation chair that I was going to leave the program.

I was completely stressed out about having this conversation (which is probably why it took me over two months to work up the courage). My chair is…hard to get a read on. Some people describe him as a teddy bear, albeit one who has an occasionally gruff, wildly intimidating, very British exterior. He’s incredibly well-established and an authoritative voice in the field, and he also wore a Hawaiian shirt to my prelim, which I appreciated.

He was not a person I wanted to disappoint, but I knew it was time to come clean. (And then I still dragged my feet for a few days…)

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Limbo is a weird place.

(Or a weird dance move. However you want to conceptualize “limbo” is fine by me.)

Right now, I’m drinking my first cup of coffee of the day, conducting office hours, folding laundry, and doing a local job search.

It’s my FIRST cup because I’m still living like a grad school night owl, in bed until I get my “fine 9″ every night (which is what I am calling my sleep schedule from now on).

I’m conducting office hours because this quarter I’m teaching an all-online composition class. My office hours are done through video chat, from home, and I wear a funny little telemarketer headset the department bought for me. Like regular office hours, no one shows up.

I’m folding laundry because I’ve gone through an inordinate amount of clothes in the past couple of weeks. Now that I’m leaving grad school, I’m spending a LOT of time at the gym–which is excellent for my physical and mental health, but expensive in laundry-quarters.

I spot a communications job for a local city government that looks choice. The pay is nothing to write home about  (communications puns!), but definitely better than I make right now, and the work appeals. But the application requires three references, which shouldn’t (but does!) send me off on a spiral of Post/Alt/Argh-Ac limbo anxiety.

None of the faculty know I’m leaving! My chair doesn’t know I’m leaving!! My committee can’t be references if they don’t know I’m leaving!!! Can I use my boss from the bookstore where I worked four years ago?!?! So much punctuation!!!!

Via pulptastic on LOLDogs

 

What I’m trying to say is that I’m in a very strange place right now. I don’t really know what I’m doing with my time, or what I SHOULD be doing. Like I said, I’ve been going to the gym a lot; I’m teaching one class; I’m doing an internship in communications here at the university; I’m on a committee that meets once or twice a quarter; and I’m starting a weekly knitting class, because I’m a white woman turning 30 soon. All of that combined still leaves me with a lot of time every day.

I’m not trying to complain. It’s not a BAD place to be–it lets me run errands and catch up on TV and blog–just a WEIRD place. An in-between place, like a highway rest stop or the sixth grade. What exactly am I doing here?

Part of this is, I suspect, the ongoing legacy of grad-school guilt. I CAN work at any time, so I SHOULD work at any time, even though I’m not sure what to work on or where any of it would lead, anyway. (Why would I write my master’s thesis as a chapter instead of just revising a seminar paper? Does it really matter if the research and writing I’ve done so far on this chapter goes to “waste”?)

By echeg5 on LOLDogs

From Grad School to Happiness has a great post about guilt and self-blame in academia. It’s more about the job search than about leaving, but relevant nonetheless on what it means to just “work harder”:

But how hard was “hard enough?” No one ever seemed to know. So we just worked constantly. Or tried to, anyway. And if we didn’t work on any given day or evening or hour in the lab, we’d talk about what “slackers” we were. How “unmotivated” we were. How we “really needed to step it up next week.” Anything short of working every single day and evening was unacceptable.

The author, JC, goes on to discuss one PhD’s self-blame at failing on the job market:

See the focus on hirself again? It’s not that there are too few teaching jobs out there for excited candidates like this poster. It’s that zie didn’t stop pursuing what zie was actually interested in to pursue something zie wasn’t interested in. All hir fault, again. For not working hard enough and for not putting “getting a job” before the things zie is actually, you know, interested in doing. Guilt and self-blame.

(Read the rest of the post here: http://leavingacademia.blogspot.com/2012/07/on-guilt-self-blame-and-magical_31.html#more)

By…um…SmokeWanDubie on LOLDogs. Look, I stand behind my decision to liven up this blog post with dog pictures.

I’m not in exactly the same position, but I can empathize. No matter how many times I tell myself that I’m not working on the dissertation because it’s not the work I want to do anymore, and it won’t lead to a satisfying career path even if I slogged through anyway, my doubt-brain chimes in with, “Yeah, but you’re being so LAZY.” As if I’m going to get some kind of merit badge or like 500 bonus points if I keep working for working’s sake. This is what the post I referred to above would call “magical thinking.” It’s also shitty, useless thinking.

I guess the truth is that I’m just not going to feel comfortable or fulfilled if I stick around the grad program for another 8 months, working through my teaching contracts and unpaid internships. I need to “come clean” to my committee so that I can cross the thesis off my list and start applying for “real” jobs.

 

Anyone know what I mean? How did/do YOU deal with limbo?

Out of Academia?

Wow, it has been a long time since I updated this blog! My “about” page said I was a third year who’d passed her prelims; I’m now a very ABD fifth year, still working on the eighteenth century and Romanticism.

And I’m planning to take the master’s degree and leave this year. [P.S. If you know me from the department, I'd appreciate it if you didn't share this news with other people in the department. Thanks.]

It’s a decision that’s been a long time coming without my realizing it. (See my last post, for example.) I met with a faculty member recently to get his advice, and when he asked me if something had happened, I said, “I still love teaching. I still like my project, although I’ll do pretty much any other work to avoid actually writing it.”

He thought that was HILARIOUS. He laughed uproariously.

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We interrupt your not working with this TV break

This quarter is kicking my butt! I’m teaching, and trying to get an accelerated summer syllabus together; taking both a theory seminar and a pedagogy class; trying to knock out an incomplete paper from last fall; and, the most important and hardest and most terrifying of all, trying to get my prospectus and dissertation committee together. I’m glad to be moving into dissertation territory, don’t get me wrong, but…

Look, I know it’s not like I have it worse than anyone else. But it’s like, okay. When I go talk to faculty, I know how ridiculous I am.

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(Speaking of Chris Traeger, did I mention I’m trying to make it to the gym?)

 

And whenever anyone asks me about anything related to the project, I’m all:

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1-800-CLEANER-U

Are you a juice cleanse fan? Looking for all-natural disease prevention? Worried about toxins or the bubonic plague? I present to you: THE ENLIGHTENMENT CLEANSE! Daniel Defoe recommended a good “cleansing and purging off of the noxious slime and corroded juices” from one’s body. Forget the cayenne- and lemon-infused water, though! THIS cleanse is all about vomiting, and taking mercury to induce salivation. Tough times call for tough measures!  Send me a check now for $29.95, and I’ll send YOU my new book, “The Enlightenment Cleanse,” and our new Enlighten-H2O–water that’s guaranteed fresh, crystal-clear, and pure!*

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*by 18th-century Bath pump standards. Not fit for human consumption.

Passed!

Passed my prelim exam! For the 18th century and Romanticism lists, I read 24 novels, 18 books of or book-length works of poetry, 38 other poems of varying length, 27 works of nonfiction, and 8 plays. Plus the 32 books and 4 articles on my Science and Literature list. Just saying–it was a lot of stuff to try to talk about in a 100-minute oral exam. But I guess I talked about it well enough to pass! :)