Thoughts on life after the PhD
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten on the learning / teaching front concerns the relationship between education and “fun.” In my freshman year of college, on a syllabus for an elective psych course, the professor had made a list of myths about education. One stuck out for me: “Teachers should make learning fun.” The professor went on to explain that learning could be invigorating, exciting, challenging, and inspiring, but it was rarely “fun,” and it wasn’t the professor’s job to make it that way. Having lived most of my life surrounded by motivational posters with messages like “Reading is fun!”, “Math is fun!”, and “Learning is fun!”, reading this syllabus was a huge relief. Math, for one, had never been fun for me.
A few years later I came across similar advice during my studies to be a secondary school teacher, in the book The First Days of School. The sidebar read simply, “Looking for fun? Go to a party,” and went on to explain that teachers should not attempt to make every lesson “fun.” Engaging, yes, but not fun. This was also a relief–having seen a half-dozen movies where teachers seemed to be a cross between rock stars and stand-up comedians, I was happy to discover that I wasn’t expected to constantly make my students laugh and smile with joyful abandon.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because, like a lot of grad students, I don’t always find my work fun. These days, in fact, I rarely find it fun. This can lead to a lot of serious doubts about whether I’m in the right field. After all, according to Oprah and The Secret and Tony Robbins, if I were doing a job that I was truly passionate about it wouldn’t feel like a job. I would get out of bed every day grinning and eager to start working–I wouldn’t even think of it as work. It’d be fun!
Instead, my work is frustrating. For the past few weeks I’ve been reading endless novels, short stories and essays by an author I’ve decided I really don’t like. The idea I originally had for a chapter on this author now seems ridiculous. My daily reading and note-taking, rather than being the invigorating work that I imagine brilliant academics must experience on a regular basis, just feels like a chore. And then I feel guilty that it feels like a chore, because I’m on a fellowship, so I’m supposed to adore this work and relish every minute of it, right? If my work always feels like drudgery, maybe I should just give up.
But then the seed of an idea is planted…and steadily begins to grow…and I realize that all that drudgery actually had a purpose.
Maybe for some people research and writing is a constant parade of joy and optimism, but for me–and I’m guessing for a lot of academics–it’s hard, frustrating, occasionally depressing work. But all of that frustration is worth it when it leads you to something valuable: the development of a meaningful argument. Such arguments, I often have to remind myself, don’t fall out of the sky–they’re the product of a lot of false starts, discarded drafts, late-night bitch sessions with friends and colleagues, and oh-god-is-this-essay-ever-going-to-end moments.
After weeks of trudging along, one of those seeds was finally planted for me a day or two ago. Since then, my reading and note-taking has been transformed from drudgery to…not euphoria, necessarily, but reading and writing with a sense of urgency and purpose. Who knows what shape this seed of an idea will ultimately take–maybe it’ll be completely unrecognizable from what it is now–but suddenly my work has momentum, which makes all the difference.
So when it seems like you’re floundering aimlessly and that your work has little meaning compared to the work of people who, say, build houses or perform brain surgery, remember that that floundering phase is all part of the process. I’m not saying you should spend your days doing *nothing*–I’m just saying you shouldn’t give up hope when your work isn’t constantly invigorating or exciting. For me, at least, those moments when the seeds of ideas begin to take root and grow are worth the long periods of frustration and doubt. It’s a wonderful thing when your work acquires a life of its own.
Some days it’s even fun.
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