Thoughts on life after the PhD
As the years go by grad school can often seem like a series of compromises. You give up a lot of money and creature comforts so that you can pursue something you love. You give up sleep and leisure time so that you can write grant proposals and read approximately five hundred pages per day. You (occasionally) take a break from dating and relationships so that you can focus on building your resume. You attend functions when you’re really rather stay at home so you can get that oh-so-valuable “face time” with important people and remind everyone that you still exist.
As I get ready to begin my sixth year of graduate study, I’m having the kinds of doubt and anxiety that are apparently commonplace. A lot of my colleagues seem to be wondering if it’s all worth it–one friend mentioned that a routine meeting with her advisor ended in her breaking down in tears and admitting that she just wanted to quit. When you’ve put a hell of a lot of work into something and your goal still seems incredibly far away–or maybe even unreachable–it’s natural to just want to get out.
For me, one of the hardest parts of grad life has been the constant uprooting. This wasn’t so bad when I was in my early twenties and the world was ripe for exploring, but as I move into my thirties I’m suddenly a lot more reluctant to leave behind friends, family, and comfortable furniture for uncertain destinations and the obligation to start all over again.
I’ve just learned that I may need to be in Japan for the 2010-2011 academic year doing research on a fellowship, something that my adviser argues is absolutely necessary for me to have any kind of marketability as a professor. I’m sure she’s right, and a few years ago I would have leaped at the chance to live in Japan again. But now I find myself dragging my feet. I’ve just moved into a new apartment with a longterm partner. I’ve spent three years building up friendships in L.A. In short, I dread the thought of having to start from scratch yet again, and the very real possibility that my relationship might not survive an entire year divided by an ocean.
What’s worse is that I know this won’t be the last time I’ll be forced to uproot–not even close. After I get back from Japan I’ll likely have to go wherever I can find work or a postdoc fellowship–probably in a small town in middle America where I don’t know a soul. And after I’ve done my year or two in the trenches I’ll probably uproot again for better work. A colleague recently told me that grad students really can’t expect to lead settled lives until they’re in their forties. That really depressed me.
Maybe some people are good at moving from place to place and immediately establishing networks of friends and acquaintances, but I’m not. It takes a long time for me to feel comfortable somewhere, and the interim period is usually really lonely and anxious. I’d like to think that being forced to uproot repeatedly will also force me to get comfortable quicker, but I’m not sure that’s the way it works.
I hope it’s all worth it. I think it is, if only because I really can’t see myself doing anything else, and despite all the horrible things that have happened to the American university system and academia in general I still have the sense that it’ll be possible for me to do good with my PhD. The permanent living space with the non-IKEA furniture can wait–for now, anyway.
writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)
tales of travel, research, and life
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