Thoughts on life after the PhD
I’ve often said that I got into academia for the wrong reasons–reasons similar to the delightfully blind undergrad in the So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities video. As an undergrad I had notions of being a respected font of wisdom, of students looking up to me in the same way that I looked up to my literature and drama professors. I imagined intense discussions with flexible young minds about Big Ideas, weekends spent with a partner (also an academic) talking about more Big Ideas, and the sense of fulfillment that comes in Making a Difference intellectually.
I was kind of a moron.
After deciding against academia and moving to Japan on a whim, grad school became a way to stay in Japan a bit longer. A PhD became a way to do what I thought I was pretty good at–teaching and writing. Six years later, having learned a lot more about the realities of academic life, I’d like to think that I have a more informed view of what being an academic is really all about. But deep down I fear that I’m still that undergrad in the video, staying in academia because of fanciful notions of a “life of the mind” and wanting to share with the world my “interesting ideas about death.”
Compounded with all the grim headlines about humanities programs everywhere and the scarcity of academic jobs, those feelings of doubt can make it really difficult to write. I managed to get a chapter draft done recently, but whenever I tried to go back and edit it I would give up after five minutes, giving in to those voices that sighed “what’s the point, only four or five people will ever read this, it won’t get you a job, there aren’t even any jobs to begin with, why not spend your time more productively?”
Ultimately, though, I always come back to the decision to finish the damn thing, even if it may not land me a book deal or even a job. So I’ve come up with a few strategies to avoid the gloom & doom voices:
1. Talk to people. Specifically, talk to other people in the same situation. Living in a mental vacuum (like a lot of grad students do when they’re in the writing stage) can make you crazy and depressed. Just a few minutes of conversation about your work and someone else’s work can give you a fresh perspective, or at the very least remind you that your own work doesn’t sound like complete drivel to other people, even if it sometimes does to you.
2. Move your body. That whole “I am my hard drive” sentiment can take on an added meaning when you’re in the writing stage. I sometimes spend up to six hours a day mostly immobile in front of my laptop (yes, I realize this is the norm for people in office jobs, but I’m not quite used to it). Even if you don’t have a reason to, get up and move. A walk around the neighborhood is best (staying indoors for too long definitely contributes to the crazy), but even standing up and walking around your room / office for a bit can make a huge difference. I also notice that I feel a lot better and am more focused when I exercise in the morning (duh).
3. Present your stuff. It doesn’t have to be at an official conference, just come up with a reason to get your stuff into a presentable format. Organize weekly or bi-monthly get-togethers with two or three other grad students. Make a rule that people have to come with *something* prepared–maybe not a full chapter, but a polished section of something or a list of questions that have been bugging you. I know that when I have no deadlines and no one to show my stuff to it tends to just stagnate and be sloppy–forcing yourself to get it out in public is a great motivator.
4. When it comes to the future, keep an open mind. Don’t “snowball think” (“This dissertation won’t get me a job, and if I can’t get a job my PhD will have been wasted, and if my PhD is wasted I’ll be a failure, and if I’m a failure everyone will pity me…”). Yes, the job outlook may be grim, and Pollyanna-style cheeriness won’t really help you, but stay flexible. There are options outside of the tenure-track job. As an undergrad everyone told me that my drama degree was useless, but in Tokyo it led to a lot of lucrative and fun work. You never know in what strange and wonderful directions your PhD might take you, even if they’re not the directions you originally intended.
5. Nurture your creative side. It’s funny how grad students who are either prepping for exams or writing their dissertations all seem to set ridiculously strict rules for themselves about how they’re allowed to spend their time. While I was studying for quals I wasn’t “allowed” to read anything that wasn’t directly related to my dissertation. No fiction, no magazines, no non-fiction that was unrelated to monsters / kids / Japan. I also didn’t let myself indulge in too many creative endeavors for fear I’d get too absorbed in them–no painting, no fiction writing (cooking was fine, I had to eat, after all–which might explain why my cooking got a lot messier and more involved during my exam periods).
When I thought about it, I realized these self-imposed rules were kind of stupid. Sure, you can’t get too distracted, but if you cut out creativity completely your academic writing is likely to become dry and uninteresting. So nowadays I read fiction, I write fiction, I paint (not very well), I dance (also not very well), and I create puppet shows. And I think all those things don’t distract from my more “serious” work, they make it better. Sometimes my dissertation writing goes into flowery overload, but I can usually clean it up.
So ignore the headlines (well, don’t ignore them, but don’t dwell on them too much) and just get your work done, if that’s what you want to do. And paint the occasional bad picture when you need a break.
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