This past September I began a PhD program in History. It feels like I went underwater for four months, only to resurface shortly before Christmas with a really critical expression on my face and a whole new vocabulary about “agency” and “discourses.” Life had never twisted and blurred in front of my eyes quite the way it did when I committed to possibly seven (though hopefully five) years of higher education. That said, reading, writing and teaching are my favourite three activities, and a doctorate will give me the paid opportunity to do them.
Yet, in my program’s mandatory doctoral seminar that I enrolled in last fall, the lousiness of the academic job market was reiterated time and time again. Every professor and graduate student I spoke to had different notions about how to “frame” ourselves as academics as we move forward with our dissertation work. For me, this begins with reading 200 books over the next eight to twelve months, sitting twelve hours of exams in late-summer, presenting at one to three conferences each semester, working as a teaching assistant, beginning language courses, and only then planning research trips, grant applications and publishing opportunities.
Predictably, this year I’ve also started grinding my teeth in my sleep, drinking cappuccinos like my life depends on it, regularly forgetting my wallet in coffee shops, and getting sick every two months. I also (sorry, Mom and Dad) drink a lot of wine, eat a lot of carbs, and have a lot of sex. I mean, what does anyone really expect?
The pressure that doctoral students are presently under is, personally, overwhelming. I once worked in a fast-paced media job, followed by a one-year intensive Master’s degree in a new field, and I have never felt pressure the way I do now. I know I made the right decision by entering a PhD program, but it is often difficult to see the forest for the trees. I see my good friends and all of my ex-boyfriends buying property, getting engaged and having children. Don’t I want those things? I can’t even afford a car. Meanwhile, I’m being told that if I don’t learn Swahili and publish at least two original research articles in the next three years, well, I won’t be taken seriously as an academic and my career will suffer.
And that’s the moment—right there. That’s the moment I take several steps backwards, I close my eyes, and I tell everyone to stop. Despite everything, this is exactly where I need to be. I want to read, write, teach and think critically about the world around me. And learn languages. And travel. I am being offered the chance to do these things, and learning not to crack under the pressure is just part of this game.
I know there are more of you out there—young women and men considering graduate degrees, new, confused doctoral students (like me), and anyone else reading this who is waist-deep in a career that they are passionate about, but that they still feel somewhat inadequate within. It’s a distinct feeling that we just missed the memo. But I don’t regret this path. Where else would I be? Behind a desk in a communications office, answering the phone for other people? Dressed up at some media event making small talk with people who make three-times my salary? Duh. And that’s the point, I think. If you aren’t doing something that terrifies the pants off you, then you aren’t creating a life for yourself that you will be happy with in the future.
So, I will write to you this year—from the red couch in my living room, the coffee shop with the donuts, and my windowless office at school in Montreal—a new column: PhD Land. Like Disneyland with a lot of Mickey Mouse-type characters and a roller coaster of emotions and experiences, but sadly no cotton candy or marine life. I have to go write a lecture about the East African slave trade now. Brb.
Follow Tyler on Twitter: @tyler_the_girl