As regular readers will notice, it’s been a while since I last posted. That’s because I was busy experiencing a “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” style reawakening.
I entered this academic year feeling pretty well defeated, on many grounds. Instead of moving closer to my PhD, I felt like I was fighting tooth and nail to stand still. Everywhere I turned, I saw a new personal, professional, or structural hurdle standing in the way of my success. It got to the point that I fell utterly out of love with my work, with grad school, with academia. I concluded that graduate students who love their dissertations were either a cryptozoological fever dream, or so emotionally bankrupt that they’d lost track of what the word “love” meant.
And yet, here I am. As the end of my fifth year approaches, I can say without reservation that I love what I do again. I don’t just enjoy the time I spend working on my dissertation… I think my dissertation’s kind of sexy.
I know for a fact that I’m not the only person who’s encountered a veritable field of stumbling blocks late in their grad school career, so I thought it would be a good idea to share (to the extent that I understand it myself, which is admittedly limited) how I went from fizzle to sizzle.
Getting back in the archive helped. While never an easy experience—as I’ve discussed in previous posts—being immersed in primary sources always renews my sense of purpose and responsibility.
Confronting exogenous stressors helped. In some cases that meant having conversations I’d desperately wanted to avoid. In some cases it meant jumping through flaming hoops, like the ones I jumped through to secure my new roommate, who also happens to be a colleague, writing partner, and friend. It definitely meant taking time away from campus; isolating as it’s been working exclusively from home, it’s given me a chance to reengage with my work on my own terms.
Deadlines helped. My adviser, blessed with the rare gift of “Andrea whispering,” realized that getting me back on track meant throwing me back into writing, whether I felt prepared to do the work or not.
Re-immersing oneself in research, resolving external stress, and jumping into the deep end with regard to writing: these are all important parts of getting one’s academic groove back. If probably necessary to my process, though, none of those steps were sufficient. My biggest block was, naturally, a mental block.
I needed to let go of the idea that I am an academic. More specifically, I needed to let go of the idea that I am a tenure-track professor in the making. In practice, that meant looking at and applying for jobs, learning about alt-ac career options, and keeping one eye fixed on the door at all times.
Do I still intend to apply for tenure track jobs? Of course! Do I still want my career to be academic in nature? Yes. The only thing that’s changed is that I respect myself enough to know that I don’t need those things to be successful. [Insert cliché about life being the journey and not the destination here.]
Research, teaching, and service are now affirmative choices that I make every day, with the full knowledge that those choices do not define me.
The graduate school as relationship metaphor is a common one, and one to which I’ve gravitated a lot in the past year. To continue that metaphor, let’s say I’ve gone through some pretty extensive couples counseling, I even did a trial separation! While it was very touch and go for a while, I came out of that process ready to work on my relationship with the academy. Now, I hold my graduate school experience to the same standards I would hold a romantic partner, because co-dependency of any kind pretty much sucks.
I hope to post a lot more now that my life, academic and otherwise, has stabilized. But we’ll have to see. After all, I have a very sexy dissertation to attend to…
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.